Thursday, 31 December 2020

Happy 2021 - Year of the Ox


Fast Bull - a beautifully painted work by an unknown
painter from the Kamakura period - originally a hand scroll, 10 Fast Bulls,
it was remounted as a hanging scroll (courtesy of Tokyo National Museum).

Cattle do not seem to occupy a great place in samurai lore. Though they were not uncommon in Japan, they seemed to have been used either as agricultural beasts of burden, or for pulling the carriages of nobles – neither occupation seeming to appeal particularly to the warrior class.


They appear in art in both these roles, as well as part of the 12 animals of the zodiac, and in Zen art as well. Perhaps they are best known in this connection in the 10 ox herding pictures, which provide an analogy to the path to enlightenment. These were formulated from earlier versions by Guo-an Shi-yuan (Kakuan Shien) in the 12thcentury, and illustrated most memorably by the 15thcentury priest-painter, Shubun. The pictures lose some of their charm when they are reproduced – the originals are small – intimate in their scale and detail, but I don’t think they have been equalled by later artists who tackled the subject.


No. 6 in Shubun's series of Ox herding pictures

As I mentioned in my New Year post last year, the bull also appears in Musashi’s writing – Rat’s head, bull’s neck is an entry in Gorin no Sho to describe a sudden switch in approach. I mentioned some commentary on the possibility of the original being horse, rather than bull (the two characters are very close) but given their places in the progression of the 12 animals, I think the combination of rat and bull was well known, and would thus have made sense to Musashi. The story of the order of animals also suggests some sense of a sudden change: the bull agreed to give the rat a ride to the place where the 12 animals were to meet; as they arrived, the rat jumped off the bull and so became the first to arrive.


Musashi also depicted a bull in a relatively unknown painting of Hotei. Here, he is riding on the back of one. This may have been a nod to the 10 oxherding pictures, and given Musashi’s connections, it is quite possible that he had seen Shubun’s works. Whatever its inspiration, it displays brushwork typical of Musashi, and establishes a dynamic rhythm in terms of contrast of line and volume and light and dark. Like many of Musashi's paintings, the tone seems lighthearted - they seem to be enjoying life. In Buddhist iconography, where Buddhas are depicted riding on animals, these may be interpreted as control of the physical passions. In this case, Hotei and the bull appear to have different ideas on where to go next, so perhaps his control was not as complete as he thought.


Musashi's painting of Hotei Riding a Bull - this is from the book "Miyamoto Musashi 
no Suibokuga" (Miyamoto Musashi's ink paintings). Relatively unknown, I couldn't find any
reproductions online. 

Lastly, despite my initial comment, the bushi did not totally disregard the nature of the bull – the famous daimyo Kuroda Nagamasa famously had at least two helmets made with sweeping water buffalo horns as decoration. Later generations of his family had similar helmets made, as well. This was in marked contrast to the upturned bowl design of his father, Kuroda Kanbei, who was known for his brilliance as a strategist. Although he fought successfully in several campaigns, Nagamasa lacked his father’s brilliance and may have felt that the image of a bull, powerful and straight-forward, expressed his personality better.

A Happy New year to all my readers - let's hope it's a good one!

Two of Kuroda Nagamasa's helmets - another one of his famous helmets was shaped in an abstraction
of the cliff at Ichinotani, where Minamoto Yoshitsune led a charge down steep cliffs to carry the day. 
Perhaps Nagamasa was emphasising that he, too, was a man of action.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

A Matter of Distance – Musashi's duel with Sasaki Kojiro

Miyamoto Musashi confronts Sasaki Kojiro at the start of their fateful duel (from the 1973 film Miyamoto Musashi)

An understanding of distance is a fundamental part of bujutsu, but it is perhaps one of the most difficult to understand. Although it involves physical distance, it includes (at the very least) consideration of subtle angles and adjustments based on timing and an appreciation of the range of the weapons used by both combatants.


The paired kata of Japanese bugei include aspects of this, but some of the finer points may not be grasped by even quite advanced practitioners. They were designed to be absorbed rather than to be explained, and it may be that specific explanations are a recent addition to teaching – few modern practitioners have the luxury to immerse themselves so deeply that these relationships are fully revealed. Nor is there the same sense of necessity. Even though many of these kata were developed and passed on in times of relative peace, training was more severe than it is today.


This control of distance was an aspect of his art for which Miyamoto Musashi was particularly well known, and an understanding of which was key to his famous duel with Sasaki Kojiro. Even if no-one can really be sure what happened, a careful analysis of what we do know provides interesting insights into some of the possibilities.


