Shakuhachi and Zenga

Page Contents

Observing the Sound:
Shakuhachi and Zenga


for Steve Mindel (1938-1992)


Ichion jobutsu, an expression loosely translated as “one sound, become Buddha,” encapsulates the spirit of the shakuhachi musician’s practice: by playing a single tone purely enough, he can realize his original Buddha nature.

If dance is music’s ideal physical realization, then breath, it can be argued, best realizes spirit. The player of the Japanese bamboo flute seeks to display his spirit through musicianship—even if only in a single note, a single exhalation. This idea of becoming a Buddha in one breath is not unique to the shakuhachi, but integral to all Zen-related arts — tea ceremony, calligraphy, Noh theater, and poetry, to name but a few. Zenga, the art of Zen painting, deserves special attention because in this art genre one brushstroke of ink can present to the eye the sound of the shakuhachi.1 Without entertaining what constitutes “purity,” I would like to explore some of the ways in which the music of the shakuhachi is visible in zenga painting.

It is no accident that shakuhachi musicianship and zenga artistic discipline are closely allied both in practice and standards of aesthetic excellence. In both cases, the artist strives for an extemporaneous moment where rigid technical control is forsaken, yet where attention is not; when art, artist, and audience become one, unencumbered by fashion, tradition, or ego. For both the shakuhachi (which arranges tones into “songs”), and zenga (which confines ink to two-dimensional squares of paper), what is expressed is essentially breath—inspired by winds that blow over water and mountains, through forests and across deserts, and even through train stations and across parking lots.

Whatever else art may aim to be, it is, as cave painters knew, a temporary stabilization. What it captures is consciousness itself—individual, collective, waking, dreaming, past, present, and future. What it displays is usually an expression of breath. At their best, shakuhachi and zenga reacquaint the mind with its more primal, fundamental consciousness, and instigate a recognition of archaic values. If we accept that the original burst of palaeolithic consciousness which irrevocably elevated humans over other animals is akin to our Buddha nature, then shakuhachi and zenga can be viewed as emblematic of that enlightened consciousness.

The Shakuhachi: Shadows and Light

Shakuhachi flutes are as individual as the musicians who play them; each is made by hand and stamped by its maker. Length, however, is a uniform standard, from which the name shakuhachi is derived: A bamboo flute is 1.8 “shaku” long (30 cm X 1.8 = 54.4 cm, with “hachi” being the word for eight). Made from the root section of madake bamboo, it is an untempered instrument, but nonetheless “tuned” by applying lacquer to the inside of the bore.2 Physically, the Japanese bamboo flute remains virtually unchanged from its Chinese, Indian, Persian, and Egyptian predecessors.

Unlike musical forms that are melodically inspired, the shakuhachi’s rhythmic structure depends on the musician’s breathing — similar to the practice of zazen wherein beginning Zen students are instructed to center the mind by counting breaths, or silently attaching a “mu” (non-being), to each exhalation. The shakuhachi musician, while performing the koten honkyoku or “original pieces,” attempts to musically interpret the experience and consciousness of Zen meditation. Indeed, the practice is referred to as suizen, “blowing Zen.” Thus, the shakuhachi, by maintaining its bond with Zen Buddhism, continues to be primarily a music of metaphor.

Since many arts associated with Zen aspire to a tacit understanding of what defines art itself, overt explanation can weaken or distort their aesthetic quality. This non-verbal approach to art is consistent with the rudiments of Zen understanding. Despite voluminous texts and commentaries, Zen Buddhism itself asserts that its essence cannot be understood by mere scripture. Sakyamuni, after his enlightenment, realized that this “teaching” could not be taught, but had to be experienced. The Transmission of Light, translated by Thomas Clearly, instructs: “Know that the idea of the scriptures is not to be considered the Way of Zen.” This is the ultimate paradox of Buddhism, and Zen in particular, which continues to this day: Zen allows a spiritual environment to evolve wherein the expression of the essentially inexpressible can manifest itself naturally. The countless books, articles, documentaries, and lectures which appear on the subject of Zen may hinder as well as help one’s training, clarify or pollute one’s spiritual environment.

