Friday, 11 November 2011

The Confucian Swordsman II

Confucius, from the recent film of the same name

It's difficult to generalise about neo-Confucian writings on the sword - they need to be read, and then pondered over. Their rationalist approach has a certain clarity, but it also demands some work on the part of the reader - all the more so as the idiom in which they are written is unlikely to be familiar to most readers nowadays.

Part of the difficulty lies in the use of terms in unfamiliar ways: 'principle', 'virtue' and 'filial piety' are all terms we recognise, but they also seem strangely out of place in a work about swordsmanship. Obviously there is a moral dimension to learning and teaching martial arts, but it has become almost second nature to reject formulations that promise success to the virtuous and doom for the unjust as unrealistic.

For these to make sense, the reader has to be able to perceive the way they correlate to the practical concerns of sword use. The ability to do this is partly dependent upon ones own experience in these arts, but this is part of what makes the writing valuable.

Fact or Fantasy?
The danger of this approach is that it can fall in to the trap of wish-fulfilment or creative imagination, somewhat in the manner in which authors have taken famous Chinese/Japanese texts, comparing and combining various translations of the originals to give new versions, supposedly more relevant 'for our times'. While there may be some merit in this approach, I doubt it gets us any closer to the meaning of the originals, which is what interests me.

The neo-Confucian texts were not meant to be coded, secretive works which would reveal their knowledge only to chosen initiates (and even Yagyu Munenori's Heihokadensho, which has a good deal of neo-Confucian content as well as the more often noted Zen aspects, makes a point of pointing out which terms are coded) - they were meant for a far wider readership. This means they should be accessible to readers today.

This, in turn, requires a little knowledge of the conventions of the genre. Some of the works are fairly self-explanatory, (e.g. Joseishi Kendan) while others use terms that were actually key concepts in a wider discourse, and thus have additional connotations which might not be immediately obvious.

Filial Piety
The latitude allowed for interpretation of these concepts can be found in the writings of some of the major thinkers of neo-Confucianism in both China and Japan. A good example is ‘filial piety’ – certainly a concept that seems more at home in a moral text than one about swordsmanship. When a writer says something like:

You should simply adopt an underlying attitude of loyalty and filial respect.  - Kimura Kyuho

are we justified in applying it in a wider context? One of the early figures of Japanese neo-Confucianism, Nakae Toju (1608-1648), had this to say about it:

What gives birth to Heaven, to earth, to human existence, and to all things is nothing but this filial piety.
Nakae Toju

(Even as basic an education as those offered in the village school, the terakoya, taught: “…it is the beginning of filial piety to take care and preserve yourself from injury.”)

Clearly it means more than just taking care of your parents – in the abstract, it is a statement of relationships. Seeing it in such broad terms enables us to apply this kind of reading to these works across the board.

Interestingly, there have been some voices in the field of Confucian studies (e.g. Robert Eno) that recognise that earlier Confucian writers (Confucius and Mencius, for example) were referring to something like this in their writings - 'right' was a psycho-physical state as much as an ethical construct. the insistence on the importance of doing things the right way was to entrain this state, rather than to enforce conformity.

Wild beasts
Another concept that appears intermittently, and somewhat confusingly, is that of ‘wild beasts’. It can be found both in Tengu Geijutsuron and Kenjutsu Fushikihen, as well as the Kenpo Sekiun Sensei Soden, written by Odagiri Ichiun and seems somewhat out of place – it is used as a pejorative term for those schools of swordsmanship that emphasise techniques - until we realize that it was a metaphor used to describe those who engaged in all manner of activities without regard to ri. Of course, this has a moral dimension, but it also allows a practical interpretation to the term, depending on how we interpret ri in swordsmanship.

And in English…?
Although there were many, many works in the Japanese martial tradition that were shaped by the currents of neo-Confucian thought, very few are accessible to the English reading public. (It must also be said, that they have received, on the whole, little sustained interest in Japan, either… at least in recent years.)

For the interested reader, I recommend Tengu Geijutsuron, translated by W.S. Wilson in The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts, and Joseishi Kendan and Kenjutsu Fushiki Hen, both of which are in my The Samurai Mind. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t regard Tengu Geijutsuron as terribly authoritative in the deeper areas of sword practice, but it does provide a philosophical justification of bugei practice along neo-Confucian lines. Kenjutsu Fushiki Hen provides a rebuttal to some of the points in Tengu Geijutsuron, and is written with knowledge of the earlier work. It is, importantly, claiming to represent authentic teachings of a swordmaster, and is thus a sort of companion to Tengu Geijutsuron – they both touch on many of the same points and the authors appear to have had a similar grounding in neo-Confucianism, though we do not know the extent of their learning.
Minagawa Kien

We are on firmer ground with Matsura Seizan, the writer of Joseishi Kendan. Seizan was the student of a well-known Confucian scholar, Minagawa Kien, and was himself known as a scholar as well as a swordsman. He embodied many aspects of neo-Confucian ideals in himself and his writing. Rather than explain a theory of how swordsmanship can embody the universal principle, he display in his writing several of the over-riding concerns of his schools of thought, such as education and the doctrine of kakubutsu chichi – the importance of investigating diverse areas to gain a greater understanding of the way in which the universal principle underlies everything.

His work includes passages on numerous aspects of daily life which he ties in to the discipline of swordsmanship. Though this might at first glance seem to be merely an intellectual exercise knowing that he was also a master of the sword requires us to assess it in a new light. The no-nonsense advice he gives further reinforces this – where he does directly refer to Confucianism, the impression he gives is very far from the empty theorizing of an armchair swordsman – which criticism is often leveled at Confucians, either explicitly or by implication.

There are also, as I mentioned above, neo-Confucian currents in Yagyu Munenori’s Heihokadensho, which has been translated by both Thomas Cleary and Wilson. It is an interesting exercise to read it with an eye to these, rather than the more often noted Zen aspects.

An underlying theory
Finally, neo-Confucian thinking gives us a theoretical justification for the study of martial arts: this is ri, the underlying principle (of life, the universe and everything). Because it is underlying, it is also connecting – the search and discovery of it in one area can affect our performance in other areas because they all share the same principles. This became a powerful (though unstated) component of the modern budo disciplines, and provides, at some level, an answer to the question, “How does this discipline make me a better person?”

Perhaps this is what separates this school of thought from other theoretical currents that informed the bugei. Neo-Confucianism is fundamentally concerned with life, with being a part of society, and pursuing one’s way within these boundaries. And that’s what makes it so rewarding to read.


  1. So I followed you here from the Kendo World forums. Still have to read this article and Part I but wanted to let you know how much I am digging your stuff. After I read your comments on the forum ("Budo Literature" thread) I bought your book of translations, The Samurai Mind, then read your article on Confucian voices in Japanese swordsmanship in Kendo World magazine. What a delight! Looking forward to reading and learning more.

  2. Thanks Charlie! It's nice to get such an appreciative comment. I try to put out stuff that I find interesting and hope that others do, too.