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Komusō and Breathing Zen: Complete Guide (Updated 2020)

Komusō and Breathing Zen: Complete Guide (Updated 2020)

In this post, we reveal everything you need to know about the ancient Japanese komuso, zen meditation and the concept of "breathing zen" or "blowing zen". Let's get started!

Introduction

The komusō (or komuso, meaning “emptiness monk”) were Japanese mendicant monks that lived and practiced Buddhism between the years 1600 and 1868. The history of the komuso is very interesting for several reasons, from their unique meditation practices to their controversial followers, which included masterless samurai and shogunate spies. It is of course their method of meditation that made them recognizable figures in old Japan. Donning beehive-like baskets on their heads, the komuso wandered Japan on a pilgrimage whilst begging for alms and playing the shakuhachi, a bamboo woodwind instrument.

A komuso wearing a basket hat and playing the shakuhachi, as depicted by J. M. W. Silver. (Source: Wikipedia)

The komuso’s unique appearance and practices have lingered in Japanese Buddhism throughout the years, despite the government banning the sect in the 19th century. In fact, people across the world, in both Eastern and Western cultures, have come to appreciate and make their own adaptations to the meditation techniques practiced by the komuso. In this article, we will explore the history of the komuso, their practice of “blowing zen” and how this practice has changed and adapted over time. 

This guide includes:

  • What was Fuke Zen and Who Were the Komusō?
    • The Flute’s Purpose and Use
    • Traditional Apparel 
  • What is “Breathing Zen”? 
    • Benefits of Breathing Zen
    • Scientific Studies on Breathwork 
    • Breathing Zen: Then and Now 
  • Modernized Suizen: Mindful Breath Jewelry
    • How to Use Mindful Breath Jewelry 
    • Benefits of Wearing Mindful Breath Jewelry 

What was Fuke Zen and Who Were the Komusō?

Ensō, the Japanese symbol for Zen Buddhism (Source: Wikipedia)

“Zen” is the Japanese term for the principle of dhyāna, or profound meditation, in Buddhism. Buddhism was brought from China to Japan in the sixth century. Zen Buddhism places emphasis on rigorous self-restraint and encourages meditation practice as a way to gain insight into the nature of the mind and of all things.

Since its introduction, Japanese Buddhism has been divided into three traditional schools: the Sōtō, Rinzai and Ōbaku. Sōtō is the largest school and Ōbaku is the smallest with Rinzai in the middle. The Rinzai school, however, has broken down into even more sects, one of these being the Fuke-shū, or Fuke Zen school. 

Fuke Zen is said to have been popularized during Japan’s feudal era, or Edo period (1603-1867). It was inspired by the teachings of Chinese Zen teacher, Linji Yixuan. The name “Fuke,” however, comes from the sects’ co-founders, the eccentric Zen master Puhua. Puhua, an almost mythical Zen master, was known for his inventiveness, strictness and musical ability. Though Puhua was not known to play the shakuhachi flute, he was said to have played a bell as he walked through towns on his pilgrimage. One of his followers, inspired by his master’s bell playing, began to play the shakuhachi in a similar manner. From then on, Fuke monks and priets, known as komuso, began to play the shakuhachi as a form of meditation called suizen. 

Quickly, Fuke Zen became one of the more popular subsects of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Scholar James H. Sanford writes that by the early Tokugawa period there were more than a hundred Fuke temples around Japan. Although, this number is contested; 40 temples by 1860 is probably closer to the truth. The explanation for its popularity is partly due to the privacy and freedom associated with being a komuso. Their traditional clothing hid their faces and their constant pilgrimage lifestyle was protected by the government. The anonymity and freedom of movement lead to many rōnin, or masterless samurai, joining the sect.  

Suizen was practiced during a komuso’s pilgrimage. Komuso monks practiced mendicancy, owned little to no property and survived on alms. These alms were collected on their constant pilgrimages, when they traveled Japan, preaching and practicing Buddhism. During this time in Japan, however, traveling was heavily restricted by the shogunate. In order to travel for their pilgrimages, the komuso had to obtain special permission from the government. This was done through a treaty called the Charter of 1614. This gave the komuso travel exemptions to wander freely throughout the country.