That said, shakuhachi music remains an art form which does not lend itself easily to elucidation. Neither does it proselytize; its practitioners are adepts on a solitary pilgrimage. It is enough to simply play the music, even if only to an audience of oneself. Listeners, as a result, sometimes find it hard to orient themselves to the shakuhachi repertoire. Roughly speaking, the music is divided into two basic groups: honkyoku (for solo performance) and gaikyoku (as accompaniment to koto and shamisen). For centuries, honkyoku pieces were not written down. They remained an “oral” tradition until the early twentieth century, when they were transcribed and assembled by Jin Yodo.3 The honkyoku also resists all but the most elementary categorization and verbal explanation. Koten honkyoku is a kind of “absolute music,” not unlike the work of Bach, with which it is contemporaneous.

Besides being a meditation aid, many honkyoku pieces attempt, through various techniques, to evoke a natural locale or historic scene. Pitch is often modified by altering one’s breath, fingering, or by moving one’s neck. In playing Yugure no Kyoku, “Evening Song,” the musician recreates a picture of Kyoto’s Chio-in Temple at dusk: the tolling of the large temple bell, a bird calling from a tree, the wind blowing across the garden grounds. Tsuru no Sugomori “Depicting Cranes in Their Nest,” portrays, as its title implies, a crane protectively caring for its young. Indeed, its musical notation includes a short prose description of what each phrase of the song should evoke: the building of the nest, watching over the eggs, the happiness of the parent cranes, etc. Perhaps the best known shakuhachi piece is Shika no Tone, “The Distant Cry of Deer,” a duet wherein the performers imitate two animals calling each other. The flutes begin by echoing one another, then gradually come into unison.4

Unaccompanied shakuhachi music continually emphasizes its “natural” orientation. Upon first hearing a lone shakuhachi, Paul Reps responded with a koan: “The sound of the flute has returned to the bamboo forest.” But shakuhachi music is more than simply the imitation of natural sounds, or festive background music, folk songs, or even traditional ensemble work. The shakuhachi exemplifies a mystical as well as musical legacy. Modern shakuhachi players can trace their musical and spiritual lineage back to Tang Dynasty China and the founder of the fuke shu sect of Zen Buddhism, Pu Hua (Fuke). R.H. Blyth informs us that Pu Hua was a contemporary of the Zen Master Linchi (Rinzai), of whom Pu Hua “asked for a coffin, and sat in it, and died.”5

The fuke shu musical mendicants, komoso or komuso, are typically remembered in works of visual art as wearing baskets over their heads while playing, to reinforce the anonymity of their practice.6 The fuke-shu sect in Japan, as the Kyotaku Denki Jo informs us, originated in 1614.7 The order was officially banned in 1847 by Ieyasu, who believed that the sect had attracted too many unsavory characters into its fold; ronin, or masterless samurai, deprived of their swords during the Tokugawa Era, often “took up” the shakuhachi to affect an appearance of respectability, though many were little more than thugs. By 1871, after the Meiji Restoration, the sect was completely suppressed.8

Although a knowledge of music, art, history, and Asian religions may be helpful, none is prerequisite to an appreciation of the shakuhachi or zenga. In fact, “freedom” from past conventions can be a blessing in disguise: to an audience unfamiliar with “tradition” such art forms appear fresh and, in turn, can reflect the untainted, “purer” consciousness of the beholder. Shunryu Suzuki recognized this element of acceptance in Western Zen students and termed it beginner’s mind, and not without reason. A well-known Zen expression instructs shoshin wasurubekarazu: Don’t forget your first heart or mind. Suzuki-roshi stressed that this was a secret of the arts: always remain a beginner.9

Zenga: Blasts, Echoes, Tone Poems

If shakuhachi music is the mantra of a global mythology, then zenga is its mandala. Zenga shares many attributes with its aesthetic cousin, not the least of which is artistic execution as a demonstration of one’s spirituality. As Yasuichi Awakawa wrote in his introduction to Zen Painting, “a work of art is an expression of truth—the distinction between didactic art and ‘art for art’s sake’ becomes blurred or disappears altogether.” He continued:

Zenga are an ideal example of this creative process. As an individual artist’s expression of Zen experience, they are at once statements of a view of life and didactic tools, are aesthetic objects and the manifestation of universal principles. Subject, content, and form all interact and form an indivisible whole.

