How to Win a Sword Fight

Edo Wonderland Sword Fight, photo by -ratamahatta-
If you are any good with a sword, Hatsumi Sensei says you can win without drawing your sword. He suggests this to us by pointing out the example of the famous Zen sword master, Yamaoka Tesshū (山岡 鉄舟, June 10, 1836 - July 19, 1888), a famous samurai of the Bakumatsu period, who played an important role in the Meiji Restoration. He is also noted as the founder of the Itto Shoden Muto-ryu school of swordsmanship.

One day Tesshu had a sword contest with a famous sword teacher, Asari Gimei. They fought for half a day and Tesshu was defeated. Tesshu became Asari's student and threw himself into Zen practice to try to understand the nature of his defeat.

As part of his search to understand what happened to him, he was given a koan to study by Tekisui Roshi'
"Crossed swords; neither permits retreat.
The sword-master, like a lotus in the fire,
Has a heaven-soaring spirit."
This advanced koan shows both the problem presented by a fight and the solution. Tesshu sums up his problem here:
'[When] two swords cross, all thoughts turn towards striking the opponent.'
Tesshu explains that the desire to strike an opponent while avoiding being struck is deluded. Not because this is a physical impossibility but because 'Originally, the mind is thoughtless like a bright, unclouded mirror...When the mirror is completely clouded, nothing can be reflected.' He continues 'When confronting an opponent, thoughts of striking or being struck indicate ignorance and illusion.'

Tesshu struggled with the crossed swords koan for three years of training. One morning while sitting in Zazen, he had a breakthrough. He stood up and went to fight his teacher Asari in the dojo. Asari realized right away that Tesshu had pierced through the lesson and declined to fight. He formally named Tesshu his successor and never again picked up a sword. Tesshu became a famous sword instructor who taught the way of the sword as a spiritual path.

So what happens when you cross swords with an opponent? If you are not in Zanshin, you may experience two states of mind. One is a calculating, worrying state where the mind is constantly questioning: Can you hit your opponent? Can he hit you? How can you enter, is there an opening? Does he see an opening? Can you trick him? Can you try this move or attack? Does he know that strategy and will he use it? This state is limiting, creates fear and you are defeating yourself. The limiting thoughts are never ending...

The other state lets the whole universe run through you. You erase the self and there is no you, just boundless possibility, unafraid of being cut or cutting. Your opponents efforts are no problem whatsoever. Attacks dissipate like mist.

Hatsumi Sensei says that Tesshu found this enlightenment by hearing the song of the gods in his heart. Soke describes this gokui (essense):
"In the world of martial arts, one should not stick to strength or weakness, softness or hardness; rather one should transcend physicality and understand the void, 'ku,' regarding the body also as empty."
Hatsumi Sensei goes on to explain how to use this gokui to win without drawing your sword,
"...prepare your body and show courage, the true gokui is the mind. Win without without drawing your sword. If you draw, do not cut down; bear patiently, and know that taking a life is a grave thing."


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