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The "Ascetic Shakuhachi" Historical Evidence Research Web Pages

Introduction & Guide to the Documentation & Critical Study of Ascetic, Non-Dualistic Shakuhachi Culture, East & West:
Historical Chronology, Philology, Etymology, Vocabulary, Terminology, Concepts, Ideology, Iconology & Practices

By Torsten Mukuteki Olafsson • トーステン 無穴笛 オーラフソンデンマーク • Denmark


Introduction / Front Page / Home

1640-1646: Abbot Isshi Bunshu's Letter to
     a "Proto-komusō" named Sandō Mugetsu


Web page updated as of November 6, 2023.


I am grateful to Mr. Yamakawa Sōkyū, 山川宗休, Kōkoku-ji near Yura in Wakayama Prefecture, Mr. Ōno Osamu, 大野治, the Central Public Citizen's Hall in Yura, and Mr. Simura Satosi, 志村哲, and Mrs. Tsukitani Tsuneko, 月溪恒子, both Ōsaka University, for their generous helping me with - and acknowledging - this research project of mine, back in the 1980s and later on, respectively.

Isshi Bunshu (alt. Monju), 一絲文守, a most renowned Rinzai Zen abbot whose teacher was the great Zen master Takuan Sōhō, 1573-1645, lived from 1608 to 1646.

Isshi Bunshu - 1608-1645/46

Isshi Bunshu - 1608-1646
Portrait preserved at the temple Hōjō-ji in Kameoka City, Kyōto Prefecture


The author, Isshi Bunshu, lived a quite short life, from 1608 to 1646. He addressed this letter to a 'komusō' named Sandō Mugetsu, the creation year of which has been determined in the shakuhachi researcher and historian Iida Kyorei's literature recommendations to be (no later than) 1646, Shōhō 3, 正保三年, the year of Isshi's early death, link:
"Extracurricular Shakuhachi Reading Materials"

Now, it so happens that in Swedish Gunnar Linder's 2012 PhD thesis, on page 148 and elsewhere Linder dates the letter to be of "1598", in spite of the fact that Isshi Bunshu had not even been born at that time.

To put it but shortly right here, that piece of information can very well have been based on the fact that one partly fabricated Reihō-ji list of that "temple"'s "head monks" gives the death year of Sandō as "1598", Keichō 3, 慶長三年, see the illustration below.

However, as with all other known, extant komusō genealogies, any person names and dates recorded in writing prior to the middle decades of the 17th century were simply made up: fabricated, invented.

The Reihō-ji is first known to be mentioned in a document dated 1677, 6th month, and there were neither 'komusō' nor 'komusō' "temples", if even only "lodges", in existence before towards the second quarter of the 17th century, so Sandō Mugetsu must, quite logically, have been a contemporary of Isshi, who is well known to have died in: 1646.

Reihou-ji list of chief monks the last date of which is 1841

Reihō-ji list of historical chief "monks" the last death date of which is 1841.
You see Sandō Mugetsu's name listed as the 19th "generation" in the upper right corner
of page 113, col. 1, on the page.

The name and year figures in another similar, although undated genealogy, in which you find Sandō Mugetsu at the top of col. 15, also on page 113.
But do discard that piece of info and just forget about it.
Printed in: Nakatsuka 1979, pp. 112-113.


Here is my scanning, thoroughly retouched and sufficiently cleaned, of a xerox copy of the original Isshi Bunshu hand-scroll, supplied to me in April, 1985, by Yamakawa Sōkyū of the Kōkoku Rinzai Zen Temple in Yura, Wakayama.

Isshi Bunshu's letter second section   Isshi Bunshu's letter first section

View a full reproduction of Abbot Isshi's Letter to the komusō Sandō Mugetsu as PDF file: 1 MB

Isshi Bunshu's letter

Here you see the opening section of my xerox copy of the original letter from Isshi Bunshu to the komusō Sandō Mugetsu that was made and sent to me by Yamakawa Sōkyū, 山川宗休,
of the Kōkoku-ji in Yura, Wakayama Pref., in early 1985.

In the picture you also see Isshi's letter as reprinted in Mori, 1981 (1st edition 1938),
and Nakatsuka, 1979 - two absolutely essential literary sources
of ascetic shakuhachi history and ideology.

Koukoku-ji library building, Yura   Koukoku-ji in Yura

Left: The Kōkoku-ji 'Sho-in' library building. Source: Google Maps, photo by KY SG.
Right: The Kōkoku-ji Main Hall. Source: Wakayama TV website

Yamakawa Soukyuu's letter to Torsten Olafsson as of April 19, 1985

Scanning of the Kōkoku-ji head librarian Yamakawa Sōkyū's
April 19, 1985, letter to Torsten Olafsson.

