Komuso

by dairo tendo

two komuso

When Ch’an was transmitted to Japan the major school (Lin-ji) arrived first and evolved into the Rinzai school.  Dōgen brought the Caodong school to Japan which through his genius became a new school known as Sōtō.  In China Ch’an continued on and took on many of the the elements of Pure Land Buddhism.  Eventually there was another transmission of Ch’an to Japan based on this later Ch’an which in Japan became the Ōbaku school.  These would be the three largest zen sects in Japan all derived from Ch’an schools.  But there is a fourth school, the Fuke sect, that all mythology aside, was developed in Japan.

There is a lot of mythology around the Fuke sect, which the sect itself promoted from it’s earliest records. But details around the founding aside, it does seem that the basic outlines of the sect can be pretty easily determined.  The core feature of the Fuke-Shu is that their practice revolves around the playing of the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo end blown flute.  The instrument itself seemed to have come to Japan from China, but in a somewhat different form. Over the years it was developed in Japan into it’s own instrument, primarily by the Komuso, who were the “monks” of the Fuke sect.

There has been a tradition of wandering musicians in Japan and they often could be religiously affiliated. One group of these were known as the Komoso or “mat monks” who played a proto-shakuhachi and carried a rolled up mat with them to sleep on.  It was this group who started the basis of the religious aspects adopting Fuke (Puhua) from the Rinzai-roku (Lin-ji Yulu) as their patron.  I personally find this rather striking as Fuke is probably amongst the wildest and most idiosyncratic individuals in the Ch’an literature.  It seems very much like musicians to adopt such a figure.

Figures of Edo Japan sm

During the Edo period in Japan, the samurai went into decline and there were increasing numbers of masterless samurai (ronin) attempting to survive in an increasingly peaceful culture.  Becoming wandering mendicant musicians appealed to a number of them and thus the Fuke-Shu developed into a genuine religious sect. At this time it affiliated itself with the Rinzai sect and developed a set of structures for it’s adherents.  Ronin were required to turn in their swords and they would wander playing shakuhachi with their identities obscured by a basket they wore over their heads.  Alone in Japan they were granted the right to travel freely throughout the country.

The combination of anonymity and the ability to travel freely was rife for abuse and there are many legends of spies, assassins and corruption of myriad kinds.  However the Fuke-Shu seemed to become increasingly religious from it’s more spurious roots and they really developed into a serious practice. And this practice is very interesting and unique.  The sect was eventually disbanded by the government during the Meiji Restoration but in less than a decade the government was convinced to allow the shakuhachi to become a secular musical practice and much of the komuso repertoire was preserved.

It is this repertoire of music that is of primary interest to myself.  These pieces have come to be known as honkyoku which means original music.  That is the music originally composed for the instrument.  These pieces, though their origin is lost and there is much mythology surrounded them, served the same purpose as different chants in traditional zen practice. That is that there are pieces that you would use for various ceremonial purposes, that a zen monk would undertake.  Furthermore numerous pieces were played as zazen that is for the purposes of cultivating samadhi.  The breathing techniques, the singleminded concentration required and the unstructured flow of these pieces really facilitates this.  They may sound “meditative” to the listener at times (but some of these pieces, definitely do not!) but they functioned as meditation for the performer.  There were ceremonial pieces used for mendicancy or ceremonies, which could be thought of as a performance repertoire, but the pieces used for meditation were, like zazen, an individual practice.

Komuso Schematics

The komuso, in their formal, monk like attire and with the striking basket on their heads became a figure of popular legend in Japan. Sometimes thought of as scary, usually as mysterious, often with the veneration that clergy can be granted.  Their name translates as “monks of nothingness” and there is I think a very appealing romanticism to their striking anonymous images. There are many pictorial representations of the komuso in the Japanese arts, including photographs once that technology arrived on the island.

As I explore the honkyoku repertoire and the aspects of practice therein, it will be interesting to investigate it in terms of traditional Rinzai practice.  This will be an occasional focus of this blog over the upcoming years.  But learning these pieces is slow going — they are complicated and intricate and the shakuhachi has a very demanding technique, especially in the honkyoku tradition — so occasionally we will look at what we can find on the Fuke-shu and it’s traditions as well as publish images that I have collected of the komuso in Japanese artist representation.


A very good and succinct overview of what seems historically accurate about the komuso can be read on Jon Kypros Shakuhachi site here: Komuso shakuhachi monks of Japan.

The best text that I have encountered on a general history of the shakuhachi and it’s performances practices is:
Shakuhachi: Roots and Routes
by Henry Johnson
Brill Academic Pub; Lam edition, 2014
ISBN-10: 9004243399