Komusō

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Komusō
A Buddhist monk begging as a komusō
Sketch of a komusō (right)

A komusō (虚無僧 komusō?, Hiragana こむそう; also romanized komusou or komuso) was a Japanese mendicant monk of the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism, during the Edo period of 1600-1868.[1] Komusō were characterised by the straw basket (a sedge or reed hood named a tengai) worn on the head, manifesting the absence of specific ego.[2] They are 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.

Origins[edit]

The streets of cities and villages 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 Japan 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.

Komusō practiced Suizen, which is meditation through the blowing of a shakuhachi, as opposed to Zazen, which is meditation through sitting as practiced by most Zen followers.

Etymology[edit]

  • 虚無僧 (komusō) means "priest of nothingness" or "monk of emptiness"
    • 虚無 (kyomu or komu) means "nothingness, emptiness"
      • (kyo or ko) means "nothing, empty, false"
      • (mu) means "nothing, nil, zero"
    • () means "priest, monk"

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.

Flute[edit]

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. 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 quite expensive.

Disguise[edit]

The komusō was also used as a disguise by samurai, particularly rōnin, and possibly also ninja, who were seldom members of the samurai class.[3]

Komusō wore a tengai (天蓋), a woven straw hat which covered their head completely looking like an overturned basket or a certain kind of woven beehive. The concept was that by wearing such a hat they removed their ego. What the hat also did was remove their identity from prying eyes.

When the Tokugawa Shogunate came into power over a unified Japan at the beginning of the 17th Century, the komusō came under the government’s wary eyes. Many komusō had formerly been samurai during the Sengoku (Warring States) period (16th Century) and were now lay clergy. The potential for trouble was there because many of them had turned rōnin when their masters were defeated – most likely by the Shogunate and their allies. Komusō were granted the rare privilege of traveling through the country without hindrance.

References[edit]

  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ 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. 
  3. ^ Turnbull, Stephen R. (2005). Warriors of medieval Japan. Osprey publishing. p. 160. ISBN 1-84176-864-2. 

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