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Not in the slightest way am I an expert on honkyoku. But I’m an enthusiastic practitioner of the tradition and I feel like writing an introduction to it. I’ve had a hand in the Wikipedia article also, but here’s what I have to say about it personally. Please note that this is just from my perspective, coming from a monkey-minded Canadian practitioner who has simply had fortunate access to some of the greatest living masters of the tradition, both in North American and Japan.

Honkyoku (本曲, “original pieces”) are shakuhachi songs played by wandering Japanese Zen monks called komusō (虚無僧, “emptiness monks”) who played for enlightenment and alms. These are the dudes playing bamboo flutes with straw baskets covering their heads and faces you might see in woodblock prints or other Japanese art. This practice began with the Fuke sect in Japan approximately 700 years ago, inspired by a crazy bell-ringing Chan monk named Pǔhuà (普化, pronounced “Fuke” in Japanese) approximately 1,100 years ago in China. For a variety of reasons, this practice was outlawed by the end of the 1800s. But transmission of the pieces was primarily verbal, changing slightly from temple to temple and student to teacher, and many honkyoku survive today. With several modern lineages of teachers and their students, honkyoku have been undergoing a bit of a resurgence in recent decades. I think this is partly fuelled by its discovery by westerners and its very organic and personal approach to music and meditation.

It’s worth noting that honkyoku, like any music played on shakuhachi, is ridiculously difficult to play. I mean it’s physically difficult to make a consistent sound with the shakuhachi, let alone to play in pitch and with good expression. After diligent practice for many years, one may still feel like and sound like a beginner. But this isn’t a results-oriented activity — the process and presence in the moment is the practice. Meditation.

Honkyoku, true to its original intent, is never “performed” as music, per se. It’s meditation. A vehicle or form to be mindful within. Meditation generally isn’t much fun to watch or listen to, but honkyoku is, to some ears, beautiful and interesting and a great experience for a mindful listener. So check out a CD or two of honkyoku to see if it resonates with you. There’s a wide spectrum of schools and approaches. This isn’t the sort of CD you’ll find sold at most local or even large online stores. I suggest browsing places like shakuhachi.com or shakuhachiforum.com or komuso.com for more ideas from enthusiasts and experts. A few good MP3 samples of honkyoku are at bamboo-in.

Keep in mind that honkyoku is not the normal type of music played on shakuhachi today. When you hear shakuhachi (at a concert or a movie soundtrack, say), you’re much more likely to hear minyo (folk) or shakuhachi accompanied by koto or contemporary Japanese and Western compositions for shakuhachi. Or new age or fusion projects involving shakuhachi. And that’s good stuff too. But it’s not honkyoku because it’s being blown from a different place.

Here is a Python script that generates a table of display metrics for comparison. Maybe someone will find it useful. It helps illustrate why and how, for example, a 15″ wide-screen monitor is actually smaller than a “normal” 15″ monitor. Or if you want to compare the DPI of your LCD TV to your computer monitor, this will help also.  Nerdy.