In return, however, some komuso were asked to spy for the shogunate. Eventually, the shogunate began dispatching their own spies who disguised themselves as komuso. Bandits and masterless samurai also began posing as komuso to travel inconspicuously. As more people discovered this trick of identity, more people began to distrust the komuso. It was this distrust and connection with the government that led to the demise of the Fuke Zen sect in the late 1800s following the Meiji Restoration, which banned the practice of Fuke Zen as well as playing shakuhachi for religious purposes

Source: Wikipedia

Fuke Zen is no longer practiced in Japan to a great extent or on a large scale, though the sect continues to exist, more or less, through the contemporary Kyochiku Zenji Hosan Kai (KZHK) group in Kyoto. Additionally, the shakuhachi is still played by some Rinzai monks, which practice suizen during certain celebrations or when visiting former Fuke Zen temples. 

The Flute’s Purpose and Use

The shakuhachi’s origins are both Japanese and Chinese. This end-blown flute, traditionally made of bamboo, was used within the Fuke Zen sect of Buddhism for meditation. The instrument gets its name from its size. Shaku is a unit of measure equalling about one foot, while hachi means eight, which represents a measure of eight-tenths of a shaku.

The shakuhachi is composed of three joints of bamboo, which are then divided into two sections. These elements represent several things. The three joints, for example, are the Three Powers: Heaven, Earth and Man. The four upper finger holes represent the sun and the one lower finger hole represents the moon. Lastly, each finger hole represents one of the Five Elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Space.

The shakuhachi is played using different fingering and blowing techniques and is tuned to minor pentatonic scale. A professional player is able to produce virtually any pitch they wish by changing finger positions or embouchure. 

Source: Wikipedia 

Traditional bamboo shakuhachi are very expensive to produce. Each instrument is made from a piece of high-quality cured bamboo and shaped using Ji paste, a process which takes over a decade. This time and labor intensive process results in bamboo shakuhachi costing anywhere from $1,000 to $8,000 USD. Today, you can find more affordable shakuhachi made from ABS (a common thermoplastic polymer), hardwood, plastic or PVC. These versions can be mass produced, are extremely durable and usually cost less than $100 USD.  

With the shakuhachi, the komuso practiced suizen. Suizen is meditation through playing the shakuhachi. So, instead of chanting sutras or other Buddhist texts like other Zen monks, the komuso used the shakuhachi to play music called honkyoku. Honkyoku pieces are beautiful compositions that benefit both the musician and anyone listening. A beautiful example of shakuhachi music can be found on YouTube by the musician Rodrigo Rodriguez

Rodrigo Rodriguez playing the shakuhachi flute

Traditional Apparel 

In addition to their recognizable bamboo flutes, the traditional apparel worn by the komuso is also unique. As previously mentioned, komuso donned beehive-like basket hats which covered their faces completely. These woven hats/baskets, usually made from straw, sedge or reed, are called tengia or tengui.

The tengia was a symbolization of the komuso, the monks of emptiness. It was said that by wearing the tengia, the komuso could abandon their ego. However, the tengia is also what provided shogunate spies, ninja, rōnin and bandits a convenient disguise. The tengia was to be worn at all times and could only be removed within the confines of a Fuke temple

Water Mirror by Harunobu (Source: Shakuhachi Zen: The Fukeshū and Komusō)

Komuso were also known to wear either kesas, traditional garments of Buddhist monks, or more formal kimonos. Other articles of clothing worn by the komuso include an obi (a traditional sash for men’s kimonos), kyahan shin coverings, tabi socks and waraji sandals. The komuso also carried several things with them in addition to their shakuhachi. They carried a second “shakuhachi”, which was actually a short sword, a netsuke, which was a container used to carry medicine or tobacco and a gebako, which was a box they used for collecting alms and carrying documents. 

What is “Breathing Zen”? 

