Use the summary links or the bullets at the right of the screen to navigate to the desired point.


I became interested in Zen Buddhism more than 30 years ago, when I picked up a book called ‘Opening the Hand of Thought’ by Kosho Uchiyama. What struck me was the completely radical approach taken by Zen to such perennial questions as Who am I?
What is the purpose of my life? Why is there suffering in the world? Is there life after death?

I always had a burning desire to find answers to these kinds of questions, running in parallel to the other great passion in my life, which was music in all its myriad forms. I didn’t at that time pursue any further exploration of Zen teachings, although something continued to simmer deep within.

Some time later I discovered the shakuhachi and was happy to find an instrument that was the both the most beautiful instrument I had ever heard, and one that had a direct link to Zen Buddhist practice, expressed as suizen (blowing zen).

Then I began to study the shakuhachi, and I found that the instrument had been used by Zen monks as a tool of spiritual enquiry, not simply as a way of making music. And I repeatedly came across certain enigmatic phrases that were associated with the instrument such as … ʻabsolute emptinessʻspirit breathʼ ʻabsolute soundʼʻbecome the Buddha in a single toneʼ ʻMonks of Nothingness and Emptinessʼ

This, combined with the uniquely expressive power of the music itself, was deeply fascinating to me. Since that time when I began my studies on the shakuhachi I have associated its sound and music with an intimate connection to the teachings of the Buddha, and especially as interpreted through the schools of Zen.


At the heart of the Buddhaʼs teachings is the idea that individuals and nations are in suffering because of attachments and impurities of the mind, which prevent us from understanding the true nature of Self or of the World. The Buddha gave many teachings on how to purify the mind so as to have a more clear, awakened perception of the nature of reality, beyond the conditioned mind, and therefore to tap into deeper currents of peace and happiness.

The Buddha talked about tanhā or cravings. Taṇhā is the craving or desire to hold onto pleasurable experiences, and the craving or desire to be separated from painful or unpleasant experiences. This might sound natural enough. Why not want to be far away from pain and closer to pleasure? That is after all the way we mostly seem to live. But the Buddha identified a state of ʻabsolute emptinessʼ which lay beyond the state of craving, and this state -nirvana – he considered to be our natural state, our birthright and our true Self.

The komusō monks of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism many centuries ago developed the shakuhachi as a tool of spiritual enquiry.  They had understood something about the secret nature of sound and breath, linked to meditation, and to the search for pure sound as a reflection of pure mind, penetrating to the heart of the Buddhaʼs teachings.

Komusō, literally means ‘Monks of Emptiness and Nothingness’. These enigmatic pilgrims played the shakuhachi while roaming the Japanese countryside, moving from temple to temple, playing in the mountains, forests and by the village roadsides, wearing rattan headdresses that completely obscured their faces, signifying detachment from the world.

Looked at through the lens of the Zen teachings, the komusō were clearly engaged in that same search for that same state of absolute emptiness, which lies beyond the conditioned mind of attachments and cravings. The interesting point being that they were doing it through a study of sound – tettei-on, or ‘absolute sound’.

Suizen (breath-zen) combines a study of conscious, controlled breathing on the shakuhachi with the learning of a relatively small repertoire of powerfully expressive pieces. Ultimately it seems these pieces attempt to encapsulate in pure sound the essential teachings on life, death and the true nature of being, in accordance with Zen Buddhist principles.


Ichion Jobutsu is a phrase that is well known within shakuhachi circles. It was originally associated with the Edo–period shakuhachi master Kinko Kurosawa (1710-1771).  Like many Japanese phrases from the world of Zen, it is difficult to translate into English, but it could loosely be translated as ‘awakening (or Buddhahood) within a single tone’.

This refers to an underlying principle of Zen practice – waking up to the essential nature of ones true being, unimpeded by any distractions or elaborations: The beginners mind.