Although Musashi did not write of his fights, his writing contains references that may have a basis in specific experiences, as well as explaining broader principles. In The 35 Articles of Strategy, he wrote:


There are a number of different ways of covering distance according to established theories of heiho. Here I am speaking of something different. Whichever way it may be, it is something you will learn by much repetition. Speaking generally, you should be aware that when you can strike someone with your sword, you may be struck by their sword. When you wish to strike someone, you must forget about yourself. You should investigate this thoroughly.

(Author’s translation)


Kojiro was skilled with a particularly long sword, a skill he had developed, it is said, through acting as chief training partner to his master, Toda Seigen. As Seigen’s specialty was the short sword, it might seem strange that Kojiro used a sword that was longer than the norm. The reason, it is said, is that in refining his skill, Seigen had Kojiro use an increasingly long blade. Thus Kojiro’s skill with a long sword developed as his master’s technique grew ever better. 

Toda Seigen – 
Teacher of Sasaki Kojiro


Part of the skill he developed was the ability to keep another swordsman at bay with the length of his sword. Length itself is no guarantee of victory, but Kojiro had also developed an extreme sensitivity and ability to rapidly change the direction of his sword stroke, unusual in a weapon so long, all of which made him an extremely difficult adversary. 


Musashi would have been aware of Kojiro’s famous ‘returning swallow’ technique (tsubamekaeshi), and he staked the results of their encounter on his ability to overcome this technique. Whatever the precise nature of the technique (and there is some argument about it, although the most likely seems to be a feint and attack or combination attack) it was clear that it made use of the length of the blade and that Kojiro was also used to dealing with attempts to move inside.


Instead, Musashi chose to remain at the very edge of Kojiro’s range and defeat him with a weapon that was just a fraction longer than Kojiro’s sword. The popular story is that he carved a wooden sword from a boat’s oar as he was being rowed to the site of the duel, but it is far more likely that he had already decided on and made the weapon he was going to fight with well before the duel. After all, if his strategy depended on a slight length advantage, he would want to make sure he had got it right.


Musashi had faced long weapons before – according to the Kokura monument (erected by Musashi’s adopted son in 1654, less than 10 years after Musashi’s death, and generally considered reliable) Yoshioka Denshichiro used a wooden sword five feet in length against him – and even if the story of his duel at the Hozoin Temple is discounted for lack of evidence, a well-verified account of a later, friendly, duel with the spear expert, Takada Matabei, shows Musashi was skilled at getting inside the perimeter of a longer weapon. That he chose a different strategy attests to Kojiro’s skill.


According to the Kokura Monument, Kojiro’s sword (named Drying Pole/Laundry Pole – Monohoshizao) was 3 shaku (about 90cm, plus the hilt, to give a total of something like 114 cm in length). Although the wooden sword Musashi used no longer survives, there are (at least) two surviving wooden swords he was said to have carved at a later date in response to enquiries about the duel. One of these is in the Matsui Collection, and was given by Musashi to Matsui Yoriyuki (the adopted son and heir of the Hosokawa vassal who acted as host to Musashi during the period of his duel with Kojiro). Given the relationship he had with the family, (and the fact that the Matsui Collection includes a number of other items made by Musashi) it is likely that this is genuine. It looks similar to a regular bokken in shape, but is rather larger – 127cm (4 shaku 2 sun), which would make it a little longer than Kojiro’s sword.

A picture of Musashi's bokken from the
Matsui collection, with a regular sized
bokken below – the two photos are very slightly
out of scale, but not by much 


Another, and slightly different looking bokken exists in the care of Kato Isao of the Shunpukan Dojo in Nagoya. Among other styles, he teaches Enmei Ryu, which was the style Musashi taught in his younger days. The bokken came down from Tachibana Minehira, who was a grand-student of Musashi in the Chikuzen line of the Niten-ichi Ryu and author of the Bushu Denraiki(one of the important source documents on Musashi) and was passed to Kato as a suitable guardian by the Tachibana family. 


Kato Isao shows the other Musashi bokken on Japanese TV

One of Kato's students, (grand-student?), Akabane Daisuke  
wielding a bokken modelled on the Musashi bokken above.

