The ichigenkin is a single-stringed zither from Japan. Its silk string is plucked by a tubular plectrum on the right hand index finger, while a slide on the left hand middle finger depresses the string at the desired pitch. The slide and plectrum are collectively known as rokan.
The ichigenkin was popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the 20th century, it was in decline, with much of its tradition lost and forgotten. It is now very rare, even in Japan.
Like the better known shakuhachi, the ichigenkin comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition and is intended not to be played as a performance instrument but as a tool to teach the student about Ultimate Reality.
The ichigenkin should be played with the consciousness anchored in the hara. The hara is considered the physical and spiritual centre of one’s being. Many Japanese arts are executed from the hara, including the martial arts, archery, ikebana, the tea ceremony and Usui Reiki. With the ichigenkin, this anchoring is particularly important because of the inherently weak sound of the instrument. The player needs to use the energy of the hara to send forth the sound of the ichigenkin, lending it power and volume from the core of their own being. As I began haltingly to develop my hara, I stumbled across a paradox: not only was the hara the source of the ichigenkin’s sound, but it was also a source of stillness and silence. Peter Wilburg’s words began to make sense:
The hara is not only a still point of inner silence. It is also the gateway for a descent into silence which leads us into a world of inner sounds or “sounds of silence.”¹
As I learned to play from the hara, I became aware of these sounds of silence that Wilburg refers to. Moreover, I began to experience the inner sensation that I am playing the ichigenkin above what I can only call a continuous drone of silence. My perception of the silence is that it is in continuous flow, dynamically moving forward with the melody line, supporting it, as if it were both a musical and a metaphysical ground. I believe that this “drone of silence” is similar to what Hazrat Inayat Khan calls the “undertone of existence²” that goes on continuously and with which, eventually, all will merge.
Once the ichigenkin player has reached a certain level of spiritual attainment, they are able to transfer this to their audience. My teacher, Randy Raine-Reusch, calls ichigenkin concerts “a meditation in action and non-action, sound and silence and one note and many notes. Audiences gently slip into another world, another reality.³” The other reality of which he speaks is, of course, Ultimate Reality, where the audience members experience action/non-action and sound/silence as the two aspects of vibration from which all things emerge and re-merge.
For more on the ichigenkin see Randy Raine-Reusch’s website Zen of One String.
¹Wilburg, Peter The Little Book of Hara, 2011, ebook location 374
²Khan, Hazrat, Inayat The Music of Life, 1988, page 57
³Raine-Reusch, Randy The Zen of One String, http://www.asza.com/zenone.shtml