A flute, a tool for meditation, and a formidable weapon created in Edo Period Japan by samurai monks called komuso (priests of nothingness), the shakuhachi is an awesome instrument.
About a year ago I posted about the connections between music, dance, and martial arts, and I posted a picture of a dongxiao flute I bought while on vacation in Taiwan. I mentioned that the dongxiao was solid, and about the length of a kali stick. My first thought when I picked it up in the music store was…wow…this is a weapon. I mistakenly assumed it was a flute that had originated in China, based on the name and where I bought it. However, it turns out that the type of flute I bought was brought to Taiwan by Japan during the 50 year Japanese occupation of Taiwan.
The bamboo flute migrated from China to Japan more than a thousand years ago, but the shakuhachi is substantially different from those first flutes. The bamboo flute was used by Japanese Buddhist monks of the Fuke Sect as a tool for meditation, suizen or “blowing zen”. But during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), significant numbers of samurai found themselves without masters, ronin, and decided to become monks. They called themselves komuso, priests of nothingness. These ronin would often sell their swords in order to pay the fee to become a komuso monk, and would wander the country playing their flutes for money. Having no swords, the komuso changed the design of the bamboo flute to make it double as a weapon, cutting it from the root end of bamboo instead of from a thinner and weaker section. This led to a dense, solid, and heavy flute with an end that resembles a mace.
The shakuhachi is three tools in one: a beautiful flute, a meditation device, and a weapon. It’s also extremely portable and can legally be carried anywhere. For a martial artist, it doesn’t get much better than that.
The traditional shakuhachi only has 5 finger holes, four on the “top” and one on the “bottom” for the thumb. Although skilled players can play any tones by using a variety of methods (partial hole coverings, head movements, etc.), the standard notes are on the minor pentatonic scale. One great thing about the pentatonic scale is that it doesn’t matter what order you play the notes in. It sounds very nice regardless. It may take a great deal of time and effort to become skilled at playing traditional Japanese repertoire on the shakuhachi, but if you can play just the basic pitches in the lower octave, you can play/improvise simple but relatively beautiful music with a little practice. I highly recommend it.
If you’d like to go beyond just messing around on it, there are teachers who can teach you to play the original komuso pieces, called honkyoku. I’ve recently started taking private lessons via Skype with Jon Kypros, and I would recommend lessons with him. For buying a shakuhachi, Jon makes very high quality flutes that are relatively expensive, although no more expensive than other makers of professional quality flutes. But you can get cheaper starter shakuhachi too.
I bought mine (pictured above and below) from this site. The site isn’t completely finished, and it may not look very trustworthy, but I’ve emailed with the owner, Benjamin Yen, and have actually ordered two flutes from him. He ships the same day you order, and is easy to communicate with. Benjamin’s flutes are made in Taiwan, from Taiwanese bamboo, which seems to be substantially less expensive than Japanese madake bamboo. I’m not qualified to comment on how high the quality of Benjamin’s shakuhachi are compared to a professional grade flute, but they seem very nice to me for an entry level shakuhachi, and they certainly do make great weapons! Here’s a picture of the root end (it’s solid!):
How can you use the shakuhachi as a weapon? The material on my stick/sword page would be a great start, but you should probably focus on the entries listed on my 4 Step Matrix page as working for swords/blades. It would be better not to use it as a “stick”, to minimize the chance of it getting damaged. I’m about to start on my second book, on weapon use and defense, and in that book I’ll go into far more detail, applicable to the shakuhachi.
Update: I’ve done a second post on this subject if you’re interested: Kitahara Seika Shakuhachi
As for the sound, I’ll end this with a video of a traditional honkyoku (not played by me):
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