The Duel

The traditional story has Sasaki Kojiro waiting on the island for Musashi, who turns up late, as he had done in previous duels. This time, he arrives in a small boat and leaps into the waves as the boat comes toward the beach. The two face off, and Kojiro draws his sword from its saya, which he casts into the waves. Musashi taunts him, saying this move shows he knows he is beaten. The two set to it, Kojiro now angry. They strike simultaneously, and while Musashi’s headband is cut, Kojiro is struck down. Musashi approaches the body and Kojiro strikes from the ground; Musashi leaps back, his hakama cut, and strikes Kojiro once more, with a blow that finishes him. Musashi then escapes on the boat he arrived in, making use of the tides to avoid pursuit.


Despite the unreliability of this account, there are elements that offer insight into the use of distance in Musashi’s strategy. Firstly, by jumping into the waves, Musashi was able to hold his bokken with the tip in the water, hiding its true length and denying Kojiro the chance to change his tactics. As he advanced, it is likely he would have kept his sword behind him, either holding it low or resting on his shoulder. In both these positions, the tsuka (hilt) would have been pointing directly at Kojiro, preventing him assessing the length of Musashi’s weapon.


Whether or not Musashi provoked Kojiro by his comment, it is likely Kojiro would have cast aside his long says in any case to allow him to fight unencumbered. Perhaps Kojiro was angered, but if Musashi made such a comment, it can only have been to harden Kojiro’s intention to use his favourite technique, tsubamekaeshi, on which Musashi had based his strategy.


There is some reason to believe that this technique utilised the tip of the sword, thus Musashi could stay outside Kojiro’s range and strike using the extra reach of his specially designed bokken only if he came very close to the edge of Kojiro’s range and struck before the 'return' part of the 'returning swallow' could come into play, which considering Kojiro's skill, would mean that the two blows would be almost simultaneous. In the event, he played it very fine indeed, Kojiro’s blade coming close enough to slice through his headband.


Kojiro’s counter was supposed to have been wickedly fast, but Musashi’s understanding of rhythm and range – his mikiri– was exceptional. It must have been, for despite the difference in weight, a wooden sword is no match for a real blade in speed. He invited Kojiro’s attack, and at the very moment Kojiro thought he had cut him, it was Musashi who struck home, using that infintessimal advantage in timing and distance to the fullest.


Musashi’s blow was timed to the instant Kojiro cut – if he had slipped the blow and got inside, he would not have needed a longer weapon. If he had waited even a fraction of a second longer, Kojiro would have countered. Thus he aimed for Kojiro’s greatest weakness, which was also the point of greatest danger. The advice in 35 Articles of Strategy seems to be written with this in mind:


… you should be aware that when you can strike someone with your sword, you may be struck by their sword.


Kojiro seems to have been lost in history, his name preserved in the tale of his final adversary. The site of his death also bears his name, Ganryujima. Even this, though, may not be as straightforward as it seems: it has been suggested that this may have originally referred to the island directly – ‘the rock in the current’ is a possible translation of Ganryu. But despite the lack of hard information about him, details of the story ring true, making an analysis like this more than simple academic. If undertaken seriously, it can bring a greater understanding of the factors a swordsman would want to have under control if he was to stake his life on a duel such as this.


Tuesday, 30 June 2020

The Daimyo's use of symbols – hawks from the Kano school

Kano Tanyu's painting from Nijo Castle - a reproduction is now on display

The beautiful paintings of the Kano school were made for patrons, many of whom were the principal warlords of the day (religious institutions and members of the Imperial family were also notable patrons) and many of these paintings formed grand decorative schemes, filling all the walls of single or multiple chambers. 

In some cases, the theme was the message – tigers and birds of prey were obvious choices for military men, while flowers and birds often decorated the chambers of women of important households. Yet there was also much overlap, with many temples using the same motifs as the warlords, and the decorative schemes of castles employing multiple elements to different effect depending on the use of the room (and the type of visitors that might be expected). In fact, temples took on a number of roles and functions, and often played host to important figures when they travelled.

A good example can be seen at Nijo Castle in Kyoto. The paintings and other decorations were completed under the auspices of Kano Tanyu, the head of the Edo Kano School. He painted many of the major paintings himself, and other members of the family, and the Kyoto Kano School worked under him.

A visitor of the warrior class, on arriving at Nijo Castle, the Tokugawa shogun’s official residence in Kyoto, might be shown into a room gloriously decorated with tigers prowling through a bamboo grove, putting him in mind of the power and the potential danger represented by the shogun. If granted an audience, he would be shown into a chamber decorated with majestic pine trees in whose branches perched imperious eagles or hawks. They would have looked even more impressive in those days, as they would have been viewed from a seated position, and much of the time the visitor would be keeping his head lowered in deference to the shogun. In any case. He could not fail to identify these motifs with the powerful man before him.

