Blowing Bamboo Liner Notes

The shakuhachi is an end-blown Japanese bamboo flute with five holes. In the centuries after its arrival from China, the shakuhachi came to be played by peasants, court musicians and Buddhist monks. Zen monks and others, sensing that the sound of blowing through bamboo centered and balanced them spiritually and emotionally, gradually developed a repertoire of spiritual pieces for shakuhachi. Soon, their musical meditations acquired the status of a Zen discipline called Sui-Zen or "blowing Zen." The individual pieces, passed along in oral tradition for many centuries, were named honkyoku ("original" or "origin" tunes).

During the Edo period in Japan (1600-1868), a new, governmentally sanctioned Rinzai Zen school called the Fuké sect appeared. In traditional Buddhist fashion, Fuké monks often wandered from village to village, playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms. Since one important dimension of Buddhist enlightenment is the realization of the truth that transcends all forms, concepts and words, these monks called themselves komuso or 'monks of emptiness'.

When komuso monks played shakuhachi, they intended to let go of their conditioned thinking, their fears and worries, and their self-concern. With sincerity of heart, they dedicated each breath, each phrase and each honkyoku piece to the goal of becoming Buddha in a single note (Ichion Jo Butsu). In the Sui-Zen tradition, one plays honkyoku pieces, not for entertainment but for the realization of one's True Self as it manifests on the Buddha's way.

On this CD, Robert A. Jonas plays several versions of Sui-Zen pieces. Jonas has played honkyoku since 1991, having studied under shakuhachi masters David Duncavage, Yoshio Kurahashi sensei, Riley Lee, Ronnie Seldin, Marco Lienhard, and most recently, Michael Gould.

After working as a psychologist, Jonas enrolled at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology (WST) in 1987 to study the history of Christian spirituality, and to explore the relationship between Christian and Buddhist meditation. In his last class at WST, a seminar on the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, he heard the shakuhachi for the first time, played by the teaching assistant, David Duncavage. Many years before, Duncavage had discovered Sui-Zen while engaged in Buddhist-Christian dialogue as a Trappist monk. Like Duncavage, Jonas was immediately drawn to the shakuhachi, and began taking lessons with him and then with his teacher from Kyoto, Yoshio Kurahashi sensei.

Today, Jonas is director of a small contemplative Christian retreat center near Boston called The Empty Bell. He is an active member of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies. In the past, the Empty Bell has sponsored many Christian-Buddhist dialogues in the Northeastern U.S. As a Christian
musician, Jonas travels to Protestant, Catholic and Unitarian churches and retreat houses to play shakuhachi and to co-lead contemplative retreats with Buddhist teachers. In what must be a high point for any Sui-Zen player, in 1998 Jonas played shakuhachi (Jimbo Sanya) at a Buddhist-Christian retreat with the Dalai Lama, held beneath the Bodhi tree where Buddha was enlightened 2500 years ago.

Jonas has published several book reviews and contributed to anthologies of spirituality. He is author of Rebecca: A Father's Journey from Grief to Gratitude (Crossroad) and Henri Nouwen: Writings Selected with an Introduction by Robert A. Jonas (Orbis). He is currently working on a book about his travels with the shakuhachi.

While sincerely honoring the shakuhachi's Buddhist roots, Jonas plays the instrument from the heart of Christian prayer. Where Sui-Zen players may seek "to become Buddha in one sound", Christian shakuhachi players might, in each blowing breath, surrender into their identity as children of God, having the mind of Christ. For Buddhists, the sometimes messy musical overtones of Sui-Zen express the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, in which the opposites of order and chaos come together. For Christians, these same breathy overtonesmight remind us of the paradox of Holy Week, in which the ugliness and shame of Good Friday are held in tension with the blessing and beauty of the Resurrection. The silence between each honkyoku note invites Buddhists into the profound interdependence of emptiness and compassion. This same silence invites Christians into a state that the 5th century Christian mystic Pseudo-Dyonysius called "the dazzling darkness of God", the Creator God who transcends all labels, names, ideas and concepts.

Christian shakuhachi arises out of the mystical and contemplative tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers who retreated to the wilderness to find union with God as a Trinity of divine archetypal "Persons". The word "Person" here refers to an identity that transcends mere personality. When shakuhachi calls forth "emptiness", we step into the first "Person" of the Trinity, the Abba beyond our imagining. For Buddhists, this emptiness is called sunyata. For Christians it is the self-emptying or kenosis of Christ.

When shakuhachi calls forth the I-Thou relationship, we step into the second "Person" of the Trinity, God who manifests as a personal presence of beauty, goodness, love and mercy.In the dimension of the second person, the Christ, each note is a loving devotion.And when shakuhachi calls forth an experience of loving unity with others that simultaneously honors differences and diversity, we step into the third "Person" of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is true that when a Buddhist and a Christian play Kyo Rei, there is no difference except in language. But perhaps it is also true that there is a difference that goes deeper than language. Each shakuhachi player must explore these depths for himself or herself.

© Robert A. Jonas, Blowing Bamboo, 2001


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