Reviewed by Raymond Sosnowski, NH.
10 August 2000; 20 March 2001 (revised)
I had to think long and hard about writing and submitting a review on a subject as esoteric as suizen, the “blowing Zen” of this book’s title, given that the normal faire consists of books on martial arts, weapons and self-defense. However, I found three reasons: 1) it’s a form of Zen, 2) its middle history involves ronin (itinerant samurai), and 3) the concept of shugyo (austere training) plays a large role in training. It is a way to review our own training process without getting hung up on the art or the style of the art, that is, it is a metaphor.
Every once in a while, a book comes out of left field so to speak and smacks us “up side the head.” For only the second time after many years, this has happened to me; the first was Untying Knots: A Shintaido Chronicle by Dr. Michael Thompson (reviewed in Sosnowski, in press) early in 1999. In the spring of 2000, while looking for books and music by Philip Glass, and for the shakuhachi and didgeridoo/didjeridu (my tastes in music are considered to be rather eclectic), I came across this text. I do have several audio CD’s of shakuhachi music, which I enjoy on occasion, and had even toyed with the idea of buying one in 1996, and learning to play it.
The shakuhachi is a vertically held, end-blown, five-holed flute made from the root of a particular species of giant timber bamboo; the name “shakuhachi” is a corruption of its most common length, 1.8 shaku (11.93 inches = 1 shaku; this is the same measuring scale used for katana, shinken and iaito), although smaller (from 1.3) and larger instruments (to 2.4 commonly, but up to 3.2 in increments of 0.1) exist. It is the only musical instrument associated with Zen (meditation). Beginners use the standard 1.8 shaku instrument in the key of D; various fingerings allow the twelve tones of the Western chromatic scale to be played, as well as microtones, that is, tones in between standard [Western] tones. Learning to play the shakuhachi reminds me of trying to learning Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo: “It’s just a simple stick/flute,” and yet the nuances can keep one studying for many, many years.
The shakuhachi is associated with the Fuke sect of Buddhism in which suizen (“blowing meditation”) replaced the chanting of sutras in a thirteenth century revival. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, large numbers of ronin (“wave men,” that is, masterless samurai) joined the ranks of itinerant preachers called komuso (priests of emptiness/nothingness). Komuso wore tengai (large baskets) over their heads to symbolize detachment from the world – several sketches of komuso appear in Ratti & Westbrook (1973). The Shogunate granted them the right to play the shakuhachi and solicit alms with it. They were also given the freedom to travel at a time when travel was very tightly restricted; in return, many acted as spies for the Shogunate. Legend has it that since these ronin had to give up the daisho (the long and short samurai “swords”), the shakuhachi was redesigned from the root of the bamboo, making it longer and stouter for a weapon of self-defense as well as an instrument of enlightenment.
Sometimes, the best way to appreciate the trials of learning one or more arts is to have an example in a different context. The thread that seems to run through all the Japanese arts, martial and non-martial, is the aspect referred to as shugyo (Sosnowski, 2000), generally translated as “austere practice.” Blowing Zen is a testament to Ray Brooks’ shugyo. He is the most unlikely of people to even begin such an arduous journey. But this child of the 60’s, upon the realization that his existence is shallow and looking for “an authentic life,” leaves the familiarity of London for Tokyo, and through a series of somewhat amazing coincidences as his study becomes more consuming, finds himself studying with one of the premiere shakuhachi instructors. In the end, he masters a Japanese art that few Japanese have mastered.
There are a number of aspects of this book that personally appealed to me. First of all, we are about the same age; we belong to the same generation, coming of age in that turbulent period that was the late 60’s and early 70’s – I think that I can now finally understand my parents whose generation was profoundly shaped by the Great Depression and “the Big One,” WW-II. Secondly, various aspects of the autobiography strike a sympathetic chord within me. Coincidently, he starts his quest for shakuhachi mastery at about the same time I first put on a do-bak (the Korean equivalent of do-gi, the “white pajamas” of karate) to study Tae Kwon Do. Thirdly, we both experience the process unfolding, that is, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” And this happens more than once. Finally, the arts become an apparent obsession for the both of us. In the end, at least he is “famous,” albeit in shakuhachi circles; and myself, ..., well, I am certainly not famous doing what I do, and that’s not a big deal. In the end, we are both following our own paths (Chinese tao; Japanese michi [-do as a suffix]), which is as it should be.
Information on Ray Brooks can be found at www.raybrooks.com. Audio CD sources for Ray Brooks’ shakuhachi music can be found at www.newalbion.com, and at www.amazon.com for shakuhachi music in general. For the instrument itself, check out www.shakuhachi.com, the website of Monty H. Levenson, a California-based shakuhachi maker who wrote the “Forward” of Blowing Zen; he is another person who came of age in the late 60’s and early 70’s; Mr. Levenson is a staunch environmentalist, and began making shakuhachi about the time that Mr. Brooks began to learn to play and I began my martial arts training. The only introductory training, that I have come across, takes place at Zen Mountain Monastery, Mt.Tremper, NY, www.zen-mtn.org/zmm, which has had weekend retreat for suizen at least once a year; however, be aware that this is done in the context of a zazen, seated meditation, experience; take care to read the daily schedule carefully -- the first sitting is 4:55 AM, and lights out is at 9:30 PM(2).
Ratti, Oscar, and Westbrook, Adele
1973 Secrets of the Samurai: The Martial Arts of Feudal Japan, Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland, VT, 483 pp. (reprinted in 1999 by Castle Books, Edison, NJ.)
In press “Book Review: Untying Knots: A Shintaido Chronicle by Michael Thompson, 1996,” submitted to the Journal of Japanese Sword Arts and to EJMAS (Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences, http://ejmas.com).
2000 “What is Shugyo?” essay submitted to the Aikido Association of America to fulfill a requirement for promotion to the rank of shodan (first degree), dated 28 January 2000, 2 pp. Published as “Shugyo” in the Shodokan Dojo Newsletter, 2(5), May 2000, and available at www.shodokan.com.
(1) Originally submitted to the Journal of Japanese Sword Arts.
(2) I had been there for a five-day Kyudo (“way of the
[Japanese long] bow”) Intensive in September, 1999, and that particular
detail had escaped my notice before signing up; however, I suspect that
I would have gone anyway. One of my roommates during the intensive
was a serious practitioner of suizen, having been to ZMM on several occasions
for multi-day long retreats, which is how I found out about their suizen