Thursday, July 05, 2012

Schooling the Yagyu: Takuan Soho’s “The Unfettered Mind”

Yagyu Munenori was the founder of the Edo branch of the famous Yagyu Shinkage-ryu School of swordsmanship. Munenori was well regarded, being the sword instructor to the Tokugawa and the author of the Heiho Kadensho (a work on swordsmanship and how some of its aspects could be applied to politics and life). However, it appears someone wasn’t impressed. In a letter to Munenori, a Buddhist monk chastised him for taking bribes from provincial lords, for attacking his child’s shortcomings when his own behavior is incorrect, and even for showing off his ability in Noh Theater to his contemporaries. Munenori’s penchant for ranbu dance is described as “a sickness”. The letter concludes with a poem exhorting Munenori to “…not be mindless”. One would never imagine that this monk and Munenori were the best of friends! As shown in Shambhala Publications new book “The Unfettered Mind”, this cheeky monk, Takuan Soho, helped greatly with infusing early Edo period swordsmanship with its distinct spiritual facets.

Takuan Soho (1573-1645) was a Zen Buddhist monk of the Rinzai School. He’s perhaps best known to many Westerners as the cranky cleric appearing in Yoshikawa Eiji’s novel “Musashi”. If you’ve read the book or watched films such as Inagakai Hiroshi’s “Samurai Trilogy” or Toei’s excellent series of Musashi films, he’s the monk who captured a young, headstrong Musashi, hung him from a tree for days to think about the direction his life should take, and then imprisoned him on the top floor of a castle for several years to study, read, and reflect. Maybe you’ve seen Takuan expounding on Japanese culture in the sidebars of Pat Galloway’s ‘Warring Clans, Flashing Blades’. While the incidents with Musashi were fictitious, the historical Takuan was indeed a well-known advisor to many famous figures of the era-as well as a talented calligrapher, painter, poet, and tea master. Counted among his pupils were such notable figures as retired Emperor Go-Mizunoo, Shogun Tokuagwa Iemitsu, Ishida Mitsunari, Kuroda Nagamasa, and the swordsmen Yagyu Munenori, Itto Ittosai, and yes, Musashi. Takuan was not one to be intimidated by high status, as demonstrated when he was exiled by Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada after accusing him of interfering in Buddhist matters. Takuan was active in both the Sengoku and Edo periods and moved freely among all classes, be they nobility, clerics, peasants, or samurai. His writings display an ability to reach every stratum of society effectively. “The Unfettered Mind” concentrates on Takuan’s interaction with the samurai class and applying Zen Buddhism to swordsmanship. Unlike many modern books that use revisionist history in order to play up the role of a specific school of martial arts (or use outright fabrications), Takuan's work is a genuine contemporary piece that provides valuable insights on the development of spiritual training in Japanese swordsmanship.

As historian/martial artist Professor Karl Friday indicated in an interview with the SA, Edo period sword training had little to do with practical battlefield training and military science (as evidenced by the poor performance some famous swordsmen might display on a battlefield-such as Miyamoto Musashi being put out of action by a peasant with a rock during the Shimabara Rebellion). Rather, it was as much about personal and spiritual development as it was honing one’s sword skills. In Friday’s words, “In the traditional Japanese context, distinguishing between physical and spiritual factors in training is roughly equivalent to making distinctions between internal factors (muscle control, focus, concentration, strength, timing, etc.) and external ones (gravity, wind, etc.) in, say, learning to shoot an arrow. You can separate them for analytical purposes, but they’re really all part of the same big package”. The three documents included in “The Unfettered Mind” (“The Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom”, “The Clear Sound of Jewels”, and “Annals of the Sword Taia”) all touch on this spiritual aspect and how it can be applied not only to swordsmanship and day-to-day life. As Professor Friday also pointed out, many of the concepts in spiritual training were couched in the language of the day-often taking on the language of Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism, and Shinto. Interestingly enough, Takuan’s thoughts bear more than a passing resemblance to modern non-religious ideas such as physical memory. While the language used might appear to be outdated to many, the ideas in his writings remain relevant.

The first section of the book is the letter written by Takuan to Yagyu Munenori that we spoke of in the opening paragraph. Called the “Fudohishinmyoroku” (referring to Fudo Myoo, the Japanese deity that manifests the nature of all living beings) or “The Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom”, it centers on the concept of the “No-Mind”-the mind that is always moving and never stops or becomes bogged down in a particular location. Takuan explains how the concept of the “No-Mind”/”Right Mind” applies to reaching perfection as a swordsman-how can one operate effectively if your mind is fixated on one particular aspect of a battle? If your mind becomes ‘stuck’ in the sword of your opponent, your own sword, your footwork, the enemy’s stance, or perhaps even in the intention to avoid being struck, it will be taken by that single aspect. When it becomes taken, every other aspect will be ignored. As Takuan puts it, “Considering that the Thousand-Armed Kannon has one thousand arms on its body, if the mind stops at the one holding the bow, the other nine hundred and ninety-nine will be useless. It is because the mind is not detained at one place that all the arms are useful”. In another spot, he describes the Right Mind as being like water, capable of going everywhere, and the Confused Mind as being like ice-stuck in one spot and unable to be used freely. But how to achieve the state of “No-Mind”? Takuan stresses that discipline and meditation is vital for beginners to force their mind to flow freely and not reside in any one spot, but that in the end, this too restricts the mind. At the highest level, the initiate will return to the beginning-not having to actively impose discipline on their thoughts. Proper technique and practice is stressed as well, as both technique and principal are required to master both one’s self and the sword. This may seem a bit hard to understand at first, but Takuan’s explanations give plenty of real life examples-as well on drawing on lessons from the Chinese classics and poetry. Perhaps giving modern readers this example might help explain the concept-for those of you that drive to work every day, what were you thinking of on your way to work? Odds are it wasn’t about the actual mechanics of driving a car-but yet, if the need arose, your body and mind would be capable of making a quick decision to avert an accident. This is the state of No-Mind-not dwelling on something, but letting your mind go freely to wherever it is needed. To Takuan, the man who has mastered this would be perfectly capable of taking on ten enemies at once, letting his mind flow from one to the other as needed. Perhaps things can best be summed up by the poem Takuan ends the letter with:

“It is the very mind itself
That leads the mind astray.
Of the mind,
Do not be mindless.”

