The Legend of the Kyotaku

Kyotaku 虚鐸 is synonymous with Shakuhachi. The "Legend of the Kyotaku" Kyotaku-denki 虚鐸伝記 provides a myth of origin for the Komusō tradition by placing the Chinese Zen master Puhua 普化 (Japanese pronunciation Fuke, thus Fuke-sect and Fuke-Shakuhachi) at the very beging of its lineage. Puhua was a contemporary of the famous Zen-master Linji 臨濟, (jap. Rinzai) who lived in the 7th century. Puhua is said to always have chimed a little bell in the streets, reciting the following mysterious verse, which has become a kind of motto of the Japanese Fuke-sect until today. Here is the Japanese pronunciation with a rough English translation:

Myōtō rai ya myōtō da. "When one comes in the light, I strike in the light."

Antō rai ya antō da. "When one comes in the dark, I strike in the dark."

Shihō hachimen rai ya senpū da. "When one comes from everywhere, I strike like the whirlwind."

Kokū rai ya renga da. "When one comes out of the void, I strike with the flail."

Photo: Verse of Fuke in the handwriting of Uramoto Setchō 浦本浙潮

A man named Zhangbo 張伯 (jap. Chōhaku, historically inaccessible), enchanted by the sound of the bell, expressed its tone with a flute called Kyotaku. Kyotaku means "Empty bell", because - according to one explanation I have heard - unlike Master Fuke's handbell, the flute did not have a clapper inside and was thus "empty". Zhangbo passed on the playing of the Kyotaku as a family tradition.

In the Kamakura period, the Japanese monk Shinchi Kakushin 新地学心 (1207-1298, posthumous Hottō Kokushi 法灯国師) learned the tradition of the Kyotaku during a study stay in China, mastered it and transmitted it to Japan. Kakushin passed the Kyotaku tradition to his best disciple Kyochiku 虚竹, now know as Zen-master Kyochiku. He went on pilgrimage and in a dream or vision received two melodies, which he played with his Shakuhachi. Later his teacher Kakushin named those first Shakuhachi honkyoku Kokū 虚空 ("Emptiness") and Mukaiji 霧海篪 ("Flute of the misty sea"). Together with the original piece Kyorei 虚鈴 ("Empty bell"), which Kakushin himself had learned in China, these pieces still form the innermost core of the honkyoku. They are sometimes referred to as San-kyorei 三虚鈴 "The Three Empty Bell [Pieces]".

One of Kyochiku's successors was the former Samurai Kusunoki Masakatsu 楠正勝 (1294-1336). He adopted the Komusō name Kyomu 虚無 and established the typical appearance of the Komusō with the characteristic basket-shaped hat, the tengai 天蓋. When people asked him who he was and why he was dressed so extraordinarily, he replied, "I am the monk [sō 僧] Kyomu." This is how the term K(y)omusō 虚無僧 came into being, according to the legend.

Representation from the Kyotaku-denki: Kyomu as a pilgrim

The historical facts of the "Legend of the Kyotaku" are largely disregarded today as a later fabrication dating from the Edo period. Neither could the existence of Zhangbo be proved nor could there be found any relationship whatsoever of Shinchi Kakushin / Hottō Kokushi and the Shakuhachi tradition (Kurihara Kōdai, Shakuhachi-shikō, Chikuyū-sha 1918). The ”Legend of the Kyotaku" appears to be a typical example for Invention of Tradition. The Komusō thereby tried and succeded in relating their group to one of the cultural heroes for the Kamakura period, Hottō Kokushi, and thus became one of the several Zen traditions existing in Japan.

The text of this Legend is not to be read as a record of historical facts. It is rather a spiritual document, expressing something about the self-image of the Edo period Komusō. If a document needs to be forged to justify ones social and political status (a common practice in Japanese politics of that age) there are a great number of choices. The Komusō chose Puhua / Fuke who appears in the role of a trickster within the stories about Zen-master Linji. Fuke challenges authority and the strict rules of everyday life in a Zen- or rather Chan-temple during the Tang-dynasty. And by doing so he makes the teaching of Linji even more clearly visible. "Rinzai is the breath and Fuke is his sound", my early teacher Hanada Ikkei used to say. For further investigation I can only recommend the reading of the respective passages in the Record of Linji, that has been translated into English several times.