Nijo Castle with reproductions of the original paintings

An imperial envoy, on the other hand, would be granted an audience in a room decorated with flowering cherry trees, showing that the shogun was also a man of culture, worthy of the position bestowed on him (by the emperor, who really didn’t have much choice in the matter, especially after the position had become hereditary).

Aimed to impress through cultural legitimacy rather than intimidation.

These motifs were certainly symbolic, though perhaps only in a general way. In some cases, the motifs were far more specific in the symbols they employed. An interesting example of this can be seen at Zuiganji Temple in Sendai, whose patron, the powerful warlord Date Masamune, maintained strong associations with the temple. The decorative scheme of one of its rooms, the Taka no Ma (The Hawk Room) is more direct. Serving as a waiting room for Masamune’s vassals, when he visited or was staying at the temples, it incorporates a number of motifs that illustrate sayings meant to instruct the vassals on behaviour proper to the bushi class.

Below are some of the paintings showing the parts in question with a short explanation of their message. The originals have been replaced with modern replicas (painted by experts in the copying of historical paintings – some art colleges still have this as a department), so they probably look pretty close to how they would have appeared in their prime, though losing much of the atmosphere of the faded originals.

All of these illustrate well-known sayings, and Date Masamune’s interest in this kind of thing may well have stemmed from the rigorous education he received from the monk Kosai Soitsu. Two of them are puns, while two of them are direct illustrations of sayings.

Bushi shouldn't allow themselves to be made fools of.  This contains a play on the word kamo, which means both duck and to be made a fool of.

Bushi should not be involved in fraud. Similarly, this contains a play on the word sagi, which means both a heron or egret and fraud.

If the pheasant didn’t cry out, it wouldn’t get shot. In this case, the pheasant has revealed itself and a hawk is in hot pursuit. Obviously a lesson on the value of keeping quiet. Even today, the proverb, ‘the nail that sticks up will be hammered down’ is often put into practice.

If you chase two rabbits, you won’t even catch one. It’s difficult to tell if there is a second rabbit from this picture (or even a first one if you don't know what you're looking for - it's the white thing directly below the eagle). Nonetheless, the meaning is clear. Note also the similarity in pose to the hawk in the Nijo Castle painting at the top of this blog. Training in the Kano school made much use of the copying of standard models – this was an important part of maintaining standards and reproducing the school's signature style.

For comparison, here is a picture of how some of the original paintings in Zuiganji looked before they were replaced. Although I appreciate the original paintings, I must admit that the venue does make a big difference to the effect on the viewer. I haven't been to Nijo Castle for a few years, but, depending on the weather, the paintings certainly didn't always show very well. Visitors couldn't get very close, and there was a constant pressure to move on, rather than stand and look. Perhaps they are better in the attached museum where the selection on view can be examined at close quarters. However, it could also be argued that there is nothing quite like the experience of seeing art in situ as it has been for hundreds of years.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Miyamoto Musashi's squirrel – samurai wordplay

Musashi's Squirrel and Grapes (cut off slightly on the right)

The bushi were a cultured lot – some of them, anyway – and Japan was a cultured society. Nowadays, when we look at the art of great civilisations, we tend to value it for its beauty – indeed, that is one of the things that attracts us to art in many of its forms. However, there is a lot more to art than that (as a cursory glance at any display of contemporary art will tell us) – and there always was. 

As a form of communication, art has messages and meanings beyond the aesthetic. Its value as a didactic and political tool was well understood by the rich and powerful of feudal Japan. Decorative schemes in castles, temples and residences contained subtle and not so subtle messages that their audiences were practiced in reading. They were messages about power, morals, aspiration – the usual things. The artists might also include details pointing to their lineage, linking to well-known works, thus emphasising the connection with more famous predecessors. (This was happening in the Kano school, where the sidelined Kyoto branch thought it necessary to point out that they were just as much, if not more, worthy successorsto the Kano traditionthan the politically favoured blood descendants of the founder who ran the Edo branch – their paintings were also beautiful, as you can see here). Other works of art operated on a smaller scale, with more personal messages for the satisfaction of the careful viewer.