This attitude is reflected in the way of practicing shakuhachi as suizen, and it is one of the unique qualities of the instrument. My teacher Yokoyama-sensei stressed that practicing the shakuhachi should lead to a deepening understanding of the nature of life itself:

“If you don’t have sincere thoughts about life and death, your sound will be bland and insignificant … when you think seriously about life and death … that is the essence of honkyoku. If you don’t try to understand and experience these things from the deepest source of your being you will never be able to play this music.” (see Appendix 1)

Honkyoku is the traditional solo shakuhachi repertoire. The term  can be roughly translated as ʻoriginal pieceʼ, ʻmain pieceʼ or ‘one’s own piece’.  More poetically it could be thought of as ‘sound from the origin of beingʼ. Through practicing these pieces a place of ʻabsolute emptinessʼ deep within one’s self can be found. This is a slow, slow process that becomes real over many years of practice.

In the words of shakuhachi maker Monty Levenson ‘When blowing shakuhachi, blow with ritual and with posture, and bow, because it will put you in the proper relationship to that tradition and to the profound spirit of that music.’

Mary Lu Brandwein: ‘Honkyoku need to be put back in their proper context again and used as aids on our Way as they were originally meant to be.’

The heart of Zen teachings is that one has to cultivate an awareness of oneʼs immediate surroundings, in the ʻhere and nowʼ, free of attachments in the mind and emotions. To develop the capacity to experience the fullness (emptiness) of life as it is unfolding.

When playing shakuhachi try to be aware of what is happening as it’s happening. It’s that simple. Monty again: “The extent that I put energy into shakuhachi is the extent to which I put energy into trying to be awake.”

It has been said that the honkyoku should be played with a feeling of purposelessness … but it is not with a feeling of purposelessness, it is purposeless. Trying to be purposeless is of course a huge contradiction. If playing with purposelessness is the goal, then by definition, there is a purpose. Shakuhachi is an aid to Zen practice, to paying attention … and it is to be played from the truth of what the shakuhachi player is in at the present moment.


As students of shakuhachi and students of The Way, there is a longing for mastery of the instrument and there are many emotions present when practising: frustration, desire, joy, anger, disappointment, ecstasy, all of these will be present in the honkyoku if one plays from the heart. But this heart is the ʻempty heartʼ, not the heart of emotionalism. The empty heart is always ready to be filled for it is ever empty.

‘Empty Sound’ may very well mean ‘sound without attachment or qualitative value.’

The player shouldn’t be concerned about strength or weakness, or sorrow or joy in his/her heart, but just play as he/she is at the moment. Yes, the mind will ‘value’ certain things over others (strength is better than weakness, joy is better than sorrow), and as such it should be ignored, for it will lead to ‘willful’ playing, which is not what we are after. So, ʻno mindʼ is best, as that will ‘allow’ the heart, as it is, to express itself as it is.

If, for example, you wish to say the sound expresses the ‘pathos of this transient existence’, go ahead, (after all time means pathos, and sound dissipates), but played from an empty mind and heart, the sound, as it is, simply silences any philosophy or emotions, leaving only the sound itself.

The focus of the traditional honkyoku is on total sound, which is a constant surprise to the listener. The length of a phrase and its direction cannot be guessed. Therefore, the mind, it is hoped, can be more persuaded to stay in this present, fleeting sound moment.

But remember, the ‘present’, the ‘moment’, the ‘here’, the ‘now’ are themselves nothing more than linguistic conventions. Try to define or demonstrate them and they are dead and gone. Why bother bothering about them? Give up. Just Play!

Reside with the empty sky, not the things in it. Make no move to clear the empty sky of the things within it. A completely cloudy sky is still an empty sky if our minds are free of attachment.

Zen is constantly trying to remind us to throw Zen away….

Lin Chi said “If you meet the Buddha on the path, kill the Buddha”.

In terms of the desire for ‘improving one’s sound’ on an instrument, the problem lies not in the desire to improve, but in the attachment to the desire to improve. If you wish to improve, well, obviously you practice. What’s the problem with that? If you are attached to the desire to improve though, then it is likely that no matter how much you practice, you will never be satisfied or you may just pack it in altogether. However you will make things even worse for yourself by thinking you should not have the desire to improve. You will tear out your hair in mental anguish over the conundrum, getting no practice done at all. Just play!

