Many people ask me about both my musical and Zen experiences while living in Japan, and this gives me a great opportunity to reveal to them that in at least one instance they are one and the same. How so? Through the art of suizen. The ancient art of suizen is a great tool for musical meditation, as well as a great way to train oneself to become more sensitive/intuitive as a musician, especially in improvisation: jazz, rock, blues, free jazz, or any other forms that require sensitivity to collective spontaneity.

In Tang Dynasty (9th century) China, the monk Puhuà (Japan: Fuke) used a shakuhachi flute as a meditation tool, the act of ‘blowing Zen’ (suizen) as it was known. The Fuke branch of Zen Buddhism is purported to derive from the teachings of the Chinese Zen teacher Linji Yixuan (Japan: Rinzai Gigen c. 800– 866 CE). However, the Fuke school counts founder Puhuà, one of Linji’s contemporaries, as its shihan (founder). Fuke-style Zen was eventually brought to Japan by Shinchi Kakushin (1207–1298 CE), also known as Muhon Kakushin or Hotto Kokushi (posthumously), who had travelled to China for six years and studied with the famous Chan master Wumen of the Linji lineage. Kakushin became a disciple of Chôsan, a 17th generation teacher of the Fuke sect of China. It was Fuke’s goal to reach enlightenment through meditation on sound, and his particular sect (of Rinzai) Fuke-shu, produced mendicant priests and lay persons known as komuso, literally ‘monks of empty nothingness.’ Through rigorous training and lifestyle they sought to develop kisoku, their “spiritual breath,” to eventually blow a note that would express all of reality and lead them to what they referred to as ichi-on-jobutsu, “becoming a Buddha in one note.” Although the sect flourished in the Edo Era (1610 – 1868 CE) for a time, much of what we know about Puhuà’s himself has been since proven to be myth.

The legends of the Fuke though are often very entertaining though, as is the case with Pu-ko the Chinese Zen eccentric who ran wildly through the streets ringing a bell. One of his admirers (Chang-po) found a way to play the Zen essence of Pu-ko’s bell-ringing on the shakuhachi, thus creating one of the classic shakuhachi pieces, The Empty Bell (referring to both the Zen doctrine of emptiness and the hollowness of the flute itself).

Puhuà’s sect eventually disbanded and disappeared, but left behind a body of work know as honkyoku, ‘songs of enlightenment,’ which are practiced and performed by shakuhachi flautists worldwide (regardless of religious affiliation).

The idea of “practicing” music for enlightenment has useful application beyond its religious implementation. Although becoming one with the instrument and entering the state of “absolute sound” (tettei on) where one achieves ichi-on-jobutsu is traditionally the path of suizen, my own exposure to the practice was in the context of studying Shinto kagura and/or gagaku music on the hichiriki (small, oboe-like woodwind) at Ikuta Shinto Shrine in Kobe with Shoji Mori (1998- 2001); suizen being a technique taught to me by Master Mori to develop a greater sensitivity to the sound of the instrument and its timbral relationship with the other instruments in the orchestra.

The actual practice of suizen is a nine part non-sequential series of contemplations to be either guided through by a master, or used as a process of self-study for the more advanced student. Finding a quiet place and appropriate time to practice, one clears one’s mind and relaxes, ready to perceive the qualities of a single note or the notes within a simple phrase. It is vital to not just improvise a long string of notes, since the idea is to be completely aware of each note and its qualities.

