Kaoru Kakizakai: a modern Komuso (Zen Priest of Nothingness) plays Shakuhachi

Kaoru Kakizakai in Athens


I was blessed to attend a recital by Kaoru Kakizakai in the Onassis Cultural Center of Athens, Greece.

Kaoru Kakizakai is a master of shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute.

In the sections that follow I try to present the key aspects of the history and the tradition surrounding the shakuhachi, the profile of the master soloist, and some of the pieces he played in the concert.

But behind or above or beyond all of this, the revelation for me is that this instrument produces the sound of the soul.

So if you want to hear the sound of the soul (see also my article on Butoh Dance “Not thinking, only soul”), carry on reading.

Sui Zen: Blowing Meditation.


“Shaku-hachi” means “one shaku eight sun” (almost 55 centimeters), the standard length of a shakuhachi.

The bamboo flute first came to Japan from China during the 6th century. The shakuhachi proper, however, is quite distinct from its Chinese counterpart– the result of centuries of isolated evolution in Japan.

Sanzo Wada: The Komuso

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.

The primary genres of shakuhachi music are

  • honkyoku (traditional, solo),
  • sankyoku (ensemble, with koto and shamisen), and
  • shinkyoku (new music composed for shakuhachi and koto, commonly post-Meiji era compositions influenced by western music).

The Komuso

虚無僧 (komusō) means “priest of nothingness” or “monk of emptiness”


The komuso monk wore a straw basket on his head, the tengai. This denoted the absence of specific ego.

What the hat also did was remove their identity from prying eyes. That of a komusō was a popular disguise for spies, samurai, particularly ronin, and supposedly ninjas.

Fuke Zen (Fukeshu) comes from the teachings of Linji Yixuan, a Zen teacher from China in the 9th Century. Fuke however is the Japanese name for Puhua one of Linji’s peers and co-founders of his sect. Puhua would walk around ringing a bell to summon others to enlightenment. In Japan, it was thought the shakuhachi could serve this purpose.

Komuso print

Fuke started as early as 1254 by the priest Kakushin, who visited China and learnt there not only theology but music. Upon his return he wandered about Japan preaching and playing the flute.

Komusō practiced Suizen, which is meditation through the blowing of a shakuhachi, as opposed to Zazen, which is meditation through sitting as practiced by most Zen followers.

The Fuke sect of Zen was active during the Edo period 1600-1868.

The Meiji Emperor, moving from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868

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.

Kaoru Kakizakai

Kaoru Kakikazai

Kaoru Kakizakai studied under and recorded with Yokoyama Katsuya. He graduated from the NHK Traditional Music Conservatory and was a past winner of the Kumamoto All Japan Hogaku competition. Kakizakai has performed widely in Japan and abroad, including as shakuhachi soloist in Toru Takemitsu’s November Steps with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. As of 2006, he is a research fellow at the Tokyo College of Music. He is also full-time instructor for the International Shakuhachi Kenshukan and NHK Culture Centre, and President of the International Shakuhachi Kenshu-kan Chichibu School and Higashi Yamato School.  He is a member of the regular faculty of the Shakuhachi Summer Camp of the Rockies in Colorado (USA).

Kaoru Kakizakai in Athens

The program

I will refer to some of the pieces played by the soloist. The explanatory notes for the pieces are sourced from the excellent “komuso.com”, The International Shakuhachi Society.


The concert started with this traditional piece.

Empty Sky is the usual translation of Koku.

It fails, however, to convey the meaning of the original Chinese characters, which by definition, cannot be known by the rational mind of the ‘relative’. The second character of the word, ‘ku’ is easy; it means ‘sky’ or ‘air’. The first character ‘ko’ is not so easy. It refers to a concept that is in the realm of the Absolute and therefore cannot be explained or understood with words. Words, and indeed our thoughts, are of the world of the relative. For example, the word ’empty’ has no meaning apart from the word ‘full’. The work ‘ko’, on the other hand, does not mean merely ’empty’, because it is not the opposite of ‘full’; it is ‘that’ which has nothing to do with ‘fullness’.

Hokusai: The big wave



Daha / Pounding Wave is a prayer for the will power or determination to achieve one’s highest aspirations. There are times when strong, intense, and unyielding determinations, like the ocean waves pounding at the cliff face, is appropriate. Other times, gentle, patient and unceasing will power, like the quiet waves lapping at the base of the cliff, gives better results. This piece reflects both the Yin and the Yang of will power.

Pregnant women playing in summer heat (5 heads, 10 bodies) -- Utagawa Kunitoshi, 1881



Folklore has it that when the wife of a shakuhachi player became pregnant, he would pass grains of rice through his flute and play this song while cooking the rice for his spouse as an offering for safe birth. Some Buddhist sects believe that at a certain level one’s soul or spirit chooses one’s parents and karma determines the place and/or conditions into which one is reborn. This feeling of wanting to be born safely into the conditions and with the people one chooses is the attitude of prayer involved here.

Although many recognizable rhythms make this piece easy to play from memory, interspersed throughout are melodies full of strong passion. This is somewhat different than the image of honkyoku as serenely meditative. Meditative energy can, indeed, be very powerful and dynamic. This song is also the most technically demanding of all the dokyoku. Throwing a unique sound into the middle of a melody that is flowing along smoothly can be a real challenge. From a technical standpoint, linking up sounds that are quite diverse is the big difference between honkyoku that move along slowly and honkyoku that progress at a swifter pace.