Which brings us on to an often overlooked painting byMiyamoto Musashi: Squirrel and Grapes

As a subject, it was an auspicious one, symbolising abundance and fertility: grapes are obvious images of plently, while squirrels were seen as being like mice which were known for having large numbers of offspring. Perhaps not an obvious choice for Musashi, although it could be argued that it reflects a feeling of personal well-being and satisfaction with his position in the world. Indeed, at this stage, relatively late in his life, he was a guest of the powerful and cultured Hosokawa family in Kumamoto, far from the reverses he may have suffered in trying to establish himself in the capital. However, there is more to it than that.

A typical depiction of the squirrel and grapes theme on sword mountings

The title was also understood as a play on words: the word for grapes (budo) is a homophone for budo(martial ways), while squirrel (risu) is similar to rissuru, which means something like to dedicate or discipline oneself. Thus the picture is a pun that refers to discipline in the martial arts. It is in this connection that the motif was utilised by bushi as decoration in sword mountings and the like.  

Musashi’s treatment of the theme is distinctive. Like his more well-known paintings of birds, this one emphasises poise – the squirrel balances on the vine, it’s eyes sharp, and the tail sweeping up as it prepares to hop onto the next branch or reach out for the grapes below. This sense of dynamism is portrayed through the broad curves of the tail and the body, with the more precise details of the face and claws suggesting the focus and contained energy of a body about to burst into motion.  

Musashi’s work is notable for his sparing yet powerful use of dark ink to focus and control the composition, keeping the dynamism of the subject through rough but fluent brushwork. It was a style that stemmed from Muqi and Liang Kai, both 13thcentury Chinese monk painters whose works were more admired in Japan than in their native China. Musashi’s artistic education is a matter for speculation, but his style and subject matter suggest he had seen some of these works as well as those of his older contemporaries, Kaiho Yusho and Hasegawa Tohaku, who were both influenced by these artists. Kaiho Yusho and Hasegawa Tohaku were based in Kyoto for much of their careers, and famous works by the two aforementioned Chinese painters were also held in temples in that city. 
The 6th Patriarch Chopping Wood by Liang Kai
This work is now in the Tokyo National Museum, but it is quite possible
Musashi had access to it at some time. (Lang Kai's paintings suffer greatly from
reproduction - you cannot really appreciate the subtlety in reproductions).

Crows by Kaiho Yusho. Yo can still get some idea of the power of this piece even though the reproduction is less than perfect.

Of course, early in his career Musashi spent some time in Kyoto, but what his position was is far from certain. At some time he completed some fine paintings for Toji Temple, which maintains he lived there for a period of three years or so after his duels with the Yoshioka swordsmen, and also suggests that he studied with Kaiho Yusho during this time, but this is far from certain. (The priest Takuan, who was linked to Musashi in the famous novel by Yoshikawa Eiji, was head of a sub-temple at the Daitoku-ji complex where Tohaku saw a triptych by Muqi that had a major influence on his style. Although there seems to be no firm evidence to back it up, the temple also claims a connection with Musashi – perhaps that is where Yoshikawa got the idea about Takuan being Musashi’s mentor.)

Wherever he developed his skill with the brush, it is difficult not to see in his works touches of his own experience, and to think that they express something of what was important to him in life.

Musashi often chose animals and birds for his subjects, and among those, it was the small and everyday varieties that he focused on. That he would choose these as subjects, in some cases strongly suggesting connections with aspects of his heiho– his martial art – rather than the powerful, regal creatures that we might normally associate with the arts of war, certainly says something about the man.

A close-up showing the squirrel and one of the well-nibbled bunches of grapes.

Can we read anything else into this inquisitive squirrel? I think we can. If we look carefully, we can see the grapes are mostly gone. Is it late in the season or has another squirrel been here already? Whatever the reason, this one seems unphased – it continues, as full of enthusiasm as ever. Is this the message then – the importance of continued discipline, even though many of the obvious rewards have gone? It would be in keeping with Musashi’s writings. But more than that, given the way the painting pulses with life, it suggests there is an enthusiasm, almost a joy in this. I would like to think that this, too, was part of his message.

Friday, 10 April 2020

When the going gets tough... a kiai shugyo

Kogan Gengei - Zen monk, student of Hakuin.
A bull fears nothing, and when he sits, he really sits; when he moves, he really movesthe ideal behavior of a Zen adept. A bull additionally stands for the mind; uncontrollably wild at first but capable of being tamed, harnessed, and eventually set free to roam contentedly wherever it pleases. 

John Stevens 'The Appreciation of Zen Art'

Some time ago I wrote about the hard training methods that developed in or were promulgated from the Meiji period (1868- ) onwards. Whether these were an authentic continuation or re-creation of the experience of bugeisha in the past is a moot point. The information I could find pointed to a strong influence from sources outside the martial tradition. 

