Master of calm

THE ancient Japanese Buddhist sect the Komuso used the “shakuhachi” for meditation.

The Chinese bamboo flute was introduced to Japan in the eighth century and the monks realized playing it relaxed the mind and body, aiding meditation and contemplation.

Australia’s only shakuhachi grand master, Riley Lee, is performing at Fremantle’s St John’s Church in a fundraiser for the Fremantle Zen Buddhist group.

Lee, the first non-Japanese person to attain the rank of grand master on the instrument, will play solo and mostly traditional shakuhachi pieces.

“Created and transmitted within the context of meditation…and particularly associated with Zen Buddhism,” Lee says.

“Though their primary function is meditation, they are also music…in my admittedly biased opinion the shakuhachi can do meditation like no other instrument.”

• Shakuhachi grand master Riley Lee. Photo supplied

Lee, who lives in NSW, performs around the world and regularly gives fundraising concerts for Zen groups.

“They benefit me as much as the groups that produce them and the audience that attends them,” he says.

“They are a manifestation of the giving/receiving continuum.”

Born in the US, Lee completed a music master’s degree at the University of Hawaii and a PhD in ethnomusicology at Sydney University.

His first trip to Japan in 1970 was as a backpacker, and he stayed for six years to master the shakuhachi.

The training was austere, including practicing barefoot in the snow and blowing his flute under waterfalls.

The student’s lodgings and rehearsal space weren’t heated and practice sessions were often outside in freezing temperatures.

“Practicing outdoors really helped my playing, especially in a wind,” he says.

“It also helped me associate nature with what I was playing.”

You can hear Riley Lee at St John’s Church, Thursday May 31, 7–9pm. Tix $35 at


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