Like the songs of the shakuhachi repertoire, the subjects of zenga vary. Bodhidharma, Zen patriarchs, poetry, a Zen koan, enso (a circle), a staff, a discarded skull in the weeds—these are some of zenga’s more common subjects. Composed by monks and masters alike, zenga is also a meditational art in that it reflects the spiritual discipline of the artist. For instance, Stephen Addiss, in his book Zen Painting, contemplates the composition of the enso:

Did the monk take merely a few seconds to create this quintessential Zen statement? Might we also count the time he spent staring at the empty paper and preparing his mind and spirit? Or should we say that it took the monk eighty years, the span of his life, to produce it? If we consider the entire history of Zen, passed on directly from master to pupil for generations, we may even decide that the enso took many hundreds of years to create.

Five examples of zenga will suffice to show what is meant by a two-dimensional rendering of the essence of Zen, as well as that of the shakuhachi. Each painting is of a simple staff, and can be accepted as such or as the visual echo of a dragon’s tail, the brooms of Kanzan or Jittoku, the exaggerated calligraph of the characters for “middle” or “within,” “happiness,” or “always,” —characters written with a long “tail” to “extend” the meaning. Each painting considered here consists primarily of a single, vertical stroke of ink brushed onto paper in one exhalation, a stroke which in turn is interpreted musically as a constant element: a single note. Moreover, in zenga, gradations of ink, or the quality of brush strokes, visually correspond to the different sounds which are produced by the shakuhachi. The terms which I use below to describe the flow and texture of ink take on a natural musical quality; musical and artistic metaphors intermingle to afford a multi-layered understanding of zenga and the shakuhachi.

First, by the master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1769), is a painting called “Iron Staff.” The inscription reads: “The man who fears this staff will enter Paradise.”10 Viewing the staff, it is evident that ink was brushed onto the paper in a single stroke, and in a single breath of the zenga master. The black, bold line suggests a rich, full tone which wavers momentarily but never fades, then abruptly ends in silence. By patiently examining the painting, one sees a tonal image of what the ink sounds like: a gush, slowly decreasing in intensity, finally punctuated by a short descent at the end of the exhalation.

“The Thirty-Times’ Stick” was painted by Inzan Yuian (1753-1816), who in direct artistic linage followed Hakuin, though not as his student. The stick or “warning staff,” called the keisaku, is used to “encourage” monks in their meditation.11 In this painting, the stroke wavers slightly at the top, continues downward in a steady flow, and concludes softly as the rounded end of the stick implies. One can hear—and see—the vibrato in the tone.

In “Staff” by Jiun Sonja (1718-1804), the tonal quality of the ink takes on new meaning. Here is a single stroke without embellishments in pitch, just a thinning of ink which brings a breeze to the shakuhachi player’s interpretation of the note’s timbre. Similar in meaning to Hakuin’s “Iron Staff,” the inscription to Jiun’s “Staff” reads: “Violate the commandments and you will be beaten with this stick.”

“Devil’s Rod” by Shunso Shoju (1750-1839) combines elements of Hakuin’s “Iron Staff” and Jiun’s “Staff”; it is customarily believed that the devil beat sinners to hell with such a rod.11 Observing this “Devil’s Rod,” we can sense a musical note of contemplative and complex beauty. Its sound is lush but tentative, and as it expands more air enters into the tone, creating a windy image. Continuing along with a more turgid, trenchant line than Hakuin’s, the note ends abruptly with a final gust of breath.

Finally, bringing us into the twentieth century, is “Nanten’s Staff” by Nantenbo (1839-1925). The explosion of ink which introduces the staff suggests a blast of sound from the flute — a violent burst of air. One can almost imagine spittle bursting from the musician’s lips! Immediately, this fades to a thin, almost inaudible tone of extreme delicacy. At the end, the note revives itself for a final restatement of sound, and then… silence.

Shakuhachi, Zenga, Buddha Nature

The late Anthony Burgess wryly observed that few people “can take their art straight.” When first confronted with the sound of the shakuhachi or with a zenga painting, one is apt to feel confusion, boredom, even a measure of hostility. The drastic deceleration of visual and aural rhythm can, at first, prove intimidating. One whose senses are accustomed to a hysterical repetition of images (television) and sound (radio) is often unsure what to make of the static, stoic expressions of tone and ink: like as not, such art becomes a challenge to one’s spiritual integrity.

