Although official history of Fukeshû sect starts with Edo era, Fuke Shakuhachi and its philosophy would have been introduced from China to Japan in the 13th century by Grand Master Hottô Kokushi.
Disciple of Chôsan, 17th descendant of the Fuke sect of China which is supposed to have been created in 9th century, he returned to Japan in 1254 in order to transmit his teaching. Thus the bases were thrown out of what was going to become one of most admirable contemplative music.
The monks of this sect played Shakuhachi (吹禅 Suizen) instead of practicing Zazen (座禅 sitting Zen or sitting position to meditate) and reciting Sutras. Shakuhachi was then considered not as a musical instrument but as a spiritual instrument dedicated to meditation.
Fuke sect was a branch of the Zen Buddhism like Rinzai sect.
With the coming to power of the Tokugawa Government (birth of the Edo era), the control of the Buddhist monks and Rônin became a tricky question which needed to be solved quickly in order to impose and maintain the order and safety; one should remember that monks of that time did not devote themselves only to meditation and study of Buddhism precepts, and that Rônin were increasing dangerously.
Some sects were more feared than respected by people and Government for making reign of terror (in the facts, Tokugawa government wanted to control powerful religious orders, who wished to preserve their independence, which is in contradiction with all dictatorial policy).
It should also be reminded that the coming to power of Tokugawa had been done with many sacrifices, and that a great number of Samurai following the defeat of their clan became Rônin, Wandering Samurai through the force of circumstance. In order to control this mass of Rônin likely to seek to appease their revenge and to save the honor of their defeated clan, it was the right time for the government to positively mobilize these energies.
Under the dictate of the Tokugawa government, the Komusô monks were thus gathered around Temples allowing to control them more easily. It is around this sect exclusively made of members coming from the noble class of warriors – the Samurai – that was officially created the order of the Zen Buddhist Fukeshû sect.
These warrior monks called Komusô (虚無僧 monks of the Emptiness) are known for their hat of reed hiding their face that was symbolizing their detachment from the world.
During the Edo era, Komusô monks played an important role in maintaining law and order established by the Government of Tokugawa aiming to maintain peace and to thwart political intrigues. This stabilized domestic policy enabled to preserve a lasting peace during 265 years.
In exchange of favor done to the government, Komusô were free to pass without obstacle the various points of control around the country, and had many privileges of which among other things the right to carry a dagger (less than a shaku of length, i.e. more and less 30 centimeters).
At the end of the shogunat of Edo period, it comes to appear that a few number of “impostors” not belonging to the class of Samurai were putting on the dress of Komusô; some to survive thanks to the flute, others to flee and hide (the Komusô wore a hat of reed hiding their face) from the authorities. These pseudo-monks not familiar with traditional and sacred Fuke music, played of popular airs having nothing to do with traditional pieces dedicated to meditation.
With Meiji (1868) revolution, the Fuke sect was dismantled and prohibited in 1871 by the new administration in place because of its implication and its active role in the preceding government of Tokugawa.
Just like it is the case in the majority of great traditional schools, one can consider that the teaching is transmitted on two levels: the basic teaching given to all members of the sect, and the fundamental teaching to some few insiders.
The tradition wants that the inheritor of a school transmits the essence and the secrets of his heritage to one or two disciples so that tradition does not disappear.
The tradition and teaching of Master to disciple thus continued to be transmitted until nowadays via Great Masters who had received the arcanes like Miyakawa Nyozan, Kobayashi Shizan, Okazaki Meido, Katsuura Shozan, and later on Takahashi Kûzan who was called by his peers “The last Komuso”.
Takahashi Kûzan gathered and synthesized the contents and the essence of the Fuke school. He would have inherited more than 150 pieces during his spiritual and intellectual research travelling throughout Japan (武者修行 Musha-shugyô or spiritual search of the warrior monks). Takahashi Kûzan became so famous for his art and knowledge he was called during his lifetime “The God of shakuhachi”.
He is maybe the only Grand Master who received the arcanes from different temples Grand Masters and gathered the teaching and essence of Fuke Shakuhachi to preserve and transmit it to Fujiyoshi Etsuzan, the current inheritor of the Great School.
One of the characteristics of the Fuke sect was its assortment. Indeed, the different temples situated in the various provinces of Japan transmitted pieces of identical named pieces but often of different contents. The reasons are simple; In order to preserve the secrets, pieces were often transmitted only partially to the monks coming from other temples. Moreover, written scores were not common until recently, and memory is sometimes capricious.
Thus, one knows that Suzuru (巣鶴) the oldest version of the piece “the nest of the crane”, gave rise to different variations whose name evolved to give pieces known under the name of Tsuru No Sugomori (鶴の巣 籠).
One also knows that various pieces coming from different provinces were transmitted under the name of Reibo (鈴慕). In order to classify them, one often added the name of origin; thus Kyûshû-Reibô and many other pieces were renamed to preserve the traditional and various repertory of the school. It is also the case of the parts Shirabe (調)(piece sometime transmitted under the name Chôshi) where the name evolved to YamatoNoShirabe, etc, according to their origin, and of many other pieces…
Today, pieces transmitted in Fukeshû school are notified with their place of transmission (Fudaiji temple, Ichigetsuji, Reihôji, Myôanji etc…). It is thus possible to go up again to the origins.
Fuke Shakuhachi has always been more than a sect, but a musical principle and a philosophical school. If for political reasons, this philosophical school born from the Zen Buddhism was structured during the Edo era, its essence resides above all in its paradigm the spiritual approach in the music, which can be summarized with the concept “Shinne” the sound of the truth, in other words “Ichionjobutsu” a sound to attain enlightenment. Fuke Shakuhachi never disappeared even if its teaching was often transmitted in the highest secret.
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