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Meditation and Shakuhachi Honkyoku

   When I first began meditation forty years ago I used the mantra method, where a sacred vibration (word) or set of vibrations (words) would be chanted in one's thoughts with the breath, in order to free one's self from the thinking ego mind and come into a state of being which is blissful and free. In the method I used, a word was divided between two syllables into in-breath and out-breath and only a single word was matched to a breath, thus a phrase would have the number of breaths equal to the number of words. For example, breathing out Ahhh and breathing out UMmmmm (Aum or OM) is one traditional mantra and it can be theorized that splitting the syllables of Ahmen (breath out Ahhh and in Mmmennnn) is a more modern Christian version of the same mantra.

   The mind cannot stop activity any easier than one can stop breathing; both processes will arise, regardless of the strength of a person's will. Giving the mental process one task, just chanting the sacred vibrations, is an achievable activity, a vacation from the over active and dominating ego mind. Meditation is well documented to provide great physical, psychological, mental, and spiritual benefit to flow to a person. There are many music traditions where the composers are conscious of mantra; however, mantra is not primary to the tradition as a whole, nor incorporated into the teaching process.

   A person is a set of vibratory energies and if those vibrations are in harmony, the person will have good health and long life. Any sound or word cannot be used, the vibration of the sacred words of all traditions cause a person's vibratory structure to resonate in a sacred and healing way. Indeed, one can find ancient traditions where specific sounds were the prescription which the healer would provide to cure the sick. Likewise, sacred healing music modes exist in most ancient cultures and music has been associated with the healing arts in a direct and well formulated manner.

   I played the silver flute for forty years before finding the Shakuhachi and the Honkyoku tradition. From a musician's point of view the versatility and range of expression of the Shakuhachi compared to the note on / note off mode of the silver flute is vast. The great number of alternative fingerings for the same pitch yields a rich sound canvas which is beyond the western notion of having twelve notes, since the multiple timbres which a specific pitch can be played with becomes an equally important element of the Honkyoku music. Additionally, the ability to bend a note down or up frees one to explore all of the sound frequencies within the range of the instrument.

   As a meditator and person seeking spiritual refinement in my life, the Shakuhachi is an amazingly potent tool. It is a very difficult instrument to play and will test the patience and persistence of the practitioner. This is similar to meditation which is also a lifelong process of refinement. The Honkyoku tradition is the culmination of an age of monks playing the bamboo Shakuhachi flute. For the monks it was not about performing, it was about achieving enlightenment through the playing of sacred music. Although some monks would play for alms, it was about imparting the meditative and spiritual essence to those who listened. It can be theorized that a great deal of playing was also done as solo music in nature as they travelled.

   Honkyoku is a music which is intimately connected with nature. The listening to natural sounds and the mimicking of the sound, flow, or energy of natural sounds has been entwined with the development of Honkyoku. Playing in nature is something that the monks have done for many hundreds of years and has a great formative influence on the Honkyoku music. Being in nature and working with natural energies is also an ancient healing modality. From a shamanic point of view, it is the disconnection with nature, the natural cycles and the natural flow of time, which has led humans astray.

   Although archeological vertical edge blow flutes have been discovered at great ages, including the 40,000 year old bird bone flute from Germany, I personally believe Bamboo flutes are older, though no bamboo fossilized flute has ever been found. Bamboo represents impermanence; though some old flutes exist, all of the ancient ones have most likely returned to the Earth. Regardless of the true ancestry of vertical flutes, which we will most likely never know, the Shakuhachi touches a very ancient and deep chord which flows from the past into the present and is embraced and sustained in the living tradition of Honkyoku.

   The Shakuhachi is a tremendously versatile instrument. The Shakuhachi can be used to play traditional music, from lullabies and folk tunes to classical and jazz. These forms of music when played with absolute concentration and refinement allow a person to get in 'the flow' or 'the zone', but do not allow either the full expressiveness of the Shakuhachi, nor the meditative quality to be fully embodied. Honkyoku is more than a style or genre of music; it is a highly evolved spiritual practice of sacred vibration. Other traditions, such as the Indian Raga system and many others, are also spiritual disciplines; however, Honkyoku honors the long deep in-breath and the related silence which most music is missing.

   The long in-breath can be accompanied by a mantra, though the mind is easily able to be still during this part of the music, which is an essence of meditation. The breath tends to be a subconscious activity and being conscious of and embracing a deep in-breath is an art which is very meditative. I would assume that if a violin player would learn to play a Honkyoku piece and time their breath with their playing, they would experience the meditative quality of Honkyoku in a similar manner to how a Shakuhachi player feels it. There is an additional aspect when actually playing the Shakuhachi, in that we put our breath into the flute and feel where it is in the flute. Our breath then extends outward as the sound. This dissolves the notion of individual boundary and binds one deeply with the instrument and the sound.

   The breath and the silence are distinctive elements which make Honkyoku a meditative practice. Besides playing the Shakuhachi Honkyoku, I spend a lot of time listening to it: sometimes as background music when I am on the computer, such as while writing this, other times just listening. The effect on the listener is also meditative. Honkyoku music has the unique quality that makes it hard for the ego mind to bind to and therefore makes it ideal for accompanying other creative activity. Playing some of the pieces will put an entire audience into a very relaxed trance state of meditation.

   Honkyoku has the quality that it does not follow the verse - chorus repetitious pattern of pop music. The manners in which rhythmic and melodic motifs are developed are not linear or spiral, as in classical and jazz music, but rather fractal and only abstractly cyclic. Honkyoku pieces do not seek climax and resolution unless they are mirroring a natural process which has that nature. Some pieces end in such a manner that they are back at the beginning and can just go on like natural processes, rather than resolving in a final and clear end point. There is a quality which does not allow the mind to embrace the anticipation of where the piece is going. Since the mind is not expecting where the flow will go, the listener must become present in the moment with the music. Becoming present in the ever-changing instant of reality is an aspect of meditation. The wisdom of these stylistic points is deeply embedded in the contemplation and reflection of life as a mystical and spiritual experience.

Copyright 2014-09-30 Ron Bracale All Rights Reserved

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