Mary Lu Brandwein

"Better to learn with your whole body
so you'll remember with your whole body."
Juan Matus

The shakuhachi Kinko School Honkyoku's origin is obscure. The Honkyoku or meditation pieces come from the ancient Komuso (wandering zen monks of emptiness) or from an anonymous monk in a zen temple emptying his life into sound perhaps four or five hundred years ago or more. What is for sure is that their origin is within the tradition of zen practice. Many of them are the special property of specific temples in Japan (the Meianji, the Fudaiji, Futaiken, etc.,) or, for example, like "Murasaki Reibo," composed by the Zen Master Ikkyuu Soujun (1394-1481). Fujita Ginrou in his Shakuhachi Tsuukai ("The Complete Explanation of All Things Shakuhachi") refers to them as part of a hidden or private repertoire of the shakuhachi. "Private" in so far as they have a specific place. They are part of the "sacred" music of zen and are not strictly speaking performance music for the general public. They were born before the shakuhachi became a "musical instrument" (gakki).* They came into being when the shakuhachi was only and truly an instrument for inner growth (houki).

Hearing a Buddhist sutra chanted at a funeral there is, perhaps, a striking similarity to the sound and character of the Kinko School Honkyoku. It has been said that the Honkyoku should be played with a feeling of purposelessness and therefore without emotion. This perhaps is the description of the shakuhachi sound of a realized Buddha, but for the student of shakuhachi, purposelessness and absence of emotion cannot be goals in themselves. If playing with purposelessness is the goal, then by definition, there is a purpose. Shakuhachi is an aid to zen practice, to paying attention and is to be played from the truth of what the shakuhachi player is in at the present moment. As students of shakuhachi and students of the Way, there is a longing for mastery of the instrument and there are many emotions present: frustration, desire, love, joy, sadness, anger, disappointment, disillusion....!? All of this will be present in the Honkyoku if one plays from the heart, resting in all of this interior messiness and the swarm of thinking. Over time with much relentless attention and deep feeling into the body and the sound, some of these things loosen and drop away somewhat. It is a lifetime of practice, that is, attention to the sound and all the spaciousness inside each sound, the physical sensations of producing the sound and the thoughts that betray the poison that keeps the ego solid, blocking, and twisting the free flow of the sound.

Traditional Honkyoku is a dialogue of sound and silence. The piece begins with silence and then the first breath, which is consciously experienced as it enters the whole body by means of the skin surface coming into the "hara" and then slowly up into the whole of the lungs. There is a slight holding of the breath and then the sound. The sound is entered into, developed, colored and exited, and then with just as much attention the silence is entered into. A seamless connection, unbroken. Silence of breathing leaving the music unbroken sound. The silence then becomes part of the sound as the sound becomes silence. Words only, if not experienced in minute detail in the body; this is the rhythm of the traditional Honkyoku.

The Classical Honkyoku are for solo shakuhachi; therefore, harmony does not enter in, the same as for the lyric melody. All these things: rhythm, harmony, and melody distract the mind, causing it to race ahead to the next moment trying to guess what will follow without truly being in and experiencing the sound that is right now happening. The traditional Honkyoku's focus is on total sound, which is a constant surprise to the listener. The length of a phrase and its tonal wandering cannot be guessed. Therefore, together with the rich tones, the mind, it is hoped, can be more persuaded and enticed to stay in this present, fleeting sound moment. Even though an "A" may have been heard a zillion times before, this "A" in this space and time has never been heard before. Within this one sound how much can be heard? Is there not infinite variety even in one sound? Can it be heard with the ear, with the whole surface of the body, and the internal organs?

Experiencing/playing slowly over time, more and more in the space between the thoughts, the Honkyoku means original tuning and also sound from the origin of being, and slowly that place within one's self is found. This is a slow, slow process that becomes real over many years of practice: feeling ever more deeply into the body, watching the mind and becoming slowly, with patience, tired of its fallacious little self defining secretions (thoughts)...slowly clearing away to leave the possibility of an occasional pure sound, only sound, only this: hearing sound in the space between the thoughts, "vast field of benefaction," this free space where music arises. What else arises here?

This kind of playing comes not from trying to play this way or be this way, not from trying to get from here to there, but it comes about by sinking into what is the real sensation right now. A crazy (to the little mind), most indirect path, which is really the fast, direct way.

What obstructs my sound and my attention? The tight, pinching body does not allow the free sound and this pinching comes from the thinking. Pushing the thinking away, the tightness solidifies and war is declared. Instead of pushing it away, notice the thought, especially those that repeat and scream in the face of frustration. These thoughts scream throughout every aspect of life, not only the learning of shakuhachi. Slowly seeing, seeing clearly, letting the thought be; sinking into the tightness of the body, being present, the sound gets deeper and deeper, more and more real. The obstacles slowly drop away over time or do not drop away but cease to be obstacles and thus reveal what is always there...trembling, so moving, Self-sound that resonates and awakens every heart within its reach.

It is not enough to practice and master technique or music theory or music sensibility. The inner self must be sought and that arduous and dangerous journey must be embarked upon in a serious, relentless way, sinking into the terror and/or resistance. Then, the possibility of playing true shakuhachi, true Honkyoku, presents itself. Honkyoku should be played for an audience that is prepared at least a little to listen, not as one being entertained or amazed, but as one prepared to experience the inner self in a different way. The focus is not on the player and certainly not on showing off the capabilities of the player or of the shakuhachi but on the inner discovery of the listener of the Self as the sound penetrates the skin, the mind, the heart, the inner sanctuary.

Shakuhachi sound in the Kinko Honkyoku is very powerful and should not be rendered impotent by indiscriminate use without distinguishing the place or attitude of those present. It is not necessary to preserve these traditions by non-Japanese people. There is no obligation to do so, but if it is not done, what a lost opportunity for one's self and those who hear! It is lost if shakuhachi is studied as another thing to do or play, another thing to show off (ego trip), instead of as "Chikudo" (The Bamboo Way) where it can become a great aid to satisfactory life from a deep innerness of being.

* This happened at the time of the Meiji Restoration roughly 150 years ago when the shakuhachi began to be cut in the middle for the first time in order to play with other instruments. Before then, it was enough for it to be tuned to itself. By governmental decree in Japan (1868) the shakuhachi and traditional Honkyoku were to be divorced from any religious practice. At this time, the element of "entertainment" became part of shakuhachi music, such as Minyo (folk music), Shinkyoku (modern, new music), and Sankyoku (referring to music played with three instruments: koto, shamisen [sangen], and shakuhachi).

So let's put the shakuhachi and these traditional Honkyoku back in their proper context again and use them as aids on our Way as they were originally meant to be. Also, in playing for other people the emphasis is never on the performer, but on the inner experience of the person(s) listening. The shakuhachi player, as much as possible, has the responsibility to set the stage for a transformative experience within the listener...more on that later....

Wishing you all the best in 2000 and beyond, I am


Mary Lu Brandwein

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