Tokusai on Sword and Mind

Tokusai on Sword and Mind

(January 1993)

The subject is Sword and Mind, and drawn mainly from the writings of Tokusai. He was a great fencing master who was also a noted figure in Buddhism.  He was born a little after the middle of the last century, and died in 1930.  He had a big influence in reviving the spiritual elements in the traditional training of the former samurai Japan.  Zen Buddhism had played a great part in that spiritualisation, much as chivalry did in the West. The latter succeeded partially in refining and ennobling people who were originally little more than gangsters.  In Japan similarly, the cult of force, the naked 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 head of his clan. 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 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 later in the century, it was a terrible insult if a samurai’s scabbard was touched by anything in passing. A samurai who was orderly and did not want a fight, kept his scabbard close to his side in the street.  But on this occasion, 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 says 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 lone 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 practice 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 practise 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 adds that if you practise 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 spirit 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, and also 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 have been learned, one has to learn how to base them on the Ri. Then a natural inspiration appears which develops into an understanding of the states called Emptiness and Fullness, which are the as yet unmanifest signs of winning or losing. Broadly speaking, technique is easy to practise because it has a form. But Ri, inspiration, is hard to understand, and often misunderstood, just because it has no form. This is especially true when in Kendo the opponents come face to face armed merely with bamboo swords. In that case, all idea of danger, of life-and-death depending on this single combat, is lost. One sees then how the great enemies of wrong thinking and delusive ideas make a sudden attack against the brightness of heart and body, so that the living freedom of movement is lost. Thoughts of self-advantage spring up. Tricks and stratagems are devised. Or again, he falls into fixed patterns of sword technique to defend himself.   All these come bubbling up in his breast, so that in the end the spiritual blaze of energy becomes feeble and slight, and in fact is destroyed. It degenerates into hesitation, evasion, and finally fear. He can no longer understand clearly either his opponent or himself. He misses his own opportunities of  mastering his opponent, and is, on the contrary, pathetically open to that opponent’s attack.  This is why in Kendo one must absolutely cut away all thoughts about winning, and become aware whether one’s spirit can meet the opponent’s cut-and-thrust without flinching, or whether it cannot. One must practise going deeper and deeper into this Ri. The essence of the training is this.

You will notice that there are phrases which seem to be absurd.   To give up all idea of winning, for example.  Before looking at this, I will make a few general remarks.  First of all, there is the word Ri. In normal use it means something like a principle.  However, in the West words like ‘principle’ have very strong intellectual associations. There is the principle of double-entry in accounting, and the principle of first-in-first-out (FIFO) in store-keeping.  The principle of Fifo is, that the goods which the store takes in first, should be the first to go out,  If Fifo is not followed, the goods taken in first go to the back of the store, and remain there and finally become useless. These principles are abstract ideas; they have a practical use, but they are no more than ideas. They are not experiences. Ri, in the Kendo texts and in Zen, is not simply an idea:  I have here translated Ri as ‘inspiration’, which means an in-breath of new life. A principle is usually not a living thing, but Ri is a living experience.

As an aside, I may add that the Chinese and Japanese use of such special terms is often very general and vague.  They will use terms like Life, Mind, Buddha-nature loosely and sometimes as alternatives.  Indian thinkers, on the other hand, were usually very exact, they would never take Life and Mind as alternatives. I have sometimes thought that the Japanese use of these terms is rather like the terms used in music: andante, crescendo, staccato, and so on. Their meaning is not very precise. The aim is not precision, but to get people to practise.  So when you are reading a translation from those languages, a good deal depends on whether translator and reader have some knowledge of the practice which the text is speaking about.

Let me give an example. There was a famous book called The Secret of the Golden Flower. It was a translation of a Chinese text by a great German scholar, Richard Wilhelm. It had a modern commentary by the Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung. In it there is a section which Wilhelm translated: “Fixating Contemplation”. The original consists of two Chinese characters, which mean literally ‘to stop or cease’ and ‘to see or look’. Wilhelm’s translation is a possible one.  But the text itself says that this is a Buddhist practice, and this Buddhist practice was evidently not known to Wilhelm. (As a great Sanskrit scholar once remarked to me sadly: “Unfortunately, one cannot know everything.”)  The Buddhist practice is not fixating contemplation, but Stopping and Looking (in Japanese Shi-kan, and in Pali samatha-vipasana). So it refers to stopping the rush of thoughts, and then looking to see what is beyond them. If translated “Fixating Contemplation”, the passage does not read really intelligibly; the translation “Stopping and Looking” does read intelligibly.  The mental process is quietened and finally made empty, and then there can no awareness of the Buddha-nature apart from thought. So these technical words are difficult to grasp unless the reader does at least some practice.

