Monday, 10 September 2012

Xiao Vertical Bamboo Flute

 "Even after the Buddha put the flute down, they could still hear the music. .... No one spoke for a long while. Then the young man to whom the flute belonged asked the Buddha, “Master, you play so wonderfully! I’ve never heard anyone who could play so well. Who did you study with? Would you accept me as your student so that I could learn flute from you?” The Buddha smiled and he said, “I learned to play the flute when I was a boy, but I have not played in nearly seven years. My sound, however, is better than it was before.” “How can that be, Master? How can your playing have improved if you have not practiced in seven years?” “Playing the flute does not depend solely on practicing the flute. I now play better than in the past because I have found my true self. You cannot reach lofty heights in art if you do not first discover the unsurpassable beauty in your own heart. If you would like to play the flute truly well, you must find your true self on the Path of Awakening.” - p218-219 , Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the footsteps of the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Siddartha Gautama playing the flute as a youth before he became a Buddha.
When I was a child I became quite attached to playing the recorder and intended to go on to play clarinet in highschool, but lost an interest in it as an idea not even having touched a clarinet. After this, any enthusiasm for playing music whithered until I tried and failed to take up the guitar in my mid teens. A few years later I became a breakbeat and techno fan, and saw music as more of a dancefloor phenomenon. I began producing breakbeat music as an amateur - making music that I felt was 'missing' from the dancefloor, until in my later twenties I started to feel that the dance music I was creating was out of sync with my lifestyle.

In 2006, during a tour of China, as my partner and myself made our way up through a forest on a side of a sacred mountain, we heard the soft beautiful tones of a bamboo flute coming from a hidden location - a cliché of sorts, but a very vivid and touching one. That experience left me with a desire to recreate something of that experience for myself and others, and I made a promise to myself to learn Chinese flute at some point in the future.

Photographs taken on KongDongShan Mountain and HuangShan Mountain by the author in 2006.
In 2008, in South China, I bought a relatively cheap transverse bamboo flute called a dízi from a local music store. I took 5 lessons and then practiced on my own, but became frustrated at the difficulty of practicing the dízi, only to later find out that the instrument I had been sold was pretty badly made, and my teacher was not particularly dedicated to me making progress. Here is a video of me playing a simple song on my Chinese transverse flute:
A buffalo boy playing a transverse flute, by Master Gyokusei Jikihara - part of the Zen 'Ox-herding Sequence'.
In December 2011 I bought a new Chinese flute - a vertical bamboo Xiāo, after trying a few and getting a feel for them. This new flute was much more to my liking - it had a lower, more sombre tone, and was much easier for me to play than the dízi. The shop owner said he would give me some lessons in exchange for English classes, and so I attended a brief crash-course.

The bamboo xiāo flute the author bought in 2011.
The tunes I was practicing as I learnt were not touching me much, and I felt my enthusiasm waning. I longed for a relaxing, mysterious sound which I connected with the chinese paintings of craggy landscapes, fir trees, and small humble temples, so I looked online and came across a few accessible tunes that had elements that touched me more than the melodies in the exercise book I had bought.
A Chinese goddess playing a vertical flute.
I had specifically set out to find a xiāo because I had read that it was a very near cousin of the Japanese shakuhachi - the flute played by some Fuke sect Zen monks in Japan. This seemed a lot closer to the tradition and sound that I imagined would recreate my experience on that mountain forest path.

Fuke Zen 'Blowing Meditation' Master Hisamatsu Masagorô, in his essay titled Dokugen (c.1830), writes:
"Whoever studies the shakuhachi must rid himself of worldly thoughts, separate himself from his desires and put aside [the idea of] being superior or inferior. He must concentrate his mind in his stomach, so that he can hear the sound of the bamboo. That is the most important thing."

Japanese mendicant monk of the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism, playing a vertical bamboo flute called a Shakuhachi.
 The connection between the ancient Chinese and Japanese vertical bamboo flute (the Japanese one having come from from China originally) inspires me greatly to explore my xiāo with mindfulness, and I would love to study the shakuhachi if I get the chance to meet a good teacher.

These days I am happy exploring the instrument without a teacher, while looking for underlying connections between my meditative practice and my flute playing. The breathing and relaxation is an obvious link, and yet there appears to be so much more to discover - the reflexive connection between one's heart, hands, and breath. If I have time, I will look for a good teacher who has a spiritual practice here in Beijing - perhaps someone at a temple, or has a meditation practice of sorts.

Here is a video of me playing a tune I like on the xiāo - it's called 'Starry Night of Parting':


  1. You play well. And thanks for sharing your story about how you came to know and play the xiao. I also find it easier to play than the dizi. It was a just a feeling, but my instinct was right. The xiao is a moving instrument. I look forward to seeing my progress in later years. Cheers.

  2. i play xiao.i play it on the streets for money.i try to make the music form a spiritual connection with passers-by