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The Bamboo Flute

The Dharma Hall vibrated with a hushed but excited expectancy. We were like a kindergarten class, frankly, who know they’re about to get a special treat. In our case, we knew only that we were outside the normal schedule. Anytime you’re outside the normal schedule at a Zen monastery, something special is about to happen. We had only been told something vague about hearing some Japanese guy playing the bamboo flute.

There was a hush as the roshi paused in the doorway to the Dharma Hall, his palms together in gassho. The scent of his signature aloeswood incense instantly and powerfully suffused the entire Hall. After standing the stick in the incense brazier, Roshi turned to the entrance where an old Japanese guy stood, looking around at us students. He was even shorter than the roshi, bald on top with a fringe of grey hair, big droopy grey moustache. His clothing seemed rather threadbare, worn, haphazard—especially in contrast to the impeccable dress robe of the roshi. He waved a vague acknowledgement when Roshi made a full prostration bow to him.

Roshi took his place. He told us that we would hear Watazumi Dozo, a master of the bamboo flute; but that first, the master wanted to demonstrate for us a style of martial arts or health exercise routine—it wasn’t clear whether it was one he put together himself or learned elsewhere. He picked up a staff maybe six feet long, looking as if had a good deal of heft, and seeming to dwarf the fragile old man. Suddenly he was whirling with the stick in the middle of the Dharma Hall, swinging it this way then that with wild abandon, from time to time thrusting it up in a stabbing motion and letting out a great shout, utterly surprising in its force and deeply resonant timbre. He was a dancing dervish!

I stole a glance at the roshi. For my own part, I was terrified this lunatic was going to crash into something on the altar. The big bronze Buddha would probably survive a fairly vigorous clash, but the ceramic brazier and other objects would certainly shatter from any encounter with the whirling stick. But the roshi was composed and serene.

Suddenly Watazumi Dozo stopped the dervish act. He spoke rapidly, then held the pole at an angle to his body. With quick decisive jabs he bagan thrusting with the end of the pole down into his lower abdomen—sharp, vigorous thrusts that made me fear for his safety. And with each thrust, he would emit a great fart. No, no—you’re thinking of quite ordinary farts. There was nothing ordinary about the great ripping explosions he was forcing from his body with the pole—they were truly of epic proportions.

The roshi said, again keeping that air of calm as if what we were witnessing were the most normal thing imaginable, “I cannot actually understand everything he is saying. But he says he uses the pole to, ah, press out the gas. Very good for health.” Roshi looked perfectly composed; but I knew him well enough by that time to suspect he was exerting considerable control to keep a straight face.

The extraordinary performance finally ended—all out of farts, I guess—and Watazumi Dozo sat on a cushion beside which were arranged a number of bamboo flutes of varying sizes. He picked up one, paused a long time, like the most patient of spiders suspended in its web—and then began to play.

Watazumi Dozo was no longer a dervish, no longer a clown. The music flowed, a magic stream through the absolute silence the Hall had become. I’m not an especially musical person, but from the first notes I knew I was hearing something rare and unique. I won’t bore you with futile attempts to describe that music. But in those never to be forgotten moments, what I spent my days trying to achieve—giving the mind to nothing more than or other than this present moment—required no effort at all: There simply was nothing else in the cosmos than the beautiful, haunting notes.

At the end, Watazumi Dozo picked up the largest flute of all; maybe, what, five feet long?—a goodly portion of a quite large bamboo. Another long listening pause, then he began again. And what he played was beyond music. Music, after all, is a human artifact—something we construct out of sound to express our feelings, our longings, our joy or sorrow. These were sounds from the soul of the world itself. Wind in pines, distant mournful cry of loon, whisper of surf on sand, burble of mountain stream, mutter of distant thunder, piercing trills of night peepers. It was the sounds of Eden, before Adam stumbled in with his noisy, chittering mind.

The final notes, hardly audible though deeply resonant, faded from the big bamboo. Watazumi Dozo paused, then gently laid down the flute. The silence could have been the hush before God arrived to begin the creation.

There was a loud crack.

After a long, enchanted silence, Watazumi spoke briefly, quietly. Roshi allowed a respectful pause, then said, equally quietly, “Watazumi-san says he has played the big flute for thirty years. The piece he played on it tonight is his gift to Dai Bosatsu. It is called Dai Gen—‘Great River.’

“The sound you heard was the cracking of the flute. It will never be played again. Watazumi-san says you are fortunate to be present at the cracking of the flute.”