Dec. 25, 2013
Meri-kari shimasu! What a beautiful, relaxing month it has been so far after returning from Japan and Texas! The Shakuhachi Roots Pilgrimage was such as success, I am still feeling the positive effects from the Journey. I am starting to plan for 2015 as we already have people signed up! After returning from Japan, I was off to Texas to do film music for the new documentary film from ArcheoProductions called, Agave is Life, about the fascinating and beautiful agave plant of Mexico and South Western US. I had a wonderful time in Marfa, Texas recording music for the film using of course my shakuhachi (jinashi), agave horns (didgeridoo), conch shells, percussion (udu drum, rattles, shakers; and even a penny whistle. The film is due out in theatres next summer. Narrated by the esteemed Mexican-American actor, Edward James Olmos, this documentary sheds light on the most widely used plant of pre-columbian indigenous peoples of the South West and Mexico. Agave is very much like bamboo in that sense. I love agave!
The building of a dwelling is much like approaching the practice of shakuhachi. When one studies architecture, one studies the past, present and future and then ventures to create something new if one so desires. It is a work of art on many levels….a deep and expansive world.
Borrowing from the philosophy of Japanese architect, Kishio Kurokawa, he writes about theories of “metabolism” and “symbiosis”. Metabolism was borrowed from the science of biology which refers to the changes that a living creature undergoes in a life time. I feel metabolism fits nicely into the study of shakuhachi as it expresses the conviction that music “should not be frozen or unchanging once it is completed but should be apprehended instead as a thing – or process – that evolves from past to present and from present to future.” Another way to express this process is a symbiosis of the three time periods.” The work of german architect Heinrich Engel who “recognized that the Japanese house is as an invaluable experience for the contemporary architect as the ancient acropolis of Athens in Greece and and the modern high-rise towers of the United States” can also be applied to the study of shakuhachi as well as Arata Izosaki’s work on “MA” the philosophy of time-space in Japan.
My wife, Sandra is a potter and much of how she creates her work is very similar to an architect. First she has an idea, then she sketches ideas, then develops forms, then builds it thinking of how to form the space in a beautiful way that is functional yet aesthetically pleasing. I learn a lot from her watching her work. Respecting the space she works in and the tools she uses. Immersing herself in the moment is part of her zen practice. Producing works to make the world more beautiful. The same can be said for shakuhachi.
I see shakuhachi as a portal, a gateway into seeing deeper into oneself as well as a bridge to other physical and spiritual realms. It is a unique structure created by nature and man, subsisting on the sweet sustenance of imagination. A deceptively simple form that veils an incredibly profound and beautiful universe of art, music, and meditation. To simply contemplate on the shakuhachi is deeply pleasurable.
I want to start with the origin of all things; the unknowable mystery, silence, eternal uncreated space that is beyond thought….then suddenly the first vibratory awakening of the universe, a sound, a wave of energy, then light, then….
…somehow the perfect balance was reached and the first signs of life, consciousness came into being. Then we all know what came after that. Here we are. Now. Present moment. A product of all our choices, actions, dreams, intentions. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the most basic human needs are air, water, food, sex, sleep, clothing, and shelter. In Japan, it is said that the first basic shelter was a pit dug into the ground, four posts inserted around the space, and covered by grass walls and roofing. Similarly when worshipping the kami (spirits that reside in nature; a formless presence that comes and goes) four post were planted in the ground and surrounded by a rope, and this empty, sacred space was where the kami descended. This is where the fundamental Japanese spirituo-aesthetic concept of MA, empty space, arose from; and reinforced by Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. Shakuhachi is a study of MA in its many forms.
Way of sensing the faint sounds of kami
Archetype of knowing
Receptive, sensing openness
Space in which to feel
Past brought into the present, eternal now
To be in relationship, in between; Intervals
Emptiness as co-dependent origination
Creating a beautiful architectural space entails a great deal of thought, planning, and effort. The same goes for shakuhachi. The landscape must be surveyed chosen first for beneficial flow of energy; then a strong foundation must be built so the building can last a long time. Zen is like this landscape and foundation for the shakuhachi. Zen is what energizes and beautifies the shakuhachi. It teaches many things that help one become a good person and player:
- Connection with nature
- Appreciate the beauty in every moment
- Be open and flexible in the moment
- Accept the paradoxes
- To have an open and compassionate heart
- Not to get too attached to results
- Daily, quality, disciplined practice
- Lose yourself in the moment
- Silence is the source of sound. Approach silence with sensitivity.
- To let go of judgemental mind when playing honkyoku; to reflect on the source of the sound and where it goes.
- Shakuhachi sound has the power to elevate consciousness and heal.
- Your sound is beautiful!
- To play from your heart
- To be aware of how your sound affects others positively
Nature-based spiritualities such as Shinto and Taoism are also excellent foundations on which to base your shakuhachi study. As shakuhachi comes from Nature, the study of these world views is complimentary and natural.
The ubiquitous question of identity, “Who am I?” is very important in living one’s life authentically. The answer is ultimately paradoxical, so in a sense is unknowable. One must exercise one’s imagination and create one’s identity. I am not a “shakuhachi player” but I am a approaching the mystery of being a shakuhachi player.