To begin the practice, after allowing about 30 seconds of silence to clear one’s mind, carefully proceed with each suggestion as you blow a single note. The entire thing should last at least 20 to about 45 minutes to be effective:

1. Listen to how the note begins and finishes.

2. Consider any/all silence before or after as music, as a “note.”

3. Listen to the texture of the note and the dynamic shape.

4. Listen to what happens to the sound.

5. Follow the breath as you begin/end the sound.

6. Listen to the quality/“shape” of the silence before/after sounding.

7. Listen to what arises out of any and all silence.

8. Breathe as if the breathing is part of the sound/note.

9. Let your breath slowly become the music.

10. Follow the note into your ears and try to find the place in your mind where you hear it.*

Any further details and ideas about the practice are pondered and developed by each individual, thus there is no one particular right way to do this. The idea is inner discovery, not outer mastery in order to gain recognition or attain rank. This is summarized by the word mushotoku, which means ‘without a salary.’ Zen monks use this phrase to to mean doing something without desiring a reward at the end, contemplate and study the process and the rewards will be what they will. Thus we see others developing suizen-like concepts and expanding on them, such as Canadian saxophonist Jake Parker Scott creating a system wherein he focuses on each in a series of notes in a suizen-esque manner, while “walking” from note to note with mediative awareness, a process I call Tonal Kinhin: his system of integrating great focus with non-idiomatic tonal awareness.

(Note One: it is very helpful to know the context in which suizen was situated in Japanese aesthetic culture, both Zen and Japanese. To learn more about Zen and East Asian aesthetics, see my posts on East Asian Aesthetic Terminology.)

(Note Two: Number Ten is actually part of a famous Zen talk given by Korean Zen Master Chinul, and is not part of the original set. But I added it to my regimen as a nice ‘cooling down’ meditation to finish off with daily, an uplifting end to an uplifting practice).


A follower of my blog asked if I could create a version of suizen for writers/poets. So I have come up with a 12 Step “Writing Zen” (書く禅: kakuzen) system for non-musicians: poets, novelists, linguists and anyone else who wants to “play” words like musical notes, and/or meditate upon them. For this practice you will need a piece of paper and a pen. You could also used a coloured pencil or marker if you so choose. 

1. Write one word in the middle of a blank piece of paper and look at to how the word begins and finishes.

2. Consider any/all space around that work (left/right/above/below) as a word.

3. Look at the shape of the word: how the top of each letter forms an overall word “horizon”.

4. Imagine what word should follow next, based only on the shape/size of the next word.

5. Pay attention to how you feel as you write the word.

6. Follow your pen very carefully with your eyes as you very slowly write another word.

7. Imagine what sound the word you wrote might make, no matter what the word means.

8. Draw a scribble on the page and imagine how it could be a word.

9. Write a word in cursive and then let you pen go on and draw a scribble without lifting the pen off of the paper.

10. Write some words that mean nothing (asemic writing) and imagine what they might mean.

11. Look at the word and try and “follow” your eyesight back into your mind to find the exact “spot” the word came from in your consciousness.

12. Close your eyes and imagine a word, then write the word on a piece of paper without opening your eyes… then look at it and do Kakuzen Steps 2, 3, and 4.


©1998 Daniel Schnee (suizen)

©2016  Daniel Schnee (kakuzen)



22 thoughts on “Suizen

  1. Thank you for posting this guide. I have been playing the shakuhachi for nearly 9 years and I wanted to take it further by using it as a tool for meditation. I live in Hong Kong. One of the busiest and stressful cities in the world and I travel for my work as a photographer. I took up the shakuhachi in order to challenge my mind I love your guide as I have recently taken into doing a form of walking meditation. Where I would centre myself. Breath. And play long tones with my shakuhachi. It was not an easy thing to do as I get distracted And very selfs conscious. But the moment I let go. Things begin to happen. The walk becomes smooth and relaxed. The sound fuller and longer as it slowly fades to silence I hope to read more about your experiences. I do feel that I have found the real
    Purpose of the shakuhachi

    1. Well, you are very welcome! I am very honored that you have come to my blog and found something useful here, and that you are finding your own way with suizen! It is a great practice to explore in many areas of life, and you have found a way to do so with the shakuhachi. And if you know of other Hong Kong shakuhachi players or musicians who might find this useful, spread the word. They might discover some great new way of looking at suizen that they can teach us all in return.

