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Komuso: Japanese Zen Priest
A chance encounter with a vision from Japan's past
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2008-05-08 03:44 (KST)   


A vision from the past - a komuso Zen priest.
©2008 D. Weber

While I was in Nagoya last month, I was walking to my temporary home for the night (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 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.
©2008 D. Weber

Centuries ago in old Japan people in 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 Buddhist 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."
©2008 D. Weber

Fuke Zen came to Japan in the 13th century. The priests 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.
©2008 D. Weber

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.
©2008 D. Weber

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.
©2008 D. Weber

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).
©2008 D. Weber

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.
©2008 D. Weber
©2008 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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