Bujinkan Nanadan 七段: The Bull Transcended

The Ox Transcended, digital c-print photograph by Andrew Binkley
Hatsumi Sensei describes the journey of a Bujinkan student through the Dan ranks as being akin to the Ten Oxherding pictures in Zen Buddhism. These pictures describe the seekers journey to enlightenment.

If you haven't read my other posts in this series, please check them out. You may find them useful no matter what your rank is:

Bujinkan Shodan 初段: Searching for the Bull
Bujinkan Nidan 弐段: Discovering the Footprints
Bujinkan Sandan 参段: Perceiving the Bull
Bujinkan Yondan 四段: Catching the Bull
Bujinkan Godan 五段: Taming the Bull
Bujinkan Rokudan 六段: Riding the Bull Home

On reaching seventh dan we may find that we have forgotten the ox. What does it mean to forget the Ox?


Woodblock print by 德力富吉郎 Tokuriki Tomikichirō

忘牛存人 The Bull Transcended
Astride the bull, I reach home.

I am serene. The bull too can rest.

The dawn has come. In blissful repose,

Within my thatched dwelling

I have abandoned the whip and ropes

We made it home. Comfortable in our own taijutsu and in our dojo, whatever ambitions we had attached to training or rank are abandoned. We no longer attempt to manipulate training to serve the purpose of our ego.

Through all the stages of finding, following, catching, taming, and riding the ox, we have been seeking the true essential nature of training and of ourselves. If this process was pursued with pure intent, the self that was doing the seeking falls away. It disappears little by little until it is gone. What you are left with is only the essential, true training.

Even better than this, you may enter into another dimension of training where the true self doesn't even make an appearance at all. This is often symbolized in Japanese art and poetry as the pure white moonlight moving apart the clouds until there are no longer clouds and the whole world is bathed in this purity. This aspect of training becomes pure experience and is beyond words. Only direct experience remains.

And, your consciousness remains, observing. The bull is gone but through your direct experience all that is left is you observing and feeling. There clouds may gather again.

At this point in training we may start to wonder at how pointless all of the work we did up till now has been. All of the exercises, all of the kata, all of the drills… they feel like useless effort in the face of the pure moonlight. With this direct experience of the essence of training, everything else is a distraction.

People sometimes find themselves in the dojo going through the motions. Observing their movement and the movement of others and feeling like it is wasted effort. It is amusing to find your body repeating whatever the class is working on, while your heart is not in it. Or it feels pointless.

It feels like once you have grasped the essential nature of training, there is nothing left to do. You realize that what you were seeking in training is within you already, but also without. You stop looking and it is everywhere. All the secrets are made known.

So with nothing left to do, what is the point of training?

The fabric of training itself is the students and the art. Just like the stream is also water, or stars are also night sky- so students are their study. You observe this relationship: uke and tori; teacher and student; training and dojo; body and gi; hands and bokken. As you notice these things, you realize you are not them and they are not you. But you are part of this fabric.

This dreamlike quality of training can carry you for a long time. Even though you no longer need the whip and the halter, or the tools and exercises of the dojo, you are left observing these. In your reverie, you are still tied to those experiences.

Next we go even further to Bujinkan Hachidan 八段: Both Bull and Self Transcended

Bujinkan Rokudan 六段: Riding the Bull Home

Riding the Ox Home, digital c-print photograph by Andrew Binkley
Hatsumi Sensei describes the journey of a Bujinkan student through the Dan ranks as being akin to the Ten Oxherding pictures in Zen Buddhism. These pictures describe the seekers journey to enlightenment.

If you haven't read my other posts in this series, please check them out. You may find them useful no matter what your rank is:

Bujinkan Shodan 初段: Searching for the Bull
Bujinkan Nidan 弐段: Discovering the Footprints
Bujinkan Sandan 参段: Perceiving the Bull
Bujinkan Yondan 四段: Catching the Bull
Bujinkan Godan 五段: Taming the Bull

Passing beyond Godan brings us to a place of creative play. The Bull (mind) obeys without searching about and we don't need to work to constrain it anymore.
Woodblock print by 德力富吉郎 Tokuriki Tomikichirō

骑牛归家 Riding the Bull Home
Mounting the bull, slowly
I return homeward.

The voice of my flute intones
through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats
the pulsating harmony,
I direct the endless rhythm.

Whoever hears this melody
will join me.

