The study of “Zen” using an elongated bamboo flute, or “Kyotaku.”
In Tang Dynasty (9th century) China, a monk by the name of Puhuà (Fuke in Japanese) used a shakuhachi flute as a meditation tool, the act of ‘blowing Zen’ (suizen) as it was known. The Fuke branch of Zen Buddhism is purported to have derived from the teachings of the Chinese Zen teacher Linji Yixuan ( Rinzai Gigen c. 800– 866 CE in Japanese). However, the Fuke school counts founder Puhuà, one of Linji’s contemporaries, as its founder. Fuke-style Zen was eventually brought to Japan by Shinchi Kakushin (1207–1298 CE), also known as Muhon Kakushin or Hōtō Kokushi (posthumously), who had travelled to China for six years and studied with the famous Chan master, Wumen of the Linji lineage. Kakushin became a disciple of Chôsan, a 17th generation teacher of the Fuke sect of China. It was Fuke’s goal to reach enlightenment through meditation on sound, and his particular sect of Rinzai Zen, Fuke-shu, produced mendicant monks and lay persons known as komuso, literally ‘monks of empty nothingness.’ Through rigorous training and lifestyle, they sought to develop kisoku, “spiritual breath,” and to eventually blow a note that would express all of reality and lead them to what they referred to as ichi-on-jobutsu, “becoming a Buddha in one note.” Although the sect flourished in the Edo period (1610 – 1868 CE) for a time, much of what we know about Puhuà himself has been since proven to be a myth.
The legends of the Fuke though are often very entertaining evenso, as is the case with Pu-ko the Chinese Zen eccentric who ran wildly through the streets ringing a bell. One of his admirers (Chang-po) found a way to play the Zen essence of Pu-ko’s bell-ringing on the shakuhachi, thus creating one of the classic shakuhachi pieces, “The Empty Bell” (referring to both the Zen doctrine of emptiness and the hollowness of the flute itself).
Puhuà’s sect eventually disbanded and disappeared, but left behind a body of work know as honkyoku, ‘songs of enlightenment,’ which are practiced and performed by shakuhachi flautists worldwide (regardless of religious affiliation).
The idea of “practicing” music for enlightenment has useful application beyond its religious implementation. Although becoming one with the instrument and entering the state of “absolute sound” (tettei on) where one achieves ichi-on-jobutsu is traditionally the path of suizen, my own exposure to the practice was in the context of studying Shinto kagura and/or gagaku music on the hichiriki (small, oboe-like woodwind) at Ikuta Shinto Shrine in Kobe with Shoji Mori (1998- 2001); suizen being a technique taught to me by Master Mori to develop a greater sensitivity to the sound of the instrument and its timbral relationship with the other instruments in the orchestra.
The actual practice of suizen is a nine part non-sequential series of contemplations to be either guided through by a master, or used as a process of self-study for the more advanced student. Finding a quiet place and appropriate time to practice, one clears one’s mind and relaxes, ready to perceive the qualities of a single note or the notes within a simple phrase. It is vital to not just improvise a long string of notes, since the idea is to be completely aware of each note and its qualities.