In this letter Mr. Yamakawa explains that while he can enclose a complete xerox copy
of Isshi Bunshu's letter (cols. 3-4 from the right),
the 'Kaidō honsoku' document "has now gone missing": 'genzai funshitsu shite orimasu,'

現在紛失して居ります (cols. 4-5).

As with the Kaidō honsoku of 1628, Abbot Isshi's Letter to the komusō Sandō Mugetsu represents an equally important and very unique source of mid-17th century very early Komusō Shakuhachi ideology only in the making.
Here follows (an attempt at) a preliminary English translation of the document, almost complete, as of Spring, 2013 (the paragraphing is mine).

Trust me: This text is definitely a major challenge, both to the linguist, the musicologist, the student of philosophy, and to the historian!

Notes to the presentation of the Japanese text:

【?】 = missing or illegible kanji in the original manuscript.

【kanji】 = probable character inserted where a kanji is missing or illegible in the original manuscript.

(kanji) = notes added/inserted in the original manuscript in different writing style/hand.

* following a kanji = the preceding kanji was written with a non-standard or old version of the ideograph in the original manuscript by Isshi Bunshu.

Par. 1

【??????????? - 11 kanji missing】
... 於 ...
【?????? - 6 kanji missing】
... 貴、

- Opening paragraph – Worm-eaten - upper right corner of the scroll damaged by insects.
11 kanji missing.
1 kanji: “… at …” [Jap.: ni oite].
6 kanji missing.
1 kanji: ”… honor(able) …”[Jap.: ki].

Par. 2:


”[As for] That [personal] name, [he] is called Sandō Mugetsu, the hermit.”

Par. 3:


”[As for] That sect, [it] is called “K(y)omu Nature” [Jap.: K(y)omu Shizen].”

Par. 4:

【?? - 1 or 2 kanji missing】

“I have inquired with a [1 kanji missing: ‘learned’?] person regarding the origin of [the]‘K(y)omu’.”

Par. 5:

【? - 1 kanji missing】

“[I learned that:] In India there was a clever, old monk [1 kanji missing: ‘who was the’?] founder.”

Par. 6:

支那有普化、我朝自, 法燈國師會裡得始祖如何、

“In China there was Fuke; [as for] my [own] country itself, how possibly could Hottō Kokushi accomplish as the originator of the congregation?”

Par. 7:


“When Kokushi was in China, one after the other four K(y)omu persons joined him and, succesfully, came [back with Kokushi] to this country.”

Par. 8:


“Later, the paths [lit.: 'branch veins'] of these honorary men separated into four, respectively [thus totalling 16], and - travelling in all directions - wherever they came they brought relief to the Buddhist community."

Par. 9:


“However, the ascetic practice [Jap.: shugyō] in present times is only poorly [lit.: ‘little’] observing the commandments; and that is so indeed.”

Par. 10:


“When I examine those persons who are practicing [as k(y)omu], nine out of ten [of them] do not understand the original essence [lit.: ‘source’] of the sect’s instructions.”

Par. 11:


“[Their] Lack of devotion makes [them into] but miserable persons underneath basket hats.”

Par. 12:


“And so, hurrying in the East and hastening in the West, they simply wander absentmindedly [or, ‘in vain’] around people’s gates; and that is so indeed!

Par. 13:


“Even though they ate the earthly remains of [Banzan] Hōshaku, they would certainly never change into the muscles [i.e.: the ‘logic’] of Fuke!”

Par. 14:


“[As for] Persons with one shakuhachi, although [they are] equipped [with it], it is the ear that manages hearing - not the eye that manages hearing.”

Par. 15:

【? - 1 kanji missing】

“The shakuhachi is made from a piece of bamboo with 3 joints [or, ‘nodes ‘, Jap.: mi-bushi] with a hollow cavity [cut out] inside of it.
Then, when the airstream can pass through [it], four and one holes [are drilled] on the front and back [respectively].”

Par. 16:


“The ancients [lit.: ‘old people’] used a single pipe and produced [lit.: ‘intoned’] a single sound.
If there were not 5 pipes, it was difficult [i.e.: ‘impossible’] to intone [or, ‘tune’] the five notes.
Today’s people [lit.: present-day people] use 5 pipes and tune [the] 12 steps [or, ‘pitches’, i.e. the 12 semitones of the octave].”
“That expertise originated with the ancients.”

