The spiritual core of shakuhachi manifests itself in what I will call the yureru oto, [Translator’s note: a dynamic fluctuation of the tone] which also mirrors the essence of Zen. Nowadays, most sects of shakuhachi – Tozan, Kinko and current Meian, among others – have forgotten this exquisite yureru oto, which exists in the space between the notes and is what compromises the soulful sound of the shakuhachi.
One must not attempt to play the notes of a shakuhachi song “accurately” or “skillfully”. Playing only the precise pitches prescribed by the notes on the score leads to boring, soulless playing that neither expresses the spirit of the music nor the heart of the player.
Instead, the traditional lifeblood of the shakuhachi is to let each note vary subtly within its permissible scope. This expresses the soul of wabi, sabi, and ma, and leads to the yureru oto. [Translator’s note: wabi can be thought of as an austere, refined beauty, sabi as a solitariness combined with age and tranquility, and ma as timing, or the delicate interval or emptiness which exists between the sounds.] Playing only the average pitches will extinguish these elements, and the soulful sound of the shakuhachi will be lost.
Expressing the sounds that exist between the notes is also the traditional lifeblood of the shakuhachi, and is what helps give rise to the yureru oto’s exquisite reverberations.
It takes a long time and much effort to develop these qualities in one’s playing. During this time, trial, error, and original experimentation are key to success. Five or ten years may pass yielding little progress but much frustration and confusion. At the point your heart and soul become free, however, satori, or “enlightenment”, is experienced, and you think “Ah! It was so simple all along!” At this moment, that which was hidden becomes obvious, and that which was difficult becomes easy. The player and the sound become one, resulting in a deep, profound sound that resonates in the spinal column and touches one’s soul.
Every sound of the shakuhachi can be expressed in a multitude of ways depending on the brilliance of the player’s soul. Thus, all life is study, and this study is dynamic and alive. Your experience of the shakuhachi’s sound never stops evolving.