12+ years of Zen bamboo flute training and my shakuhachi Shihan ranking

Greetings fellows humans.  It has been a long time since a blog post here.  It has been an incredible year of cultivation and contemplation as I moved out to the woods in Marin County and have been making lots of Pu-Erh post-fermented dark, earthy tea and playing lots of shakuhachi and Taimu.

Today it is also a great honor and privilege to announce that I have officially received the ranking of “shihan” from my shakuhachi teacher of 12 years, Grandmaster Michael Chikuzen Gould.  This is essentially a “master teaching license” and is the highest you can get until you have played shakuhachi on the planet for a long long time, and really really well, then you might eventually be a grandmaster, then a saint, then an immortal, then an archangel, then finally a shakuhachi GOD!

Okay, I made up those last ones, and all this talk of rank might correctly cause you to say, “But Mister Boots: isn’t the Zen path about dissolving the small ego in the light of the direct awareness of the one true unchanging consciousness that is beyond name and form and —rank??” And I would say, yes that is the case.  So we enter somewhat of a hamster wheel of existential debate (which is why this blog is called “Armchair Metaphysics” in the first place).

Here’s the thing I have discovered on my long path of woodwind performance, composition, competition, learning, ambition, striving, attaining, collaborating, gestating, conflagrating, creating and imagining: it is a fluid process that contains lots of methods but does not do well with doctrines and dogmas.  Sound like a spiritual path? There are startling parallels and I hope to delve into those more in the next posts as well as with my students.  The thing about shakuhachi (and you can catch up on what this is by going over here) is that the shakuhachi path forms a double helix out of 1) a woodwind instrument musical path and 2) an awareness, consciousness or spiritual path.  This happens to some extent on the other wind instruments (due to the necessary cultivation of breath), but there is a way that someone can make the “awareness” part of their orchestral tuba career, for instance, very optional.  With shakuhachi it is much more difficult to excise the elements of contemplation, cultivation and ego-dissolution that are also hallmarks of spiritual paths, of which Zen Buddhism is one of the most streamlined and direct to begin with.

All this is to say: I am so grateful that this stick of dried grass crossed into my sphere back in 2001.  I was reaching my limits with playing in dirty, smoky dive bars for no money and little respect (in spite of still being enthused about the music we were making) and this was when shakuhachi, qi gong, sensory depravation floatation and my cat all entered my sphere.  And Taoist and Zen literature regained a foothold that it had established about 5 years earlier.  Honkyoku, the classical Zen Buddhist repertoire for shakuhachi, is some of the most amazing, solid yet flexible music to exist on the planet and I am fortunate to have had such an adept, knowledgable, understanding and insightful guide on this path.  Who knew that when I met Michael in Colorado in 2001 that he would be my teacher for over a decade?  At that time I just knew that I liked his playing and he reminded me of a shakuhachi version of Lenny Pickett, a reed renegade icon of my early years.

To return to my earlier point: this is a path of self-awareness and self-cultivation, so from one perspective a ranking or a ranking system is irrelevant or even contradictory.  However, this type of path needs all the help it can get: whatever works, by any means necessary—kind of a Machiavellian/Malcolm X approach.  Therefore if setting goals and achieving them helps: do it.  If recording yourself playing while in a really bad mood helps: do it.  If eating a cheese danish at 4 am and drinking small shots of espresso at altitude and breathing in 0 degree air and blowing RO in the nude helps then…you get the idea (not that as a teacher I necessarily recommend any of those methods).

In this case, it has come to the point where I understand that I have something to offer other people in the realm of Zen shakuhachi and so I have worked for this ranking.  People need a reference for someone else’s qualifications and the steps I needed to take were already the natural path that Michael and I had been working on together: so there it is.  All I can do is reside in this place of feeling deep gratitude, aim myself at being vast and humble and keep on playing the flutes, cultivating and contemplating.  And understand that this breathing bamboo adventure is in some ways just beginning, and that the most valuable experiences that happen can never be put into words.

2 responses to “12+ years of Zen bamboo flute training and my shakuhachi Shihan ranking”

  1. Ron Bracale says:

    Great Blog. Shakuhachi is in one sense an amazingly versatile instrument and in another a tool for spiritual transformation. You are a true inspiration.

  2. Jia Senghe says:

    Thank you for this inspirational piece. It is such an honor to me to be able to communicate and hear about ‘Shakuhachi culture’ from people all over the globe such as yourself. All the best to you in your practice and development as a Zen musician.
    Jia Senghe

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