There are five main types of meditation according to the Dhyāna sutras but the meditation method closest to the meditation practiced by the komuso is ānāpānasmrti, or mindfulness of breathing. Mindfulness of breathing meditation involves regulating the breath in order to regulate the mind. With this type of meditation, Zen students will often focus on and count each breath. By counting and focusing on the breath, over time, breathing will become smoother, deeper, more even and slower, all the while calming the mind and body.

Komuso monks, while they do not practice ānāpānasmrti, do practice something similar: suizen. Suizen, a form of Zen meditation that also deals with control of breath, consists of playing a shakuhachi flute in order to attain self-realization and enlightenment. Suizen, which literally means “blowing zen” or “breathing zen,” is a spiritual exercise that is at the core of Fuke Zen. With this meditation, komuso playing the shakuhachi flute were able to prioritize the precise breathing control that is necessary for Zen mindfulness. 

Steps to Blowing Zen: A YouTube meditation video featuring a shakuhachi flute, how to use it and ways to meditate with it.  

Benefits of Breathing Zen

From the first moment one plays the shakuhachi, they begin to return to a more natural breathing rhythm which soothes the mind and regulates the nervous system. Many yogis and Buddhist practitioners believe that our health and wellbeing depends on harmony of breath. If we are anxious or upset, our breath is shallow and uneven. If we are relaxed and content, our breathing rhythm is more natural and healthy for our body.

Furthermore, the sound and unique resonance of the shakuhachi is capable of entraining and harmonizing the natural resonance of our bodies. By “blowing zen,” the komuso, as well as anyone wanting to try this kind of meditation, are able to focus on the breath, relax and achieve greater levels of mental clarity, which can lead to awakening and enlightenment

Today, there are mindful breathing necklaces such as this one offered by Healing Crystals Co. which can be used to simulate playing a shakuhachi and helping achieve mindful breathing states:

Mindful Breathing Necklace

Mindful Breathing Necklace by Healing Crystals Co.

Scientific Studies on Breathwork  

Today, modern day scientists have studied and discovered what yogis and Fuke Zen meditators have known all along: meditation, breathwork and mindfulness can provide one with powerful and enriching mind and body benefits.

According to Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, “[t]here is a very direct relationship between breath rate, mood state, and autonomic nervous system state.” The autonomic nervous system is responsible for controlling our body’s sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-restore) responses, heart rate, respiration and digestion. When we breathe, sensory receptors in the respiratory system send signals to the brain. How we breathe triggers how the nervous system functions.

For example, if we are breathing too quickly, the body’s sympathetic response is triggered, which results in an increase in stress hormones, a higher heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, greater sweat production and increased anxiety. Slower, more even breathing triggers the parasympathetic response, which results in the opposite effects that the sympathetic response has.

Other studies have found that how we breathe even affects how we feel. According to an article in the journal of Cognition & Emotion, how we breathe can greatly alter our feelings of anger, fear, joy and sadness. 

Therefore, it makes sense that training and regulating your breathing can result in many benefits. Research has found that meditation focusing on breath control can:

  • Reduce levels of stress and anxiety in the body  
  • Reduce feelings of sadness and depression 
  • Increase positive emotions 
  • Reduce cortisol 
  • Increase density of gray matter in the brain 
  • Relax the mind
  • Improve concentration 
  • Stimulate compassion 
  • Reduce risk of dementia 
  • Alter brain structure 
  • Ease physical and emotional tension 
  • Ease physical and emotional pain
  • Increase muscle 
  • Improve posture
  • Increase exercise stamina by improving lung capacity
  • Release toxins 
  • Lower heart rate
  • Lower blood pressure 
  • Improve diabetic symptoms 
  • Boost metabolism 
  • Assist in weight control
  • Strengthen the immune system 

Breathing Zen: Then and Now

Old and New Japan blending together by David M. Weber (2008)

Although playing shakuhachi is traditionally associated with Buddhist monks, nowadays both religious and nonreligious musicians have picked up the shakuhachi to play a wider array of musical pieces both for meditative and entertainment purposes.

