The Shakuhachi - Zen Flute

- Zen Flute's in photo by -
Monty H. Levenson
Tai Hei Shakuhachi Flutes

The Shakuhachi, or Zen flute, is the traditional Japanese bamboo flute. In the hands of a master, it produces the most extraordinary, subtle, sensual music - prized as being almost perfect for relaxation and meditation.

Any way you look at it, the shakuhachi or Zen flute is an extraordinary instrument. From the moment of its conception it is extraordinary. At daybreak in the dead of winter, a Japanese master craftsman sets out into the frozen bamboo groves in search of the perfect culm of bamboo. He might rummage through hundreds of acres before settling on a single stalk of yellow-green bamboo - as tall as a six storey building, yet with only one small section (typically 55 cm long) suitable for his instrument. Then, applying a combination of experience, intuition and a little good luck, he begins to craft his masterpiece ...

The Zen flute is possibly the simplest non-percussive instrument ever conceived. It has no keys or pads like a western flute, no reed like a clarinet or saxophone, no strings like a guitar or violin, no mechanisms inside like a piano or organ; it doesn't even have a mouthpiece like the recorder. It simply has five finger holes - fewer than the penny whistle or almost any other wind instrument - and one end cut to form an angled blowing edge. Despite this simple construction, the Zen flute (in the hands of a master musician) can produce an inconceivably broad range of musical sounds - from pure, flute-like notes, to tones that are every bit as complex and expressive as the human voice.

Being able to produce such complex and expressive music - as haunting and as enchanting as you will ever hear - from an instrument so basic.

The Zen flute came to Japan from China some time in the 8th century. At that time, the shakuhachi was constructed from the middle section of a bamboo culm. Around the 15th century in Japan, the instrument was adopted by a sect of Zen Buddhist monks - all of whom were samurai - as a tool of meditation. (They knew that the playing of it relaxed both mind and body, aiding their spiritual pursuits.)

It was during this period that the Zen flute began to be constructed from the spiked root section of the bamboo - as it is today - so the instrument could double as a particularly ferocious weapon. This probably explains the Zen flute's long association with the martial arts.

History's most revered instrument of peace and tranquillity once doubled as a weapon for samurai monks.

Unlike with other instruments, there are no child prodigies in the shakuhachi tradition. Not one. This is understandable, since the instrument is not only immensely difficult to excite, but also takes many years of dedicated training to attain a standard where you would perform.

The Zen flute is not like a recorder: it has no mouthpiece as such, and simply blowing in one end will not produce a sound. To play a note, your lips and mouth must become part of the instrument (how appropriate for an instrument known as the Zen flute!). And it is this "oneness" of instrument and player that permits so much flexibility in pitch, tone, colour, and loudness of playing.

Part of the discipline of mastering the Zen flute is learning to deal with the frustrations inherent in learning to play it. That is why much of its study is dedicated to "forging the mind-body" - developing the intuitive, spiritual side of the performer as much as the musicianship itself. Playing the shakuhachi in this context is called suizen, or "blowing Zen". To blow Zen, one requires great breath control; yet, after years of training and practice, the shakuhachi player strives not to try to control the breath at all. Instead the breath is observed. The player "watches" the breath with a concentration that consumes both the observer and that which is being observed - the player "becomes" the breathing.