I am a firm believer in hard and serious training. I am also a believer in common sense. There seems to be a tendency in certain young people to train extremely hard to the point of ruining their health by negating the needs of their bodies. Although this seems to be more true for Japanese people, it is true of all ascetic practice. Even the historic Buddha experienced this denial of one's earthly nature and almost starved himself to death. The Chinese, possibly because of the influence of Taoism, seem to be less prone to this kind of exaggerations.
Toru Shirai was born in Edo in 1783. He was a renown Kenshi. He had opened a dojo at the age of 28 and taught around 300 students. But he worried about his own kendo. In the fencing world at the time, there were many fine kenshi. After the age of 40, however, they often became weaker or slower and became a mere shadow of their former selves. Not wanting this to happen to him , Shirai left his dojo and his 300 students, went back to his hometown of Edo (presently Tokyo), and sought out his Itto-ryu sempai Terada Goroemon.
Terada was also a Zen priest and Shirai practiced zazen under him. He also underwent Terada’s severe training methods. This included the practice of cold-water ablutions.
Okunojo Yoshida, a later student of Shirai, writes:
“Shirai Sensei abstained from liquor and meat, and poured a hundred, two hundred, even three hundred pails of water over himself a day. He dipped his pail so often that the water in the well he used would become stirred up and muddy, so he would go to the Sumida River to continue. He repeated this day after day for years—in the morning in the hottest weather, at dawn in the depths of winter, and even at inns during journeys to Bishu, Kyoto, and Setsu. On two occasions he fasted and performed his ablutions for seven days—once at Mt. Yuga in Biyo and once again at his home.”
Unfortunately, Shirai’s extraordinary dedication to Terada's ablution method did little or nothing for him. Actually it ruined his health and Shirai finally broke down.
Shirai writes in Heiho Michishirube, “My efforts were fruitless. Worse, they put me in such ill health that neither acupuncture nor medicines had any effect. Eventually my mother and other close relatives begged me to ‘cease those baneful ablutions.’ Unable to bear my mother’s lamentations, I was finally convinced to give up the practice.”
Compare this with Master Hakuin's passage in Yasenkana :
... I began devoting myself single-mindedly to my practice, forsaking food and sleep altogether. Before the month was out... I became abnormally weak and timid, shrinking and fearful in whatever I did. I felt totally drained, physically and mentally exhausted. Strange vision appeared to me during waking and sleeping hours alike. My armpits were always wet with perspiration. My eyes were watered constantly. I traveled far and wide, visiting wise Zen teachers, seeking out noted physicians. But none of the remedies they offered brought any relief.
Hakuin himself had fallen gravely hill from "meditation disease". No doctor was able to help him. In despair Hakuin had gone on a quest for a cure and had finally met Master Hakuyu, a mountain hermit, who had taught him an abdominal breathing Qi Gong that would finally cure him.
Giving up the ablution practice, Shirai began practicing Rentan no Ho: the same style of abdominal breathing practice described by Zen priest Hakuin in his work Yasenkanna. Not only did it restore his health, it also instilled in him the self-awareness and ability to take the first steps toward the establishment of his Tenshin Shirai-ryu.
In Heiho Michishirube, Shirai describes his cure.
“At the age of thirty-three, on January 18, 1815, I abandoned cold-water ablutions once and for all and adopted the abdominal training method. I had previously read a number of the posthumous works of Hakuin and I had heard from my teacher Terada about the effectiveness of rentan no ho, but I had neglected it in favor of the more arduous practice of ablutions. Now I practice rentan no ho exclusively. I have rallied my spirit and, as Hakuin did, integrated rentan no ho into every part of my life and ways—into my prayers to Buddha, into my studies, into my swordsmanship. Within two short months of such practice I felt my health return as energy flowed into me and filled my abdomen (seika.) My illness has melted away and I feel myself as bouncy as a brand-new ball.”
What Shirai gained from his practice of Rentan no Ho allowed him to take some distance from the treachings of his teacher Terada and develop his own style Tenshin Heiho. In Heiho Michishirube Shirai writes : “the exclusive practice of Rentan no Ho advocated by Hakuin is quick and effective, while the method of ablution has little effect.”
Shirai had become utterly disgusted with cold-water ablutions as a means to enlightenment and it seems that in his later years he even told his pupils that “dousing oneself with cold water and fasting are poor ways to achieve Tenshin (understanding one’s own Buddha nature).”
Common Sense, the Middle way...