Sensei says that "When you pass the Godan test, then you realize 無意識 muishiki." This is moving from the unconscious. Once this seed is planted there is nothing to do except allow this state of muishiki to grow. There is no longer any question of trying to prove anything in relation to your rank.

When people first pass Godan, sometimes they continue searching for something in themselves. Some kind of change in ability or looking for more in training and wondering, is this all? At this stage the search comes to rest. The wall between unenlightened/enlightened, strong/weak, soft/hard, good/bad, and win/loss disappears so training follows its own course.

Unhindered, free taijutsu without any blocks.

Here is a trap. You become so free and comfortable and relaxed with training that improvement stops. This is like the middle age of training. People just settle in and enjoy, comfortable in rank and ability. But the real, true polishing of the heart is yet to occur.

Hatsumi Sensei says,
"Just because someone has been training for 40 or 50 years, it doesn't mean anything. Even for myself, no matter how long I've been training.. it's nothing special. I'm still walking along behind Takamatsu Sensei. That's what the tradition means."
Riding the ox home. Where is this home? And why are we not there yet? One experience of home is to be back where it all started, as a beginner. Beginner's mind as they say. Going full circle. We are not there yet because our self is still busy admiring it's own reflection in training or technique. We are not yet able to do taijutsu without observing ourselves in the experience.

Sometimes, like watching the sunset, or listening to the flute, we become nostalgic for the "old" days of training. We tell many stories to junior students about how training used to be. We miss those times.

But every note resonates with us, calling us back to pure training without thought or technique. We can experience the muishiki of the moment of godan anytime in the dojo. And this is like our compass, marking the path ahead.

Here whether we are teaching others, or being taught, we move beyond words and concepts. We can learn so much from a glance of our instructor. Or, a lesson becomes self evident so that when we show a technique, nothing needs to be said.

Hatsumi Sensei uses the word 暗黙的 anmokuteki, which is an implicit teaching. This is a silent, sometimes secret teaching that arises from a natural understanding between teacher and student. The only reason this teaching stays a secret is because the communication is on a level that not everyone is prepared to observe.

We should also teach ourselves in this manner. Then the Ox doesn't need to be led. He knows the way.

Next in this series: Bujinkan Nanadan 七段: The Bull Transcended


Bujinkan Godan 五段: Taming the Bull

Taming the Ox, digital c-print photograph by Andrew Binkley
Hatsumi Sensei describes the journey of a Bujinkan student through the Dan ranks as being akin to the Ten Oxherding pictures in Zen Buddhism. These pictures describe the seekers journey to enlightenment.

If you haven't read my other posts in this series, please check them out. You may find them useful no matter what your rank is:
Bujinkan Shodan 初段: Searching for the Bull
Bujinkan Nidan 弐段: Discovering the Footprints
Bujinkan Sandan 参段: Perceiving the Bull
Bujinkan Yondan 四段: Catching the Bull

In the Bujinkan, Godan is marked by the Godan test. You must be free of doubt to pass through this gate. How do we become free of doubt?


Woodblock print by 德力富吉郎 Tokuriki Tomikichirō
牧牛 Taming the Bull
The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down
some dusty road.
Being well-trained, he becomes

naturally gentle.

Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Once you have caught hold of the bull, rather than simply hanging on desperately as he bucks and runs around, it is necessary to tame the bull. The Ox or bull in these parables is the mind. In our Bujinkan training, it is the mind, spirit, and body.

Most of us begin training to develop physical skills and abilities. As we search for that elusive quality that our teachers have and seem to create at will, we start to realize we need to develop our minds and spirits equally.

In catching hold of our true nature- our true mind, body, and spirit… we discover where the heart of our training lies. While this is a nice feeling and helpful in the dojo, we may wonder, can we call this essence up at will?

To tame the ox, you must notice, it is not you doing anything. You are not performing techniques. You are not passing the Godan test. You are just sitting.

Having this realization is wonderful. But it is still far from being able to create this and connect to it when needed. The Godan test marks a chance for you to do that. If you pass, there may be a curious sensation of having done something, but not having done anything at the same time.

This is a vital feeling!

A feeling at the root of 虚実 kyojitsu. Truth and Falsehood. In taming the Bull, when you show truth, your taijutsu will be good. When you are mislead by falsehood, the Ox runs away with you dragging behind. To master these two is to understand one is the other. Truth is Falsehood, and Falsehoods are truth. When you can present either one purely the Ox is tamed.

