Tesshu

Tesshu was a fencing master of the late nineteenth century, who had also completed the full course of Zen under the great master Tekisui of Tenryuji. An inquirer came to him asking for a discourse on the Rinzairoku classic.

The Rinzairoku? Why, sermons are given on it regularly at Enkakuji; you’d better go and hear Master Kosen there.’

I have been to hear him, but I still don’t feel I really understand it. Now I know that you are an expert in fencing as well as Zen, and I have done quite a bit of fencing myself, so I thought perhaps it would be easier to understand if I had an explanation from you.’

All right, then you had better change into fencing gear’, and overruling the guest’s surprise he made him practise fencing till he was pouring with sweat and exhausted. After they had bathed in cold water and changed, they sat facing each other as before in the guest room.

Tesshu asked, ‘Have you got it?’

Got what? I am here waiting to listen to you.’

That was the discourse on Rinzairoku which you asked for. Zen masters in their temples teach it in their own way5 that has nothing to do with me. I am a fencer and I teach it through fencing. You have had the explanation and that is all I have to give you.’

[Compare with the Sermon of the Nun Shido, Shonankattoroku no. 87]

Tesshu was famous for his physical courage and he carried out a most dangerous mission for the Shogun at the time of the Meiji Restoration. A young fencer who asked him about the inmost secret of the Way of fencing was told to go to the Kannon temple at Asakusa and pray to be given enlightenment about it.

After a week the man came back and said, ‘I went every day and prayed for a long time but nothing came in response. But as I was coming away yesterday, for the first time I noticed what is written above the shrine: The Gift of Fearlessness. Was that what you meant?’ ‘It was’, replied Tesshu. ‘The secret of our Way is complete fearlessness. But it has to be complete. Some there are who are not afraid to face enemies with swords, but who cringe before the assaults of passions like greed and delusions like fame. The end of our Way of fencing is to have no fear at all when confronting the inner enemies as well as the outer enemies.’

Tesshu used to write out passages from the sutras every day and he continued this practice even during his final illness. When he could no longer do so, he invited a few friends round to the sick-room. They talked for a little, and then he said, ‘Now I shall take my leave.’ He sat upright on the bed in the Zen meditation posture, and died quietly.

As a leading fencing master of the time, Tesshu was asked to give fencing lessons to the young Emperor Meiji. At one of these lessons, as the two came close Tesshu threw the Emperor with a judo technique down on to the polished boards; this is permitted under the rules, but the watching Chamberlain was horrified at what had happened. Afterwards he spoke to Tesshu, and protested indignantly, ‘It was most unexpected that you would dare to throw His Imperial Majesty.’

Why not? It is part of what I am being asked to teach him. If His Majesty does not know what it is like to be thrown, he will not know fencing.’

The Chamberlain did not know what to say.

All his life Tesshu remained a vegetarian in the Buddhist tradition. A busybody once came up to him and said, ‘Surely from the highest point of view of Zen, to eat meat is the same thing as not eating meat?’ ‘Yes,’ said Tesshu, ‘the same.’

Then,’ went on the questioner, ‘if it is the same, why do you not give up your vegetarianism and eat meat?’

If it is the same,’ replied Tesshu, ‘why do you want me to change?’

One of his friends was a Japanese story-teller. In this highly developed art, the one speaker takes all the parts, changing his voice and demeanour so cleverly that the illusion of a world is created. His one fan becomes an umbrella, a sword, a cup, a pen and so on. Tesshu’s friend was a master of his art, and he once gave a performance at Tesshu’s house which was acclaimed by the audience as perfect. But Tesshu remained silent. Afterwards the story-teller asked quietly, ‘Did you find some fault in my performance?’

Only one fault.’

And what was that?’

That you have still a tongue.’

The story-teller meditated on this phrase for a long time in perplexity of spirit. It became a koan to him, and after a great struggle he penetrated into it.

He gave another performance, to which he invited Tesshu.

He was now not calculating his effects, but speaking and moving perfectly naturally. The effect was overwhelming. At the end the audience instead of applauding sat silent, and Tesshu nodded.

 

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