One of the distinguishing features of serious martial arts training in the minds of many practitioners, is its severity. This is particularly so in the case of Japanese martial arts, and it reaches some of its most extreme forms in the case of swordsmen from the Meiji period onwards.
That warriors training to develop arts used in life and death struggles should train hard seems beyond question, and the ability to do so raises them in esteem in our eyes. Elite units in the modern military often use extreme training as part of the selection process, and much of this is designed to push people beyond their normal limits, both mentally and physically. There is a darker side as well, with instances of hazing rituals and abuse of power, where the pupose is to establish hierarchy and unthinking obedience rather than to develop individual potential.
This latter aspect became an unfortunate part of Japanese budo in the early of the twentieth century, part and parcel of military recruitment and the rise of nationalism, and has been retained in the regimented nature of these disciplines, which dovetailed naturally with the sempai-kohai (senior-junior) relationship promoted in schools, universities and companies to this day.
Of course, it should be stressed that not all clubs and dojos share these negative characteristics, but it seems that there was a major change in the style of teaching and learning that occurred at much the same time as ‘budo’ (represented by judo, kendo, and somewhat later but similar in spirit, karate-do) was being formed as a set of practices distinct from their forbears.
The transformation to the modern disciplines of budo was not a simple process, but it seems that somewhere within it, the concept of mental strength born of a combination of determination, single-mindedness, and an unwillingness to give up became firmly entrenched as a principle feature of budo. To what degree this was present prior to this transformation is difficult to determine – it certainly didn’t appear from nowhere, and there are enough tales of this kind of spirit to show that it was an attribute that was strongly admired, but admiration for a character trait and placing that trait at the centre of a style of training are different things.
Training in bugei involves the development of skills that require precision and attention to detail. Repetition for its own sake and far less, mass drilling, are not generally a part of this. It seems that karate, of all the budo, perhaps because it is farthest from what are seen to be (however innaccurately) its samurai forebears, tries the hardest to embody these aspects into its training – slots on the News in early January regularly show members of karate clubs training in snow or thigh-high in freezing water, pumping out repetitious punches during their kangeiko (winter training) – but aikido is also notable for its use of aspects of this kind of training.
In fact, it puts one in mind of the religious austerities practised by some groups, rather than traditional bugei training, which is perhaps not as surprising as it might first sound, as the promoters of such training during the Meiji and Taisho Periods had purposely combined their training with some of the attributes of religion.
Budo as 'religion'
It was during the Meiji Period, when the immediate practical use of the sword was called into question, that several influential swordsmen pursued the study of the sword as a method of self development. It was the legacy of these men, more than anything else, that led to the mistaken belief that the study of the sword was inseperable from the study of Zen.
Interestingly, the dojos of both of these instructors were characterised not only by the severe nature of their regular training, but both of them also instituted periods of particularly severe specialised training.
It was also worth noting that in both these cases, the styles were early adopters of shinai sparring, with the consequent loss of teachings requiring the severity of precision and control associated with older styles. The arguments for and against sparring with shinai and bogu not withstanding, it seems that these severe training sessions were aimed at achieving a breakthrough to a different understanding of both mental and physical aspects of martial training; something that normal training did not provide.
Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888)
Yamaoka Tesshu’s seigan training has become quite well-known in the English speaking martial arts world thanks to John Stevens’ book, The Sword of No-Sword.
Tesshu’s “basic” examination required 1,000 days of consecutive practice, completed by 200 consecutive contests in a single day with other students of the Itto Shoden Muto Ryu.
The second level examination consisted of 600 matches over a three-day period. The highest level examination was a seven day ordeal with 1,400 matches.
Several of his students left accounts of their experiences. This is one:
Yanagita Ganjiro completed the two-hundred-match seigan on the final day of his thousand-day training period. He then practiced five hundred more days in a row and undertook the three-day, six-hundred-match seigan. Blows received from the short, thick Muto Ryu bamboo sword (shinai) were extremely painful. Yanagita recalled: "After the first day my head was full of lumps and my body covered with bruises, but I did not feel weak. On the second day I began to suffer. I thought I would have to give up halfway. I managed to continue and near the end of the day I experienced 'selflessness' - I naturally blended with my opponent and moved in unhindered freedom. Although my spirit was strong my body was weak. My urine was dark red and I had no appetite. Nevertheless, I passed the final day's contests with a clear mind; I felt as if I was floating among the clouds."
