Honkyoku Shakuhachi Pieces


To begin learning Honkyoku, see my Shakuhachi Note Charts, and then, Your First Honkyoku Kyorei.

Honkyoku 本曲, the most venerated pieces of shakuhachi music, were primarily composed by anonymous Komuso 虚無僧 monks and are considered to be spiritual. They often have themes from Buddhism, Shinto 神道, and Shugendo 修験道. Both Honkyoku and the various practices or methodologies of playing them have elements from Shomyo Buddhist liturgy 声明, Shugyo 修行 or ascetic training or discipline, and Buddhist themes from Pure Land and Zen. The ‘genre’ is thought to have originated from the Southern island of Kyushu, Japan.

Kyoku to Honkyoku – behind the name


The word Honkyoku can refer to a single piece or to the genre as a whole. The Kanji for Hon is 本, the image of a tree with branches spreading above and roots below. Next, Kyoku 曲 can be taken as, ‘piece/composition/music’. Apparently, 本 may not have been used until after 1867, as no surviving documents before then make use of it, though it may have very well been in regular oral use.

Perhaps once Sankyoku ensemble music or Gaikyoku started to become more commonplace for shakuhachi players, as it was previously forbidden by the Fuke Shu Komuso, created the need to differentiate it from the Fuke Shu solo, spiritual shakuhachi pieces, thus precipitating the coining of the term Honkyoku.

Honkyoku and Spirituality

Over time, distinct regional styles of Honkyoku developed across Edo period Japan, and while many Honkyoku are thought to have been lost, the surviving pieces comprise the largest body of solo wind instrument music in the entire world. Honkyoku often have titles and themes inspired by the aforementioned religions of Japan. In fact, the Samurai who became Komuso shakuhachi playing monks practiced all of these religions, to varying degrees. Therefore, they inevitably brought over elements from these religions to shakuhachi.

In Shinto, for example, the deer is considered a sacred animal, and in some cases a messenger of divinity. For Japanese people, the Kinko Ryu Honkyoku piece Shika no Tone or ‘Distant Cry of the Deer’ can both reflect nature, as it is, in a Zen sense, as well as the sacred status of the deer in Shinto. Furthermore, the Honkyoku piece Ajikan takes its title from a Shingon Pure Land Buddhist meditation practice in which the ‘object’ or ‘focus’ of the meditation is the Sanskrit syllable Ah, i.e.,Ah and Om.

Additionally, the Honkyoku titled Koku 虚空 or ‘Empty sky’ is understood as alluding to our ‘true nature’, as expressed in Zen. In this context, ’empty sky’ is more so understood as the potential for anything; ’empty’ of a permanent or static state. A cloud passes through the sky just like things pass through our senses. Both the sky and the senses have no inherent will. This is sometimes also likened to a mirror which simply reflects.

What makes Honkyoku unique

Honkyoku are unique in a number of ways. Firstly, they are mostly solo pieces with pauses of silence between phrases. Furthermore, the majority of Honkyoku don’t have a strictly set rhythm nor strong melodic structures. Of course, composers of Honkyoku were broadly influenced by Wagaku 和楽 or ‘Japanese music’, which in turn was influenced by music from China and Korea. However, the scale or modes which are used in Honkyoku, often called the ‘Koto scale’, is endemic to Japan.

Honkyoku are also highly nuanced, making it virtually impossible to transcribe them to staff notation. In fact, even the traditional shakuhachi Katakana systems of notation cannot convey many of the subtleties found in Honkyoku. For example, it would be like trying to infer or convey the accent of a regional dialect through written text alone. For this reason, the passing down of Honkyoku must occur between teacher and student.

Honkyoku from the Edo period

Below are the six main surviving Edo period schools or styles of Honkyoku (there are additional Edo period Honkyoku which survive outside of these schools or styles). Virtually all other schools and ‘sects’ of Honkyoku stem from these six in some way, by varying degrees. Of course, these six were based upon previously existing styles of Honkyoku, many of which are lost to time, tracing all the way back to Kyushu.

Note that Honkyoku styles went from just being associated with specific Komuso temples to being Ryu or ‘schools’ with a founding IemotoSoke, or ‘Headmaster’ (to better understand this shift, see the Shakuhachi History page).

Honkyoku originated from the southern Island of Kyushu and then, more or less, migrated northwards. Thus, the list also begins in the geographical south and moves north.