The mindful practice of Japanese flute (shakuhachi)

Hike and recital

Last weekend my family and I went hiking to Masui Mountain, near Himeji city. I wanted to do some exercise and visit the Buddhist temple on top of the mountain. The day was extremely hot, but not any different from these last summer weeks, so we decided to climb anyway.

When we reached the temple, we were alone. We took our shoes off and entered the old building of the temple. After seeing the interior, we sat on the stairs, resting before continuing our walk. From a house next to the temple some people passed in front of us. Some started to talk to us. They had just finished their monthly practice of traditional Japanese musical instruments. Two of them were Horagai players. The Horagai are large conch shells which can produce three or five different notes and are used in Buddhist and Shugendo ceremonies. The Horagai players offered us a demonstration. In a ceremonial manner, they stood facing the temple, recited a short prayer and played some tunes. If you are interested in the sound of the Horagai, see this video in which the Yamabushi play it.


A Yamabushi playing the Horagai
A Yamabushi playing the Horagai


After that, the Horagai players asked another man to play for us. This old man took out of his bag a bamboo flute. He entered the building of the temple, knelt in front of the altar and for about 5 minutes played a tune for us. The humbleness and reverence shown by the man, the nice melody of the flute, the sounds of the birds and the cicadas on the background came together in a very special moment. After the improvised recital, the old man mentioned that in old times playing this kind of flute, known as Shakuhachi, was for some people, a form of prayer.

Shakuhachi flute

After some research I found that, between 17th and the end of 19th centuries, Zen monks of the Fuke sect used the Shakuhachi as a tool for meditation.

Some believe that the shakuhachi was introduced into Japan from China during the Nara period (710–794). The earliest extant examples of the shakuhachi today were used in the ceremony performed for the consecration of the Great Buddha of Tōdaiji temple in 752.

The name shakuhachi means “1.8 shaku”, referring to units of measurement used in China. The length of a Shaku (尺) is 30.3 centimeters, subdivided in ten subunits. Hachi (八) refers to eight tenths of a shaku.


The Komusō monks

During the early seventeenth century, a loose fraternity of itinerant shakuhachi playing beggars converted into a recognized subsect of Rinzai Zen, the Fuke sect. A decree enacted in 1614 by the Tokugawa government served as the legal basis for the establishment of the Fuke sect, which only admitted men of the samurai class and rōnin (samurais without a master). The monks of the Fuke sect were known as Komusō: monks of nothingness.

The komusō received special privileges by the government, which included monopoly rights over the use of the shakuhachi and travel passes that allowed them to go to any part of Japan. According to the rules of the sect, the shakuhachi was to be used exclusively as a sacred instrument, for spiritual training and for religious mendicancy. Komusō wore a tengai (天蓋), a woven straw hat which completely covered their head like an overturned basket. The Tengai was a symbol that the practice of Shakuhachi pursued the dissolution of the ego (self), as a form of categorical thinking that needed to be suppressed in order to transcend dualism and reach enlightenment.

The practice of the shakuhachi as a religious tool ceased after the Fuke sect was banned in 1871 by the Meiji government (1868–1912). Some people suggest that political links between the sect and the Tokuwaga government motivated the dissolution of the sect during the early years of the Meiji government. Also, it appears that by the end of the Tokugawa period the sect was already showing signs of corruption and decay. In addition, by that time, the practice of the shakuhachi had started to become increasingly a secular activity. Although the shakuhashi found a permanent place in Japanese musical tradition, the spiritual practice of the shakuhachi never again had the position it once achieved in Japan’s past. However, a renovated interest in the shakuhachi meditative practice has emerged in the Western world. 


Suizen (,  blowing Zen)


Shakuhachi playing as meditation is referred as suizen, often as a counterpart to zazen (sitting meditation of Zen) and mantra chanting in traditional Zen Buddhism. Music pieces written for the shakuhachi suizen were usually solo compositions.

The academic Wong Wah-Sang offers an explanation of suizen:

“The mind of the player focuses on the manipulation of breath to produce the sound. The breath producing the sound in turn allows the mind to function to contemplate on the music. The practice starts with mutual dependency of mind and breath, up until one is totally absorbed in the music without self-identity. Then it is the interpenetration of mind and breath. The consciousness of awareness to hear and play the music, producing the mental state of consciousness, is thus transformed into non-dual awareness of wisdom, producing the mental state of wisdom which is a natural manifestation of the mind itself. So this is what is called, “to see the truth in his mind’s eye”. It is a state of non-dualism for the mind and breath. Similar technique of meditation practice also appears in the Nyingmaschool, with contemplation on breath and visualization”.

I find very interesting the reflections of contemporary practioner Kiku Day about the practice of suizen:

“In my experience, performing mindfulness meditation while playing the shakuhachi is no easy task. One of the reasons for the difficulties a player encounters in attempting to do so is the lack of guidance; the experience gained by the komusō monks under some two centuries and more has now faded into oblivion”.

“I am not convinced that meditation naturally appeals to musicians and listening to music itself is mindfulness meditation. I believe it is not an easy task to apply meditation to music playing and that it requires as arduous training as any sitting meditation form. I find that people, myself included, are confused by the notions of concentration, flow, and meditation. They overlap, and they are not mutually exclusive; however, I do not perceive them to be the synonyms for the same phenomenon.”

“According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a mental state of complete immersion in an  activity in which concentration is focused on a challenge suitable to the person’s skills. It gives the protagonist a loss of reflective self-consciousness and a distorted temporal but rewarding and positive experience (Csíkszentmihályi 1990). The largest discrepancy between flow and meditation for this project lies in the complete immersion in an activity and the loss of reflective self-consciousness. Due to my training in mindfulness meditation, I find this experience to be lacking the aspect of witnessing awareness required for it to be called ‘meditation’. Although it is clear from the description above that I was aware of the flow, I was nonetheless not conscious my own awareness. I am immersed in the awareness, which itself is blind for me. Thus the total immersion and thereby self-forgetfulness and the awareness of being aware are the key aspects of the difference between the two. However, I do find flow, as described above – to be necessary – if not sufficient – for meditation when playing. The deep immersion and focus is the concentration part of the meditation – the next step for me was to practice letting go of the immersion into what I was doing and adding the witness function.”

There is a worldwide interest in mediation for health purposes. It is usually inspired in traditional Buddhist seated meditation. Some benefits of the meditation technique appear to be related with the resulting relaxation. I have argued that there are other activities that produce flow states that are equally relaxing, rewarding and beneficial. As far as I understand, Buddhist meditation is a qualitatively different state that puts the experience of being in a different dimension. To reach this level of meditation a dedicated and sustained practice is required.



Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

James H. Sanford. (1977). Shakuhachi Zen. The Fukeshu and Komuso. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Winter, 1977), pp. 411-440

Kiku Day. (2014). Mindful playing, mindful practice: The shakuhachi as a modern meditation tool. An assignment submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Mindfulness Instructor Course at Skolen for Anvendt Meditation.

Max Deeg. (2007). Komusō and “Shakuhachi-Zen”. From Historical Legitimation to the Spiritualisation of a Buddhist denomination in the Edo Period. Japanese Religions, Vol. 32 (1 & 2): 7-38

WONG Wah-Sang. (2014). The Music of Buddha Nature – Blowing Zen on the Shakuhachi. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Vol. 4, No. 8; June 2014.




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