Sunday, December 30, 2007

A baseball haiku, 2007

visiting team
on different wood

Ken LaCosse, San Francisco

I corresponded with Ken (of Mujitsu Shakuhachi) a few times this fall about the genre of baseball haiku. Ken sent this haiku to me at the end of one of his emails. I didn't realize it was his. The poem haunted me for weeks. It is as the late poet R.G. "Dick" Barnes once described a fine work, a 'compleat poem'. I described it as 'insidious'. Published here with kind permission of the author. Also see my original post from the book Baseball Haiku.

This entry ends my haiku interlude for the time being, but please feel free to comment on this and other postings by clicking on the (tiny) comments link at the bottom of each posting. I almost always post and respond to comments and enjoy the dialogue.

Now, it is back to shakuhachi watching and commentary in the new year.

On the Occasion of the Death of Inindo Sensei, Winter 1938

One note of the shakuhachi
resounds endlessly
piercing the winter clouds

Fuyugumo no totoki kagiri kakure keri

Soen Nakagawa Roshi (1907-1984)
from the book Endless Vow: the zen path of Soen Nakagawa. Introduction by Eido T. Shimano, compiled and translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi & Roko Sherry Chayat (Shambala, 1996)

This is reprinted as a review of the book, which does not need any further review than an example of the one of the book's many poems.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

From the book Baseball Haiku

game over
all the empty seats
turn blue

Alan Pizzarelli (b. 1950)
Originally self-published in 1988 as a folded broadside. Reprinted in Baseball Haiku: American and Japanese Haiku & Senryu on Baseball Edited with Translations by Cor van den Heuval & Nanae Tamura (W.W. Norton, 2007)

This is reprinted as a review of the book, which does not need any further review than an example of the one of the book's many poems.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Haiku Death Poem from 1858

By the poet Saiba
written on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, 1858

I shift my pillow
closer to the
full moon.

Meigetsu no
ho e korobasu
makura kana

— from Japanese Death Poems written by zen monks and haiku poets on the verge of death
compiled with an introduction by Yoel Hoffmann (Tuttle, 1986)

This is reprinted as a review of the book, which does not need any further review than an example of the one of the book's many poems.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Confessions of a Shakuhachi Ronin, Part II (an extended footnote)

Before continuing wherever I was headed in Part I....

My quixotic reference to being a "Shakuhachi Ronin" begs to be misread and misused. Remember, professional journalists themselves troll Internet forums and blogs for one-sided opinions and baseless assertions to use as 'facts'. They do it by the day — really by the hour. (I should know. I've been working in daily journalism for the past seven years and public relations 10 years before that.)

An imaginative term like "shakuhachi ronin" is bound for the Seven Hells of thoughtless repetition, mis- or non-attribution and bizarre Wikipedia entries. So excuse this extended footnote but please read on.

"Ronin" means a masterless samurai -- more accurately a masterless warrior. A warrior is a military servant of his master or lord. But to be "masterless" a person should once have actually _had_ a master to begin with. The ronin I'm familiar with in translated literature or in films are either looking for a new master or prove themselves to be too unhappy or too inept to have the will to live. A ronin really shouldn't be glamorized — too much at least.

To understate, shakuhachi is an absolute bear of an instrument. It does require a warrior's heart to survive the first six months, first year, first two years of struggling with the bare basics of the instrument. (Editor's note, Dec. 29: Phil Nyokai sensei would probably correct me "First ten years".)

But like the craft of swordsmanship, the craft of playing shakuhachi cannot be learned simply by one book or a couple of videos or by good intentions and great desire. It's just too subtle and too tricky (and available tutors in the form of current print and video media are just too spotty).

For example, it is very easy to deceive yourself that you are playing meri and dai-meri notes at accurate pitch. It is very easy to convince yourself that a reasonable facsimile of appropriate pitch is acceptable and you wind up playing a facsimile of that pitch for years to come and wonder why you are never satisfied with your sound.

There are shakuhachi players who are considered masters who commonly play meri flatter than Western pitch while others play meri sharper of Western pitch.

The best advice anyone has given me -- and this comes from the late Yoshizawa Masakazu-sensei and one of his senior student-teachers Jim Thompson -- is learn to hit the meri dead-on at A440, not one cent sharper of flatter. (Then, you can adjust for expression, style, etc.) Tough stuff. Not only that but learn to hit it in the traditional manner (which is a whole other part to the lesson and six months of struggle in itself). And it goes on and on from there.

It does take a teacher.

You get the idea.

Yoshizawa said to me once concerning the breadth and depth of shakuhachi studies "It's endless ... just endless." He shook his head in resignation, then smiled a little smile and we were on to the next thing.

In part III of Confessions of a Shakuhachi Ronin I will attempt once again to take a personal and candid look at the predicament of learning shakuhachi in the non-Japanese speaking West and how ancient traditional Japanese customs may contribute to or inhibit the advancement of the instrument's development outside of its native land. Very academic sounding, eh? Stay tuned, it promises to be a little spicier than that.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Confessions of a Shakuhachi Ronin*, Part I (of many)

So You Want to Be a Shakuhachi Student?

