A master of the shakuhachi, the Zen bamboo flute, explains how deep listening can spark awareness and relieve suffering
BY: Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin
I have been playing theshakuhachi
(bamboo flute) for over 26 years. I had the privilege of studying with Yodo Kurahashi (a great Japanese shakuhachi master), who not only taught me to play, but to play withha-ha gokoro,
"a mother's heart." This attitude of selflessness and nurturing is a part of a the great heritage of Zen Buddhism. The day I began to study the instrument, I was absolutely entranced, and I still am.
In many ways, I am a modern-daykomuso
. The komuso were itinerant, mendicant priests of the Fuke-Shu sect of Zen Buddhism who wandered Japan during the Edo period (1600-1868). These priests were samurai who had lost their masters, and they would take the problems and illnesses of people upon themselves by playing a certain kind of shakuhachi music calledSui-Zen
in komuso means "emptiness" or "nothingness," so the komuso were quite literally priests of the emptiness. They would weartengai,
a kind of woven basket, on their heads, hiding their faces. This was for anonymity, to suppress the ego. As selfless, empty vessels, other people's problems could be "poured" into them. When someone needed a komuso to play for healing, the patient would see only a flute extending from the bottom of the basket, not a person.
|The idea of shakuhachi is to become one with the music so that you experience no other distractions, worries, problems, illnesses, or stresses|
The komuso wandered the breadth of the countryside. Many government agents disguised themselves as komuso, since one could travel about in complete anonymity and gather information. I even know a short piece that was supposed to be played by one komuso greeting another. If the second komuso did not respond, the first would know that the other was probably a spy. When the government changed, in order to eliminate the spy network, the Fuke sect was abolished and all its temples abandoned. It was only by good fortune that the repertoire of the Zen shakuhachi survived.
Zen literally means "meditation." The shakuhachi is the only melodic instrument used for meditation (as opposed to gongs, bells, and drum beats). When you simply sit in meditation, it's called
or sitting meditation, and when you play shakuhachi to meditate, it's calledsuizen,
or "blowing" meditation. The idea of this Zen art is to become one with the music so that you experience no other distractions, worries, problems, illnesses, or stresses.