Monday, May 30, 2005

Form or Emptiness?

Are you bird or sky?

A common subject of debate among shakuhachi enthusiasts is the question, "What makes a shakuhachi sound the way it does?" Is it the bamboo? Is it the empty space inside the vessel? Is it the player? Is it the maker? Is it a combination of all of these? Or none?

At one time or another in my shakuhachi life, I've embraced most of these beliefs. I have also been fascinated by the various opinions I've heard from players, makers, beginners and zen tricksters alike. Let's look at a composite of our opinions.


Bamboo is the stuff that the shakuhachi is made of. If you blow through different types of bamboo, you'll discover different sounds. Soft bamboo absorbs sound. Hard, dense bamboo reflects sound. Each piece is blessed with organic uncertainties and therefore has a unique tonal identity. It you make thousands of flutes from a variety of bamboo you'll eventually discover that bamboo of a specific type makes consistently superior shakuhachi. This is especially true for natural bamboo bore, jinashi shakuhachi.


The shakuhachi sound is a result of the amount of nothing inside the vessel. Any hard material will do to contain this space. With this approach, specific tonal styles of shakuhachi can be designed and manufactured using precise measurements. Flutes adhere to physical laws. Once we understand them we can put the right amount of nothing where it is needed most.

The Player

The player makes the flute come alive. A crude broomstick shakuhachi becomes a work of art in the hands of a master player. The finest museum quality shakuhachi is useless in the hands of a novice. The shakuhachi is a stick with five holes. A player is a human being with years of fertile experience.

The Maker

The maker has an intimate relationship with all aspects of the instrument and acts as a midwife in the life of the flute. The direction and level of understanding of this relationship varies among makers. Makers also have a variety of interests when it comes to tone color. If you give one thousand makers identical PVC plastic materials and precise specs, the result will be one thousand unique voices.

All of the Above

The shakuhachi sound comes from everything involved. Bamboo, negative space, players and makers do not exist in a vacuum. One element can not be removed or isolated. It is their inter connectivity that is responsible for the shakuhachi sound.

None of the Above

Ultimately, the origin of the shakuhachi sound has nothing to do with form, emptiness, players or makers. These are terms that are all one. It is the wrong question. It is like asking if the foot or hand is more responsible for human existence. It is beyond intellect and knowledge. Used correctly, it is one of many clues available to penetrate inner mysteries. It is a path used to bring forth something inconceivable.

So, what makes the shakuhachi sound the way it does? Although these arguments are exaggerated slightly for effect, they suggest that the question can only be answered in relative terms. Is relativity the easy way out? Does it matter? What do you think?