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The komusō (虚無僧 komusō?, hiragana: こむそう; also romanized komusou or komuso) were a group of Japanese mendicant monks of the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism who flourished during the Edo period of 1600-1868. Komusō were characterized by a straw bascinet (a sedge or reed hood named a tengai or tengui) worn on the head, manifesting the absence of specific ego. They were also known for playing solo pieces on the shakuhachi (a type of Japanese bamboo flute). These pieces, called honkyoku ("original pieces") were played during a meditative practice called suizen, for alms, as a method of attaining enlightenment, and as a healing modality. The Japanese government introduced reforms after the Edo period, abolishing the Fuke sect. Records of the musical repertoire survived, and are being revived in the 21st century.
The streets of cities and villages throughout Japan were accustomed to the sight of a Buddhist priest playing a bamboo flute with his head completely covered by a straw hat. Komusō were Zen Buddhist monks who wandered about the country playing the shakuhachi for both meditation and alms.
Fuke Zen came to Japan in the 13th Century. Komusō belonged to the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Fuke Zen comes from the teachings of Linji Yixuan, a Zen teacher from China in the 9th Century. Fuke however is the Japanese name for Puhua one of Linji’s peers and co-founders of his sect. Puhua would walk around ringing a bell to summon others to enlightenment. In Japan, it was thought the shakuhachi could serve this purpose.
- 虚無僧 (komusō) means "priest of nothingness" or "monk of emptiness"
- 虚無 (kyomu or komu) means "nothingness, emptiness"
- 虚 (kyo or ko) means "nothing, empty, false"
- 無 (mu) means "nothing, nil, zero"
- 僧 (sō) means "priest, monk"
- 虚無 (kyomu or komu) means "nothingness, emptiness"
The priest were known first as komosō which means “straw-mat monk.” Later they became known as Komusō which means “priest of nothingness” or “monk of emptiness.” Fuke Zen emphasized pilgrimage and so the sight of wandering Komuso was a familiar one in Old Japan.
The shakuhachi flute was the instrument used to achieve this desired state. The instrument derives its name from its size. Shaku is an old unit of measure close to a foot (30 cms). Hachi means eight, which in this case represents a measure of eight-tenths of a shaku. True shakuhachi are made of bamboo and can be very expensive.
Disguise and outfit
Komusō wore a tengai or tengui (天蓋), a woven straw hat or kasa which completely covered their head like an overturned basket or a kind of woven beehive. The idea was that by wearing such a hat they removed their ego. What the hat also did was remove their identity from prying eyes. Further, the government granted the komusō the rare privilege to freely travel the country without hindrance—playing the flute for alms and meditation. This was because many komusō were spies for the Shogunate; and some were undercover spies in priestly disguise.
Jon Kypros, a shakuhachi player and teacher, lists the full historical disguise or outfit of the feudal Japanese komusō—very clearly based on that of a samurai warrior—on his website:
- Tengai hat
- Kimono, especially of a five-crested mon-tsuki style
- O-kuwara, a rakusu-like garment worn over the shoulder
- Obi, a sash for mens' kimonos
- A secondary shakuhachi to accompany the primary instrument, possibly as a replacement for the samurais' wakizashi
- Netsuke, a container for medicine, tobacco (likely kiseru kizami), and other items
- Kyahan shin coverings
- Tabi socks
- Waraji sandals
- Hachimaki headband, covered by the tengai
- Primary shakuhachi, usually a 1.8 size instrument (I shaku ha sun), pitched in what would today be considered D or D flat
- Tekou hand-and-forearm covers
- Gebako, a box used for collecting alms and holding documents
- Fusa, a tassel
When the Tokugawa Shogunate came into power over a unified Japan at the beginning of the 17th Century, the komusō came under government scrutiny. Because many komusō had formerly been samurai disenfranchised during the Sengoku (Warring States) period (16th century) who were now lay clergy, the potential for trouble was there. Because many of them were former samurai, and had become rōnin when their masters were defeated—most likely by the Shogunate and their allies—komusō became suspect.
Due to the komusō's special dispensation to travel freely, and to the anonymity afforded by the basket hat, samurai, particularly rōnin, and ninja used to disguise themselves as komusō,  and were used to spy for the Shogunate.
After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell to the loyal forces of the Emperor, komusō temples and their priests were abolished in 1871 for meddling in earthly affairs and not the emptiness of being.
- Blomberg, Catharina (1994). The heart of the warrior: origins and religious background of the Samurai System in Feudal Japan. Catharina Blomberg. pp. 101–103. ISBN 1-873410-13-1.
- Nishiyama, Matsunosuke; Groemer, Gerald (1997). Edo culture: daily life and diversions in urban Japan, 1600-1868. University of Hawaii Press. p. 124. ISBN 0-8248-1736-2.
- "Komuso: Japanese Zen Priest", 2008 article by David Michael Weber 
- Turnbull, Stephen R. (2005). Warriors of medieval Japan. Osprey publishing. p. 160. ISBN 1-84176-864-2.
- Liner notes from the music CD Komuso: The Healing Art of Zen Shakuhachi, Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin, shakuhachi. 2000, The Relaxation Company
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