There is something mysterious in shakuhachi, mysterious and profound. Is it in the sound? Is it in the notation? Is it in the music?
I remember the lessons with Fukuda Teruhisa sensei, when we were avidly listening to his explanations with the hope of understanding the music and the notation a bit better. I am not talking about how to play the piece technically. I am talking about how to play it properly and uncover its secrets. It could sometimes seem unclear because it asked us to listen even more carefully to our sensei, to the music and to ourselves. Playing shakuhachi is a quest towards one’s self. It is much more than making sounds with a flute.
In the Western world, when you want to learn an instrument, you go to a music school, conservatoire or you take private lessons. The teacher doesn’t matter that much (no offence here), in the sense that he/she is there to teach you the technique of the instrument and its repertoire. Of course each teacher has a different personality and teaching style, but classical music teachers are globally asked to teach the same kind of music: a Mozart’s sonata, a Chopin’s etude, etc.
I didn’t choose my first flute teacher, I went where there was a place for me to learn the flute. Each exam would gather all the different teachers’ classes of the same instrument in one common program.
In the traditional shakuhachi world, the same music piece (honkyoku) can have different names according to the school, or pieces with the same name can be totally different musically. The notation varies from school to school. It is written in Japanese (of course!) and it looks like calligraphy, showing a bit of the personality of the teacher too.
Learning a music instrument from another tradition asks an open mind and heart. It asks you to put your certainties aside and trust your teacher to guide you through a new musical world, a different one from the Western way of playing music. It asks you to consider the Western way as one of the ways to play music, but not the only one, nor the best one.
Learning from a master
When you take lessons from a shakuhachi master, you don’t only learn the technique to play a piece, but also the deepest meaning of it. You built your own relationship with the music that your teacher passes on to you in his/her notation and style. The notation is much more and much less at the same time than a transcription of the music. Without your master’s instructions, you cannot play the piece properly. You will just play notes. Neither can you play it properly without an open and humble heart. There is no composer here, no ego. Just the direct transmission from master to student.
A shakuhachi master is not only a Japanese flute teacher, he/she is a guide who has a vision of the music and its several layers, history, function, that he/she transmits . He/she guides you to uncover it, layers after layers, until you reach the deepest truth of the music. It takes years of dedication, faithfulness and commitment. It doesn’t happen overnight. And you cannot find it on social media.
This is not always well understood in our modern and technological Western societies, where we have access to so much (and often superficial) information at anytime. Information is different than teaching anyway.
In 2018, I had the great joy to attend a conference by the Dalaï Lama. He told us that many people use to come to him saying “I am a Buddhist”. Then he would ask them: “what is Buddhism?”… and they couldn’t give any proper answer. Then he recommended to study Buddhism seriously before proclaiming being a Buddhist!
Finding a shakuhachi master is not always easy, yet it is highly recommended. Technology nowadays helps a lot! I am aware that finances can also be an issue. I offer alternatives to online lessons in my virtual dojo, my online meditation group and my teaching material for self-study.
When you find your master, you will build a true relationship with him/her throughout the years. I will be always grateful to my masters Daniel Seisoku Lifermann and Fukuda Teruhisa. I am proud of being allowed to teach the knowledge and guidance I learned from them.
Shakuhachi schools & styles
There are different schools of shakuhachi, yet there should be no competition between them. A shakuhachi school has a specific style which includes a conception of the sound, aesthetic, repertoire, history, etc. Who can tell whether blue is better than red? You may like blue much more than red and your neighbour prefers yellow, it doesn’t make the one better than the other.
“Jiari or jinashi, the breathing is the most important, even if the sound is not so good, if the breathing is good, I’m happy”.
Music for shakuhachi
Honkyoku is the traditional solo zen repertoire for shakuhachi. But there are also chamber music (sankyoku) and folk music (min’yo). And also all kinds of modern music with Japanese and/or Western music instruments, including jazz and pop music.
But honkyoku remains for me very special. Maybe due to the absence of an identified composer, like in Gregorian music. The shakuhachi master passes down the tradition he/she learned from his/her master. The pieces might be transformed a little by the master creating his/her own style and school, like Fukuda Teruhisa did when founding the Hijiri-Kai. The master is very often also a composer.
A clear mind for a clear sound
In honkyoku, there is no improvisation, yet I find freedom in each sound. The flexibility of the rhythm asks you to be constantly aware of your breathing. If you get it right, everything falls in its place. This is so magical.
Playing Honkyoku is a very good training for your breathing, but also for your mind. You need a clear mind to find and express your true self through the music.
In any situation, honkyoku brings me inner peace and happiness.
“Hon” in honkyoku can mean “expressing one’s true intention” or “one’s own tune”. […] Shakuhachi honkyoku is music that expresses a state of mind. It expresses the performer’s capacity as well as consciousness”.
Conveying this profound experience through modern music is also a path we follow in the Hijiri School. I explore it myself especially with Duo Satsuzen and in my own compositions.
For me, practicing and performing modern music from a honkyoku perspective gives an authentic access to the composer’s intention.
Your best friend
In conclusion, take this simple 5-holes bamboo flute seriously, treat it with respect and it will reveal its secrets to you. It looks simple but it is not easy. It can become a fantastic a mirror of yourself if you sincerely play it, listen to it and dare to look at yourself without judgement. It can teach you loving-kindness, (self-)compassion and much more.
It can become your best companion… as surely you are for yourself, aren’t you?