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The Shakuhachi is an ancient flute that captivates many who cross its path. Hidden in its simplicity is profound possibility. The windy, resonant sound of the Shakuhachi brings deep serenity to sympathetic ears. For the devoted player, it is also a spiritual tool for training the mind and breath. Zen monks have been using the Shakuhachi for Sui Zen for centuries. Sui Zen, which means blowing Zen, is meditation using Buddhist music composed for the Shakuhachi.
Shakuhachi Buddhist music seems simple. It doesn’t require a great range of octaves or impressive musical techniques. In fact, you can begin your first Buddhist piece within a few months. However, you can easily spend the rest of your life ‘being’ it. In this regard, this Buddhist music is to mindfulness and sound; what Tai Chi is to mindfulness and movement; and what HathaYoga is to mindfulness and ‘working stillness’.
A Musical Meditation
Simplicity—and the simplicity of doing nothing—is a cornerstone of Zen. The Shakuhachi serves this ideal well. It is just a resonant pipe with five holes. The five basic notes, musical notation, and rhythm can be learned in a few hours. And yet the Shakuhachi offers those who play it a lifelong experience in the peace of simply blowing nothing.
When in the Yoga of holy contemplation, the movements of the mind and of the breath of life are in a harmony of peace, there is steadiness, and that steadiness is pure. –Bhagavad Gita 18-33
The shakuhachi originally came from China during the Tang Dynasty (i.e., around the 6th century). Centuries later, during Japan’s feudal era, it found extensive use by Zen monks for meditation. This simple end-blown flute shows up in various forms all over the world, from the Pygmies in the Congo to the Sherpas in the Himalayas, but only in Japan did it find such an esoteric purpose.
More recently, it has been used for playing classical, popular and jazz music. This is easy to see why, as it has a sound uniquely “soulful”, with an expressiveness almost equal to the human voice. If you listen closely, you can often hear the Shakuhachi playing hauntingly ‘windy’ background music in various video productions.
Blowing Zen: The Book and CD
Blowing Zen enables you to learn the Shakuhachi, with or without a teacher or musical talent. The book contains detailed instructions to guide you from making your first sound to playing music. To the left is a sample of Shakuhachi music notation. Look closely and you’ll see that it is simply the repetition of five basic notes: a Japanese “do, re, me” tabulature, shown at the right. In fact, you can learn the five basic notes, musical notation, and rhythm in one day—far easier than Western notation.
This book also includes fully illustrated instructions to guide you step-by-step through the construction of two types of Shakuhachi; there is the easy 60 minute flute anyone can make and the traditional root bamboo flute for those who enjoy a challenge. The CD contains the music covered in the book, from the easiest Japanese folk melodies to the Buddhist music compositions (Hon Kyoku).
Let us take a closer look at the benefits of the Shakuhachi. According to Yoga and Buddhism, life’s joys and sorrows originate in your mind. Of course, events shape and direct your life, but only relative to the way these events are interpreted by your mind and emotions. Thus, the quest for true contentment in life must begin within your own mind and emotions.
The neurological connection between respiration and emotion can cause one to effect the other in a destructive downward spiral. For example, when you are angry, afraid, rushing, or excited, etc., your breathing becomes irregular. This influences the nervous system, which further disrupts breathing. Much depends on breath harmony. From the first moment you begin the Shakuhachi, you start laying a foundation upon which your breath and mind can support each other in a constructive upward spiral.
Your breathing becomes deeper, slower, and more even. The return of natural breathing rhythm soothes and invigorates your nervous system. The ability to maintain this—especially in times of stress—increases stamina, self-control and health. In fact, according to Yoga tradition, a life span is measured in breaths, not years.
Later on, you’ll use the sound of the Buddhist Honkyoku music as a mirror of your mind. This feedback can guide you into a calm and reflective consciousness. This silent watchfulness opens the mind’s eye to seeing subtleties of life you may have missed.
The Buddhist music compositions (Hon Kyoku) have an earthy naturalness like the wind in the trees, the pounding surf, or the call of wild geese. These compositions reflect in them the full dynamics of nature—from the “yin” of the gentle trickling of a mountain stream to the “yang” of a mighty waterfall. This natural flow rides on ‘eternal rhythm’ (this is very hard to put into words). Here, rhythm doesn’t drive the ‘musical flow’. This is what allows Hon Kyoku to convey the ‘orderly asymetry’ of nature as few other human activities can.
Just listening to the Buddhist music can give you symptomatic relief of stress and help you feel more in tune with nature. The unique resonance of the sound combines with the rhythm to synchronize and thus harmonize the natural resonance of your own nervous system. In a frantic modern world such a simple means of refined musical expression and tranquilization are to be highly valued.