Legend has it that in China, in the eighth century, there lived a Ch'an (Zen) monk whose bell would ring a sound so pure that those hearing it would be led on the path to enlightenment. One of his disciples decided that he would try to make a flute that would imitate the sound of this bell. Soon after the teacher would ring the bell, the monk would blow one note on the flute, as if echoing the sound of the metal ringing, you could call it a "ringing" in the wood.
The link between Buddhist meditation and the bamboo flute continued as the culture crossed over from China to Japan. And in this so called "blowing Zen" two of the most important aspects of Buddhist practice—the chanting of sutras and awareness of breathing--were brought together in the tradition of flute playing as a form of meditation. This form of self training was then joined to two even older traditions of spiritual practice, the walking pilgrimage and the practice of alms begging, both of which have been fundaments of Eastern spiritual practice for centuries before the birth of the Buddha. [From earliest times, both walking and alms begging have been fundaments of Eastern spiritual practice.] All of these came together in the tradition of the komuso, or itinerant begging monk.
Though the figure of the man wearing a woven straw basket-like hat covering his face and head and a wooden box around his neck with the words "Without existence, Without extinction" has almost completely disappeared from the Japanese landscape, there are still those among the very aged who recognize him as a komuso. Most people however, have no idea what he is doing.
When I asked him if he explains to younger people what a komuso is, Murata replied. "I don't explain. When I'm playing, I don't talk to people at all. I only play. "
Whether the people there welcome him, shoo him away or slam the door in his face, his reaction is the same. "I play one sutra, and I finish it. If they give money, I receive it. If they do not, I simply finish and move on."
According to Murata, "The reason to play the flute is to advance your ability to better perceive emptiness. You are playing for yourself, not to entertain another person, or to have them pity you. You certainly don't do it with the object of making money. That's why it doesn't matter at all how people react. As my sensei says, 'To play is good. That's all.' "
For many years Murata put himself in the position of relying on it as his sole source of income.
When Murata does go out, he cuts a striking figure. The kimono is grey, silken looking and spotless. I smile at the transformation from the usual plaid work shirts and jeans he often has on. He wears a wooden box around his neck with the characters "Without Birth, Without Extinction" elegantly brushstroked upon it. Over his head he wears a rattan hat which obscures his face entirely. Murata explains that this head covering was, in the period when many komuso acted as spies for the Shogun, a way to maintain secrecy--to see and not be seen. Perhaps it is also part of the anonymity that helps a monk with his own tendency toward ego identification. And with it's heavy club end, the flute was, at times, even used as a weapon.
He stands in front of a house or a shop, and blows one sutra on the bamboo. He stops. He dramatically pulls out a pure white fan, his movements as precise as a Noh dancer, simultaneously graceful and stark. If you choose to place a coin or bill on the fan, this is the time that you do that, and then he places the fan inside of the box, bows, and moves on, leaving you in the swirling wake of the fragrant incense sutra he has played in your presence.
Murata spent six years with his Nishimura. Near the end of this period he received a license from his him, which I have seen. Its elegantly calligraphy, with the teacher's red seal on it, admonishes him to comport himself properly, and to observe his manners with strict adherence. He carries this license always with him, along with a folding, hand-bound book of "sheet music" which is more like a vertically written list of syllables, a sort of mix of musical notation and sutras to be 'sung.' He was also given a new first name, "Kogan" which means to inspect deeply, to comprehend illusion and emptiness. The practice of granting of new names is common in many traditional disciplines. It functions, I believe, as a talisman and a reminder, and the granting of this name indicates a rite of passage, a connection between teacher and disciple. The name, the license, the folding book of sutras, along with the rattan hat, the kimono, the box, the fan, and of course the flute are what indicate to the outside world that he is a komusou. But deeper than these things, being a komusou is an inner way of holding oneself, a particular kind of presence in the world. Nonetheless these items, I speculate, promote a certain kind of way of being for a person on a pilgrimage through the practice.
I know that Murata would think such kinds of theoretical discussions pointless, so I allow myself to just hold them in my mind, and enjoy their presence there, which, when I think about it, is perhaps part of his point.