To keep this feeling awake in the dojo requires a renewed focus and disciplined training (whipping the ox). With sincere training that is connected to your true nature, the pure essence of training will be reflected in your heart. This is the polishing of the mirror of our hearts.

The more pure your taijutsu becomes, the less whipping is needed. This will be reflected in your uke's response to your efforts, in your relationships in or out of the dojo, and the naturalness of your taijutsu.

Eventually the Ox is so tame, that you can let him go and he will follow you anywhere. In the dojo, with any uke, on the streets, at work, home, with your family… Your kamae expands to be always present.

When sitting for the Godan test, you should have no doubt about passing. The person giving the test also has no doubt. Their cut is a connection from the heavens down through you into the earth. As Soke often tells us, Don't sever this connection.

We'll see where this leads us with Bujinkan Rokudan 六段: Riding the Bull Home.

Bujinkan Yondan 四段: Catching the Bull

Catching the Ox, digital c-print photograph by Andrew Binkley
Hatsumi Sensei describes the journey of a Bujinkan student through the Dan ranks as being akin to the Ten Oxherding pictures in Zen Buddhism. These pictures describe the seekers journey to enlightenment.

If you haven't read my other posts in this series, please check them out. You may find them useful no matter what your rank is:
Bujinkan Shodan 初段: Searching for the Bull
Bujinkan Nidan 弐段: Discovering the Footprints
Bujinkan Sandan 参段: Perceiving the Bull
So now you've made it to Yondan. For many people in the Bujinkan this is a pivotal moment. This is a moment of getting a hold of yourself… and finding the form of the self is empty.
Woodblock print by 德力富吉郎 Tokuriki Tomikichirō
得牛 Catching the Bull
I seize him with a terrific struggle.

His great will and power

are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau

far above the cloud-mists,

Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.
I have abandoned the whip and ropes
After some years of training, you go from thinking you know something, to realizing you know very little. Then you might chase various threads and ideas or teachers to see where they lead. At some point you caught hold of something real. But you don't know what to do with it. You've caught the Ox, but you can barely hang on as he stampedes around.

Occasionally you can perform techniques that surprise even you. You feel like, with a little luck you could defeat anyone, no matter their skill level or rank. But this new found ability is uncontrollable. If you reach the point where you can hang onto this feeling, you get taken for a ride. It drags you here and there. But you will not let go.

A large hurdle for martial artists at this stage is being able to transcend aggression. Aggression may have served you in the past. It may have brought victory in certain arenas. For many who don't understand Budo, it is the heart of their study.

But you have caught a hold of something better. And to stay with it requires finesse, precision, and the ability to see. Aggression blinds you from seeing what it is you are holding onto.

Keep your form empty, and empty the self, and you will not lose the Ox.

It is awkward to let go of technique and form that you have trained many years to perfect. This feels like throwing away something valuable. You will still be fascinated by technique and encounter students or teachers that have wonderful technical details to share.

Just because you understand emptiness, doesn't mean you will lose all your habits you have built over years of training. You will still think "you" can discern good and bad technique, good and bad teachers or students, or, the true Bujinkan that you think you are studying. You will put yourself and your ideas forward any chance you get.

The surprising lesson is that all of this is a reflection of the self. If you get mired in form, you will never reach a true understanding of Godan, whether you pass the test or not.
Hatsumi Sensei describes this process:
 "The longer you train you need to be able to ignore things that you don't need.  Things that are unnecessary. And set them aside. 

As you do this, you start to see the bad parts of your own self. And you have to be able to toss those things aside as well. 

Because if you have one bad part of yourself still within you, everything will collapse later.

 So part of what Shugyo is, what training is... is discovering the bad parts of yourself and tossing them aside.

 That's what life is. Not just in the dojo."
A curious thing may happen to you here: you can be trapped in form, but also in no-form.
The opposite of being mired in form is getting lost in emptiness and inaction. As a warrior, if you dwell in the world of formlessness, you cannot fight for anyone including yourself. This is just a flip side of the trap of dualism. But still a trap.

A healthy sign of passing through this stage of "Catching the Bull," is growing humility. There are many Bujinkan teachers and students who have not found humility. Be humble. Release yourself from needing to be good or from feeling inadequate. Throw away form, but also no-form. Have this 生命反射 seimei hansha, or reflection of life as Soke describes it.

From here we will work on, Bujinkan Godan 五段: Taming the Bull



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