I`ve noticed that quite a few Japanese performance artists make the distinction between their art such as shakuhachi, taiko, etc. and music. They seem to think that their art is `not` music; it`s just a meditation or an athletic activity. I don`t agree. I think that`s just a convenient way to bypass improving their art. Watazumi-do, the great hocchiku master always expressed that every thing, sound was music. That`s how I see it as well. I have much to improve in my shakuhachi playing. Studying percussion styles is important in my practice (my preference at the moment is frame drumming, particularly middle eastern styles and fusion styles of Glen Velez.) Singing and voice work, melodics and harmonics is also very important. Not to mentioned stringed instruments such as guqin, shamisen, koto, biwa, sitar, guitar….Music is meditation and meditation is music.
I must confess, when I started learning shakuhachi I viewed shakuhachi not as music, but meditation, much like the komuso of old; that`s because I didn`t understand music or meditation deeply back then. But as I began learning more, and my mind began opening up, I realized that technique is wisdom and that it is a never ending path of polishing one`s sound. Like a swordsman who is constantly practicing his technique, and sharpening and polishing his sword. That`s why a lot of inspiration comes from martial arts because one always has to be motivated to keep learning, growing, and striving to go beyond the violence of the world of opposites; to have a fighting spirit. The great Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter, Anderson Silva is an excellent example of immersing oneself in his art and being equanimous and transcending the extreme opposites to unify people in an atmosphere of loving kindness. His chosen field is an extreme world of violence, but it is this fact, this seemingly great contradiction, and how he perceives reality and his strength of character, and immense skill to transcend the opposites that is so inspiring. Everything is competitive to some extent in this world of opposites. But the goal must be to go beyond the opposites. Unifying in love and kindness. Music also has the power to do this.
Music demands one practice to keep one`s skill level up if one wants to play quality music. Same with martial arts and meditation. The quality of your technique is dependent on how much effort and concentration you put into it.
Your mind moves the water, wind, earth, fire, and spirit.
It`s no secret that I like martial arts as it develops good habits of discipline and body-mind control and sensitivity. I used to be an avid practitioner when I was younger, being, like many of us, inspired by the work of Bruce Lee, Musashi Miyamoto, Morihei Ueshiba (O-sensei), etc. But I eventually had to let it go to focus primarily on shakuhachi. That was the only way for me to get a more deeper, intimate level of experience with the flute. But I still enjoy watching martial arts movies and events. I think martial artists would enjoy the shakuhachi as a form of meditation or musical practice. Some people can do both very well such as Kyle Hamal Helou (shakuhachi/karate) in Lebanon; and Nishimura Koku (koytaku/karate), and Christopher Blasdel (shakuhachi/aikido). The ancestral Nezasa school players in northern Japan were samurai and practice shakuhachi along with their martial training. I don’t know if I will ever practice budo again, but I will continue to be a great supporter and admirer of martial arts and to derive inspiration from that.
The other day I spent time with the Persian musician, Hossein Behrooznia, master of the Barabat (precursor to the Persian Oud) and he taught me much about Persian music. Very inspirational! One of the metaphors he used for the playing of Persian traditional music is that of traveling to different geographical areas of a country. There is always a start and destination, but depending on how much knowledge you know of the landscape, you can take various, beautiful roads, pathways, connections, bridges. It`s a beautiful way of approaching music. Quite visceral and earthy, yet sensitive and exciting. In contrast, honkyoku is a music with no beginning and no end, and has a wandering, otherworldly atmosphere. In a way these two approaches compliment each other. They are still spaces to understand and explore; to appreciate the beauty. I look forward to exploring Persian music more with shakuhachi.
Shakuhachi is not for everyone. To think it is something special is just the ego manipulating the mind. One can very well use any other instrument or thing such as a harmonica, taiko, hurdy-gurdy, guitar, piano, didgeridoo or even clay or a simple wooden staff for the purpose of self-development. To play at a high level, they are all just as demanding, and difficult in their own right.
Being demanding, difficult, challenging and often frustrating is part of the Way, a “DO”, a spiritual path amongst the thousands of ways. It’s one’s commitment to the Path the determines how far one travels and sees life from this perspective.
It may seem we are in control of what we choose. But among many players, it feels more like the shakuhachi chose them.
And what about the spirit behind this shakuhachi? Who chose the bamboo plant as it’s first vehicle? This form of 5 holes, tapered bore, and sharp blowing edge? Later other materials such as wood, plastic were used. Although meditation is a key component of this Way, music has evolved into part of its practice.
As more people around the world learn the shakuhachi, teaching techniques get more refined and sophisticated and so people are learning faster than ever.
Firing pottery in a wood kiln is probably the closest thing to doing an Ayahuasca ceremony without actually doing it! My wife’s pottery is part of my music of life!
I really love film music. Just recorded some shakuhachi textures for a new Japanese-tinged horror film. Looking forward to seeing/listening to it on the big screen! I will be doing more film stuff in the future. Very cool.
This next year, I will be taking shakuhachi into the realms of shoegaze, ambient post rock music…very excited about this new venture. Actually ambient electronic music was one of my early, great musical influences which inspired me to follow shakuhachi!
Shakuhachi Roots Pilgrimage in 1 month! So excited! we have 11 people coming to Japan for the first time. Have been preparing for this for the last year. Everything has fallen into place perfectly so far. Really looking forward to meeting all the new teachers and makers.