Kohl over at the Shakuhachi Forum was good enough to post this article from Kurahashi Yodo. I am sharing it here for those who might have missed it.

The Heart of Bamboo

By Kurahashi Yodo

Translated by Ingrid Seldin

The essence of bamboo is firmness; by means of this firmness, virtue is established.

The character of bamboo is honesty; by means of this honesty, fortune is established.

The heart of bamboo is hollow; by means of this emptiness, the path is maintained.

The joints of bamboo are fidelity; by means of this fidelity, ambition is established.

The tall noble bamboo is the sole material from which the shakuhachi is made. When the pure qualities of the bamboo become infused with the breath of a living soul, Heaven and Earth become one, and a tone rich in the essence of nature flows forth. When I was young, I was fascinated by the sound of the shakuhachi and the image of the notes drifting out from a hut deep in a pine forest on a quiet moonlit night. Completely enthralled by that quality of tone, when each note seems to directly touch the heart, and wanting somehow to capture that for my own. I soon became intensely absorbed in study. After a time, when I had proudly begun to obtain a slight degree of skill, a small recital of teachers and older students was held. An unknown player, who had happened to drop by the recital hall quite unexpectedly, was invited at the last minute to play a piece. In an almost desultory frame of mind, I leisurely waited to hear how he would play, having not the slightest expectation or anticipation.

In the next instant I was jolted awake by an intense shock of excitement—a shattering blow that pierced through to the very core of my being. With superior transcendence of pitch and rhythm, with a tremendous, frightening strength, with the driving force of a cascading waterfall—it was as if I had been ushered into a fascinating enchanted land by the devilish melody. Like thunder out of a clear blue sky, my pride at my small prowess was struck down. My blood recoiled, its current reversed back on itself, and in this fearful condition my whole body froze as if turned to stone. Immobilized by blank amazement, I reached the highest peaks of excitement and stimulation. I had the sensation of looking up from below to see a towering precipice that had risen before my very eyes. Is it possible that sound waves created by only one shakuhachi could produce such a deep impression of shock on a listener? In that one instant, by that precarious chance encounter, I had met the man who was to be my teacher for life: the late Jin Nyodo—and not only that, were it not for this occasion I might never have heard honkyoku.

Honkyoku is Zen-oriented shakuhachi music which exists on quite a different plane from the average music performed at concerts. The name itself refers to that music which is the original or true path of the shakuhachi. The shakuhachi was in fact used as a tool for enlightenment and for a deep examination of the self or ego—the Zen phrase for this is “To see your true self.” Thus, another name for these special pieces is “Original Self music.” Classical honkyoku refers to the music used in Zen training by the Fuke sect, which employed the shakuhachi as a means through which to become a bodhisattva. Were such a goal to be reached, the music would become a vehicle for the propagation of the divine miracles of Kannon, the Goddess of Compassion, and thus assure the ultimate salvation of all living beings.

So, the sound which had taken me so firmly in its grip, was actually tempting me to enter the path and become a bodhisattva. In fact, it is still constantly reverberating inside me and flowing through my veins. Even to this day it has yet to fade or diminish. With all of my strength, I am seeking bodhisattvahood, and the struggle to reach the state of enlightenment has become my life’s daily bread. To aim for a distant mountain summit, when you are only seeing it from so utterly far away and wanting to reach it, seems like such a hopeless task. But by taking only one step forward—even at such a slow pace, provided that you throw your whole self into that step—you discover a special sensation, a slight feeling or hint of Sanmai [literally “three tastes,” a state in meditation where one is totally absorbed in concentration, outside things forgotten, and the whole body may become tingling or numb.]

The history of Zen Shakuhachi dates back over 700 years ago, to the monk Hotto Kokuji, who was the founder of the Kokokuji Temple in Kishu, and brought back the suizen [“blowing Zen” as opposed to “sitting Zen”] piece called “Kyorei” from China. It was from this point on that the shakuhachi became the special meditation tool of the Fuke Sect, and this can be considered the origin of the modern shakuhachi. In the early seventeenth century, an edict was issued stating: “In the matter of the Zen sect known as Fuke, it shall henceforth be the refuge and facility of the samurai, and the ronin shall therein find protection and a way of life…” Thus, the Fuke Sect became the special home of the troublesome ronin, masterless samurai, who had the chance to trade in their swords for a shakuhachi and follow the way of bamboo, which was at least as equally noble a pursuit as the way of the sword. Those ronin became komuso, or wandering shakuhachi-playing monks who wore a concealing basket over their heads. The komuso came to function as a spy network for the shogunate, which is why the fortunes of the Fuke Sect suffered a complete reversal when the government changed: in the fourth year of the Meiji era [1871], the Fuke sect was abolished by ministerial proclamation and all its temples were abandoned.

At the time, commoners, or those who were not Fuke priests, were forbidden to play the shakuhachi, and so the tradition of shakuhachi almost died out. Because there was no successor to the tradition, it seems probable to me that many famous pieces of shakuhachi music were irretrievably lost in this period. But, near the end of the nineteenth century, the shakuhachi experienced a revival and became a concert instrument.

The present age is one in which our very human nature has come to be denied or disregarded. It seems that, without the least opposition, the natural world is being destroyed and the spirit of man is being needlessly and senselessly destroyed. Well, in times of this sort, it happens that people desiring to master classical shakuhachi music are on the increase. What can this mean? There is even a kind of longing among the young people from foreign countries, who, cherishing their hopes, come all the way to Japan to frequent the dojo. Sitting for long hours in the correct posture while the sweat is pouring down; trying to endure the agony and not pay it any attention; bringing all one’s efforts to bear in patient concentration on this uncomfortable instrument; filling it with all of one’s breath; and somehow in the process, trying to reach a state of perfect freedom and release. What could possibly tempt these shakuhachi players into following such a course? Is it fascination with the vision of the solitary shakuhachi player entering a state of oneness or fusion with the universe, or perhaps the desire to extend oneself to the ultimate limits of one’s breath? In this era of the denial of humanity, it is said that we have to go back to the sensual experiences of the body as our starting point.

However you look at it, I think, it is the shakuhachi—that instrument which consists of nothing more than a stick of bamboo—that can surely satisfy restless spirits. To the question: “What sort of person are you, really, inside and what lies concealed there?”—the shakuhachi will undoubtedly supply an answer. Kurahashi Yodo was a Grand Master of the shakuhachi and has received many honorifics and prizes. He lived in Kyoto, Japan and China.

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