Practice is keeping the hand open and non-grasping, despite the habit to close the hand around and cling to (attach to) the desire.

Sound, when allowed to express itself as it is, without value or de-value (without attachment to desire or to non-desire), becomes a teacher.

Shakuhachi players try to create tettei-on, ʻsound in and of itselfʼ or ʻabsolute soundʼ.

In the words of Stan Kakudo Richardson:

‘The practice of suizen is just to blow, nothing else, just being here with the sound, the techniques, right now playing the shakuhachi in the midst of conditions, without any thought of progress, or especially any thought of enlightenment.

The state of mind needed is just to play, to hear the expression of the breath as sound, as it is, in each moment, without discrimination or judgment, just blowing. To blow one sound with the right attitude is Zen. Just this one note of Zen is the hardest practice of all.’

Zen wisdom … do everything as it if were the only time. In this moment, Now.
Eternity is NOW, not in the future beyond death.
Do one thing … only one thing … again and again … do it completely … in each moment.

Do not think of anything else … only Now.


Our ears are open before we are born. The child in the womb hears its motherʼs heartbeat (and later sounds from the outside world) before the other senses of sight, touch, smell and taste awaken. This means that even before we enter the world, we hear it.

There is a book of prayers and invocations from Tibetan Buddhism that is intended to be read to a dying person, both at the time of death and in the minutes, hours and days following death. The name of this book is Bardo Thödol which is commonly translated as ʻThe Tibetan Book of the Deadʼ, however the literal translation is ʻLiberation by Hearing in the After-death Stateʼ.

Those working in hospices with dying people know well that the sense of hearing usually remains intact when all other senses and faculties fail. According to the Tibetan tradition, even in the hour of departure from this world and beyond we continue to hear. It is actually our ears that carry us from our pre-natal state, thru our life on earth, into the state after death. We cannot close our ears.

In fact we donʼt need ears to hear. That which we ʻhearʼ is not limited to simple vibrations of sound waves upon the ear drum. Consider the transcendental late works of Beethoven, written when he was completely deaf.

Kōbō Daishi (774 AD – 835) the founder of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyo), wrote that the human being has two kind of ears; the kunitsutama-no-mimi, or ‘earthly soul ears’, and the amatsutama-no-mimi, or ‘heavenly soul ears’. According to the shintoist writer Tomokio Yoshizane there are ears ‘in the skin, the hair and the soles of the feet.’ In other words there are ears throughout the entire body, both material and non-material.

In the most ancient sacred texts of India, the Upanishads, it is written that cosmic sound is the origin of all creation. The entire universe is formed from this sound.

Sufis call the primal sound ʻsaute surmadʼ – the tone that fills the cosmos. ‘The knower of the mystery of sound knows the mystery of the universe’ (Hazrat Inayat Khan)

And if we look further afield, within the worlds of Hinduism, Taoism, Native American Indian rituals, Celtic rituals, Amazonian Indian rituals and others we find a common understanding that pure sound (as opposed to music) is a fundamental aspect of spiritual practice.

There is an ancient spiritual practice from Japan (pre-dating the era when Buddhism arrived in Japan), which also recognized the importance of sound to cleanse and purify the mind of impurities.  This is ‘The Way of Sound-Spirit’ (Otodama-ho) from Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. At the heart of this practice lies the act of ‘listening to a fixed steady sound with no fluctuation’. (see Appendix 2)

Within the world of yogic practices there is an ancient form of yoga called Naad Yoga – the Yoga of Sound. Yoga means ʻto yoke or joinʼ, the true aim of all yogic practice being to unite or merge the individual self with the greater Self,  and    to awaken to the true nature of our transcendental being. Naad Yoga teaches how to do this through sound, principally the chanting of mantras.

The sages of India and Tibet felt that if there is one sound audible to us mortals that comes close to the primal sound of the world, then it is the sound of the sacred mantra OM. But the function of chanting OM is not to ʻmake a nice soundʼ, it is to use sound as a bridge between the material and non-material worlds.  To penetrate the veil between life and death, between the mortal and immortal Self. To become one with the great silence.

