Blowing Meditation

A master of the shakuhachi, the Zen bamboo flute, explains how deep listening can spark awareness and relieve suffering

I have been playing the

shakuhachi

(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 with

ha-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-day

komuso

. 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 called

Sui-Zen

. The

ko

in komuso means "emptiness" or "nothingness," so the komuso were quite literally priests of the emptiness. They would wear

tengai,

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.

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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.

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