Another example is this: Dr. Daisetsu Suzuki translated most of a Zen text on swordsmanship.  It is a letter by Priest Takuan usually called simply “Fu-do-Chi” (the Mind of Fudo, the unmoving).  It is in his book on Zen and Japanese Culture. In this, the question is asked: ‘Where should the mind be fixed, in a contest?’ He translated the suggested answer as: ‘In the abdominal region.’  The actual word is ‘sai-ka’, which means ‘below the navel’.  He took it in a wide sense, as the whole abdomen. But, in fact, it refers to something quite definite. It is a small area (‘a square inch’) just below the navel. In the Kuden or oral transmission, the distance is given as ‘the middle joint of the middle finger’ below the navel. (In one of the Kuden methods of reviving an unconscious person, this point is manipulated. It is extremely effective, though rather difficult to do.) For the ordinary practice of setting the mind there, they bunch the fingers and press them in at this point. They tense the abdominal muscles there, so that one feels a strong pressure there. Then the fingers are taken away, but using the after-sensation, it is easy to bring the attention there. After some practise, attention can be held steady at that place without having to use the fingers.

What is the use of this? Suppose you are in a situation where you have to wait an hour or two hours, and then go into action. A typical case in Budo would be before a contest. But it often happens in ordinary life: before a driving test, or before making a speech, or before some important interview. Usually people get very nervous, and all their vitality runs away into the fingers and feet and face. They fidget with their feet, or bite their nails, or chatter and twitch. Or sometimes they freeze into a tense lump.  Now, instead of all that, they can try bunching the fingers and pressing them in below the navel. Pushing them in against the resistance of the muscles there. Every time you feel you want to fidget nervously, tense the abdominal muscles there. This will relieve the impulse to fidget. So the other muscles of the body can remain relaxed. When the time comes for action, the body and nerves will go into action as a unit, and not jerkily. The whole body will be co-ordinated.

This was another case where the translator is not giving the real meaning, perhaps because he did not know the reference. It is a practice of bringing the mind to a definite point, and setting it there. The practice of one-pointedness has to come first. It is only after that, that there can be the practice of Emptiness. So, when reading this sort of text, one should ask oneself:  ‘Do I do any practice on these lines?’  If not, I cannot hope to understand fully what I am reading. Even a vivid illustration can illumine some technical terms.

Consider this phrase: “The right hand should hold the sword lightly, but firmly.” What does it mean? If you hold it lightly, it will tend to wobble about. If you hold it firmly to prevent the wobble, then it will not be lightly.  The second part seems to contradict the first: in the end you do not know what to do.

In an ancient Asian city, you passed under three arches as you came to the king’s palace at the centre.  On the first arch was written in big letters: BE BOLD. Passing under that, and riding on, you came to the second arch. On this was written in big letters: BE BOLD. Passing on still further, you came to the third arch, on which was written: BUT NOT TOO BOLD. Here too, the last advice in fact cancels out the earlier ones. It can be the same with texts on the inner training, if the reader does not have a background of practice. You feel you have got something, but then you read a bit further and it is all taken away again.

Now a new subject: how to practise movement. I want to make a comparison. Suppose for instance, in the West we are being taught in our physical exercises to stretch out the arms to the sides. We stretch them. “No, stretch more fully!” yells the instructor. We stretch more fully. He accepts that.  But in the Far East, a teacher will say: “Now, feel you are putting your fingers through the walls.”  We try it, but somehow find it unpleasant: we are afraid our finger-tips will get bruised.  We hold back a little. He sees this at once, and calls out: “No, through the walls, right through!” After a few attempts we begin to get the feeling, and then as our fingers GO through the walls, we feel the shoulders and arms s – t – r – e – t – c – h. They stretch much more than we can do by just trying to push them out. The clear visualisation is the secret. A bare effort of will is not so effective.

Let us go back to the instruction to hold the sword with the right hand, ‘lightly, but firmly’. What is the clear visualisation for that? Tokusai tells us to imagine that we see a baby chick just breaking free from its shell. We want to help him. We have to hold him very delicately and yet firmly. And he says:  ‘Think of that as the example for the right hand.’