OM signifies the point at which breath becomes sound and the sound dissolves back into silence. A silence which contains the emptiness from which breath, then sound, is born.

Nothing is so loud as silence. It contains everything …It is absolute emptiness, and absolute sound.

ʻForm is emptiness; emptiness is form.ʼ

Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya – Heart Sutra


Playing ro on the shakuhachi is a musical and spiritual practice. The sound of the shakuhachi comes from the edge of silence. Crossing boundaries of time, space, culture, and language to echo in the soul. Awakening a universal vibration of living, conscious spirit, concentrated in the essence of a single tone.

Play Ro as if your life depended upon it.
Play Ro to open the doors to the temple of your inner ear.
Play Ro to put wind in the sails of your journey on the ocean of existence.
Play Ro to stop floundering… to find the centre …
Play Ro to open the hand of thought …
Play Ro to feel your heart, without judgement …

Just play … listen to the bell ringing in the empty sky … and just play …

Become the Buddha within a single sound …

Playing the shakuhachi
One feels the unseen worlds
In all the universe
There is only this song

Ikkyū Sōjun (Crazy Cloud) 1394-1482.

Zen Buddhist monk and poet


Yokoyama Katsuya (1934 -2010)

The honkyoku represent an infinite source of wisdom to be tapped. The more you think and feel the depths of this music the more you realize your own depths and that of the universe.

I feel the pitch is very important but many people think they donʼt need to bother because ʻnaturalʼ pitch can be anything. However if you play with abstract/obscure/ ambiguous pitch, thinking it was like that in old times because the bamboo flute was a ʻrusticʼ instrument you will be playing on the surface of the music. Actually you need a deep inner feeling for the pitch which has to be just right. Like an intense need to know and express.

If you donʼt have a feeling of awe in your heart to this music, or if you donʼt question about the space beyond life and death, you will not be able to play meri-on. Ask yourself; why is the meri-on there ?

(meri-on is a specific shakuhachi technique of half-holing and lowering the angle of blowing into the flute, which produces a unique soft tone that is built into the melodic contours of honkyoku pieces)

If you donʼt feel and understand deep inside why it has to be like that, connected to the space of life and death, then you are just copying without understanding.

If you donʼt have sincere thoughts/understandings about life and death, your sound will be bland and insignificant. When you think seriously about life and death, that is the essence of honkyoku. If you donʼt try to understand and experience these things from the deepest source of your being you will never be able to play this music and your sound will remain as empty style.

You can give your whole life to honkyoku and feel it has great value as an ancient tradition, but this is not the reason to value it. It is because the living spirit is very deep and alive and needs to be contacted as a living thing inside yourself.

Many shakhachi players feel the repertoire to be as a holy scripture and they think to copy and learn will bring its own rewards, but actually you have to investigate inside your self very seriously as a fresh living entity. In this way the honkyoku is a way into something that will always come up fresh and new. The true depth of the music is far deeper than the pieces themselves. They are a way to penetrate inside something true in the depth of the being. It is not only something from the past, ancient, old things, it has to emerge from the bamboo as a living, breathing spirit.

APPENDIX 2: OTODAMA-HO – The Way of the Sound-Spirit

Tomokiyo Yoshizane (1888- 1952)

Tomokiyo Yoshizane was the founder of a Shinto-derived new religion called Shindō Tenkōkyo.  Shinto incorporates the worship of ancestors and nature spirits and a belief in the sacred power in both animate and inanimate things.

What follows is an edited selection of Yoshizane’s writings on the subject of Otodama-ho.

All of the worldʼs activity occurs because of the otodama or ‘sound-spirit’, and the entire existence of the world flows along with this sound-spirit. It flows out of the infinite past to the infinite future. The root of all spirit and all things is not so much the electron but an even more primordially fundamental and infinitesimal particle of spirit, which is at once ‘existence as it is’, and sound-spirit.

Because the cosmos is particularised by the sound-spirit, the whole of the cosmos is set in motion by the great gyration of the sound-spirit. In the cosmos, as time and as space, there is no place that does not have a voice for producing sound. Even when the human beingʼs earthly soul doesnʼt have ears to hear it, there exists a voice that the ears of his heavenly soul can hear. The cosmos is sound-spirit.

