Friday, June 18, 2010

Zen and the Samurai : Yamaoka Tesshu

Yamaoka Tesshu was born in Edo (modern day Tokyo) in 1836. Tesshu was born into a samurai family. Tesshu practiced kendo from the age of nine, starting in the Shinkage Ryu Tradition. Later his family moved to Takayama where he studied Ono Ha Itto-Ryu.

When he was twenty-eight, Tesshu was defeated by a swordsman named Asari Gimei and became his student. Although larger and younger, Tesshu could not match his teacher’s mental state. During training sessions, Asari was known to force Tesshu all the way to the back of the dojo, then out into the street, knock him to the ground, and then slam the dojo door in his face. Confronted with this challenge, Tesshu increased his efforts in training and meditation continuously. 

Even when he was eating or sleeping, Tesshu was constantly thinking about fencing. He would sometimes wake up at night, jump out of bed, and get his wife to hold a sword so he could explore a new insight. Then, one morning in 1880, when he was 45 years old, Tesshu attained enlightenment while sitting in zazen.

Later that morning he went to the dojo to practice Kendo with Asari. Upon seeing Tesshu, Asari recognized at once that Tesshu had reached enlightenment. Asari, declined to fence with Tesshu, acknowledging Tesshu’s attainment by saying, “You have arrived.” 
Shortly after this, Tesshu went on to open his own school of fencing he named Mu To Ryu (Literally the School of No Sword).

Tesshu's Life is described by John Stevens in a beautiful book : The Sword of no Sword.