“Reiroshu” (“The Clear Sound of Jewels”) comprises the second part of the book. This treatise occupies itself with how to determine what is right and what is mere selfishness-and more importantly for the samurai class, how to know when and where to die. The arching concept here is of right-mindedness (the Japanese concept of ‘gi’)…unimpeachable integrity, virtue, and judgment, not operating out of self-interest or desire. Takuan stresses the need for the samurai class to take the “Way of the Lord” and the “Way of the Retainer” to heart. He stresses the importance of the concept but interestingly states that one should not be fixated on the individual, but rather just the idea. “A retainer should not say he serves Lord Matsui Dewa but simply ‘The Lord’. In this, even if the retainer serves clan after clan, the clan may change, but his mind will not-he was always see his current Lord as the “one and only from beginning to end”. And for the Lord, he should never make distinctions between his retainers-“…all men should be treated with love and sympathy, and each man should be thought of as My retainer’’. When determining what is right, these ways are the determining factor-if either the Lord or Retainer is ‘repaying a favor with a favor’, that is right-mindedness. If they operate out of desire or selfishness, it is not. Takuan also explores the ten essential qualities and how each flows one to the other in a never ending circle, also equating the qualities to the Ten Worlds of Buddhist thought. He stresses that because of this unending cycle, every being has the Buddha-nature in them from birth. The role of ‘amusements’ is explored, and Takuan is realistic enough to realize that even priests need them (one of these being taking 14 or 15 year old youths beneath the blossoms and sharing some cups of sake, a rather common diversion for Buddhist clergy at that time). He stresses that all amusements should have standards and fixed limits so as not to fall into evil-obviously, we saw a case in our opening paragraph where he felt Yagyu Munenori was negligent. Takuan even explains how ghosts come to be and why they can be seen in our world. “Reiroshu” is the centerpiece of the book and an excellent examination of how Buddhism works in the real world.

Finally, “Taiaki” (“Annals of the Sword Taia”) is a short letter that was written to one of the Shogun’s sword instructors (it was unclear whether this was the Yagyu or Itto Schools). It contains Takuan’s detailed breakdown and interpretation of a Chinese story that uses the sword Taia-a sword that can cut through anything-as its central allegory. This letter brings the Zen nature of Takuan’s Buddhism to the fore as it stresses that true wisdom will be learned without a teacher-that in fact it cannot be imparted by a teacher since it resides in everyone’s ‘original face’. The Buddha-nature, or “Sword Taia”, is equipped by everyone and is perfectly entire. All the answers a being needs are found within the self, requiring only introspection and an open mind to unlock. The language is couched in the terms of swordsmanship, in the process implying that Takuan saw mastery of the sword-and one’s self-as not necessarily being centered around death, but rather giving a master swordsman the option to use it ‘to give life’ as well-by dealing with every situation with clear vision and not always responding with violence.

Interestingly, one can find much among Takuan’s writings that point out that many ideas associated with Bushido seem to have been rarely practiced in the real world of the samurai. At one point he bemoans “Is there one person in a thousand who would die like this?...In truth, one hundred right-minded men would be hard to find”. Loyalty (or as Takuan phrases in Neo-Confucian terms, “the Way of the Lord” and “the Way of the Retainer”) is described as something extremely rare, as selfishness and desire tend to guide the actions of both lord and vassal. Takuan describes vendetta killings as “…forgetting oneself in the anger of the moment. It is not right-mindedness in the least. Its proper name is anger and nothing else”. In Takuan’s eyes, virtually no samurai are right-minded-“This is not for the sake of one’s name. Nor for gaining fame, a stipend, and a fief.” As we have discussed many times on the SA, the ideals of Bushido were just that-ideals that were so highly valued because they were so rarely displayed in reality. 

Takuan’s writings have been translated by William Scott Wilson, an award-winning translator who specializes in Edo period warrior literature. Wilson brings home Takuan’s sometimes difficult concepts and the allusions of Buddhism and 17th century Japan to an English-speaking readership. He does so without losing the subtleties and poetic symmetry of the text, providing a translation that preserves the many layers of the original while remaining accessible to a novice.

“The Unfettered Mind” is valuable not only as a historical piece examining how sword training blended the physical and spiritual, but also as a guide to understanding the basic ideas of Buddhist thought (with an emphasis on the self-discipline of Zen) and applying them to everyday life-whether it’s the 17th or 21st century. Takuan explains each abstract concept clearly and in detail, not only giving the symbolism behind each but showing how they operate and are reflected in the real world. On top of that, it’s not every day you read a letter that schooled a master swordsman like Yagyu Munenori! Lucky for Takuan that Munenori was familiar with the “life-giving sword”… 

“The Unfettered Mind” from Shambhala Publications can be found on Amazon through the SA Store.