The shakuhachi

Allen Nyoshin Steir playing the Shakuhachi

Japan's vertical bamboo flute, has a long, but mysterious history. Most authorities believe it is related to the Chinese ch'ih-p'a' first brought to Japan in the 4th century.  Many speculate that it is called the Shakuhachi because its length corresponds to one shaku, eight sunan in an ancient measurement system.

Buddhist monks are thought to have first played the instrument in the 15th century. In the 17th century, some of these monks became the Komuso, itinerant monks of the Fuke order of Zen Buddhism.

The monks of the Fuke sect were explorers in the world of sound through their repeated exercises with Kisoku (spiritual breath). Their aspiration to reach the level of ichi on jobutsu (absolute sound) - attainment of Buddhahood through a single note - became the important aspect of blowing Zen. These pieces of music are called Honkyoku.

Zen priest Ikkyu (1394-1481) wrote this Kyoushu poem about Tonami, an earlier priest:

"The incomparable Tonami
who roams the heavens and the earth
playing the shakuhachi;
one feels the unseen worlds.
In the universe there is only this song."

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