(The Sword of No-Sword, J. Stevens)
Tesshu not only viewed swordsmanship as a way of disciplining the mind; he was also a practitioner of Zen and a master of calligraphy. Only his swordsmanship was passed down directly; the ‘spirit’ of his calligraphy was revived, (and is carried on by the Hitsuzendo) but perhaps it is better to say that it was by his example and spirit that he has most influenced modern disciplines.
Yamada Jirokichi (1863-1930)
Yamada Jirokichi did not study Zen formally, as Tesshu did, but he also regarded kendo training as a means of developing the self. ‘By understanding this Way, man can learn the Great Way of the Universe; one’s character can become complete,’ he once wrote.
Probably the foremost student of Sakakibara Kenkichi, headmaster of the Jikishinkage ryu (who never named a formal successor), he was also famous for pushing his students to extremes. Among his students was Omori Sogen (1904-1994), who later became an influential Zen teacher. Sogen not only studied the sword, but also calligraphy in what may be considered Tesshu’s tradition – he was, in fact, something of a Tesshu enthusiast, lived in Tesshu's old house and was founder of the Tesshukai (Tesshu association). He has also left an account of a training experience that appears quite similar the training instituted by Tesshu.
Onishi Hidetaka, who was captain of the Kendo Club of Hitosubashi University, and I, were told by Yamada Sensei, “In our style, after completing the hyappon keiko (one hyndred time practice) one is able to receive the final certificate.” It was decided that at the end of July, we would be confined to a mountain temple in Yamanashi prefecture. After twenty days of preparation we began the hyappon keiko.
We got up at 4:00 in the morning, went down the mountain, and bathed in a river. Before breakfast we did the Hojo 15 times. After that we rested awhile then practised 30 more times. After lunch we rested and did the Hojo 55 more times until dusk. We did zazen in the evenings.
By the third day I could shout more loudly and powerfully during practice, but my voice was so hoarse I could not speak at all. At night my body was so hot that I couldn’t sleep. Food would not go down my throat; Ihad only water and raw eggs. My urine was the color of blood. The arms that held the wooden sword could not be raised. We were resigned to death. I couldn’t go before Yamada Sensei and say, “I failed.” Onishi and I got out our notes and letters and burned them all as we prepared to die.
On the fourth day, a strange thing happened. The same arms that had difficulty in even holding the wooden sword went up smoothly over my head. As my arms went down, I felt a strength that was not physical coming out of both arms. It felt as if this downward cut extended to the other end of the world.
For seven days, we practiced the Hojo a hundred times daily in this manner. We finally finished at the beginning of September. Later Yamada Sensei praised me saying, “That is the Muso (No-thought) Style.” I was able to cultivate mental strength entirely because of this Hojo.
(Omori Sogen: Life of a Zen Master, Hosokawa Dogen)
Omori Sogen is perhaps more responsible than anyone else for the conflation of Zen and swordsmanship; he believed that they were closely linked, and promoted this philosophy in his writing, such as his well-known work Ken to Zen. As a highly experienced practitioner of both Zen and kendo, his experiences cannot be ignored, but at the same time, it should be recognized that the sword art he practiced was quite far removed from that practiced when during the Sengoku and early Tokugawa periods.
I believe that his combination of the two disciplines, inspired by the example of Tesshu and the leanings of his own master, was a search for something that was missing in the kendo of his time, something that was taught more explicitly in previous generations, but taking Zen as a model could (he believed), only be intuited through hard practice which allowed a practitioner to break through the boundaries established by the normal, conscious control of the body.
A similar approach was adopted by budoka using another discipline, the bell ringing misogi practices taught by, not entirely coincidentally, a student of Yamaoka Tesshu (and, again, Zen) in the Ichikukai, which I shall deal with in my next post. (Spirit Forging II)