One of the traditions I described, popularised by the Ichikukai (One-nine Society) and labelled in a general way as misogi, seems to have developed from a Shinto base and developed a fierce, Zen inspired overlay (with nods to the teaching style of Yamaoka Tesshu), involved continuous ringing of a hand bell while chanting, and which lasted for a period of several days. Tohei Koichi, the famous aikido teacher engaged in this training.

A variant, or at least, a very similar style of training is described by veteran budo practitioner Roald Knutsen in his book Rediscovering Budo from a Swordsman’s Perspective. Knutsen, whose personal experience tends to pre-date many of the current crop of writers on these kinds of things, sees this kind of training relating to Shingon mikkyo, and suggests connections through to the roots of bugei, likely renewed by individual practitioners in their personal travels and connections with esoteric teachings such as those of the yamabushi.

Much of this kind of training involves sleep deprivation, pushing trainees to the point of physical exhaustion, and fasting – mainstays of esoteric training the world over. While it is true that the founders of several ryu-ha did, indeed, withdraw to undergo shugyo in shrine precincts, emerging with new or consolidated insights and understandings of their arts, going on to found their own styles, one wonders about the extent to which these experiences were characteristic of or necessary for bugeisha as a whole.

Knutsen includes a lengthy description of a kiai shugyo similar to the ones I described conducted at the Ichikukai. It is based on the reminiscences of three budo masters of the author’s acquaintance. While there are differences – the principal one being that the chanting described in other descriptions of the misogi of the Ichikukai has been replaced by kiai – it is recognisable as essentially the same practice.

   Early on the first morning the students knelt in formal line with a few domestic dojo members behind forming the second row. Each visiting student was handed a small handbell, or ‘kane’, to hold in his left hand. they were required to throw out their arm to sound the bell and shout a loud kiai – ‘Ei – the movement timed by the slow beat of the large dojo drum. This exercise was repeated endlessly at the same measured tempo for two hours before the practise ended. That first day they had two more sessions, a total of six hours. Needless to say, their arms became very heavy and tired; their voices, too.

   They were in the dojo the next morning before dawn and the practice was the same but for one detail. Instead of kneeling they were now required to sit in the posture known…as ‘tate-hiza’ or half kneeling, with the left foot tucked underneath their buttocks. The handbells felt twice as heavy as the day before and the pain and the fatigue soon came flooding back, only to become considerably worse as the long day wore on. For most, their voices were cracking and try as they might they found it impossible to shout to the satisfaction of their superiors. At the second period, the dojo master clapped his hands and several young girls, all Kendo or Naginata students, came in and knelt behind each bell ringer, and gently with the tips of their fingers lightly tapped up and down the taught straining muscles of their necks, backs, and shoulders. On and on they rang and tried to croak out the kiai, cajoled and exhorted by the senpai, having to draw deep on their reserves of determination at least to get through to the end of the day. Finally, after almost drowning in the warmth and luxury of the temple bath-house, they sought their futon to sleep, exhausted.
   The third day was exquisite torture. By now, quite apart from their stiffened limbs – arms, legs, shoulders, backs – and the weight of those nightmare bells, they had no voices left, just raw throats that could raise, at best, a faint croak. the girls’ gentle tapping, far from relieving their tired muscles hurt like the devil, too…..
   The fifth morning came and most felt better for their rest although somewhat stiff. They assembled in the dojo and put on their kendo armour before continuing with the usual kiai training, but this only lasted for an hour. Then, facing them on the senior side were a number of tough-looking senior yudansha. A violent practice followed in which there was no way in their present condition they could hope to hold their own. Each of the seniors seemed to be harder than the one before … and the practices were interminable, but at last the drum called a halt. The dojo master now announced that they would all be required later to fight one-point matches, success or failure depending on the result. They were then dismissed.

Both my Kendo informants recalled the prospect of these matches as daunting and, in each case, their respective opponents looked uncompromising and hard. With little or no reserves left within them, this situation was close to facing a deadly enemy on the battlefield; desperate in the extreme. While each steadied himself for what was to come, the senpai reminded them of the teaching:
‘Don’t look with your eyes; see with your mind!’

All three masters recalled that they took standing ‘rei’ towards their opponent, they followed it with a great kiai – and the senpai at once struck the drum to signal the match was at an end!

