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I've been taught that the concept of ma in shakuhachi playing is the rhythmical interval between the ura and omote beat, which can stretch and contract during the same piece, giving honkyoku that special off-beat but still pulsating structure. The way it's been explained to me, the term ma is used regardless of what lies between the ura and the omote, be it silence or sound.
However, I get the feeling that people also use the term ma specifically to represent the use of silence between notes and phrases.
Are there different definitions of ma in the various shakuhachi lineages?
Ma can mean quite a lot - in fact.
So you are right, it is not only the rhythmical interval between the ura and omote beat. But that is one use of the word ma.
Let's just look at the word ma:
Ma (間) can be pronounced as aida (あいだ), ma (ま) and kan (かん).
It is often translated on its own:
Aida as space; interval
Ma as space; room; time; pause
Kan as (1) interval; period of time; (2) among; between
And you can see it in combination with other characters such as: kūkan (空間) which if translated to: space; room; airspace
The rhythmical organisation of honkyoku can vary a lot depending on which school and teacher you learn from. And therefore also the use of the term ma can vary.
As you already suggest,
Ma can also be the tense silence between phrases. Often honkyoku is organised so the phrase begins with a tension, which is notes in meri position and during the course of the phrase - the tension is released into bright kari notes. By the end of of the phrase you dip into a meri note and thereby create a tension that will remain during the ma in between the two phrases.
Sometimes within a phrase and within a breath - you can stop blowing between two notes to create an effect, e.g., put in a fraction of a second of silence in there. That would also be called ma. Or you wil use that word to describe that tiny space in between.
The above are just two other ways of using the term ma. All in all it is quite a flexible word meaning space in between. And as you can see in the original translations in dictionary ma does not directly mean silence. But as it is the space in between... well for us who produce sound - it will be silence.
Ohhh.... now I looked up ma in my dictionary that shows the origin of the character. Interesting!
Original meaning: Sun shines in between the slates of a gate.
門 = gate
日 = sun
Jikan (時間) = time
Ningenn (人間) = human being (lit: human beings are between god and animals) (not my interpretation - from the dictionary!)
Hope this helps - even though I went more into bla bla instead of really saying what else in shakuhachi ma can be used as...