“A ‘master’ has clear awareness of what he knows and doesn’t know. He has the confidence and resources to continue his explorations and guide others on theirs.”
One year after earning my shihan (master teaching license) in Zen shakuhachi flute, I then added the Bonus Arm Diplomas—i.e. tattoos. These were created in collaboration with an incredible Bay Area tattoo artist, ceramicist, and master gardener, Nakona Macdonald. The idea is to emblazon my physical self with creative artifacts that link to my metaphysical self. General themes of shakuhachi, Zen, Taoism, primordial forests, Swamp Thing and green man mythology. These are my first tattoos so I had zero experience with this, and we had one meeting and five tattoo sessions to complete all of it.
The specific themes and designs are (playing a bit on left/right brain duality):
Left Arm: Reverence and Impermanence, the shakuhachi notation for “Tamuke,” which is a song played in reverence to ancestors and those recently departed.
Right Arm: Aliveness, an ambitious and complex piece by Nakona that I have come up with a few names for. “Nakona’s Green Man,” or “Swamp God in the Redwoods.” We managed to get in a fat shakuhachi with the waters of life flowing through, as well as bamboo foliage, roots, fungus, a redwood, other forest textures and even a flute embouchure.
There is an additional “metaphysical reminder” on the left forearm, a quote from verse 16 of the Tao Te Ching, which also links in nicely to many other wisdom teachings as well as the imagery of the forest scene and the roots of the shakuhachi. The theme here is Clarity.
What follows is a deeper explanation and backstory to these pieces of body art.
On 11/12/13 I received my Shihan (master teaching license) in Zen shakuhachi flute from Grandmaster Michael Chikuzen Gould. You can read the blog I posted about that milestone at the time. A few months before, as I was still working towards this goal, Michael had mentioned something like “maybe for Chikuzen Studios there should be some extra aspect to the attainment of the shihan level. Hmm…I know! Tattoos perhaps…” Sure he might have only been half serious, but actually he was pondering this for a few reasons.
1) He had finally gotten arm tattoos of the famous Buddhist deity statues a few years before. These are Kongōrikishi (金剛力士) or Niō (仁王): two wrath-filled and muscular guardians of the giant Buddha statue in Nara. We had visited them in 2009, on our field trip to Japan. Around the time he was getting those tattoos, I had also written a new composition inspired by them.
2) There had not yet been a shihan given out by Chikuzen Studios since he established it in 1998.
A more significant train of thought for me had to do with the Shaolin tradition of branding their graduating priests on the arms with the Tiger and the Dragon. Anyone who has seen the TV show Kung Fu is familiar with this practice, and while some claim that this is a false legend, the Shaolin Grandmaster’s Text says this: “The Order used the brands to represent a permanent “diploma,” having suffered the loss of all physical objects many times in their history…(…many non-Shaolin authors writing about the ‘myths of Shaolin’ claim that the tradition of arm branding is a martial arts fairy tale because they have never seen such brands, or because these brands aren’t historically documented. No matter. The tradition stopped around 1900, so few people living today would have even had an opportunity to see them.)…We have no intention of ever resurrecting the branding practice, as in today’s culture it would only serve to inflate the ego.” (p. 110)
Well, I have discovered that shakuhachi for me is not only the two parts of meditation and music that are commonly known, but it has an equal third facet of qi gong itself—meaning it is an energy practice. Therefore, it is appropriate to link up the ethics, goals and methods between shakuhachi and Shaolin Kung Fu philosophy, in itself an exquisite synthesis of Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Elsewhere in the Grandmaster’s Text we are reminded:
We emphasize a focus upon individuals, but to the ends of self-development and liberation. The ultimate authority, for any person, lies within the individual. Look into your own heart for the authority to assess what you [encounter], and ultimately to make all your decisions in life. [Name and form] are ephemeral, but they are also powerful as tools of the ego. Shaolin is about extinguishing the ego. (p. 18)
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