Shakuhachi Komuso, Zen Buddhists priests, Former samurai

尺八虚無僧 Shakuhachi Komuso

The streets of cities and villages were accustomed to the sight of a Buddhist priest playing a bamboo flute with his head completely covered by a straw hat. This was the Komusō. Komusō were Zen Buddhists priests who wandered about Japan playing the Shakuhachi for both meditation and alms.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlybT_mfNNov

Komusō wore a woven straw hat which covered their head completely looking like an overturned basket or a certain kind of woven beehive. The concept was that by wearing such a hat they removed their ego. What the hat also did was remove their identity from prying eyes. Komusō was a popular disguise for spies and supposedly the deadly ninja.

The komusō was also used as a disguise by samurai, particularly ronin, and possibly also ninja, who were seldom members of the samurai class.[3]

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXDv6CdG0XQv

When the Tokugawa Shogunate came into power over a unified Japan at the beginning of the 17th Century, the komuso came under the government’s wary eyes. Many komusō had formerly been [samurai] during the Sengoku (Warring States) Period (16th Century) and were now lay clergy. The potential for trouble was there because many of them had turned ronin when their masters were defeated – most likely by the Shogunate and their allies.Komusō were granted the rare privilege of traveling through the country without hindrance.

During the medieval period, shakuhachi were most notable for their role in the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks, known as komusō (“priests of nothingness,” or “emptiness monks”), who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs (called “honkyoku”) were paced according to the players’ breathing and were considered meditation (suizen) as much as music.

Travel around Japan was restricted by the shogunate at this time, but the Fuke sect managed to wrangle an exemption from the Shogun, since their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms (one famous song reflects this mendicant tradition, “Hi fu mi, hachi gaeshi”, “One two three, pass the alms bowl”). They persuaded the Shogun to give them “exclusive rights” to play the instrument. In return, some were required to spy for the shogunate, and the Shogun sent several of his own spies out in the guise of Fuke monks as well. This was made easier by the wicker baskets that the Fuke wore over their heads, a symbol of their detachment from the world.

In response to these developments, several particularly difficult honkyoku pieces, e.g., Shika no tone, became well-known as “tests”: if you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn’t, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed if you were in unfriendly territory.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FboLa83-AA0v

With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the shogunate was abolished and so was the Fuke sect, in order to help identify and eliminate the shogun’s holdouts. The very playing of the shakuhachi was officially forbidden for a few years. Non-Fuke folk traditions did not suffer greatly from this, since the tunes could be played just as easily on another pentatonic instrument. However, the honkyoku repertoire was known exclusively to the Fuke sect and transmitted by repetition and practice, and much of it was lost, along with many important documents.

When the Meiji government did permit the playing of shakuhachi again, it was only as an accompanying instrument to the koto, shamisen, etc. It was not until later that honkyoku were allowed to be played publicly again as solo pieces.

References: Fuke sect – History of SHAKUHACHI, Wikipedia, 日本の伝統芸能講

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