Sword and Mind


The subject is Tokusai on Sword and Mind, drawn mainly from his writings. Tokusai was a great fencing master who was also a noted Buddhist figure.  He was born a little after the middle of the last century, and he died in 1930.  He had a big influence in reviving the spiritual elements in the traditional training of the former samurai in Japan.  Zen Buddhism had played a great part in that spiritualization, much as chivalry did in the West. The latter succeeded partially in refining and ennobling people who were more or less gangsters.  In Japan similarly, the cult of the sword, was partially spiritualised by the efforts of a chain of masters of the so-called Knightly Arts, including what became Judo, and by Zen teachers at Kamakura and elsewhere who influenced them.

The so-called feudal Japan was not so very long ago.  Fairly recently there was a very senior Member of the Japanese parliament whose grandfather had committed hara-kiri because he had displeased the clan leader. That was about 1860.  So the memories were still alive.   After the Meiji Restoration of that date, many of the samurai were suddenly out of a job.   They had previously been the administrators of the country, and some of them were now very dangerous people.  I give one little example, which was in fact translated into English in Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan, I think.

In those days, even up to the end of the century, it was a terrible insult if a samurai’s scabbard was touched by anything in passing.  So a samurai who was orderly and did not want a fight, kept his scabbard close to his side in the street.  But on one occasion in the Tokyo streets, according to the newspaper report, a rather poorly dressed samurai passed three others, who had been drinking.   They turned on him and claimed that his scabbard had touched one of theirs.  He denied it, and even offered to apologise for any supposed insult.  But they refused.  ‘You have insulted us, and you have got to pay for it.’  So the three of them lined up, facing this single man. There were bystanders, but no one ventured to interfere.  The newspaper report said that the single swordsman advanced steadily towards the central opponent.   The man on his right thought he saw an opportunity and made a cut at his head.  There was a lightning counter-attack, and he went down bathed in blood.   Then the opponent on the left came on, and he too was instantly cut down.  The third man ran away. The solitary samurai wiped his sword, and then went to report the matter to the local police station, as the law required.

I have presented this account because Tokusai, when talking about the spirit of Kendo in his time, namely with bamboo swords in a training hall, said: ‘It is no longer a question of life-and-death, and so the spirit of intensity has been lost.’  Of course, he was not recommending that Kendo men should practice with real swords.  He meant that when you know that nothing serious can really happen, you may easily lose the spirit of Kendo. The whole intensity is lost if you think that after all the worst that can happen is that you are hit on the head with a bamboo sword.  He added that if you practice like that, it is of no value for life.

We can see in our own time that tennis or golf is of little value for life if it is just getting skill in hitting a ball with precision and force.  There may be some value in it if it is practised in the spirit of sport (which many so-called sportsmen fail to understand).  To be able to keep your temper when losing, and refrain from exulting when you win, is training in independence, and an advantage in life.  But the practice of Kendo ought to give much more than that.

I have made a few very free translations from writings of Tokusai.  (They have to be free, because they are not in context.)   It was printed privately, but a copy was given to me by a Zen master, Omori Sogen, who is also a master of Kendo.  The book is not easily available, and I was reluctant to take it, but he insisted.  There was a sort of unspoken understanding that I would translate at least some extracts from it.

Here is a first extract.   Notice how he explains technique, but then speaks of something much higher than technique.

This dharma of the sword is made up of two elements:  Ri (inspiration) and technique. Technique follows the nature of the form of the sword.  When the adaptive movements of the body are learned, as based on the Ri, a natural spiritual inspiration appears which develops into knowledge of the occasions of Emptiness and Fullness, and the as yet unmanifest signs of winning and losing. Broadly speaking technique, having form, is easy to practise. Whereas Ri, inspiration, having no form, is hard to realise, and is easily misunderstood. Especially when in Kendo, instead of real swords, the opponents have faced each other armed merely with bamboo swords so that all idea of danger, of life-and-death depending on this single combat, is lost.  Then one sees then how the great enemies of wrong thinking and delusive ideas make a sudden attack on the brightness of heart and body, so that their living freedom of movement is lost.   Then thoughts of self-advantage spring up.   Tricks and stratagems are devised.   Or again, he falls into fixed patterns of sword technique for defending himself.   All these come bubbling up in his breast, so that finally the spiritual blaze of energy becomes feeble and slight, and in fact destroyed.   It degenerates into hesitation, evasion, and finally fear.   He can no longer understand clearly either his opponent or himself.   He misses his opportunities of mastering the opponent, and, on the contrary, is pitiably wide open to that opponent’s attack.  This is why in learning Kendo one must absolutely cut away all thoughts about winning, and become aware of whether one’s spirit can meet the opponent’s cut-and-thrust without flinching, or whether it cannot.  One must practice to go deeper and deeper into this (Ri). The essence of the inner training lies just in this.

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: Sword and Mind

Part 2: Give up all idea of winning

Part 3: Get people to practise

Part 4: Freedom from reactions and endless planning

Part 5: The Lohan figure

Part 6: Make the mind empty

Part 7: Cut off before and after

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