A word of note: Yokoyama-sensei admitted that he played San An all four times his wife was pregnant, praying for a boy on each occasion! Playing this piece earnestly many times is undoubtedly how he came to master it. Nevertheless, one must recognize some inherent limitations when dealing with the gods as Mrs. Yokoyama gave birth to four daughters!

Kaoru Kakizakai in Athens



“Tamuke” literally means “hands folded together in prayer” and is a eulogy or requiem for the departed souls of loved ones. It is a melody that brings indescribable sorrow and stillness deep into the heart. Tamuke originated in the Fusai Temple in Ise, Wakayama Prefecture, a branch of the Kyoto Meian Temple. Let’s look at the image of a person sitting in prayer, facing. . . what? Facing the unknown. Someone special and dearly loved has crossed over to the other side. You are communicating with them, however, your mind faces “nothing”. You expect them to walk through the door any minute, but they do not. They have vanished from the face of the earth. The rational mind cannot deal with this very well. We sit in an attitude of respect for both the deceased and in the face of the unknown. When one goes through this “tearing away” that occurs when someone who is a part of your life dies, a wide range of emotions are experienced: pain, anger, fear, sadness, bewilderment, hope, expectation, helplessness, grief, and so on. Tamuke gives us a vehicle to express these deep feelings and a way to communicate with our loved ones.

In Japan, most homes have a Buddhist altar where one can sit and connect with those who have passed on from this world. Often there is a photograph of the deceased in front of the altar as well as some food or drink they enjoyed. One sits at the altar, burning incense and communicating in some form, usually by chanting a sutra, by talking or even in the silence of memories. This is wonderful because, in Japan, there is a place to make such contact in a most natural way.

A shakuhachi player can sit in this space before the altar playing Tamuke until the person in his or her heart appears. Time is not part of this world; one should naturally lose oneself in this process and several hours will pass in an instant. Play shakuhachi to express the emotions you experience at the gates of death. Play while remembering the things you experienced with this person, recalling their existence as if you are sharing old stories with them. Play until tears of sadness stream down your cheeks, then tears of happiness, as you feel their presence sitting next to you and the relief that they still have an existence, albeit in a different world.

The feeling of Tamuke is whatever you bring to it. Not just a sad effigy, but something very real as you play from your life experience. Do what is natural. Play happily if you feel like doing so; this is a private matter. Tamuke gives an opportunity to play from the core of your life. This skill cannot be taught, but only learned through “doing”.

Koson Ohara: Itsukushima torii with stone lantern and deer

Shika no Tone


“Shika No Tohne” describes a scene in deep autumn when the voice of the male deer calls for his female deer mates. And this type of descriptive scene has been used in poetic material since the time of the “Kokin Washu” (an ancient poetry anthology).

“Shika No Tohne” can be played as a solo piece, however, in a duet, the ending of one musical phrase overlaps into the beginning of another. This piece can be divided into five parts. After the introductory phrase of the whole piece, the first part is that which is played with the special “Mura-Iki” technique with the octave rising. Part two takes in part one, moreover, four individually characteristic melodies develop. Emotionally, part two is the climax of the entire piece. In the third section, the previous high feeling is succeeded and then every phrase intensifies. Then, to our surprise, the first melody re-appears abruptly. In part four, the melody proceeds calmly and the fifth part is brief, concluding the whole piece. In this concluding part, it is as if, rather than viewing deer, the focus is changed to that of the scenery deep in the mountains where the leaves on the trees have turned red and yellow. This is felt because the ending of “Shika No Toneh” is so calm.

Japanese bronze vase, early 20th century

Tsuru no Sugomori

Nesting of cranes


Tsuru no sugomori depicts various aspects of the life cycle of the crane, a bird symbolizing longevity in Oriental thought. A pair of cranes build a nest, lay an egg, raise a fledgling and rear it to maturity before bidding it farewell as it flies away and they are left to live out their allotted life span. Although the whole piece can be appreciated as a piece of absolute music, it is equally interesting to note the variety of programmatic playing techniques used in describing the wing flutters (trill-like fluttering effects, heard between 1:00 and 3:00 minutes), the cries (another trill-like technique, heard between 4:00 and 7:00), and even the fledgling’s departure from its parents (a simple melodic line heard at around 7:50). As a whole, this piece is thought to emphasize Buddhistic values of affection between family members.

Sanno Shinto Shrine, 800 meters from the hypocenter of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945

Kata Ashi Torii no Eizou

Composer: Toshinao Sato

If you climb up some stone steps in the Sakamoto machi (Nagasaki), you will find a torii gate (a two-legged arch at the entrance to Shinto shrines) with only one leg. I’m not certain what time it was exactly the first time I saw it, but I’ll never forget how I stood rooted to the spot, staring in utter amazement as I considered what brought about that empty space and the mechanics of the balance of the structure. In 1970 when I was asked by the famous Kohachiro Miyata to write an unaccompanied shakuhachi solo for him, the image of that torii gate somehow attached itself to that request. Looking back, it seems to have been a mysterious connection. Without a doubt, this one-legged torii gate was created by the atomic bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki. The anger and tragedy of those victims of long ago are enveloped in this music. – Toshinao Sato

Kaoru Kakizakai in Athens

Material sourced from:

1.Relevant  wikipedia articles

2. The Zen priests of nothingness, ABC Radio

3. The International Shakuhachi Society


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