John Mahoney: Flute Pilgrim, Shakuhachi Wanderer
John Mahoney
John Mahoney
is editor of the Log Cabin Chronicles.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 04.29.2015
Cobden, Ontario


And so the Shakuhachi journey begins

I came under the spell of the shakuhachi some 45 years ago, during the same period that I was introduced to Zen Buddhism and the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi by Mark Abrams, one of my photography students at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. I shall be forever grateful.

zen The music was Music for Zen Meditation, improvisations for clarinet (Tony Scott), koto (Shinichi Yuize), and shakuhachi ( Hozan Yamamoto). It has been said that this 1964 album was the first New Age record. Like Zen, it spoke to something deep inside me. I have owned versions on records, on tape, on CD, and digitized onto my computer. The music still speaks to me, and I continue to listen to it regularly.

Alas, I was no musician -- several failed attempts at the guitar confirmed that -- so I settled on listening.

Fast forward two decades. I had left teaching some years back and for 20 years had been subsistence homesteading near Stanstead, Quebec -- just north of the Vermont border and only a few miles from the then-wilderness spot my pioneer ancestors settled in 1796. I was still listening to Music for Zen Meditation.

For some now-forgotten reason, I tried my hand at making a Native American-style flute from some scrap cedar, using a plan from an old book by Walter Ben Hunt. With some help from friends with power tools, it turned out okay -- still has a nice soft voice. But there was no You Tube back in the 1990s and little easily available information about how to play the NAF. Eventually, the flute got packed away.


Fast forward to 2007. We sold our small farm in Quebec and moved five hours northwest to Cobden, Ontario -- one hour west of Ottawa -- to be nearer 7 of our 10 grandchildren who were growing rapidly. I rediscovered my old NAF, found how-to-play information on You Tube, and began to learn to blow linked notes that sounded, at least to me, like -- music.

And then I discovered stuff about the shakuhachi -- both music and hard information: historical, spiritual, and how to build a simple shakuhachi from plastic water pipe. Hey, I had once built a playable NAF, I had some basic tools, and the local hardware store stocked plastic pipe and fittings. I started sawing, drilling, and sanding.


The first one wasn't much good -- looked crappy, sounded worse.


The next flute was wood -- a cylinder of red cedar I had bought that had been drilled out with a gun boring machine. It turned out serviceable enough for a personal meditation flute, and I still have it. But it wasn't a real shakuhachi.


fluteNext, I swapped a NAF I had built (I was now making them from sunflower stalks, for fun) with a friend for a bamboo shakuhachi made by Erik the Flutemaker of Florida. It had a Quena-style notched mouthpiece and some fancy carved decorations -- it was a step up, but still not a traditional shakuhachi, which I really wanted.

yuuIn the fall of 2010 I discovered the Yuu -- although cast in resin to imitate the look of bamboo, it was the real thing for a beginner. And at $125 (back then) it didn't break the bank. I paired my new Yuu with Take-no-Michi (The Path of Bamboo) -- A Beginner's Guide to Learning Shakuhachi Honkyoku, by Tokuyama Takashi (with Barry Nyosui Weiss). That cost another $50.

And I made a personal commitment -- I would practice every day, for at least one hour, for as long as I was physically and mentally able to do so.

The Shakuachi journey continues