Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin
Blowing Meditation

A master of the shakuhachi, the Zen bamboo flute, explains how deep listening can spark awareness and relieve suffering

I have been playing the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) for over 26 years. I had the privilege of studying with Yodo Kurahashi (a great Japanese shakuhachi master), who not only taught me to play, but to play with ha-ha gokoro, "a mother's heart." This attitude of selflessness and nurturing is a part of a the great heritage of Zen Buddhism. The day I began to study the instrument, I was absolutely entranced, and I still am.

In many ways, I am a modern-day komuso. The komuso were itinerant, mendicant priests of the Fuke-Shu sect of Zen Buddhism who wandered Japan during the Edo period (1600-1868). These priests were samurai who had lost their masters, and they would take the problems and illnesses of people upon themselves by playing a certain kind of shakuhachi music called Sui-Zen. The ko in komuso means "emptiness" or "nothingness," so the komuso were quite literally priests of the emptiness. The would wear tengai, a kind of woven basket, on their heads, hiding their faces. This was for anonymity, to suppress the ego. As selfless, empty vessels, other people's problems could be "poured" into them. When someone needed a komuso to play for healing, the patient would see only a flute extending from the bottom of the basket, not a person.

The komuso wandered the breadth of the countryside. Many government agents disguised themselves as komuso, since one could travel about in complete anonymity and gather information. I even know a short piece that was supposed to be played by one komuso greeting another. If the second komuso did not respond, the first would know that the other was probably a spy. When the government changed, in order to eliminate the spy network, the Fuke sect was abolished and all its temples abandoned. It was only by good fortune that the repertoire of the Zen shakuhachi survived.

The idea of shakuhachi is to become one with the music so that you experience no other distractions, worries, problems, illnesses, or stresses

Zen literally means "meditation." The shakuhachi is the only melodic instrument used for meditation (as opposed to gongs, bells, and drum beats). When you simply sit in meditation, it's called zazen, or sitting meditation, and when you play shakuhachi to meditate, it's called suizen, or "blowing" meditation. The idea of this Zen art is to become one with the music so that you experience no other distractions, worries, problems, illnesses, or stresses.

Meditation has only recently been accepted by Western science as a way to control stress and pain, regulate blood pressure, and address problems related to the immune system. It has been shown to effect changes in the autonomic nervous system, which until recently was thought to be beyond conscious control. Many of my recordings touch upon this healing aspect of the repertoire, but in this recording the healing side of the shakuhachi is explored to its fullest extent.

The shakuhachi has existed in Japan for 1,200 years. At first it was used to play court music, or gagaku. The kind of shakuhachi music I play here is honkyoku, or music that is played for one's own enlightenment and that is an outgrowth of Zen Buddhism. The word honkyoku refers to "origin," hon. And origin, in this case, means the place inside yourself that is the origin of your being or the origin of the truth. Part of the purpose of this music is to promote unity between what is within you and your outward manifestation.

You can play shakuhachi music in the background of your daily life to create a peaceful environment. But to get the full benefit of this music, it is best to find a place where you have few distractions and where you can relax.

The music is designed to bring you to a state of balance. If you concentrate on it and allow it to become the center of your thought, you will become remarkably calm. Imagine that you are on a wonderful journey, walking through countryside you have never seen before. Try to appreciate every sound and silence as if it were a waterfall or a bird in flight or wind in a field of flowers. You are encountering it and not expecting to experience it again. Allow yourself to be delighted with it, to be struck by its beauty for the first (and last) time. This is hearing music in the Now. Listen for how a note begins and how it ends. Listen also for the space between sounds, called the ma, which means "space" or "emptiness." Listen for all the various textures in which the notes are played. The same notes can sound totally different depending on the tone, the way the note begins, what happens to it while it is sounding, how it ends, and the space in between. That is the aesthetic, and part of the Zen experience.

Try to breathe along with the music. Imagine that the flute is an extension of your breath, which is the most intimate part of you. Focus on the flute as if you were playing with it, making the breath that activates the note. The breathing is from the hara, the area two inches below the navel, which is considered the center of the body in many cultures.

Remember that breathing itself is linked to healing. Lamaze classes teach a "cleansing breath," and in yoga the first step of practice is regulating the breath. Your life begins with breath and ends with your last breath.

The beginnings of many of the honkyoku pieces start with a few phrases in a low octave and are quite brief. As one enters more deeply into the blowing meditation, the phrases get longer and longer. Let them pull you into the meditative state; they are designed to do that, as it is the breathing exercise aspect of the music.

