My first shakuhachi experience

Nyogetsu Ronnie Seldin, a shakuhachi master (Japanese bamboo flute) with a deep connection to DBZ, died May 30 this year. He played at DBZ’s inauguration in 1976 and at the 40th anniversary ceremony in 2016. Every year he held a shakuhachi retreat and regularly played here when people got ordained. He drove all over the mid-Atlantic states five days a week to meet with students and to perform. Nyogetsu was himself a flute through which sounds of creation, love, and silence came freely.


He was due to perform here this summer, so in his stead one of his students, Marco Burmester, came and performed two pieces the evening of July 16, and will again for the O-bon ceremony on August 12. Marco’s performance was sublime. The shakuhachi is an instrument deeply woven in to this meditation tradition; playing is a ritual, not an activity, and the sounds made instantly evoke a meditative state in the listener. Before and after playing each piece, Marco gave a deep, slow bow to the flute laying before him, his head to the floor. We all bowed with him. The reverence filled the room just as the flute’s sound did.


Shakuhachi 2

At dinner, I had good conversation with Marco about the flute and the art of playing one. It is quite a subtle instrument, and it can take some people many months, even a year or more, to get a decent sound. Though it has only five holes, the sonic range is remarkable. Marco describe how each flute is its own entity. Though they can be made to be similar in tone and key, none are identical. Each responds to the breath in its own way, and is influenced by the qualities of the air in any given place, or even moment. Selecting a flute is as intimate as choosing a life partner. I thought it would be cool take up the practice, but dismissed the notion as I already do not do enough of the things I already want or need to do.

Marco ~ Shakuhachi

The next day, Marco was playing in the courtyard while we were doing chores. He asked me to take some pictures of him while he played. Then he offered me the chance to try his shakuhachi. It is played similarly to blowing across a bottle top, but has a very fine, inwardly-curved edge with an inlay to cut and even shape the wind of the breath. The mouthpiece creates many delicate sonic intricacies, and that is even before doing any fingering.

shakuhachi mouth piece.jpg

shakuhachi mouth piece 2.jpg

For my first attempt, I literally got no sound, the few faint whistle-like sounds. When I settled my attention in my body, and completely allowed breath to be itself, full and natural tones came from the flute, plus a few interesting over-tones. It was a subtle awakening experience to be inhaling and exhaling with a spirit of allowing, and not in my thinking mind that was trying to do something and get a result. What a great teacher the shakuhachi is! More important to me than “getting a sound” was this meditative experience, in which “I” got out of the way, and allowed sonic expression arrive and be heard on its own.

First Shakuhachi Exp

The opportunity was a real gift, and I am considering getting a shakuhachi, not necessarily to study it formally, but to have a sonorous friend to explore meditation with from time to time. The notion of going out in the forest and playing among the amazing boulders and trees is a delightful one. I’ll keep you posted… For now, enjoy Nyogetsu Ronnie Seldin playing “Makoto Shinjitsu” (With a Heart of True Sincerity).

Nyogetsu 2


2 thoughts on “My first shakuhachi experience

  1. Always good to hear about your experience. I’ve been playing the shakuhachi for years. I took classes with Phil James , who was a student of Ronnie’s and also did one class with him at the Philadelphia Zen Center in Ardmore. I think that I have a recording of the class if you’re interested. Shakuhachi can be an excellent accompaniment to Zen practice. Riley Lee gave a lecture on the shakuhachi and Zen and you can find a lot of the material on his website. The monks would play shakuhachi with their begging. Many of the sects have their own version of Reibo which is the bowl from which they would collect food. Each sect had it’s own musical pieces which were unique to that sect. In the early to mid 20th century an attempt was made to collect these pieces and create a notation for writing them on paper.
    It would make a good instrument to enhance your practice. My friend David Budbill, whose poetry I read at sesshin, blew his flute all of the time but had little interest in any formal learning.
    Please feel free to send any questions you have about getting started. As you may have found out already true root instruments are very expensive but there are alternatives.

    Jerry SHapiro


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