Science teaches that the instrument for the auditory sense is the ear. Anatomy gives us the complicated teaching that the ear is divided into the three parts of outer ear, inner ear, and middle ear and that the vibration of sound waves are conveyed to the inner ear through a viscous liquid where they stimulate the auditory nerves. In fact, there are also ears in the skin, in the hair, in the soles of the feet. For it is not at all the case that ears are only those things separated by the walls on either side of the forehead. In other words there are ears throughout the entire body. Because of this the auditory sense is not merely one of five senses but is something that could be called a fundamental sense, or a total-body sense.

By means of the sound-spirit, I purify and exorcise myself of the conditioning of the mind, impurities like dust on the spotless mirror of the Self. I purify others, I purify the family, I purify the nation, I purify heaven and earth, and I am one who purifies all things in the world.

So how is this otodama-ho, ‘the way of the sound-spirit’ carried out? It is as singularly simple as listening to ‘sound.’ It is nothing more than listening quietly to a fixed sound and becoming calm. Though I said it is listening to sound, it is not listening to something like music, it is listening to a fixed, steady sound with no fluctuations. The sound of a waterfall, the murmuring of a little stream, the sound of rain, the sound of waves, wind in a bamboo grove, anything is fine.

Simply sitting in the seiza posture and remaining there listening for about 30 minutes is enough, and there is nothing else necessary. Breathing is as normal. But, correct posture being crucial, it is necessary to sit straight, in a posture that allows the abdominal region to be filled with vitality. And because feeling is important, stand the face up straight so as not to incline the neck forward.

Two hours after eating is ideal time for this method of training and, if circumstances permit, 30 to 40 minutes at a time, three times per day is desirable.

Do not try to banish all thoughts or concerns from your mind. The overall purpose is to develop the ‘immediate spirit’, which is the essence of the human being and to achieve the state of seimei, or ‘pure and luminous being’. And that is connected to the acquisition and action of connected-ness to the Gods.

The ʻpurified heartʼ is gained by cleansing or exorcising the ʻpollution of sin.ʼ That this includes material kinds of sinful pollution like murder and various crimes is rather obvious. But beyond that it is also not limited to the gamut of diseased thoughts or phobias like hatred, discontent, conceit, or jealousy. There are also cases where things like the sensation of loving good and hating evil, or the feeling of grief when one reflects on why one cannot bring an end to oneʼs delusions can unknowingly constitute ʻsinful pollution.ʼ Still others could include a kind of high-minded compassion in the form of piling up hidden merit, the compassion to respect teachers and friends, the compassion to reflect modesty, to follow moral principles, the feelings of sadness at the decay of this world and anger at its depravity. These can all potentially become unknowing sources of sinful pollution.

The method for cleansing the sinful pollution that inevitably clings to human life in this way is misogi harai or ʻpurificatory cleansing.ʼ Ultimately, the most powerful practical method that performs this ʻpurificatory cleansingʼ is that of otodama-ho.

There is a strong connection also between otodama and laughter, as it was through the sound of laughter that the Heavenly Rock-Cave Door was opened and the darkness of the world was set loose and gave rise to light. The worldʼs darkness was transformfed into a world of luminosity by the activity of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-Omikami. It was the dance of Amenouzume, the Goddess of Dance that caused the Gods to laugh, and it was the power of this laughter that brought the Sun Goddess forth.

It is for the purpose of opening the Heavenly Rock-Cave Door within ourselves that we carry out prayer and divine art and otodama-ho.


Fuyo Suga no Sadaharu (1791 – 1871)

Someone asks me, “why do you play the shakuhachi?”
I answer “simply because I like it”.

Q. Then isn’t it a useless instrument?
A. It’s not useless. The shakuhachi is a Zen instrument. You can’t treat it thoughtlessly.

Q. Why is it a Zen instrument?
A. Nothing under the sun, past, present and future is without Zen taste. The shakuhachi is, above all, an instrument to train breathing with. It’s not like other sound instruments. What can it be but a Zen instrument? But, since the shakuhachi is beyond any logical reasoning, it is difficult to explain it to the worldlings.