      Keep up the great work! 🙂

      1. i must admit that it was quiet a struggle at first as i made my first attempt in my terrace while keeping my overly happy dogs from distracting me and the physical obstacles that block my path, worst is keeping my mind focused and not going all over the place. next door to me is a restaurant even though it was a quiet day there were still guess on their terrace and i was very self conscious about the people next door and my playing the hardest part is letting go and just Be

        1. But the dogs and people and restaurant are not obstacles. If they can “distract” you from what you WANT Reality to be, then you need to include them in the suizen. If a dog barks, that’s their own suizen practiced in joy along with you…(No.#7: Listen to what arises out of any and all silence). What is sounded is sounded, even outside of ourselves. I once practiced suizen in the middle of the street in Hanoi, Vietnam with a gong… the cars were 100% a part of the practice.

          So I would recommend letting go of dog/shakuhachi duality… and start with number #7 immediately after sounding. If a frog croaks, it “is”… so you were actually practicing a very great suizen when you had others things and sounds “join” you! 🙂

  2. Interesting post. I am always looking for info on Shakuhachi and Suizen. I am a Musician, Shakuhachi player/student, and a novice Chan ( Zen) Monk, and a Chinese “budo” teacher. I have/had the thought that suizen is about the notes, the sound, and how the vibrations affect the Chakras. One of my Chan teachers and a Komuso priest says it has a great deal to do with the breathing. Somewhat like Chi Gong. I am doing my first walk with a Komuso in Nara in April. I wll explore more of your blog post and post a link on my blog. Thank you for sharing your efforts. Ganbrarimas _/|\_

    1. Well, I am glad you like suizen, It is an amazing practice and can be used in so many ways. Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can always do singing suizen, and even if you can’t sing you can do humming suizen or ‘tapping your fingers on a table’ suizen! 🙂

      1. !! That’s incredibly cool…it seems to allow us to infuse spirituality, or soul into the little things we do. How about ‘writing’ suizen?!

        1. Suizen is a sound art, so there can not be a writing “sui’ zen (吹 = sui in Japanese, or chuii in Mandarin: “blowing”). BUT… there reason why one cannot create a Zen meditation practice based on writing, what you could call “kaku-zen”: 書く禅. So I have created a 12 Step KakuZen (書く禅) Practice… added to the end of the page.

          Look above and give it a try. 🙂

          1. Thank you Daniel, this is amazing – I have to get my pen and notebook to write all this down, so that I won’t forget this! Would it be alright if I linked to this somehow from my blog? I feel it would help other writers out there too!

  3. I have been a student of zen and meditation for 15 years. I’m also amateur musician playing blues harp and some other instruments. I bought shakuhachi couple of years ago but it has been mostly resting in my bookshelves. While ago I too it out and started to play it a bit more. I find this suizen very interesting method and I feel it is quite easy to get “in” to that meditative state while breathing in the shakuhachi. Thank’s for this blog post. Do you know if there are more resources about the suizen, books etc?

    1. Thank you very much for commenting on my blog. I appreciate it.

      All I know is what I have written on this page, and the actual practice. Besides, knowing more about suizen doesn’t change the practice. To know “more” about suizen one would learn more about the shakuhachi. But suizen is for everyone, and thus I have the only part that matters… the steps to practicing suizen.


  4. Thank you very much for this article. It is really a treasure. I am a beginner shakuhachi student and will follow your advice for suizen.

    1. It is so great to see another person get to know the wonderful world of the shakuhachi. Once you can actually get it to sound, it is such an amazing musical journey you will go on.

      I have done suizen on my soprano saxophone and/or nohkan for almost 20 years now, and it just gets more and more meaningful every time.

      Good luck! 🙂

  5. Thank alot, that’s what I looking for: a good article on Suizen. I’m 21 years old and I started shakuhachi last december.

    The perfect way to reach awakening with my passions, music and meditation. I started meditation at 16 years and music too :D.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s