Shoganken Reibo

This is a traditional shakuhachi piece, from a temple near Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture, which was once known as Shogan Prefecture.

You may be wondering by this time about the significance of the word reibo. This is the third reibo I have recorded. The word means yearning for the bell. The mythical founder of the shakuhachi cult was a monk named Fuke, who lived in China in the time of the great Zen master Rinzai, the ninth century C.E. Surprisingly enough, the founder of the shakuhachi lineage did not play the shakuhachi. He was an eccentric character who wandered around carrying a staff that had bells attached, and he would shake the staff and sound the bells. His chief student, after the master’s death, wanted to recreate the sound of those bells; yearning for the bell means yearning for enlightenment. Instead of doing something sensible, such as getting some bells of his own, he happened upon a length of bamboo, and blew into it, making a sound that to him brought to mind Fuke’s bells. According to the legend, then, reibo pieces express the yearning for enlightenment. In fact the word has come to mean little more than a melody.

Modern historians have concluded that the connection between Fuke, if he even existed, and shakuhachi is a hoax. In the 17th century, the shogun’s government was cleaning house, and sent out messages to the major shakuhachi temples, asking where they came from and why they should be allowed to exist. Either the temple elders had no idea, or they had an idea and didn’t think the shogun would like it. So they invented a history with a prestigious ancestor, whose name was pulled out of the book of the sayings of Rinzai, and a lineage going back to China. What could be more respectable?

There’s a story that at one time the performance of this piece inspired such melancholy thoughts in listeners that it caused a significant increase in double suicides of hopeless lovers. The shogun forbad its performance near the pleasure district in Tokyo. Or so they say.

This piece is rather long for a honkyoku composition, almost 14 minutes. At about minute eight, you’re likely to start thinking that the composer had about four melodic ideas, and just kept repeating them in different sequences and different contexts, and that the music just isn’t going anywhere, and at minute 13:53 you’ll think, “Huh? It’s over?” You think this because your appreciation of shakuhachi music is uncooked and underdeveloped. The shakuhachi aficionado, with a well developed shakuhachi ear, realizes that the composer had about four melodic ideas, and just kept repeating them in different sequences and different contexts, and that the music just isn’t going anywhere, and that’s okay.

You’re not listening to western music, so you need to clear your mind of all the expectations that western music programed into you. Imagine you’re at the beach, listening to the waves, or in the woods, listening to birds. These are Gaia’s songs, and they don’t go anywhere. They’re just pure sounds and modulations. You need to focus on the ways that the sounds change and repeat and change and repeat again. You don’t need to listen mindfully. You just need to listen naively.

I recorded this on a 2.1 shakuhachi.

3 thoughts on “Shoganken Reibo”

  1. A good story, well told. I’m yearning and naive, and have to admit that the music goes nowhere, but is pleasing nevertheless.

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