R. Knutsen: Rediscovering Budo from a Swordsman’s Perspective pp98-100

To finish with, another swordsman's perspective:

Yamaoka Tesshu – the calligraphy reads:

Asking for
The inner secrets of kenjutsu
Is like asking me
To brush an ink painting
On the sound of the wind.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

'Do not despise the snake for having no horns...'

The ancient sages said, "Do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon?" So may one just man become an army.

Nearly a thousand years ago in ancient China, at the time of the Sung dynasty, there was a cruel and corrupt government. These men riding are outlaws – heroes – who have been driven to live in the water margins of Liang Shan Po, far to the south of the capital city. Each fights tyranny with a price on his head in a world very different from our own.

The story starts in legend even then, for our heroes, it was said, were perhaps the souls reborn of other, earlier knights.

Almost anyone of my generation in the UK (anyone who liked adventure and action on TV, that is) will recognise the words above as coming from the beginning of the TV series The Water Margin. Back in the seventies, it was essential viewing for any kid with even a slight interest in the martial arts or oriental adventure.

Atsuko Nakamura as the inimitable Lin Chung

Apart from Kung Fu (and the later Monkey) it was pretty much the only TV programme touching on those interests – a kind of Robin Hood and King Arthur rolled into one, with all the wonder and strangeness of an unknown and unexplored world. From the opening credits, which showed a motley and exotic band of riders advancing over the black sands to the distinctive opening chords of the theme tune, it transported the viewer to a new and different culture.

Even for those whose interest lay less with the exotic and more with the adventure and swordplay, the lines delivered by Burt Kwouk at the beginning were to become part of the permanent vocabulary of youth – or perhaps that was just my friends.

Though the series was set in China and based on the Chinese classic Shui Hu Zhuan, the TV series was a Japanese production (by Nippon Television) which followed on from a long history of adaptations from the original. Originally translated into Japanese back in the Edo period, the 90 volumes by Kyokutei Bakin proved immensely popular. Published over a period of some years (1805-1838) it was also to provide inspiration for renowned artists such as Hokusai (who illustrated Bakin's volumes) and Kuniyoshi (who became popular through his vigorous depictions of the characters).



This television series was based on a manga series by Yokohama Mitsuteru, rather than the original, and took as its central character Lin Chung, peerless swordsman and, in this version, a paragon of chivalrous virtue. Perhaps he was a little too uncompromising for me – I preferred some of the more minor characters such as Shi Chin, the Tattooed Dragon, who was a little less perfect. As in the original, fighting for justice against corrupt officials was a major theme, and likely part of the reason for the novel's success in early 19th century Japan.

The stirring theme music by Godaigo was particularly evocative, both the instrumental version at the beginning and the even more dramatic vocal version that ran with the final credits. Of course, because it was sung in Japanese, we understood not a word of it. In fact, it was only recently that I went back to it to figure out what the lyrics actually were. I was pleased to find the lyrics reflected the feeling of the series as well as I could have hoped – a bitter-sweet lament resonating with nostalgia and hope.

I have never seen the lyrics written anywhere, so here they are for the first time:
Be sure to listen to the original, too.

Jinsei wa
Shireta mono sa
Umaku ittemo
Ippen no kumo yo ni
Nagaresaru dake
Naku na tomo
Kino wa kino
Sa, asa janai

Life is
but a trifle;
Even if it goes well,
You are blown along
Like a lone cloud.
Don't cry my friend;
Even if you weep
Tomorrow is a new day (lit. Tomorrow is tomorrow).
See, it is morning already.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Zen Secrets of the Spear

The letters sent by the priest Takuan are perhaps the most famous example of giving an explanation of bugei in terms of Zen (or vice versa). Of course, it is not the only one.

Bankei Yōtaku
Here is another example, from Bankei Yōtaku (1622-93). A Rinzai Zen priest, he taught what he termed Unborn Zen, which emphasised direct experience of the human state and eschewed the use of koans or highly ascetic approaches. 

Fu-shō (Unborn) by Bankei
In later life, he became the most popular Zen teacher of his day and travelled widely and often. Among his students (and patrons) was the daimyo Katō Yasuoki, Lord of the Ozu domain in present day Ehime (Shikoku). Katō (whose Zen name was Gesso) was also a keen student of the spear, and Bankei gave him this advice. (For more about the spear, see an earlier post here).

