Monday, July 9, 2012

Spies, Buddhist Priests and Bamboo: Riley Lee


Once upon a time in Japan there was a class of people known as komoso (nothingness priests) who were practitioners of Zen Buddhism of the Fuke sect. The adherents of this sect were committed to expressing the ineffable aspects of spiritual enlightenment and therefore, like their colleagues in other sects, did not chant Buddhist sutras.  Rather they played a long bamboo flute known as the shakuhachi, and in particular, a meditative tune cycle called honkyoku which expressed and encouraged spiritual awakening. The komoso had special permission from the Shogun to travel about the countryside as part of their spiritual practice, a privilege not granted readily in those days to common folk.  As they wandered, komoso would often cover their heads with a wicker basket to signify their detachment from the world’s pleasures and temptations, and blow their plaintive pipes.


Now, we all know that in the contemporary world, many a sinner has found secure lodging behind the mask of religion.  But this is not a modern turn of events. Even in those days of medieval Japan, warlords and petty kings saw the advantage to be had of sending out their spies dressed up with a basket on their head and a flute on their lips. The public and officialdom would both respectfully defer from approaching the mendicants, who were more often than not, making mental notes of mischief makers and unsuspecting innocents to report back to the boss.

But the Fuke masters were not ones to let their practice be corrupted by politicians. So they composed intricate musical passages, which only true monks with many years practice could perform. Whenever there was a need to test the bona fides of a basket-wearing komoso he would be asked to perform a shika na tone (test). If he failed he quickly met his fate in the form of a sword through the body.
Riley Lee

Shakuhachi players were almost all men and until Riley Lee came along, almost entirely Japanese. Lee is an American-Australian, who lives in Sydney. He is a master of the shakuhachi which he learned during an extended period in Japan and has been a prominent exponent of the flute and its mellow tones to audiences outside of its homeland.  Tonight we share his album, Mixed Spice, which gorgeously brings together the land of the rising sun and the land of the birthplace of Buddha.  The music is airy and contemplative. But also sparkling and clear like a stream in a rock garden.

            Track Listing:
            01 White Horse In Dark Valley
02 Mixed Spice
03 Stairway Of Waterfalls Part 1
04 Stairway Of Waterfalls Part 2
05 Waiting For The Angels
06 Carasol
07 Felucca To Zanzibar
08 Serendipity

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