The Komusa Wandering Monks & their Shakuhachi flutes
February 24, 20123 min read
Arm Chair Travel
The Distance between point A and point B may be reduced by either one of them moving to the other.
Since it is not possible to move myself to all the points I’d like to explore, it is acceptable to bring the points closer to me through media that shatter the boundaries of human capabilities. And so I travel to places that I will most likely never visit (especially since some of these require time travel as well) through TV, through You tube and through photographs.
One chance exposure is all it takes for the journey to begin – and the mind travels to that place through a single thought. Until more inputs are available the travel is stalled but can be continued at any time – seamlessly.
And so began my journey to explore the Komusa monks of Japan.
Two years ago, I was selecting music for my photography website and in searching for soothing Buddhist music – I came upon the Shakuhachi flute. The sounds drew me in and are among the nicest I have heard. They maintain their presence, creating a positive aura in the atmosphere without intruding into my mind or distracting me from thinking.
In the end I did not use the music and that marked the end of that exposure.
Today I came upon a photograph on Facebook titled : The Komuso playing the Shakuhachi – the old sepia print scanned was not stunning photographically – but its content was stunning – it made me stop and look and come back again for a re-look.
Who were the Komusa? Why are they doing what they are doing – wearing baskets on their heads? Were these the original players of the beautiful Shakuhachi?
Living in the luxury of an information rich world – thanks to Larry Page and Sergey Brin – I had the answers within the next few minutes.
In the 13th century, a Buddhist monk from Japan went to China and learnt the doctrines of a branch of the Zen sect founded by Fuke-Zenji. There, he also learnt the art of playing the long flute – the Shakuhachi.
After he returned to Japan he traveled through the country preaching and playing the flute. One of his successors – Komu did the same and the name Komusa, became the generic name for the traveling monks with Shakuhachis
Their costume is as unique as their flute music – with bee-baskets or rice baskets made of reed, covering their faces completely.
But the most impressive aspect of the life of the monk wanderers is their philosophy : “Emptiness” or “Absence of Ego”.
This is taught by the Gita as well – the core text of Hindu philosophy. The similarity is not a surprise since Buddha himself came from the land of the Gita.
What is surprising to me though, is the breadth of geography that Buddhist philosophy conquered. From Bamiyan in Afghanistan to Japan the breadth of latitudes covered is impressive.
And much more so considering that conquest of minds occurred without the use of force : no holy wars, no declarations of ‘axis of evil’, no crusades. No force or aggression at all. It was a triumph of “thought” – not of “muscle”!
Coming back to the concept of “Absence of Ego” – I have tried it in an era when I was trying to explore spirituality over a decade ago. To follow this high philosophy took too much out of me, living in a world with attachments and among people who don’t do exactly the same. Following this philosophy alone – all by yourself when no one else around does it, is like becoming the pigeon in a world of hawks (this reference is well elucidated in ” The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins).
Anyway – coming back to the Komusa – the monks being pilgrims were allowed to roam freely without border restrictions in olden day Japan – a privilege that very few had. Seeing opportunity in this freedom, spies began to use the monk garb as a disguise and eventually this abuse led to a tarnished reputation for the Komusa.
A government ban on the practice of this sect of Fuke Zen led to its demise.
The flute music however has been preserved in its original form – thanks to an enlightened 18th century Komusa named Kinko Kurosawa and is presented here in the following youtube link:
Lone Shakuhachi players are still seen in the busy streets of large cities such as Nagoya & Vancouver. Whether they practice the doctrines I do not know but they certainly sow the seeds of curiosity amongst the passers-by about the Komusa – the wandering monks.