Blowing Zen

Thoughts on Hocchiku and blowing zen

In some of the discussions about shakuhachi/hochiku/hoki, etc., there seems to be some confusion between music making and spiritual practice/blowing Zen (suizen).

Nothing new here, as this confusion has been in Japan and elsewhere long before we shakuhachi list people came on the scene.

Here is, in my opinion, an example of this confusion. There seems to be the idea that the meditative/spiritual endeavour of a person playing one type of instrument, eg, a shakuhachi, is somehow more or less valuable than that of one playing another type of instrument, eg, a hochiku or hocchiku.

A belief that the nature of one’s instrument defines one’s spiritual experience is as absurd as believing that doing meditation in, for example, a temple (built specifically for the purpose) is, by definition, and always will be, ‘better’ than doing meditation, for example, at home (built for other purposes). Sometimes this may be true, but not because of the buildings themselves.

Some instruments might be more condusive to meditation, just as some buildings are more conducive to meditation. But no material ‘thing’ exists that is more or less inately spiritual than any other ‘thing’.

I would take it one step further: to think that a hochiku is particularly more spiritual than a regular shakuhachi, or an electric guitar or any other musical instrument, is risking mistaking the plate for the food.

I appreciate the pleasure of making and playing simple bamboo flutes, hochiku or otherwise. I also respect and acknowledge the challenges these instruments present to their players. I know that often a challenging instrument can make for a great performance, eg, a recording I recently heard, of Choshi played on a quickly and roughly made flute.


If “the main difference between a shakuhachi and a hochiku is the philosophy behind the two instruments,” and, if one plays a shakuhachi with the same PHILOSOPHICAL attitude as when one plays a hochiku, then where is the difference? There may have been a difference in attitude during the making of the instrument, but we are talking here about playing the bamboo, not making the flute.

For example, imagine (it’s not hard!) someone who practices ‘blowing Zen’ for years on what s/he thinks is a really good hochiku, made in the spirit of the hochiku. But actually the flute is really just a badly made shakuhachi. Or imagine that the person knows that the flute wasn’t made as a hochiku, but, doesn’t care how the flute was made; s/he just wants to do ‘blowing Zen’.

So, for argument’s sake, this shakuhachi wasn’t made in the ‘spirit’ of a hochiku, but rather by someone who had never even heard of the hochiku tradition, and who just wasn’t very skilled at making shakuhachi. The flute can’t play ‘dai kan’; the sound disappears with all but a small volume of air; it is so out of tune that it can’t easily play pitches based on natural laws of physics (such as octaves); it can’t be played together with other folks, etc. It requires a gentle, controlled breath to make it work. (This sounds just like a description of a hochiku.) In any case, the player thinks that this shakuhachi, even though it isn’t a hochiku, does very nicely when ‘blowing Zen’.

What is the difference between the person using this instrument and another person who practices ‘blowing Zen’ on an ‘authentic’ hochiku made by a maker who is very much into the ‘hochiku’ tradition?

In my opinion, sometimes discussions of differences between hochiku and shakuhachi might be attempts at placing a high value on one thing at the expense of other things. Generally speaking, value judgments are counterproductive in meditative practice.

Also, think a moment about the idea that it is very important to hear hochiku live. We are told this is so because much of the tone colour is lost on CDs. This may be true, but how does this differ from regular shakuhachi, or any other musical instrument?

[By the way, someone once asked/lamented how he could ever sound like a performer whose CD he recently listened to. Do not despair. From my limited experience, it is amazing what magic can occur in recording studios. Just try playing in a large concrete stairwell to get an idea of this. A good recording engineer can improve anybody’s sound even more than a good stairwell can!]

If the point of playing hochiku is to do blowing Zen, then the question is: Why would someone want to listen to ‘blowing Zen’ anyway, live or recorded? That would be like watching someone meditating. I suppose that doing so can be a calming, meditative experience, and if it helps one meditate, great.

One could argue that listening to a teacher play his/her hochiku helps one become better at playing one’s own hochiku. But then one is now talking about music making, not about spiritual practice. In general, you don’t get very good at meditating by watching someone else play a flute.

It can be meditative watching people meditate, but likewise, it can be meditative listening to music. Observing spiritual practice isn’t a very rewarding spectator activity. Listening to music however, is.

With spiritual practice, it DOES NOT matter what sort of bamboo flute you blow into. It might be better if you threw all of your pieces of bamboo away, as just more distractions, and got on with meditating.

Music making can be spiritual practice, and spiritual practice can include the making of music. They are, nevertheless, two distinct activities. They work under different rules. Confusing the two can result both in bad music and ineffective spiritual practice.

Interesting historical questions around the Shakuhachi

The most important change that occurred to the shakuhachi after the instrument was imported into Japan from China was not the change of bamboo, but rather the reduction of finger holes from six to five, and to a lesser degree, the enlargement of these holes. The reduction was primarily due, so the theory goes, to the growing desire of the Japanese of the time to play music in Japanese modes rather than Chinese ones. The sixth hole was not necessary in playing Japanese music. The enlargement of the holes better allowed for manipulation of pitch which further allowed for playing Japanese modes.

One can easily guess why madake was chosen as the bamboo of choice, replacing the thinner Chinese bamboo used to make the xiao. Madake is the second most common bamboo in Japan, just after the even larger moso. When making bamboo flutes, the first rule is to use bamboo that is available to you! A side effect of using madake is that the bore, compared with the xiao, became larger. This meant that the blowing hole was larger. This, in turn, allowed for the development of the meri/kari technique of pitch manipulation, again conducive to playing Japanese modes.

There was another Japanese bamboo flute descended from the Chinese one, called the hitoyogiri. It had small holes (though also 5 of them), and sometimes used thinner bamboo. It was almost impossible to meri/kari and to partially open and close finger holes with this flute. It is no surprise that it was delegated to the museum of nearly forgotten musical instruments by the end of the 19th century.

The theory behind the use of the roots in the construction of the bamboo is that the instrument made a better weapon when made with the heavier, ‘spiky’ root end. The wandering komuso (‘priests of nothingness’), all former samurai versed to various degrees in martial arts, and perhaps some of their lower status predecessors, the komoso (‘straw mat priests) were not adverse to using weapons to protect themselves while on pilgrimages.

Contrary to what many people think, the Edo period komuso were allowed to wear and use swords. So the root end shakuhachi didn’t necessarily replace their swords, but it appears that it may have contributed to their defences.