Par. 17:

或*謂之竹笛、 或*尺八、或*謂玉簫、或*洞簫、

“Some oral traditions [call it] chiku-teki [alt.: take-bue - i.e.: ‘bamboo flute’]; some [call it] shakuhachi.
Some oral traditions [call it] gyoku-shō [i.e.: ‘jade flute’]; some [call it] dōshō [Chin.: t’ung-hsiao].
The names differ, [but] it is the same thing.”

Par. 18:


After all, if one does not understand [or, ‘grasp’] the ‘Lofty Clarity of the Jade Tablet’ [or, ‘sceptre’ – Jap.: gyokkei gichō], and the principles of [shakuhachi?] manufacture, and do not observe [lit.: ‘employs’] the Three Fundamental Tenets [lit.: ‘three joints’ - Jap.: mi-bushi] of our school’s teaching [i.e.: that of Zen Buddhism] - that expresses the Three Poisons [or, ‘malices’] of Greed, Anger, and Ignorance.”

Par. 19:

(Note added to the original manuscript in a different writing style:

”The five holes on the front and the back [respectively] [are] the collected [powers of] Eyes [or, ‘seeing’], Ears [or, ‘hearing’], Nose [or, ‘smelling’], Tongue [or, ‘tasting’], and Body-Mind.”
[In the original manuscript an explanatory note has been added, in different writing:
“Discrimination between receiving ideas and perceiving colours?”]

Par. 20:


“Shaku and Hachi expresses [or, ‘represents] the ‘right and wrong’ of the Eight Environments [determined by Karma].
[As for] the hollow passage way of the interior space, that is the Doctrine of Non-obstructed Universality [Jap.: enyō muge/mugai].”

Par. 21:


“Blowing forth increasingly with one voice, that [then] immediately eliminates the Muddiness of the Three Poisons [Jap.: sandoku no mumyō] and manifests [lit.: ‘makes’] the Precepts of the Three Buddhist Assemblies [Jap.: sanshū no jōkai].”

Par. 22:


“Likewise, this is the same as the ‘Shōrin Flute Without Holes’ [Jap.: Shōrin mu-ku-teki].
Its sound [lit.: ‘voice’] equals that of Ling-shan’s [Jap.: Reizan, 1225-1325] ch’in with no strings [Jap.: kin, the class. Chinese zither] - that music of all music no one ever encountered.
Even though Master Li-lao [Jap.: Rirō, no dates] excelled with his jade flute, he did not know that there existed [such a] fragrant medium [?] of mysterious sound [Jap.: myōon hōkai].
However, a ‘good’ bamboo flute does not necessarily produce an austere sound.”

Par. 23:

【6-7 kanji missing】, 庵主莞爾、而下籠聾【之一字而】己、

“As I noted, saying before, hermit Sandō Mugetsu [6-7 kanji missing] - - - ,
You [lit.: ‘the hermit’] smile, and the lower part of the character for ‘deafness’ [is the character for ‘ear’?]; and that so indeed!
I [just] cannot help joking … [lit.: ‘I must say a joke’].”

Par. 24:


“Priest Tung-shan [Jap.: Dōsan, 807-869, a Sōtō Zen monk] heard the recital of the ‘Five Ranks’ [Jap.: go-i];
he put together and established the family code [Jap.: ka-hō], explored and trifled with the Three Occult Music Pieces [Jap.: sangen (no) kyoku].”
[T.O.: go-i is very important in Sōtō Zen thought. Zengaku Jiten p. 345.]

Par. 25:


“I doubt that the purity of the mountain dwelling hermit Jukushi’s [?, no dates] Four Dignified Manners [Jap.: i-gi] threatens the idolizers of Fu[ke] and Kaku[shin]?
[T.O.: i-gi is very important in Sōtō Zen thought. Zengaku Jiten p. 20: Practicing/walking, living, sitting, sleeping/lying.]
Usually, they do not read books, and here, because of their ignorance, they are not at all capable of performing administration.”

Par. 26:


“Here, because of Human Selfishness there is little Divine Talent, and following short cuts does not bring about empathy [or, ‘compassion’? - lit.: ‘being intimate with sadness’].
The Liberated Body [or, ‘person’] moves and rests with no restraint [lit.: ‘not unwillingly’].
How can it be, then, that they gather everywhere in crowds and engage in quarrels and fights?”

