Zen rules applied to shakuhachi

In my post “Good resolutions“, I said I was applying some of these zen-rules to my shakuhachi practice. Here is how I (try to) do it.

#8 – Devote time to sitting

I came to the shakuhachi by the musical side. I’m a professional flutist and I’ve always been interested in all kind of world flutes. I hardly knew about meditation or zen before I encountered the shakuhachi. My goal was first purely musical, and also my practice of the first  years. The spiritual/meditation way came much later, when I started to devote much more time to study the shakuhachi and started meditating myself. It became then natural to include a meditation suizen time in my daily flute practice.

#1-2-3 – Concentration challenge

In this warm-up exercise, I apply the zen rules #1-2-3 to shakuhachi:

  1. Do one thing at a time
  2. Do it slowly and deliberately
  3. Do it completely

Here is how it goes:
Play the basic scale ro-tsu-re-chi-ri-i, following these steps:

  • prepare your fingers to play ro
  • inhale
  • hold your breath for one second
  • blow the first tone (ro) as long as possible with diminishing the volume at the end
  • hold your breath for one second
  • inhale
  • hold your breath for one second
  • open finger 1
  • blow tsu as long as possible
  • hold your breath for one second
  • etc.

– play the entire scale on one or two octaves, from otsu-ro up to i (go-no-hi) and down back to otsu-ro (rule #3)
– play each tone as long as possible (rule #2)
– do one step at a time (rule #1) = don’t combine breathing and moving fingers, for example
– keep the circle of breath as a whole: make sure you go to the next sound without repeating any sound, even if one doesn’t come out or if you make a mistake. Just go on, let go of what you’ve just done, until the end of the exercise (rule #3)
– when you have to move more than one finger, move them rapidly all together, as if they were one. Know precisely which fingers you have to move, in order to make it one finger mouvement.
– put all your attention on what you’re doing: #1 one thing at a time / #2 slowly and deliberately / #3 completely


This exercise will focus on how you start and end the sound, in combination with the cycle of breath.

  • prepare your fingers to play ro
  • inhale
  • hold your breath for one second
  • open hole 2 for atari
  • close finger 2 while blowing ro as long as possible
  • open finger 2 again to end the sound
  • hold your breath for one second
  • inhale
  • hold your breath for one second
  • open finger 1
  • close finger 2 while blowing tsu as long as possible
  • open finger 2
  • hold your breath for one second
  • etc.

– play the entire scale, repeating or not some notes if you like, as long as you don’t break the cycle of breath
– don’t stop before you’re back to otsu-ro
– pay attention to the start and to the end of the tone
– use the same finger(s) to start and end one sound
– pay attention to the movement of your fingers: when you have to move more than one finger, move them rapidly all together


The first benefit of these exercises is to train your concentration. Paying attention particularly to the end of the tone will help you to keep your focus on the long tones and give them a direction. Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end.
Your breathing will also benefit of blowing long tones. Try to follow a regular tempo and blow each tone with the same length. If you’re a beginner and have difficulties in the kan register, try to figure out why and how to improve it (ask your teacher if needed).
Inhalation and exhalation are both as important. The sound starts in your inhalation and finishes in the silence after your exhalation.

#5- Put space between things

Doing these exercises with a very long silence period during the inhalation plus the end of the exhalation (phase 1-2-4: inhale / hold your breath / exhale / hold your breath), will guide you to listen to the silence between the tones and to pay more attention to your inhalation.

#6- Develop rituals

Making a ritual of practicing long tones, ro-buki, or/and meditation preludes will improve your play. Practicing on long tones will train you to develop the same concentration when you play music pieces.
– try the same exercises on a simple piece like Kyorei. Listen to the silence between the tones.
– pay attention to each note/phrase you play, how you start it, conduct it, end it, and how you inhale to prepare the next phrase.
– do it every day and observe your progression.

Enjoy your practice and listen to yourself.

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