Ittokusai was famous as a kendo master, and as a Buddhist

Ittokusai (Yamada Jiro) (1866-1930) was famous as a fencing (kendo) master, and as a Buddhist. He had a great influence on the fencing and spiritual atmosphere of the time, especially on lay Zen. A book of his life was printed privately and a copy was given to me by a Zen master, Omori Sogen, who was himself also a fencing master. It is not easily available, and I was reluctant to take it, but he insisted. There was a sort of unspoken understanding that I would translate at least some extracts from it. This book is a compilation of things which were written some eighty or so years ago, so it is in the old Japanese and is fiendishly difficult to read. It was an enormous compliment to be given it from that Zen teacher. The trouble is you have to live up to these compliments, and it took me ages to decipher the first few paragraphs. When you begin to understand the conventions and the context in which it was written, however, then it is not so difficult. This is a translation of the short chapter called ‘Character and Conduct: Fragments’.

The master used to say to children, ‘Money won’t stay with you.’ He never said what would stay.

In letters to children he wrote: Try not to become hoarders. And again: Money is something which life deposits with you for a time, so if you have anything over from living your ordinary life in society; use it for the good of society.

His own preference was for the simplest clothes and food, living in a shack and practising the strictest economy in everything.

His letters to children read as if they were written to a noble family.

With new acquaintances, the master kept his own dignity, but always showed great respect for them.

If, when the master was talking to people, someone said something unworthy or abusive, he always took it and interpreted it in a worthy or refined sense. Often the speaker, becoming ashamed of what he had said, corrected his expression.

The master was very modest. When he heard that disciples who had received from him a letter—brushed in his wonderful brush strokes—were having them mounted and kept as treasures, he took to writing to everyone with a pen instead.

In talking to someone, the master never spoke of any faults of the other. For instance, if in a supporter’s party he encountered some noisy vulgar shouter, he would disregard it and say something like, ‘In the old days there was one style of giving silent support, wasn’t there .. ?’ and follow this up with a further topic, so leading the talk in another direction. If a doubt arose about some crucial point, the master used to express his assent by tapping sharply with his fan on his knee.

As to the degree of progress along the Way of training, namely the spiritual state attained, he used to say that if someone had not reached it himself, then however elaborately that person tried to describe it in words, they would be useless. Whereas if someone had himself attained it, then ordinary language would be quite sufficient.

The master treated others with kindly tolerance, but himself with utmost severity. When he was thinking of accepting an offer to become the Kendo Shihan, head teacher, at the famous Shoka University, he went into the mountains at Myogi, performed spiritual practices, and conducted a self-examination as to whether he was inwardly qualified to be a Shihan teacher.

One of his pupils, the late Seki Kozo, during his military career could shout at a soldier with such concentrated energy (ki) that the soldier would fall unconscious. When the teacher heard of this incident, he gave a little smile. But when he heard that Seki, in a rough game with children, had again used his ki-ai shout to make one fall unconscious, he severely reprimanded him in a voice grown suddenly harsh.

On making a visit to the master, it was never necessary to prepare anything beforehand. Those who went with a burning concern about what to do in the Way always profited immensely from the meeting. It happened again and again that people went and came away without a single word uttered. Sometimes they could not help a rueful smile with the thought that they might as well never have gone. But then they found, to their amazement, that the anxieties or distress that had been filling their hearts when they went, had cleared up, and their hearts were now full of radiance and life.

He said to his pupils, ‘When you are reading an exalting book, have the same attitude as when facing a great man.’

One day, when he came out of the training hall after practising with the pupils, he found that someone had tied a big dog to the gatepost, and it was trying to get free. He went straight up to the prisoner and started patting its head. Then the owner came running up, white-faced, calling, ‘Master, be careful, be careful!’ But seeing that the dog had become perfectly quiet, he choked back his words. It seems that the dog was known to be aggressive and vicious, and it had bitten people who had gone near it.

He often said that however wild an animal might be, if one’s own heart is pervaded by the idea of absolute harmlessness, then the animal will do no harm either. Moreover, in front of the teacher, even a raving madman became as gentle and compliant as a pet cat.

Too many to list are the cases where sick people, given up by the doctors, were saved by the master, and still today there are many who believe that he was somehow like a god. At a session of spiritual healing, he and the patient became one. And, in fact, just after the healing, the two pulses were taken, and it was found that the two-pulse beats were in unison.

When the master left the house, he was always on the lookout for books, but he never haggled over the price. Often a bookseller had got something for the master which turned out to be no use for him. Still, he always asked to buy it. As he often said, ‘If you don’t sometimes get caught into buying a bad book, you won’t pick up the rare treasures either.’

He was thus demonstrating the truth of the saying: There is usefulness even in uselessness.