Par. 27:


“Do not in any way obstruct the Authority of the Imperial Court [lit.: ‘the Precedence of the Imperial We’].
That corrupts the state of the world, and … [4 kanji awaiting a satisfying translation].
Thus, do not adore Honor and Profit, be cold towards Shameless Desire, and be in agreement with the Self-evident Principles.”

Par. 28:


“Do not accumulate Wealth and Honor; do always practice Poverty and Lowliness.
Being at places, do not overdo resting your knees.
Being at places, do not exceed [with regard to] satisfying your mouth [i.e.: in terms of eating and drinking].
Do not refuse a human resting place offered as alms – accept [lit.: ‘receive’] it (‘with no repulsive word’?)
[T.O.: Here 2 specific kanji are somehow difficult to translate satisfyingly.]
Even though it is as such, exceedingly, almsgiving represents something disadvantegous.”
[T.O.: The exact meaning of this last sentence is somewhat unclear.]

Par. 29:


“Our towns and fields are in full bloom [lit.: ‘are equal to smile’, i.e.: ‘are equal to prosperity’].
Wives and mothers-in-law engage in quarrels [lit.: ‘work hard on stones’].
[Be it] cold or hot, even though they cut their skin, they are not devoted to the coolness of hempen [summer] kimonos – they do not esteem the slight warmth of embroidered silken.”
[T.O.: This paragraph certainly presents a challenge to the imaginative translator … ]

Par. 30:


“The coming of winter accords with the Paper Garments of remote attendants.
The advent of summer accords with the renewal of the Buddhist layman’s Large Cloth [Jap.: ō-fu].”

Par. 31:


[8+10 kanji - awaiting final and satisfying translation – the subject matter is, however, not specifically shakuhachi-related.]

Par. 32:

【1 kanji missing: 少?】 禅病性好酒、
『酒毒是犯心戒之主張也』、 何不可慎*乎、

”There is, however, to some extent [lit.: ‘a little’] a Zen addiction [lit.: ‘disease nature’] to being fond of alcoholic liquor [Jap.: sake, i.e.: ‘rice wine’]. And, [as for] that misdeed the ancients said,
‘Alcoholic poison [i.e.: ‘getting drunk’], that sins against the emphasis on the essential commandments for the Mind [Jap.: kokoro/shin].’
For what reason should one not be moderate ... ?”

Par. 33:


“Even if one celebrates a congratulatory cup [i.e. f.i.: ‘a toast’], although you pour it full, then:
By all means, one shall envision [lit.: ‘see’] the Realm of No Colors [Jap.: mu-shiki kai].”
[T.O.: The representative colour of the supreme Shingon Buddha Dainichi Nyorai, Skt.: Vairocana, is that of the colour white which is colourless, yet possessing all colours of the spectrum.]

Par. 34:


“The hermit [Jap.: anju] replies, saying:
‘The oxen thirstily drinks water – sometimes it turns into milk, at times it becomes poison.”

Par. 35:


“Leading up - and concluding - with a joke! Again: What do You say?”

Par. 36:


“Addressed to the hermit Sandō Mugetsu, who has become [or, ‘is’] a Komusō.
“Stated by Isshi Oshō.”

Translation by Torsten Olafsson, Denmark

Digitized version of Abbot Isshi's Letter

The study of old, original Japanese manuscripts does indeed represent a special challenge:
Japanese authors of bygone days often expressed themselves in quite archaic language and frequently used 'non-standard' ideographs (kanji) in their writings. The actual meaning of such texts often appear to be quite obscure to present-day Japanese scholars and - so much more - to non-Japanese students of the language.

Hopefully, the transcription presented here may be helpful in the further study of the document:

Abbot Isshi's Letter to Sandō Mugetsu digitized, presented as PDF file: 320 kb

By the way, in the appendix of Kowata Suigetsu's 1981 edition of Yamamoto Morihide's 1795 Kyotaku denki kokujikai you find a very interesting alternative version of Isshi Bunshu's letter:

Kowata Suigetsu's 1981 version of Isshi's Bunshu's Letter, top

Kowata Suigetsu's 1981 version of Isshi's Bunshu's Letter, bottom

Kowata Suigetsu's 1981 alternative version of Isshi's Bunshu's 1646 Letter, bottom.

Kowata Suigetsu, compiler & editor: Kyotaku denki kokujikai.
     By Yamamoto Morihide, Kyōto, 1795.
     216 pages, Nihon ongaku-sha, Tokyo, 1981.

To the front page To the top

Letter to Sand? Mugetsu

"To the hermit Sandō Mugetsu"