The monks of the Fuke sect are called komuso. The Fuke sect is one form of Zen Buddhism, and instead of chanting the sutras, the monks played the shakuhachi. Presently, komuso refers to these people who have preserved the customs of the Fuke sect after its dissolution. The komuso used the shakuhachi as a "ritual instrument" [hoki], that is, a tool used within a religious context. In a similar way, a religious persecution is called honan, religious rites are called hoji, members of the same religious group are called horui, and the clothing that is worn during a religious rite is termed hoe.
The komuso wore black clothing known as kesa, a type of glove termed tekko which was made of cloth or leather, and a kind of leggings called kyahan, made of cloth that were easy to walk in. They covered their heads with a deep straw hat known as a tengai. The shakuhachi, kesa, and tengai were known as the "three tools" [sangu], and the komuso permit [honsoku], an identification card [ein], and travel permit were known as the "three seals" [san-in]. It was common for the komuso to travel carrying these things.
In the Edo period when one could not travel freely around the country, the komuso were granted the great priveledge of the travel permit, which allowed them to move about freely. When they wore the tengai hat, they could see the outside world, but other people could not discern the faces of those who wore the tengai. The tengai creates a small cosmos and the space beneath it is a different world. The original principle of the Fuke sect was to achieve enlightenment [satori] by playing the shakuhachi, but many unbelievers whose motives were not religious became komuso and abused the privilege of wearing the tengai that hid their faces. Using the shakuhachi as a weapon, rather than a ritual instrument, they carried out acts of violence. In the final years of the Edo period, it was decided to control these unbelievers.
The original komuso begged for donations of rice and money as they travelled about on pilgrimage. After the dissolution of the sect in Meiji 4, the komuso were neither monks nor professional musicians, but a group of comrades devoted to preserving the traditional music and manners of the Fuke shakuhachi.
For example, in the early 1970's, the principal of a certain high school who was an expert at the shakuhachi of the Meian school, walked along a street playing the shakuhachi, dressed as a komuso. Then as he stood outside a liquor shop and begged for a donation of money and rice, the shopowner suddenly threw a bucketful of dirty water at him. The komuso/principal bowed and left the scene. The shopowner usually treated the principal, who liked to drink and was a patron of the shop, with great courtesy. Inside and outside the tengai are different worlds.
Previously, there was an American komuso in the Yamashina district of Kyoto, but he has not been heard from for quite awhile. Nowadays, we rarely see even Japanese komuso on the streets. The customs of jugglers and troubadours continue to dissappear.
It is said that in the past the komuso used force to obtain food and money, and often were involved in quarrels. Here are three episodes related to this which are contained in Nihon densetsumeii (Nihon Hoso Kyokai, 1950), compiled under the supervision of Yanagita Kunio. (The anecdotes are unedited.)
1. Komuso-matsu [the komuso pine]
Near the Kawai Bridge, there is a great pine tree. When the wind blows it makes a sound that resembles that of a shakuhachi. Long ago, a komuso had a fist fight with one of the villagers and was killed here. He was buried here and a pine was planted.
[Ama-gun, kanie-cho, Aichi Prefecture]
2. Komuso-matsu II [the komuso pine II]
Long ago, a komuso from the northern part of Japan passed by here. The villagers were trimming the branches of a pine tree, but the monk tried to pass through by force just as a large branch was about to fall. The branch fell and killed the monk at this spot.
[Hazu-gun, Nishio-cho, Aichi Prefecture]
3. Komuso-sakura [the komuso cherry tree]
This is the residence of the "I" family in Ita. In the time of his ancestor of six generations ago, there was a gathering for Sano Tsunehiro who was about to depart for the battle front. A komuso monk came to the gate begging for a donation. When Sano's retainers refused saying they were very busy, the monk played a song about the end of the family. Tsunehiro was angered and killed the komuso, who was buried under the cherry tree in the front garden. Afterwards, those who cut the cherry tree would always become ill, so no one dared to touch it.
[Shida-gun, Onaga-mura, Shizuoka Prefecture, now known as Shimada City]