Riley Lee Shakuhachi teacher

Why I teach the Shakuhachi

My motivation behind teaching the shakuhachi is more than just trying to earn a living doing what I do best. It is also more than sharing with others what I enjoy doing. Here are the most important reasons why I teach shakuhachi to others – in a long, round about way:

The main or original pieces for the shakuhachi are called honkyoku. I like honkyoku. They are, amongst the pieces I learned from my teachers, what I value the most. They are why I began playing the shakuhachi in the first place. The word, honkyoku literally means “main piece”. These pieces were created, performed and transmitted within the context of Zen Buddhism. They are spiritual practice.

Another meaning for honkyoku comes from the expression, honnin no kyoku. This means “one’s own piece”, or “the piece of the person in question”, that is, your piece. To learn a honkyoku is to make a piece your own. Two teachers, Sakai Chikuho II and Yokoyama Katsuya taught me. That is, I spent many hours of my, and their time listening and being listened to, learning a number of pieces, for example Hachi Gaeshi (Returning the Bowl).

Though most of you have experienced a shakuhachi lesson, let me tell you how a typical one for me was. My teacher would first play a phrase of, for example, Hachi Gaeshi. We would play it together. Then I would be asked to play it on my own. Usually, the teacher would tell me that I was not playing it right, and the process would be repeated. Eventually, we would proceed to the next phrase, and the next, until I had played all of the phrases in Hachi Gaeshi by myself.

By the way, mendicant priests played the piece Hachi Gaeshi during pilgrimages. Donors would give the monks offerings, usually vegetables or uncooked rice in a bowl. The monks would gratefully receive the offering, usually by emptying the bowl of food into their pouch, return the bowl to the donor, and then play “Returning the Bowl”. In other words, playing Hachi Gaeshi is expressing gratitude.

Over the next few lessons, I would play the entire piece both in unison with my teacher and alone. At some point, my teacher would say, “All right. Now we will go on to another piece.” With Yokoyama-sensei, I would have to play the piece by heart, without notation, before going on to a new piece.

Frequently, in particular with Yokoyama-sensei, I would be asked without warning to play a piece I had learned previously. But even after I had played Hachi Gaeshi by heart to the satisfaction of the teacher, and we had begun a new piece, the idea was that I still wasn’t finished with it. Even after I had played Hachi Gaeshi successfully a second time without warning, I still did not have the piece. I had not yet made it a honnin no kyoku. Hachi Gaeshi wasn’t mine – yet.

The idea was that the piece was mine only after I had in turn given it away.