The shakuhachi is a flute created in Edo Period Japan by ex-samurai Zen monks called komuso, "priests of nothingness". Playing the shakuhachi was the primary form of spiritual practice for the komuso. The shakuhachi evolved from the Chinese bamboo flute, imported to Japan to be used in Imperial Court music, and eventually modified by the komuso to be made from the strong and dense root end of bamboo rather than the weaker and thinner middle, making it possible to double as a weapon. The komuso formed the Fuke Sect of Zen Buddhism.
Today a great variety of music is played on the shakuhachi, from jazz and other modern music to Japanese folk songs. But the shakuhachi was created specifically to play one kind of music, honkyoku, the original Zen pieces composed as exercises for meditation. This practice of playing honkyoku for meditation is called suizen, "blowing Zen".
The word Zen can be roughly translated as "meditation", and the best short description I have for meditation, having practiced it for more than 20 years, is "an exercise for clearing the mind". Our default mental state as humans is one of incessant chatter, whether we realize it or not, and our minds are clouded and constrained by a combination of this chatter and our sense of self, of who we think we are based on both our past and how that leads us to see our future. This natural state of mind produces negativity and stress, decreases our ability and performance, and limits our freedom of thought and expression. Meditation silences the chatter and breaks down the walls that are our conception of self. With practice it opens the mind and allows us to see and experience as clearly as is humanly possible, to be as free as we possibly can, minimizing stress and maximizing performance and expression.
Playing honkyoku on the shakuhachi for the purpose of suizen or "blowing meditation" is very close to the practice of zazen or "sitting meditation". Honkyoku music is written so that each phrase takes one full breath, and there are moments of silence between each breath or phrase. The initial focus on breathing and being fully in the present moment is the same in zazen and suizen.
To become proficient at any form of meditation is not easy. Silencing the mind and breaking down the barriers of self takes practice. And although more difficult than zazen or "mindfulness meditation" due to the added difficulty of doing something simultaneously, practicing with the shakuhachi is uniquely rewarding.
This is a video of myself playing one of my favorite honkyoku, the Jin Nyodo version of Kyorei, on a 2.4 length flute made by Gyokusui III:
Although honkyoku music, like any music, is composed of phrases that are made up of a series of tones, it is not music in the traditional sense. There is no rhythm in honkyoku, only the flowing of the breath through the shakuhachi. Honkyoku music also lacks melody in the traditional sense. There are repeating phrases in many pieces, but the character is different. In my view, although honkyoku music can be enjoyable and relaxing to listen to, it is meant to be played. You can find out more on my honkyoku music page.
Playing the shakuhachi for the purpose of suizen or "blowing meditation" is different from playing for other purposes. What you play, how you play, and the mental state you work towards is different. The shakuhachi is a versatile instrument that sounds beautiful and works very well for many types of music, but my primary interest in playing it is in what it was created for, a meditation or mind clearing instrument. For more, see my page on suizen.
If you'd like to see pictures of different shakuhachi, of various types and makers, see my Shakuhachi Gallery page.
Buying a Shakuhachi & Taking Lessons
The original shakuhachi was identical to what you see in the image at the top of this page, a once piece bamboo flute made from the root end of a piece of bamboo. The length of the flute varied, but the standard was around 54.5cm and in the key of D. The word shakuhachi refers to this length, what is known as a 1.8, or one shaku eight sun. Hachi is the word for eight in Japanese, thus shaku-hachi refers to one shaku and eight sun. However, the shakuhachi can be made both shorter and longer, and they are referred to by their size, a 1.6 shakuhachi, a 1.8 shakuhachi, a 2.0 shakuhahi, and so on. The shorter the flute, the higher the pitch. Here is a nice size and pitch chart. Although the standard 1.8 is the most common size to learn on, and most teachers will prefer you to have a 1.8 for lessons, my preference is for longer flutes. I find them easier to play and I prefer the lower/deeper tones.
Here is a 1.6 two piece flute of mine made by Kitahara II:
Today shakuhachi are most often made with a joint in the middle, as in the picture above, so they can be broken into two pieces. This makes them easier to transport, and they are easier for the maker to make due to having better access to the middle of the bore. However, the joint in the middle makes the flute more prone to crack with humidity and temperature changes, and is vulnerable to wearing out over time. It also makes them nearly useless as a weapon, which was one of the original purposes of the shakuhachi. My preference is for the original one-piece design.
There are shakuhachi makers in many countries around the world, not only in Japan, that make terrific flutes. Prices range from about $100 to many thousands of US dollars. While the shakuhachi looks like a very simple instrument, and in some regards it is, making one that is able to play honkyoku music properly is a skill that takes a great deal of knowledge, dedication, and time. A high quality traditional root end shakuhachi is likely to cost more than $1,000 both in and outside of Japan. There are non-root end alternatives however, that play and sound beautifully. For places to buy a shakuhachi, see my shakuhachi resources page.
My primary shakuhachi teacher is Jon Kypros, who offers lessons worldwide via Skype. I highly recommend him as a teacher. I have also studied with Yodo Kurahashi in Kyoto, and also highly recommend him if you are in Kyoto or able to attend one of his seminars.
The shakuhachi is not a well known instrument in the west, and unfortunately there aren't that many websites that cover it in English. But there are several good ones. For links to shakuhachi makers, informative websites, papers, and more, see my Shakuhachi Resources page.