Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

A Chance Encounter with a Komuso Zen Priest – A Vision from Japan’s Past

Komuso – Japanese Zen Priest
A chance encounter with a vision from Japan’s past 

 
A vision from the past – A Komuso Zen Priest

While I was in Nagoya last month, I was walking to my temporary home for the night (i.e. an internet cafe) when I encountered a vision out of Japan’s past – a Buddhist priest playing a Japanese flute known as a Shakuhachi.

The Shakuhachi player was dressed as a Komuso, a type of Zen Buddhist priest who once wandered throughout Old Japan playing their flutes for alms and meditation. Like some kind of ghost, the komuso just stood there playing his flute while people walked around the him practically ignoring him as he ignored them. It seemed a thing unreal.


Komuso used to play the Shakuhachi (Japanese Bamboo flute) for alms and meditation

Centuries ago in Old Japan the streets of cities and villages were accustomed to the sight of a Buddhist priest playing a bamboo flute with his head completely covered by a straw hat. This was the Komuso. Komuso were Zen Buddhists priests who wandered about Japan playing the Shakuhachi for both meditation and alms.

Komuso belonged to the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Fuke Zen comes from the teachings of Linji Yixuan, a Zen teacher from China in the 9th Century. Fuke however is the Japanese name for Pahua one of Linji’s peers and co-founders of his sect. Pahua would walk around ringing a bell to summon others to enlightenment. In Japan, it was thought the Shakuhachi could serve this purpose.


Komuso means “Priest of Nothingness”

Fuke Zen came to Japan in the 13th Century. The priest were known first as komoso which means “straw-mat monk.” Later they became known as Komuso which means “priest of nothingness” or “monk of emptiness.” Fuke Zen emphasized pilgrimage and so the sight of wandering Komuso was a familiar one in Old Japan.

Komuso practiced saizen which is meditation through blowing on the Shakuhachi as opposed to the sazen which is meditation through sitting as practiced by most Zen followers.


Komuso wore straw hats which hid their ego and their identity

The shakuhachi flute was the instrument used to achieve this desired state. Shakuhachi derives its name from its size. Shaku is an old unit of measure close to an American measurement of a foot. Hachi is eight which in this case represents the measurement of eight-tenths of a shaku. True Shakuhachi are made of bamboo and can be quite expensive going upwards to $5,000 in modern times.

Komuso wore a woven straw hat which covered their head completely looking like an overturned basket. The concept was that by wearing such a hat they removed their ego. What the hat also did was remove their identity from prying eyes. It’s no wonder that komuso was a popular disguise for spies and supposedly the deadly ninja.


Old and New Japan blending together

When the Tokugawa Shogunate came into power over a unified Japan at the beginning of the 17th Century, the komuso came under the government’s wary eyes. Many komuso had formerly been samurai during the Sengoku (Warring States) Period (16th Century) and were now lay clergy. The potential for trouble was there because many of them had turned ronin when their masters were defeated – most likely by the Shogunate and their allies.

The Shogunate instead of destroying this potential menace instead turned the komuso into a positive force, at least from their perspective. Therefore komuso were granted the rare privilege of traveling through the country without hindrance. The reason for this special permission was that many komuso had been co-opted into becoming spies for the Shogunate. And some were outright spies in komuso disguise.


Many Komuso were former samurai

Only true Komuso, though, could play the honkyoku which were musical pieces of such complexity that only those adept with the Shakuhachi could perform them. Sometimes komuso were asked to perform these pieces to see if they were true komuso or the Shogun’s spies in disguise. However, it mattered little as some of the true komuso were also on the Shogunate’s payroll.


Komuso could move freely throughout Old Japan unlike Ronin (masterless samurai)

In 1868 when power was relinquished by the Shogunate to the Emperor, the komuso bore a significant brunt of the animosity from Imperial forces. Komuso were so synonymous with spies for the Shogunate that the Komuso were utterly abolished in 1871 and even the playing of the shakuhachi as a solo instrument was prohibited for several years.

The komuso had meddled in the affairs of the secular world and ultimately paid the price for it. The practice of the Komuso did not die out entirely though and shakuhachi continues to be played for both entertainment and meditation.


Modern Komuso are faint echoes of their past

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May 8, 2008 - Posted by | Blogroll, buddhism, culture, flute, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, komuso, life, ninja, ronin, samurai, shakuhachi, spies, travel, zen | , , , ,

12 Comments »

  1. Wonderfull way to know the past and present all exist..at once
    Martial Arts Helping Others
    Karate USA

    Comment by mahokusa | May 9, 2008 | Reply

  2. […] Chance Encounter with Zen Priest […]

    Pingback by Zen Priest Playing Shakuhachi Flute » TravelBlog Archive » Roving Ronin Report | May 11, 2008 | Reply

  3. Awesome post, I love your blog site! Very informative ^_^

    Comment by shinseimori | July 12, 2008 | Reply

  4. Love this website! have read it before, but am reading it again…

    I am writing a novel…”The Kimono” and wondered what a 16th century priest would be addressed as.

    Thank you for this very informative site.

    Teela

    Comment by Jane | August 26, 2008 | Reply

  5. Just wanted to say that you have a great website!

    Comment by Ken | September 12, 2008 | Reply

  6. hello i would really like to know the name of the song you play in the komuso video on youtube..

    Comment by ismai | February 24, 2009 | Reply

  7. I have been digging around on the internet in my spare time exploring various aspects of shakuhachi. The music on your Komuso YouTube video is beautiful, and like posters above me, I would also like to know more about it. We know the music is not that of the Komuso in the video (which matters not). Could you please let us know the artist and the piece of the music?

    Comment by Erik Johnson | April 30, 2009 | Reply

  8. Hi I have the same request of Erik above. Could you please let us know the name of the artist and the piece of the music on your komuso video on you tube, the one playing on the street? thanks

    Comment by MATHEUS | May 11, 2009 | Reply

  9. Hi,

    Beautiful story in the blog and flute music in the youtube video. Kindly let me know the catalog with this stirring track.

    Many thanks.

    Comment by Don | March 15, 2010 | Reply

  10. :))

    Comment by terenzkarillion | May 27, 2010 | Reply

  11. Hey, I’d love to know where you got some of your info on the Komuso. They’re a bit of a hobby of mine! Stellar post, btw.

    Comment by Danny Boy | August 7, 2010 | Reply

  12. Komuso monks travel around without possessions http://www.japansugoi.com/wordpress/komuso-zen-monks-wearing-basket-heads/

    Comment by kely | September 21, 2010 | Reply


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