Shakuhachi - A Brilliant Tool for Meditation


The following essay is written for the forthcoming News Letter of the Australian Shakuhachi Society.

Shakuhachi - A Brilliant Tool for Meditation
My Childhood and Shakuhachi
  In 1949, four years after the Asia-Pacific War, I was born in a small country town in Echizen (Fukui Prefecture), not far from the large Zen temple, Eiheiji. Eiheiji is one of two head temples of Sōtō Zen, which was founded by Zen Master Dōgen in 1244. In my childhood during the 1950s it was quite normal to see small groups of trainee monks from the temple walking and begging for alms in the town. In winter, it was painful for a child like me to observe those monks walking on the cold snow with bare feet, wearing only a pair of zōri, straw sandals. Their toes were agonizingly red.
  Apart from those trainee monks, we also saw the occasional Komusō (mendicant priests of the Zen Fuke sect), standing in front of our homes playing shakuhachi. Up until the early 1960s, this was a common sight in many places in Japan. Unlike in earlier centuries, by this time the Komusō were always alone, never in a group. At the time, I didn’t think of them as Zen monks, rather as strange and somewhat scary (because of the straw hood) music entertainers. This was partly because, unlike trainee monks, they always received money, not food, as alms. Never did I imagine that I would learn to play classic (koten honkyoku) shakuhachi music that the Komusō played, although I always liked both Japanese and Western music. As a child, koten shakuhachi honkyoku seemed so remote and alien to my taste in music. Yet, I liked listening to taiko and fue (Japanese drum and flute), in particular as part of festival music. In fact, together with other children, I played taiko at local traditional festivals, and loved it.    

My Profession and Music
   By a quirk of fate, I came to Australia in 1979, and became a historian, specializing in war history and war crimes, in particular war atrocities committed by the Japanese and American military forces. People often ask me “What do you hope to achieve by revealing the painful and horrifying events like war crimes of the past?” My answer is “to master the past.” My father and his three brothers were all Japanese Imperial Army officers during the war, who were stationed in China. Fortunately all survived the war. I wanted to understand the wartime behavior of my father’s generation. This does not mean simply to comprehend the atrocities committed by the men of my father’s generation intellectually but also to exercise moral imagination. Moral imagination requires us to take responsibility for past wrongdoings and, at the same time, stimulates us to project our thoughts towards a more humane future through the creative examination of our past. This is what I mean by “master the past.”  
  I have been conducting research on this topic for almost 40 years. During those forty years I conducted numerous case studies on cannibalism; the slaughter and starvation of prisoners of war; the rape, enforced prostitution, and murder of noncombatants; biological warfare experiments; and indiscriminate bombing. I often had nightmares, in particular when I was writing a book and thinking intently about particular crime cases.
  When I was young, I managed to recover from such psychological trauma relatively easily simply by listening to my favorite classical music like that of J.S. Bach and Mozart. I also found that listening to shakuhachi music, in particular koten honkyoku offered healing. In the early 1990s, I also took shakuhachi lessons from Andrew MacGregor for a while, but it did not last long as I was busy teaching and conducting research. This also helped. However, as I grew older, it became harder to cope with the recurring nightmares.            
  When I was writing a book on military sexual violence against women in the late 1990s, I had nightmares almost every night. Each time it was basically the same frightening dream, where I found myself in a public place like a cafeteria, a train, or a lecture theatre, surrounded by people. I would suddenly realize that I was totally naked and had to run away and hide, being frightfully ashamed. I felt that I was in a psychologically vulnerable state. Fortunately, when I completed the book, the nightmares ceased.

Learning Shakuhachi for Joy
  In 2002 I moved to Hiroshima as I was offered a research professorship at the Hiroshima Peace Institute. There I started working on the next book on the history of indiscriminate aerial bombing. This time, I thought I should do something to preserve my mental stability before commencing the new book project. I joined a beginners’ shakuhachi class taking group lessons in Hiroshima. I enjoyed the lessons immensely and was determined that this time I would not give up learning this marvelous instrument. I met the Grand Master Mende Ryūzan, who lives and teaches koten honkyoku in Hiroshima and started taking lessons. He had a number of senior students who were roughly my age, so I felt comfortable in their company. Grand Master Mende was one of many students of the legendary Grand Master Yokoyama Katsuya; through Mende, I became familiar with the work of Yokoyama and his students, Grand Masters such as Furuya, Matama and Kakizakai.
  I retired from the Hiroshima Peace Institute in 2015 and returned to Melbourne. I now work as a freelance historian and continue to write and conduct lectures on war and war crimes. Here in Melbourne, Lindsay Dugan is my teacher, and I enjoy his lessons greatly. He has a vast knowledge of the shakuhachi and is an excellent teacher. Thanks to all these people of the Yokoyama School, I am free from psychological problems, and rarely have nightmares any longer. I am still not a good player, but I really enjoy the deep neiro tone of the shakuhachi, which works for me as meditation without sitting with eyes closed for a long time.    
Performance by Yokoyama Katsuya 
San An
Shika no Tōne by Yokoyama Katsuya with Aoki Reibo


  まさか、将来、その虚無僧が尺八で吹いていた(数百年も前から吹かれている)古典本曲に魅かれるなどとは、そのときは想像もしませんでした。私は子どもの頃から音楽は邦楽も西洋音楽も大好きでしたが、そのときは、尺八の古典本曲は、子どもの私にはひじょうに奇異な、馴染みのない音に思えました。しかし、邦楽、とりわけ太鼓や横笛は大好きで、町の神社の春秋のお祭りでは、子どもの太鼓や横笛のグループに入って街を練り歩くのが大好きでした。神社の前で大太鼓を打つ大人の勇壮な姿にはいつも感動して、「大きくなったら、あれをやってみたい!」などと思ったものです。そんなわけで、今でも私は、太鼓グループの「鼓童」や、オーストリアの太鼓グループ「TAIKOZ https://www.taikoz.com/ 」が大好きです。


鹿の遠音 山勝也+青木鈴慕