This is as it should be. The realm of the sacred is as hectic as the secular—oases are beguiling. Zen and Zen-related arts must continually combat the tendency to fall into mere quietism, the overt pursuit of passivity as an end in itself. Performances of honkyoku music or examples of contemporary zenga attest to the spirit’s aggressive pursuit of discipline, maturity, and finally, calm acceptance of “things as they are.” As Dogen taught: One should meditate as if one’s head were on fire!13 The requirements for enlightenment — aside from the flute and brush—are the same for musician, artist, and monk alike: an erect spine, rhythmic breathing, and about one square meter of space.

Despite the teaching of Chinese Zen master Fawei, who proclaimed that even though the spiritual body has no characteristics (i.e., it cannot be sought through sound or language), symbolic expression of original mind — or in this case Buddha Nature—is possible but requires masks.14 Artistically, therefore, whatever is pleasantly perceived need not be construed as an end in itself. Shakuhachi music and zenga are essentially non-esoteric art forms; they remain valuable teaching tools and are readily accessible to all sentient beings. A pure sound in air or brushstroke on paper can equal the sublimity of an Epiphany, of Sakyamuni’s flower and Kasyapa’s smile. Perhaps the most profound teaching and spiritual guidance, the highest perfect enlightenment, is revealed in Kannon, the goddess of compassion, whose very name evokes all which is miraculous and holy in art and music: “Observe the sound.”



1. The term zenga is a relatively new one. Ironically, prior to this century, the Chinese characters reversed, gazen, was used to mean a Zen-inspired painting with a short poem or commentary.
2. See Malm, William. (1959) Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (Tokyo: Tuttle) and Karhu, Clifton (n.d.) “How to Make a Shakuhachi” The Annuls of the International Shakuhachi Society, Vol. One. pp. 21-28, for a more detailed description of shakuhachi construction. The lacquer, urushi, is made from a kind of poison oak. I made this discovery quite empirically: once after my flute had returned from a repair job a rash broke out all around my mouth and lips!
3. Blasdel, Christopher Yohmei, and Yuko Kamisango. (1988) The Shakuhachi: a manual for learning. (Tokyo: Ongaku no Tomo Sha Corp.); p. 126-7.
4. Recently a shakuhachi master — who shall remain nameless — played Shika no Tone in Nara park, whereupon dozens of deer gathered around him. It was discovered later that the truck driven by a park official played a similar melody over a loudspeaker during feeding time.
5. Blyth, R.H. (1963) A History of Haiku, Vol. One. (Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press); p. 252.
6. The origins of the terms komoso “straw mat monks,” or komuso “monks of emptiness,” of the Fuke-shu sect remain uncertain. Yuko Kamisango points out that “these monks were also referred to as boro, boroboro, boronji, bonji, and kanji all words which have religious overtones, yet convey the feelings of mendicancy and poverty.” Op. Cit, p. 82.
7. It is believed that the Kyotaku Denki was written in order to successfully apply for status as a bona fide religious sect by the bakafu, Japan’s ruling military government at the time, therefore it is historically suspect. Blasdel, Op Cit, 103-107.
8. Sanford, James. (1977) “Shakuhachi Zen: The Fukeshu and Komuso.” Momumenta Nipponica, 32; p. 411.
9. Suzuki, Shunryu. (1970) Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. (New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill); p. 22.
10. All translations of zenga inscriptions are from Addiss, Stephen (1989) The Art of Zen. (New York: Abrams) and Awakawa, Yasuichi (1970) Zen Painting trans. John Bester. (Tokyo: Kodansha)
11. Suzuki, D.T. (1974) The Training of a Zen Buddhist Monk. (Berekley: Wingbow Press); p. 93, 159.
12. Addiss, Stephen. Op Cit, p. 150.
13. Aitken, Robert. (1990) The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-men Kuan (Mumonkan). (San Francisco: North Point Press); p. 121.
14. Cleary, Thomas. (1992) Transmission of Light: Zen in the Art of Enlightenment. (New York: Weatherhill); p. x.