Katō Yasuoki (Gesso)

Instructions for the Layman Gesso, given at his request

In performing a movement, if you act with no-mind, the action will spring forth of itself. When your ki changes, your physical form changes along with it. When you’re carried away by force, that is relying on “self”. To have ulterior thoughts is not in accordance with the natural. When you act upon deliberation, you are tied to thought. The opponent can tell (the direction of) your ki. If you (try to) steady yourself by deliberate effort, your ki becomes diffuse, and you may grow careless. When you act deliberately, your intuitive response is blocked; and if your intuitive response is blocked, how can the mirror mind appear? When, without thinking and without acting deliberately, you manifest the Unborn, you won’t have any fixed form. When you are without fixed form, no opponent will exist for you in the whole land. Not holding on to anything, not relying onesidedly on anything, there is no “you” and no “enemy”. Whatever comes, you just respond, with no traces left behind.
Heaven and earth are vast, but outside mind there is nothing to seek. Become deluded, however, and instead this mind becomes your opponent. Apart from mind, there is no art of combat.

From: Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei by Peter Haskel

What can we read into such a description? Is it instruction in the spear or in Zen? Or are the two linked at some deep level that makes them fundamentally the same?

If we regard it simply as instruction in use of the spear, it might be boiled down to the importance of not overthinking an activity, which doesn't seem particularly unusual. Today, it would be a common-place observation. Anyone involved in sports, for example, knows that thinking too much about any one part of it will likely result in a performance that falls short of their potential. In Zen terms, we are looking at something deeper, but let's stick to the spear for the time being.

Gesso must have spent years training in the use of weapons, so we might imagine he was aware of this – the importance of not thinking. Bankei, however, was a perceptive man. While he had probably never seen Gesso use a spear, nor used one himself, it would not be difficult to extrapolate from what he knew of his pupil that this would be an aspect of his practice that was holding him back. Bankei was known for his wit and intelligence and had built a reputation for being able to engage with a range of different people and overcome them in a kind of meta-physical debate. He was at the top of his field, and in feudal Japan, the ability to read people this way was, in any case, part of the particular skill set of Zen priests.

We might also consider that both these men were involved in their respective disciplines to the extent that they were dealing with far smaller tolerances than are allowed for in normal language (or, indeed, in everyday life). The hesitation they are talking about might be so small that it would barely register to the untrained eye. For those involved in serious training, the experience of simply being unaware of some aspect of the body’s movement until it is pointed out is probably common.

Although the skills and plausibility of Zen practitioners might lend credence to their opinions, there is a danger in applying this learning too broadly. This would suggest that traditional arts did not deal with these aspects of combat, and that Zen was necessary to enable practitioners to reach the highest levels of their arts. In fact, Bugeisha seemed to have turned to a variety of religious disciplines for any number of reasons: social, spiritual, and political. If deeply involved in a spiritual discipline, they might naturally have drawn parallels with the teachings of their martial studies, but Zen was just one of many disciplines.

An interesting example of Zen’s position as one amongst many is provided by Oishi Yoshio Kuranosuke, leader of the famous 47 loyal retainers (a.k.a. The 47 ronin). He received instruction in Zen from none other than Bankei. (According to Leggett’s book, ‘The Warrior Koans’, Bankei was said to have given him the koan of the paper sword to work on, but given Bankei's style of teaching, this seems unlikely). One might be tempted to see this as a prime mover in his actions to avenge his master, but he was also a direct student of Yamaga Sokō, a noted Confucian scholar and thinker, and it is Sokō who is usually cited as his major influence.

Oishi Kuranosuke, from a print by Yoshitoshi (courtesy of Fuji Arts)

Even for someone who accepts Zen's place as only one influence amongst many, it is not necessarily easy to ignore, and one may well ask why this should be so. Perhaps it is less to do with what Zen actually is than with what it represents. Whether this was a reflection shared by practitioners in feudal Japan, I do not know. Possibly not. But in the modern world, perhaps especially in the west, Zen is a symbol of something more than itself. It invokes a sense of the role of intuition, of the deeper levels of the mind, and in pairing it with the martial arts, it invites us to consider the importance of these faculties, of the practitioner’s inner world, not just in the pursuit of such a physical activity, but in all areas of our lives.

The facility with which Zen practitioners turned to a variety of creative arts, and the undoubted power of some of the works of art they created helps foster this connection. So too does the history of sponsorship of a wide variety of arts by Zen institutions, arts that have become associated with and coloured to a lesser or greater degree by Zen. (Although a closer inspection often reveals a mix of influences, it is often claimed that they exhibit a ‘Zen’ aesthetic.) In fact, it may be the very emptiness and wordlessness of these pieces that attract us and allow us to imbue them with meaning, to see depth and relevance that may or may not relate directly to that which was originally intended.