After two decades of journeying through Asia, the Middle East and Europe and living in the steep mountain ranges of the Himalayas and Japan, Kogan Murata finally chose his path in life: playing the bamboo flute as an itinerant beggar monk, a komuso.
“You could say that I’m an addict,” he laughs with typical exuberance. “If I play, I feel good. The more I play, the better I feel, so I just keep playing. I’d rather be doing this than anything else. That’s why I don’t have a job. It’s better just to play the flute.”
Though the figure of the man wearing a woven straw basketlike hat covering his face and head and a wooden box around his neck with the words “Without existence, without extinction” has almost completely disappeared from the Japanese landscape, there are still those among the very aged who recognize him as a komuso.
Most people, however, have no idea what he is doing.
I ask the shaven-headed man with the toothy grin and protruding ears if he explains to younger people what a komuso is.
“I don’t explain,” says Murata. “When I’m playing, I don’t talk to people at all. I only play.”
On the days he chooses to leave his home in the mountains, he goes to a local town and, standing in front of a house or store, he plays one of his warbling evocations of impermanence, which, according to Murata, are more sutras than songs.
“Like the sound of the flute, human life comes into existence and then disappears,” he says.
Whether the people there welcome him, shoo him away or slam the door in his face, his reaction is the same. “I play one sutra, and I finish it. If they give money, I receive it. If they do not, I simply finish and move on.”
According to Murata, “The reason to play the flute is to advance your ability to better perceive emptiness. You are playing for yourself, not to entertain another person, or to have them pity you. You certainly don’t do it with the object of making money. That’s why it doesn’t matter at all how people react. As my sensei says, ‘To play is good. That’s all.’ “
When I arrive at Murata’s house in southern Kyushu it is late afternoon, and I spend the evening listening to the sonorous, enigmatic sound of his playing. The lights are low, and the faint odor of burning charcoal in the fire fills the room with peace and intimacy. The dense harmonic overtones of Murata’s flute blend into the quiet of the night as long, low drones slip up into higher octaves and resolve into silence. The cavernous resonances seem ineffably linked to the lush coloration of the bamboo itself.
“My sensei says that I should be able to play the flute in such a way that if I were playing next to a very sick person they should not be annoyed by my sound in any way,” says Murata. “That’s how gently I should play.”
As Murata affectionately rubs the richly toned piece of bamboo he explains that the instrument is not strictly a shakuhachi, but a kyotaku, which is longer than a shakuhachi, and less smooth inside. The word means “bell that makes the mind empty.”
Although the open intonations of Murata’s playing are meditative and soothing, his personality is often wild and rambunctious. Yet he is neither erratic nor imprecise. He is, indeed, quite entranced by the exacting specificity of making a proper flute.
He tells me how the time of year at which one should harvest the bamboo is strictly defined, as is the type of bamboo, the length between the joints, the type of lacquer used to coat the inside, and the amount of interior jointing to leave in the finished flute. “Every detail affects the sound of the flute,” he says.
Murata came to this village in Kyushu seven years ago to study with renowned kyotaku master Koku Nishimura, now in his 80s. “I didn’t know whether he would accept me as his disciple,” says Murata. “He did, but he didn’t ‘teach’ me anything!
“He didn’t say, as I had expected, hold your fingers here or shape your mouth like this. He simply told me to go home and play only this one note [the lowest and most difficult one] for the next half year.”
“One note only?” I ask.
“Yes, it was like he saw my entire character in a glance, like he was holding me in the palm of his hand, turning his head this way and that. He saw what I needed. Every time I come for a lesson, he watches me approach, carefully. Often he just says, ‘Go home, don’t come here!’ My attitude isn’t right.”
Before coming to Kyushu, Murata had a checkered existence, living outside, traveling by motorbike throughout Japan, working on oil tankers and at ski resorts and traveling in India.
As a child, he would run wild through the mountains eating acorns and learning about edible weeds. In his 20s, he traveled overland by the trans-Siberian railroad to Europe, where he survived for three years on his tiny savings by eating the cheapest possible food and sleeping in parks.
Later, he read the teachings of Chinese philosophers Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and spent several years in a guest house in Katmandu full of Japanese travelers who, according to Murata, would spend all day for weeks on end doing nothing but drinking tea, talking, eating and sleeping.
But perhaps the first influence that led him down the road of nonconformism was a misunderstanding.
“My mother told me again and again that to be the same as others was not a good thing,” says Murata, with a laugh. “What she meant was that I should try to exceed them, get good marks in school and get to the top. But I thought that she meant I should do my damnedest to not do anything other people did.”
Even now, his life is unusual in the extreme. By making his own charcoal, gathering all his own firewood, growing not only vegetables but also beans, squashes, potatoes, peanuts and all his grains, and then grinding the wheat and making bread, he and his partner Sayaka both manage to survive on 300,000 yen a year. Without doubt, these two are the most self-sufficient people I have ever met.
The main reason for this is less philosophical than practical. “I don’t mind using money,” Murata says with a smile. “I just hate having to go through what it takes to produce it.”
According to Murata, itinerant begging is perfect. “I’m happily a beggar!” he proclaims. “It’s great practice for the kyotaku, and when I become a komuso, I can help others release their desire by creating a situation in which they can give up something of value to them.
“I also reduce my own desire by putting myself in a position of receiving people’s charity. But it’s not servility either; I am indifferent to whether I receive money or not. As I said before, the only reason to play is to play, and that is to become aware of the fundamental emptiness of existence. And that can only be done by, and for, yourself.”