You've made the decision, you really want to learn to play the shakuhachi. More important, you really want to be a shakuhachi student and take on the challenge of learning the traditional repertoire of a particular shakuhachi school (or ryu) such as Kinko, Tozan, Meian (Myoan), Dokyoku or any number of branches and sub-schools.

If you are lucky, you find a teacher who lives locally who you can visit on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. In the best case scenario, you are compatible with your teacher and you are a dedicated student. And, hopefully, you can afford --or find a way to sacrifice for-- the $40 per lesson (it is well worth every dime). Anyway you cut it, life for a shakuhachi student under these conditions is pretty sweet. (See Shakuhachi Forum and for teacher listings near you!)

It is also extremely rare in the United States and Europe. (Australia may be a different story. It usually is ... and will be discussed later.)

If you really want to get a feel for what it is like to live in Japan and take lessons from a traditional teacher then read Christopher Yohmei Blasdel's The Single Tone. (See Recommended Books: Shakuhachi and Beat on the righthand column of this blog.) The tradition of teacher-to-student transmission is ancient, ingrained and deep. Many customs and practices in the Japanese system will strike Western musical students as unusual, at least.

Most shakuhachi students who live outside of Japan are fairly isolated from each other and are lucky to have a teacher within 100 miles of where they live. Just hang out on Shakuhachi Forum for a few weeks or months and you'll see one of the major issues Westerners have is access to learning.

Of course getting to one of the great shakuhachi festivals, camps or intensives is great. It's absolutely recommended. But it is not always possible. And even if you can get to one a year (two or more if you are VERY fortunate) how do you, a Westerner who is probably not Japanese speaking, study meaningfully in the meantime?

I don't think their are many easy answers to this. There are a couple of teachers who teach via live Internet connections and they are listed on the right column of this blog. I recommend people who are equipped for live video conferencing on the Internet to give these teachers a heart-filled try. It could be the start of a very useful, productive teacher-student relationship. And there is at least one well known teacher who has been teaching via cassette tape exchange for many years. Still we are only talking about the number of teachers you can count on one hand ... with a digit to spare.

Books, videos? The books which are currently in print are certainly good for bits and pieces of information. None of them serve as complete didactic guides, nor could they as single volumes. Most are designed to work as supplements to live lessons with teachers in specific traditional schools. Something is always better than nothing. When you are hungry for knowledge even scraps and crusts look mighty tasty. Perhaps the best of these books in the Kinko tradition, Shakuhachi: A Manual for Learning is currently out of print, although it's author assures us it is in revision and will be out by the time of the World Shakuhachi Festival 2008.

Still, the question rings in our ears like Fuke's bell ... (Stay tuned for the next installment)

(From Wikipedia: The word r┼Źnin literally means "drifting person". The term originated in the Nara and Heian periods, when it referred to a serf who had fled or deserted his master's land. It then came to be used for a samurai who had lost his master. -- Now, I don't imagine myself to have the skills or moxy of a "samurai" but I love the term and really wanted to use it in this context. It is Quixotic at best in self-reference. -- cm)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Lost literary shakuhachi references, Dec. 8 entry

Asked to post a picture of Rimbaud and Verlaine with Taimu bass shakuhachi, I found this:

I think it is generally accepted in academic circles that Rimbaud had a bigger shakuhachi than Verlaine

Excerpt from The Drunken Shakuhachi (unpublished)

But, truly, I have wept too much! The Dawns are heartbreaking.
Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter:
Sharp love has swollen me up with heady langours.
O let my bamboo split! O let me blow deep
Ro-meri to the bottom!

— attributed to A.R.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


The hottest topics on Shakuhachi Forum for weeks have been the discussions about what constitutes a true ji-nashi flute (a shakuhachi with no filler in the bore) and how it is distinguished from a ji-ari flute (a shakuhachi which is tuned throughout its entire bore with filler)?

See this topic among others in the Ji-nashi part of the forum:

We've been introduced to a new term for a ji-nashi which is tuned with small dabs of ji (filler): ji-mori.

Many of us have been introduced through this discussion to a new term for ji-ari shakuhachi: ji-nuri.

And some of us are reading on the sidelines slightly amused and somewhat confused by the dance of words. ('Amused' in a positive way.)

It is good, often impassioned discussion. Many Internet forum audiences wouldn't have been able to handle this level of debating heat. Shakuhachi Forum almost always seems to rise above conflict to clarity. A rare bird. (I used to participate in Buddhist online discussions that degenerated so quickly and to such depths over differences in theory they would have made gangsters and ax-murderers blush.)

As the ji-ashi discussion progressed, topic moderator Kiku Day reminded every one to take a deep breath. Generally good advice for all shakuhachi players.

— Being an absolute no-body in the international shakuhachi community other than I have a blog and I blab a lot on, I have a few suggestions for new terms for ji-nashi variant shakuhachi (aka ji-mori):

Ji-nashi Lite (Mid-Western Americans could use that one. "More tone, Less filling".)

