Accepted Paper:

Ichi on Jo´butsu: seeking the Buddha through a single tone  


Richard Chenhall (University of Melbourne)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines the ontological status of the shakuhachi (Japanese flute) within the contemporary shakuhachi community in Japan and overseas. While uncertainty and disquiet are part of the learning process, sonic practices connect players to each other and to an imagined past.

Paper long abstract:

The shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown flute made from bamboo. The shakuhachi became popular in Japan during the 13th century when it was associated with a Buddhist sect called Fuke. Replacing sutra chanting with sui zen (blowing zen), the sect went on to attract samurai who joined the itinerant preachers and became known as komuso (priests of emptiness). Wearing large baskets over their heads to symbolise their detachment from the world, the aim of the komuso was to obtain enlightenment through a single tone, ichi on jo´butsu. While the komouso have all but disappeared, what remains is an ensemble of traditional pieces called honkyoku. Recently, the shakuhachi has gone through a renaissance period with individuals learning and teaching honkyoku pieces around the globe. But what remains of the original concepts and how has this been reinvented in the contemporary era? This paper seeks to examine the ontological status of honkyoku pieces within the contemporary shakuhachi community both in Japan and overseas, drawing on fieldwork at lessons and international/national gatherings. Uncertainty and disquiet are at the heart of many novices experiences, given the contradiction between the sparse sonic qualities of honkyoku with the very difficult techniques required to play the instrument. Blowing Zen, however, places students and teachers in various relationships; to each other, to a broader community and to a body of knowledge that connects them to the past. It is this relationship that enables a specific form of agency, that is both individualistic and reproductive.

Panel W049
Sonic beings? The ontologies of musical agency