Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Everyday Training of the Samurai

At Ichijoji, Christopher Hellman, the author of The Samurai Mind, posted an article about the everyday training of the samurai through the ages. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here. Below the excerpt is a video featuring Omori Sogen.

It is sometimes tempting to think of the practice and training of martial arts in pre-modern times in monolithic terms, as if there was an ideal model, perhaps followed by a master in retreat at some secluded temple or shrine. On closer inspection, this seems unlikely as social conditions and the role of the warrior changed as the times moved from a period of perpetual war to one of relative peace, not to mention the varying requirements dictated by different roles and relative professional positions, even within the warrior class in Japan.

Having given that caveat, it must be conceded that traditions of martial practice in Japan enjoyed far greater continuity than those of Western Europe, even if it is generally acknowledged that the techniques that have reached us today are very likely not the same as those practiced by the founders of those traditions. One aspect that must have been of great concern at all periods was how to develop and refine skill.


There was, of course, the demanding, often repetitive physical training that must have formed the basis of most trainees’ experience. This is likely to have been intense, and yet quite unlike the military style drill common in some more modern disciplines, a development that seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the rise of militarism in the early 20th century.  

There were other sides to practice, too. Omori Sogen (1904-1994), a 20th century Zen priest and practitioner of the Jikishinkage ryu who had clearly put plenty of time and energy into his physical practice (this was a style which includes strong elements of both kata and sparring (in the style of kendo) in its curriculum), spoke of his approach to the practice of kendo in his younger years. He explained that he developed the attitude that life itself was a perpetual series of contests. Every encounter or situation in life could be seen as a clash with an opponent in which any negative reactions he felt meant the situation had scored a point over him.


As he matured, he saw the mind that could be developed during kendo practice as being the same as that developed by the practice of Zen:

 “For example, a person who practices Kendo holds his bamboo sword and faces his opponent. If he forgets his opponent and his ego, enters samadhi, and truly experiences this state, then even when he puts his bamboo sword down, he must be able to maintain this frame of mind. Usually, however, it is a different world when he puts his bamboo sword down.

(Omori Sogen: The Art of a Zen Master by Hosokawa Dogen)


This might be seen as typical of the Zen inspired approach of the later C19th and early C20th, a time when a measure of social freedom combined with the idea that personal efforts could reshape the world (efforts that were often centered around violence, it must be said). It seemed to have a particular appeal to young men, and was a direct factor in Japan’s road to war, both with the wave of assassinations that removed some of the less militaristic politicians from office in the 1920’s and 30’s, as well as the precipitating event in the invasion of China. It must also be said that Sogen was closely involved with groups advocating such methods, (to the point of being hunted for by the police) although his own account stresses that he felt the time was not right for assassination. (He also attempted to persuade Prince Konoe to appoint a less hawkish minister of war, so it is difficult to categorize him in political terms).

This approach, to life as well as martial arts, stresses the power of intention and the strength of will over technique. To be sure, this is always a major factor in confrontation, but one that has inherent weaknesses (exemplified in aspects of Japanese military doctrine in WWII, not to mention the unfortunate tendency to veer towards extremism). Older martial disciplines were shaped by the greater range of resources, technical, psychological and social, from which they drew the elements of their curricula.


While Sogen pursued mastery in Zen, swordsmanship and calligraphy, seeing commonalities in them all, Matsura Seizan (1760-1841), writing some 150 years earlier, presents an interesting contrast. A man of wide learning, he is known principally for his literary accomplishments, in particular his multiple volume collection of essays, Kasshi Yawa (Nighttime Tales of The Year of the Rat). He came from a very different social background – he was the daimyo of Hirado, a small island just off the coast of northwest Kyushu (where the English sailor, Will Adams, landed) – and although he retired at the age of 46, prior to that he set up a school for academic and martial studies, the Ishinkan, and a library that eventually had some 10,000 volumes (Rakusaikan Bunko). He was also a noted swordsman and author of several works on that topic.

It is clear from his writings that he considered sword use far more broadly than Sogen did, which is unsurprising, as swords were routinely carried by bushi until 1876. What may be more significant is that he stresses care and attention to surroundings rather than Sogen’s emphasis on single-minded determination, as a key to understanding the deeper teachings of the art, a reflection both of the more complex demands of Seizan’s social position, as well as the perspective of swordsmanship as training for use (in protection and for ceremonial uses as well as, potentially, for war), rather than primarily for personal and spiritual development. (It may added that it is entirely possible that Sogen did not receive the deeper teachings of his style – Sogen says his teacher did not consider any of his students to be his successor.) The flavor of his writing may be seen here:

…for those who are recommended to accompany their father, older brother, or master, it is necessary to be familiar with etiquette. Because this spirit of etiquette stems from the spirit of vigilance, if you perform this duty well, it will carry over to the heart of swordsmanship. Those who feel they cannot understand this roundabout explanation do not have the real spirit of swordsmanship. But when it is time to impart the himitsu ken (lit. the secret sword) from the inner teachings of our school, those who have resolved to maintain this excellent spirit of caution in daily life will already have the necessary attitude and approach.” 

(From Joseishi Kendan in The Samurai Mind by Christopher Hellman, p.54)




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