Thursday, October 27, 2011


The full text of Zen Master Takuan's letter is included in "The Unfettered Mind" a translation by William Scott Wilson of 3 texts about swordsmanship by Takuan.

In this post I only provide the Translation of the Chinese part of the text, without the Japanese commentaries of Takuan. I encourage you to read and consider them, then refer to Takuan's comments in the full version to reach a better understanding of this letter. 

       Presumably, as a martial artist, I do not fight for gain or loss, am not concerned with strength or weakness, and neither advance a step nor retreat a step. The enemy does not see me. I do not see the enemy. Penetrating to a place where heaven and earth have not yet divided, where Ying and Yang have not yet arrived, I quickly and necessarily gain effect.

     Well then, the accomplished man uses the sword but does not kill others. He uses the sword and gives others life. When it is necessary to kill, he kills. When it is necessary to give life, he gives life. When killing, he kills in complete concentration; when giving life, he gives life in complete concentration. Without looking at right and wrong, he is able to see right and wrong; without attempting to discriminate, he is able to discriminate well. Treading on water is just like treading on land, and treading on land is just like treading on water. If he is able to gain this freedom, he will not be perplexed by anyone on earth. In all things, he will be beyond companions.

      Do you want to obtain this? Walking, stopping, sitting or lying down, in speaking and in remaining quiet, during tea and during rice, you must never neglect exertion, you must quickly set your eye on the goal, and investigate thoroughly, both coming and going. Thus should you look straight into things. As months pile up and years pass by, it should seem like a light appearing on its own in the dark. You will receive wisdom without a teacher and will generate mysterious ability without trying to do so. At just such a time, this does not depart from the ordinary, yet it transcends it. By name, I call it "Taia."

      All men are equipped with this sharp Sword Taia, and in each one it is perfectly complete. Those for whom this is clear are feared even by the Maras, but those for whom this is obscure are deceived even by the heretics. On the one hand, when two of equal skill meet at swords' point, there is no conclusion to the match; it is like Shakyamuni's holding the flower and Kashyapa's subtle smile. On the other hand, raising the one and understanding the other three, or distinguishing subtle differences in weight with the unaided eye are examples of ordinary cleverness. If anyone has mastered this, he will quickly cut you into three pieces even before the one has been raised and the three understood. How much more so where you meet him face to face?

     In the end, a man like this never exposes the tip of his sword. Its speed - even lightning cannot keep up with it. Its brevity - it is gone even before the quick wind of the storm. Not having such a tactic, if one, in the end, becomes entangled or confused, he will damage his own blade or injure his own hand, and will fall short of adroitness. One does not divine this by impressions or knowledge. There is no transmitting it by words or speech, no learning it by any doctrine. This is the law of the special transmission beyond instruction.

     There is no established rule for manifesting this great ability. Orderly action, contrary action - even heaven does not determine this. So what is the nature of this thing? The ancients said, "When a house does not have a painting of a Pai Che, it is like having no ghosts at all." If a man has tempered himself and arrived at this principle, he will control everything under heaven with a single sword.

For those who study this, let them not be thoughtless.

Notes :

  • Takuan Soho was a Zen monk, calligrapher, painter, poet, gardener, tea master, and, perhaps, inventor of the pickle that even today retains his name. His writings were prodigious (the collected works fill six volumes), and are a source of guidance and inspiration to the Japanese people today, as they have been for three and a half centuries.
  • Born in 1573 into a samurai family of the Miura clan, Takuan entered a monastery at the age of ten to study Jodo Buddhism, moving on to Rinzai Zen at the age of twenty-four. He becamethe abbot of the Daitokuji, a major Zen temple in Kyoto, at the young age of thirty-five.
  • At the court of the Tokugawa Shogun, Takuan was in frequent contact with Yagyu Munenori of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, and Ono Tadaaki, second Grand Master of Ono Ha Itto Ryu. Both Munenori and Tadaaki were official sword instructors of the Shogun's family and his close retainers. Legend has it that Takuan was also the friend and teacher of the famous Miyamoto Musashi. (See the story of the Takuan, Musashi and the Snake)
  • In his writings, Takuan emphasizes the unity of Zen and Sword, (Zen Ken Ichi Nyo), which deeply influenced the Great Masters of the time and produced a number of documents which continue to be read and applied, such as the Heiho Kadensho of Yagyu Munenori and the Gorin no Sho of Miyamoto Musashi.
  • His letter Taiaki, "Annals of the Sword Taia," was written during his exile in the North between 1629 to 1632, possibly to Ono Tadaaki, Taiaki mostly is about the relationship between one's self and the other.

Taia was one of China's legendary swords. It was forged by the famous sword-smith Ou Yezi for King Zhao of Chu (r.515-489 B.C.)

The Pai Che is a legendary animal with a cow's body and a man's head. It eats dreams and misfortunes. In ancient China people they would display a picture of a Pai Che at the entrance of their house to ward off evil spirits.

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