Nuevo Ji-nashi (Good for the growing Latino shakuhachi culture)

Neo Ji-nashi (For Techie Matrix shakuhachi fans)

Sort-of Ji-nashi (A popular option for the Australian community as per this blogger at: See blog entry: Green Mist..........sort of.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

What you say on a shakuhachi forum doesn't (necessarily) stay on a shakuhachi forum

Who is taking your postings seriously on blogs like this and online forums like Shakuhachi Forum? Do real newspaper 'journalists' scan the Internet for stories and source material and publish that material without double-checking their sources? No, you say? How could professional journalists do something so irresponsible?... It happened very recently and it has implications for all of us who want to encourage the growth of shakuhachi culture worldwide.

The untimely passing of Los Angeles shakuhachi master Yoshizawa Masakazu-sensei (aka Masakazu Yoshizawa, "Masa") prompted several sincere, heartfelt postings on, as you would expect. It marked a tragic loss to Japanese traditional music.

One of the posts made an incorrect attribution that Masa (as Yoshizawa Masakazu-sensei is commonly known) was the shakuhachi artist on the 1980 miniseries/movie Shogun. Actually the artist who made those recordings was a man 4-years Yoshizawa-sensei's junior by the name of Kazu Matsui It's a fairly common error and the Shogun minseries/movie VHS and DVDs are out of print, etc. etc. Kazu Matsui is also frequently written in English as "Matsui Kazu." You can see the difficulty.

However if you are a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and your articles are syndicated throughout the Tribune news network (Chicago Tribune, Newsday, Baltimore Sun and many more, not to mention 23 television stations nationwide and the Associated Press which places your work in thousands of newspapers and Web sites) you may want to fact check the source material which you obviously got from one place, which was the topic thread on Shakuhachi Forum.

In her own defense —which is unverifiable itself— the journalist said she got her information from "two sources." Perhaps for the whole article. But from the way she wrote the obituary it was obvious to me that she relied on the forum thread for the "Shogun" misattribution. She also lifted a portion of one of my own idiosyncratic descriptions of the late shakuhachi teacher, which would be flattering under any other circumstance. But it was just plain sloppy journalism. Hence, because it was published so widely her article is now credited as a source on Wikipedia's biography of Yoshizawa— for what? The "Shogun" misattribution, of course.

Masa didn't need to be credited in the official media for work he didn't do. He was a man of his own extensive and easily credited accomplishments. If you want to read a really good journalistic profile of Yoshizawa Masakazu go to this Cultural News article from 2005:

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Some people responsible for the Great Western Shakuhachi Transmission

Listed alphabetically by family name:
Elizabeth Reian Bennet
Christopher Yohmei Blasdel
Mary Lu Brandwein
Dr. Kiku Day
Tom Deaver
Brian Franklin
Jim Franklin
Philip Gelb
Michael Chikuzen Gould
Peter Hill
Phil Nyokai James
Bruce Jones (Shakuhachi Mailing List)
Kurahashi Yodo
Kurahashi Yoshio (Yodo II)
Ken Mujitsu LaCosse
Steve Lacy (Jazz soprano saxophonist/student of Watazumi)
Patricia Lee
Dr. Riley Lee
Monty Levenson and family
Andrew MacGregor
Masayuki Koga
Dan E. Mayers (International Shakuhachi Society)
Mejiro Co. online (Saori)
Ron Nelson (International Shakuhachi Society)
John Kaizan Neptune
Alcvin Takegawa Ramos
Stan Kakudo Richardson
Brian Tairaku Ritchie
Sakai Shodo
Ralph Samuelson
James Nyoraku Schlefer
Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldin
Bill Shozan Shultz
John Singer
Sogawa Kinya
Barry Nyosui Weiss
David Wheeler
Yamaguchi Goro
Yokoyama Katsuya
Yoshida Seifu
Yoshizawa Masakazu
Perry Yung

All of the administrators, moderators and participants at

... and, of course, many others.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

'Start Here'

Every blog starts with a first entry, no matter how mundane.

So let me try to expand on the mission statement of this experiment in bamboo journal-ism.

It exists as a place to point views and exchange ideas about shakuhachi in the context of a phenomenon I could call the Great Western Shakuhachi Transmission — the transcultural sharing of an enormous fund of knowledge about the music and technique of a profound musical instrument. Not unlike the transmission of buddhism in the western hemishere.

The best reason for this blog to exist is to create dialog without any strings attached. It is independent of any schools, teachers, makers or dealers.

My opinions are my own. If you want to dialog with me here - however dissenting or fierce - you may do so under your real name or a screen name. Only my back-end needs to flap in the breeze.

You will need a valid email address, however, so I may contact you through back channels if necessary. I need to know, if nothing else, that I am communicating with real people.

Writing a comment will not guarantee that comment's publication. Although I love my opinions and views to be challenged right to the hilt those challenges have to be publishable; not abusive, not obscene. Humor is appreciated. But ultimately respect for the shakuhachi tradition - in all of its magnificent forms - is king.

Lates. --cm