It is extremely useful to know about this method of teaching and learning. Dr. Kano dismissed much of the Western physical exercises as ‘dead movement’, because they lack this kind of picture. Dead exercises may build muscles, but they do nothing to improve co-ordination and precision. They have no purposeful picture with them.  The Eastern method helps to train the mental side as well as the physical.

Now we will read a free translation of a few extracts from Tokusai’s teachings. You can expect a certain amount of technical instruction, in the field of Kendo. We need not explain that here. But then he speaks of something higher than correct technique. He will say, for instance, that when mind and vital energy are united in Emptiness, right action takes place of itself, independently. “It is,” he says, “as if a god acted through you.”  Someone may object: “Oh, he can’t use words like that. It doesn’t mean anything and he calls himself a Buddhist, so he’s not supposed to believe in gods.” He uses such words because that is what it feels like. One point is to get people to practise, and find out for themselves what it is like.

A second point is that such words may help a student to recognise something that has happened. At first these things often happen just for a moment, and then the inspiration has passed. A wonder has happened, but it slips by almost unnoticed. The man thinks, ‘Oh that went well. He seemed to walk into it just as I moved; I wasn’t thinking of trying anything, I just moved and he got caught. Lucky I suppose.’

Here is a brief quote from A Song of the Ri:

When he strikes/let him not think that he makes the stroke;

Let the stroke be no stroke/the cut no cut.

To strike is to lose/not to strike, is to win.

The distinction from the techniques of Kendo, done with a bamboo sword, is clear from this verse. Generally these days, the fashion is to practise Kendo techniques alone, without regard for posture, or for unification of mind and vital energy, and so on. They prize only skill and speed in the action of the sword. Cleverness in these gets highly praised. But it is all a degeneration, which arises from constant practice with the bamboo sword, and it misses the central point of Kendo. These things are merely branches and leaves of Kendo, they are far away from its deep root. In such a case, though one may think one has sufficient to meet a crisis, in fact one has not.  Conscious actions, though practised repeatedly till they are expert, are not inspiration which is the innermost truth of Kendo.

What is meant by this inspiration? There have been some who believed that it is simply what is called ‘conditioned reflexes’. They give the example of learning to drive a car. First of all you are intensely conscious of each separate action, as you learn them and then, gradually, the individual actions drop out of awareness. They become conditioned reflexes and it is thought that as the driving becomes more and more a matter of reflexes, it becomes better. It is automatic, as they say – but in fact, people do not become better and better at driving their car. Unless they consciously practise, they become more and more sloppy. People get worse and worse in their method, though they may get more skilful at a bad method.

In the same way, a golfer at the beginning takes lessons and reaches a certain standard. After that he no longer has lessons, but just plays. He develops a bad swing. It is a collection of bad habits. True, he may get more skilful at using this bad swing. Sometimes you see rather good results from a very poor swing, but if that man has to play when he is a bit tired, or when he has a bad cold, often his swing falls completely to pieces. He cannot do anything at all. Whereas one who has continued to take lessons, and so has corrected bad habits before they became fixed, will still play reasonably well even when tired or ill.

The writer Arthur Koestler was a clever man, but he had no idea of anything beyond technique. He heard of the state in Kendo and Zen where an action takes place without any conscious decision, ‘Now I will do this’.  He believed this must be a conditioned reflex. One who has practised Kendo continuously for a long time will acquire these reflex actions; they will take place without his intention. This was Koestler’s explanation. He thought the movements would be automatic, like an experienced driver automatically braking when a child runs across.

This idea is quite wrong. Why is it wrong?  Because the reflex action merely produces what has been repeatedly done before. There is nothing new in it. In fact in Judo and Kendo, one can control such an opponent through his reflexes. If I do [this] position, he will do [that] automatically, every time.

It is the reverse with a Kendo master, or a true master at anything. We do not know what he will do. It is a fresh inspiration each time. The difference from the conditioned reflex is this: in the reflex situation, the mind is not clear. It is not thinking about this automatic action, but it is full of other thoughts. As Tokusai says, “In a contest the minds are seething with ideas of ‘How can I win?  Shall I try that? Suppose he has a counter …” and so on. Because the mind is not clear, there is no inspiration.