Q. Although you say that the shakuhachi is beyond reason, you must have something basic you could explain.
A. If you transcend reason after a full use of it, that is the wonder beyond reason. It’s not only for the shakuhachi.

Q. Then, explain what you could, use reason first.
A. You talkative fellow. If I don’t argue, you will regard the shakuhachi as a useless instrument. So I will tell you one thing out of ten. Playing the shakuhachi is for the whole country in the broad sense and for oneself in the narrow sense.

Q. Why is it for oneself and the whole country.
A. If you don’t think to stay away from greed, you won’t complete mastering the shakuhachi. If you don’t concentrate on training your mind, you won’t attain it’s deep
mystery. When you stay away from greed and train your mind, then you will be upright and pure. Then it must be good for the whole country and for oneself.

Q. Does the shakuhachi have 12 tones?
A. The bamboo has at least one tone according to the length and width. It doesn’t have 12 tones. 12 tones exist in nature and in the human body. When a tone is in the tube a while, it is felt in the body. Then the sense of 12 tones comes out which is innate in the body. But some are quite sensitive to tone and others are not, depending on each individual. Insensitive persons won’t understand it even if taught. Sensitive persons understand it without being taught.

Q.The shakuhachi has 2 holes at each end, four in the front and one on the back. It has 7 nodes and is 1 shaku and 8 sun in length. Does each of these have a meaning?
A. The shakuhachi is a Zen instrument. It is one shaku eight sun in length so that it is called shakuhachi. If you examine each name you have to start referring to heaven and earth, Yin and Yang, which can’t be explained in a short time. It’s bothersome to know these names which are given in ways according to different people, you can’t be a good player if you know them, you can’t be a bad player if you don’t know them. I have never known about them. I am just thinking that it is an instrument to utter sounds when I blow.

Q. Some people count the finger holes 1,2 and so on form the bottom, and others count from the top. Which is correct?
A. Both can be approved. Both can be negated. To begin with, counting as 1 and 2 is devised by human beings, and so it is not bamboo’s nature. If you wish, count from the bottom or from the top. You could even start counting from the middle. I adopt the counting from the bottom since I have learned to count in that way. If you learn it yourself, you will understand it clearly as if you have awakened from a dream.
Many people play the shakuhachi for amusement, and there are few who study shakuhachi as a Zen instrument. I practice shakuhachi of Zen instrument, and therefore I don’t care about the number of finger holes and the length of shakuhachi.

Q. The root of the bamboo is used to make a shakuhachi, and the end for hitoyogiri. What are the differences between root and end?
A. The difference between root and end are big, but it’s not worth arguing. Human mind is so vast, as much as the heaven and earth. But you tie yourself up and are not free to move. You talk like a frog in the well. I cannot help laughing.

Q. When was the number of pieces fixed at 36?
A. 36 pieces must be 36 pieces.
36 pieces must be 18 pieces.
18 pieces must be 3 pieces. 3 pieces must be 1 piece.
1 piece must be no piece.
No piece must be breath.
Breath must be emptiness.
Consequently the number of pieces learnt should not be important to a good player.

Q. Do you play as written in the music?
A. Yes. But also no, to a great extent. For instance, you are a human being and me as well. There is no difference in that we have bodies, hair, viscera. But we are different. By this example try to think about the playing as written in the music and not as written.

Q. Then how do you define a skilled player and an expert?
A. A skilled player is one who can use the bamboo with life in it. The quality of a master is innate and has some mysterious quality about it which is beyond effort. But if you don’t study, you won’t get to the state of a master. A master has realised the music while dwelling in emptiness, he has become the bamboo and the bamboo has become him. The practice of realising things while dwelling in emptiness is beyond comprehension if you don’t actually do it.
If I compare myself with my mind, I will always be behind it.
My mind is also behind myself. It’s nothing to do with people, I just blow the bamboo.

The man putting the questions became silent and closed his mouth. I put the title “Self- Questioning” on the above sentences. Oh I feel so guilty in wasting paper and ink!