Friday, September 20, 2019

Death by Flute

I just ran across the story of the Fuke sect of Buddhism in Japan. The sect showed up during the Shogunate period. They were characterized by baskets that covered their faces and bamboo flutes called shakuhachi. The flutes were used to practice breathing meditation and to gain attention as they begged for food.

While the image of a flute-playing monk with a basket over his head is interesting enough, the story gets better. Travel in Shogunate Japan was illegal. In order to gain permission to travel from place to place, they forged a bunch of documents demonstrating a long provenance of master flute players. Despite the fiction, the forgeries were accepted as authentic and the Fuke monks had official permission to wander the entire country.

The real reason that the forgeries were accepted, however, probably had more to do with spy craft than with how authentic the tales of great flautists seemed. No one questions a monk who covers their face with a basket because it was an earnest attempt to erase the individuality of the monk — a necessary step on the way to Nirvana. No one questions a shakuhachi with a larger than normal end on it because these had, again, religious significance and use.

A covered face and a bamboo instrument that can double as a mace makes for a perfect cover for a spy. So much so, that in the repertoire of shakuhachi music are things called Test Pieces. They were extremely difficult songs that various entities used to test whether or not a Fuke monk was a spy or not. If you can’t play the piece, you are probably a spy. Additionally, both the sect and the instrument were banned by the Meiji Restoration for fear that the remnants of the Shogunate could spy their way back into power.

Not only is this fascinating stuff, but it makes me want to actually play two of my least favorite classes: the bard and the assassin just so I can have a character sketch like this:

...and the satisfaction of taking out monsters with a flute.