In addition to secular musicians playing the shakuhachi, more women have begun to play the ancient instrument. Beginning in the 19th century, shakuhachi guilds were formed to keep the tradition of shakuhachi music, honkyoku. These guilds kept a verbal and written lineage of honkyoku pieces, many of which are now performed by entertainers in concert or performance settings. Generally in these cases, the shakuhachi is played with other instruments. When this happens, the musicians are no longer playing honkyoku, but sankyoku or shinkyoku. A sankyoku is an ensemble of three instruments: the shakuhachi, a koto and a shamisen (two Japanese string instruments). A shinkyoku is music performed by a shakuhachi and koto but the composition is influenced by Western music. 

Today, the shakuhachi is played across the world. Some notable Western musicians like Ray Brooks, Jim Franklyn and John Palmer have found inner peace and purpose by studying and performing the ancient music of the shakuhachi. Meanwhile famous musicians and artists who have generally not been associated with Japanese culture or Buddhist tradition have also found the shakuhachi’s beautiful sounds to pair nicely with their modern music, allowing us to hear the shakuhachi in songs from Duran Duran to Björk to Linkin Park

This YouTube video shows three musicians playing a traditional sankyoku piece. 

Modernized Suizen: Mindful Breath Jewelry 

With the relatively recent popularization of holistic healing and wellness in the West, we have seen ancient traditions and healing methods adapted to fit the uses of modern society. One such growing trend is mindful breathing jewelry, which has been described as “wearable wellness.”

These pieces of jewelry are worn and used to help control and slow breathing. These pieces of jewelry are inspired by the komuso and their practice of “blowing zen” with their shakuhachi.

As we have discussed, shakuhachi are expensive and can be difficult to master, making them inaccessible to the causal meditator. However, modern jewelry is being made to imitate the breathing exercises associated with playing the shakuhachi. These pieces of jewelry can be worn whenever, wherever, allowing you to practice slower breath anytime you need to relax and refresh your body and mind. For a great example, see this mindful breathing necklace made of 100% crystal by Healing Crystals Co.

How to Use Mindful Breath Jewelry 

Mindful breath jewelry is made with the shakuhachi in mind. By breathing through the jewelry, you can train your breathing. To use a piece of mindful breath jewelry, inhale deeply through your nose and then breathe through the pendant. Your exhale (ideally eight to ten seconds) should last longer than your inhale (ideally more than three seconds). As you repeat this process, relax your body and slow your thoughts. Focus only on the sound of your breathing. Count the seconds it takes to inhale, and then to exhale. By doing these exercises, you will trigger the nervous system’s parasympathetic response. 

Benefits of Wearing Mindful Breath Jewelry 

Mindful breath jewelry is a good alternative to purchasing and learning to play the shakuhachi for several different reasons. Jewelry is more affordable than shakuhachi flutes and mastering breathing is much easier than playing honkyoku for the non-musically inclined.

Mindful breath jewelry can also be used anywhere, anytime, providing you refuge in even the most public or stressful situations. To put it simply, this type of jewelry is a modern solution for modern problems, and yet it is inspired by scientifically-backed ancient techniques.Between the modern day expectations of perfection and productivity, the constant flow of emails, texts and breaking news stories, the body just needs some peace. Breathing exercises, like the ones used with mindful breath jewelry, can help the body in many, many ways. 

Conclusion

There is a reason one of the most logical things to do when stressed or worried is to take a deep breath. This is because how we breathe affects our overall health and wellbeing.

The komuso started blowing zen in the 1600s, using the shakuhachi flute to meditate and achieve enlightenment. Today, this tradition still exists in different and accessible forms for those who wish to use breathing meditation as a way to relax and improve the mind and body. Fuke Zen, a 400-year old religion, which has a rich and interesting history, can also be used as a modern solution to the everyday hustle and bustle of a busy life. 

Whether you want to practice the art of ancient suizen like the komuso of the past or are purchasing mindful breath jewelry, rest assured the breathing exercises you do now will help you far into the future. Intentional, mindful breathing is a simple way to give yourself peace of mind. 

If you are interested in exploring mindful breathing jewelry, see this mindful breathing necklace made of 100% crystal by Healing Crystals Co. For more information on mindful breathing jewelry, also known as anxiety jewelry, see our comprehensive blog post on the subject here.

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