He often told us, ‘Every night, when I review the past day, from getting up to going to bed, I am really ashamed—full of failures, full of failings.’ Up to the day of his death, the master never missed doing this spiritual practice of reflection.

Hanging in the teacher’s room was a scroll brushed by Katsu Kaishu himself, which read:

Be sincere and without show;
never try to become great.

The teacher often said that he would like to die while practising kendo, or at any rate, die in the practice hall.

The master was hard on himself, but magnanimous towards others. If, for instance, he was warned by someone against some third party, he would listen to the accusation of wrongdoing, and then say, ‘He’s just like me, isn’t he?’ or, ‘We are all like that these day…’ and would not join in the condemnation on his own account.

When a certain disciple was leaving to go on military service, he asked the master to help him select a sword from the repository to take with him. The master went in and, from his own collection, chose just one. This alone he brought back for him, remarking that the others should not be exposed [to choosing or refusing] but should stay in the repository.

The master was never sparing of formal manners. The Third Middle School converted part of the garden into a kendo practice hall. When he came into the garden to pass into the hall, he always made a bow. Often, coming across students sweeping the ground or cleaning the hall, he paid a similar respect to them.

In middle age, the teacher brushed on a self-portrait the phrase: Sincere as a clear mirror. He always kept this carefully with him.

The conversation which the master liked most to take part in was about the art [of kendo swordsmanship]. In a deep, strong voice—level or animated according to the case—he would pursue the subject untiringly. At some of his unexpected illustrations, hearers would find themselves unconsciously drawn to the master, and finally be in complete accord with him. They recognized that what the teacher said was the very essence of kendo. After hearing him even once, they seemed to become different people, not only in their understanding and practise of kendo in the practice hall, but in their daily lives as well.

Like the sun, the teacher gave an energizing life to those who faced him. People felt something like a light—pure, strong, and overflowing with compassion—radiating from the master.

As to health, the master used to say, ‘The great ^/-energy holds in its essence quite enough to nourish the human body. So if one can take in and absorb the breath of ki, one will not need other nourishment. Though the ordinary person does not have to try like that, still one must not cease to be aware of the possibility.’

About education in schools, the master said, ‘School is a place for creating human beings. It is not for wearying the brains with things that do not really matter, but a one-pointed training to lay down a foundation for the future.’

The master had the greatest reverence for Yamaga Soko and Hirayama Shiryu. One of the Master’s treasures was a piece of brushwork by Shiryu. When showing it to children, he said, ‘Look at the manly strength of the brush strokes. To make them, there had to be the energy by which the ink swirls up to heaven.’ In these words he also indicated the highest peak of kendo.

The master wrote on the Diploma of Proficiency awarded to one of his pupils, the single word: Infinite (mu-kyuu)

The master had a very keen intuitive perception of right and wrong, good and bad. But when he thus recognized that one who faced him was a wrongdoer, he never had any expression of dislike, nor did his voice change. In fact, his behaviour became more and more cordial and earnest, as he explained what to do to follow the Way.

A week before the master died, his disciple Onishi got him to allow a photograph. It was taken in the garden, standing facing East, his hands quietly folded, enjoying the sunshine. His countenance was like a clear crystal, without a trace of passion or ambition. As he stood there, caressed by the kindly warmth of a gentle springlike breeze, the watchers felt there was a shining godlike light radiating from his whole frame. When the master himself saw the developed print, he said, ‘This is the first time I have come out in a photograph looking really human.’

These are about half of the fragments which were collected, and I think it gives some sort of picture of the teacher, Ittokusai, even in these very short extracts. There are others. When he wrote to children, for instance, he wrote as if he was writing to the nobility.

Some of them have a great charm of humility and modesty, yet he was one of the master swordsmen of the time. So he had both ‘the death-dealing sword’ and ‘the life-giving sword’, and we can see that beyond the sword, which normally is a weapon that can kill, there was the swordless, which gives life.

There were those who practised austerities, and one of the austerities described—which the kendo men practised—was this ki-ai shout. The effects were real. They were practised by people whose lives depended on them. But one man who was an expert in this told me that in the end it is a frustration, that the range is very limited, and in fact it does no good to anybody. The master strongly reprimanded Seki for showing off with this ability, especially in front of children.

I have taken part in a test of one of these things and the range was very, very small. The effect was real, but it led to no good. One teacher described it as fireworks. He said, ‘With fireworks you go, “Ooh..!” But you can’t warm your hands with fireworks, and you cannot write a letter by the light of them—they are absolutely useless, except to amaze. And furthermore,’ he said, ‘there is an inherent, latent contradiction at the very heart of these things.’ He left that for us to ponder over.

Ittokusai from the Old Zen Master

© Trevor Leggett

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