Both player and listeners can enter into a trance state through this music. My teacher used to say that if you are playing for a lot of people, just choose one person and play to their kokoro, their heart. On this recording, I am playing to your kokoro.

Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin
Interview: Getting to Absolute Music
Ronnie Seldin on meditating, healing, and talking to the heart with the help of a bamboo flute


Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin has been playing the shakuhachi flute for over 25 years. In 1978, he was awarded the rank of shi-han (master) in recognition of his work spreading the teaching of this instrument in America. In 1980, he received his dai shi-han, or grand master's license. In 1975, he began his work with Hospital Audiences, which brings music into hospitals and homes for the aged. He spoke with Beliefnet's Buddhism producer, Mary Talbot, from his home in New York City.

How did you start playing the shakuhachi? When I went to Japan in 1973, I heard a friend playing the instrument. I had always made my living as a professional musician--mostly as a guitarist (I used to be in a band called "Hamilton Face Three"). But when I heard that instrument, I knew I had to study the shakuhachi.

You talk in the liner notes of your new CD, "Komuso," about the different forms of shakuhachi. What kind do you play?
My favorite style of shakuhachi music is honkyoku, the only melodic music that is used in Zen Buddhism. It truly speaks to the kokoro, a wonderful triumvirate Japanese word that is a combination of heart, mind, and spirit.

Zen always conjures images of sitting meditation. Is that part of the training for the shakuhachi, or is it a meditative discipline unto itself?

During Japan's Edo period (1600-1868), masterless samurai, known as ronen, would become komuso, or "priests of emptiness," wandering, mendicant shakuhachi players. They were members of a sect of Zen called Fuke-Shu. They did zazen, as well as suizen, "blowing-meditation," or playing the shakuhachi, along with other religious practices. Nowadays, suizen is a path unto itself for most players, without the sitting meditation.

Are there any mendicant komuso anymore?

I don't believe so--not full time. Sometimes, young men take a year off and travel around as komuso, accepting alms for playing shakuhachi.

You've worked with Hospital Audiences, an organization that takes musicians to hospital patients as a form of therapy. How do people who've never heard the shakuhachi react?

I have been very lucky. Everyone seems to take to it. It seems to set off a resonant vibration in the human heart. Sometimes when I play for the mentally challenged, I notice they have a sense of openness, of wonder, that allows them to feel the music more quickly and more intensely than some other patients. In Japan, there is a phrase, "to have the 'hear' of a 3-year-old." It refers to the beauty of purity, of innocence, and some patients really seem to have this. That being said, I do not mean to paint a picture of everyone in hospitals and institutions as on a wonderful path. To many, it is a life of much pain and duress.

How is communication between player and listener achieved?

My teacher said to play straight to the heart of one person in the audience. When you are totally unified with your music, you enter a special place. It doesn't happen all of the time. You end up at a place without intent and without remembering how you got there. This is not to say that you think about something else, and then you are kind of abstractly just moving through a piece. Quite the contrary. What I'm saying is that you are so focused, absolutely without distractions, that you enter into a realm of universal creativity, or absolute music. It is a kensho (awakening) experience.

Have you known of people who have been able to recover from illnesses incorporating shakuhachi into their therapies?

Yes, and I talk about it in the 24-page book that goes along with the "Komuso." I used to play a particular piece for a bright, promising young Japanese man, Hidekazu Kamijo, who had lost a lot of his mental and physical capability through a severe stroke. He has, through this and other therapy, recovered his faculties to the point of being able to take the college entrance exams. I also did a CD, called "Sounds of Healing," with an oncologist named Mitchell Gaynor, who uses shakuhachi music to heal serious diseases, like cancer.

Do you have a favorite healing piece?

There is a piece that I particularly like, called "Jinbo Sanya." A monk, Jinbo Masunosuke, made the playing of this piece, which he composed, his life's work, and it is used for safe and easy childbirth, among other things. I have a student named Joe to whom I taught the piece, and he did what he was supposed to do as far as the tradition is concerned. When his wife went into labor, he poured uncooked rice through the shakuhachi and played the piece during her labor. After the birth, the new mother ate the rice. And their daughter, Zoe Adler, was the healthy result of these efforts!

Can you describe an experience of playing shakuhachi for someone who is ill?

During the last year of his life, I played for a dear student of mine named Eric Benson. Even though he knew he was dying of AIDS, through the shakuhachi playing, as well as a type of faith healing that I do (part of a Japanese religion called Tenrikyo), he was able to detach himself from his body and let go at the end.

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