The mind has to be without thought. The word literally means without-mind, but to us that could mean something inert. Perhaps ‘without-minding’ would be a better attempt at translation. There is calm awareness, but no ripples in it. With the car driving reflexes, it is true that I am not thinking about the particular movements. But I am thinking about many other things. Those other things, adds Tokusai, are all about my self-advantage: ‘What I will do if I win, and how bad it will be if I lose?’  For inspiration, there must be no purposes in the mind.  We can note here that this is a very ancient theme in the Far East. In the ancient Chinese classic Chuang Tze, there is a little section which runs something like this:

The Hollow Emperor went on a pleasure trip. He climbed the great mountain and surveyed the Red Plain. He returned, and found that he had lost his black pearl. So he set Knowledge-by-Reasoning to find it, but Reasoning could not find it. Then he set Keen-eyed to find it, but Keen-eyed could not find it. Then he set Big Words to find it, but Big Words could not find it. Then he employed Purposeless. And Purposeless found it. “Strange”, said the great Emperor, “that Purposeless should have been the one to find it!”

The interpretation of the Chinese characters is quite involved, but ‘Purposeless’ is from the meaning ‘no symbol’, ‘no form’. The second element of the character is literally an elephant, and the tradition is that the Chinese came across the bones of an elephant before they had ever seen one. They pieced together the bones and tried to construct the form of the elephant; hence the character for elephant came also to mean an abstract form, or a symbol. One point of the story is that inspiration will flash only when mind is cleared of laying traps and clever counters, and winning and losing generally. It is Purposeless who finds the black pearl of inspiration.

How is this state to be reached? By inner practices.  One of them, which Kendo men do (or used to do), is this (You might like to try it now briefly):

Sit reasonably upright, the head balanced on the spine.  Feel that you are on a hill-top, facing the blue sky.  Feel that in your lap you have a cloth filled with pebbles. You sit there, and a thought comes up in your mind.  Mentally pick up a pebble, and throw it, with the thought, away down the hill.  ‘Not wanted. ‘Another thought comes up – that quarrel I had yesterday.  ‘I could have said …’  Throw it away with a pebble. Another thought, ‘What am I going to do about ….’  Throw it away.  ‘Not wanted.’  Another thought:  chuck it away in the same way.  (I discussed this translation with a teacher, and he liked the word ‘chuck’ when it was explained to him.  It is contemptuous.  To chuck away is not just to throw away, but to throw away something worthless.

Well, if you go on doing this, finally thoughts will become less. They cannot exist without your support. You sit and chuck them away with the pebbles. There is a sort of satisfaction as the thought and pebble go rolling away down the hill. Then just sit under the blue sky with no more thoughts coming up. So try it now for a few minutes.

That was one practice which Kendo men, and others too, used to do. It’s a good thing to get physical experience of it a few times. Get up early on a fine day in summer and go to a hill, and actually do it with real pebbles. To have done that, makes the mental practice more vivid. Some of them used to do it in the mountains, till there was an inner clearing and calming. Then they could face opponents, and events, and bad luck and good fortune, equally, without becoming upset or excited.  When there is freedom from reactions and from endless planning, he says, the Ri will show itself.

The Lohan – this clay figure of an arhat, or Lohan in Chinese, is one of the best things in the British Museum. The Museum has a host of treasures. As a Japanese professor once said to me, “The British Museum is the biggest robbers’ cave in the world. You have plundered the whole world for these treasures. But,” he added, “I admit that you did respect the things you stole, and they are beautifully preserved and catalogued and studied. So we can all enjoy them. And it’s true that many of them, if they had been left where they were, would by now have been destroyed.”

This Lohan figure is one of the best of them. Some good artists have tried to paint it, but they failed to get the effect they wanted. There is something special about this image.  If we look at even a photo of it, or better still go and sit in front of it, for a time, we receive something.

Here is a little hint about one point of this remarkable figure. It is something which will rarely be noticed. If it is noticed, it is not understood and is forgotten. Look at the curve of the mouth. If you look carefully you will see that at each end, there is a faint line going directly downward. The maker of the image is giving a concealed hint: the two lines are pointing down towards the navel. It is also said that the curve of the mouth is a tiny bit of a circle whose centre is the navel. By these are hidden indications that he is meditating on the navel point. Someone who has himself done the practice might well pick up this point from just looking at the figure. For others, it has to be explained. There are other hints in the figure of the Lohan, which I leave to you.



© Trevor Leggett




Similar Posts