We think by breaking rules we shall get freedom


With the false analogy of geography where the newer maps are generally better than old maps, we think that newer things must be better than the old things. Beethoven’s pupils thought they were better than Beethoven; they wouldn’t play his sonatas in public. Czerny never played Beethoven’s sonatas at a concert. They weren’t played in public for thirty years or so. Hallé was the first to play the full cycle of sonatas about forty years after Beethoven died. Before that, ‘most of them really weren’t suitable!’ Czerny wrote pieces for four pianos, with two pianists at each piano. Marvellous! Poor old Beethoven had written for only one piano, and one pianist.

We think by breaking the rules or having no rules we shall get inspiration and freedom. “Don’t teach the children by telling them what to do, they need to express their creativity”. Well, this is just getting drunk on words. Enormous assumptions are hidden under this and there is a Chinese phrase on this which perhaps ought to be put in gold on some of our classrooms. It says, “With the untrained, things of heaven, may take shape within their hearts but they do not take shape beneath their hands.” There may be inspiration and creativity there. It is arguable that there always is. But without some technique, without some restraints, without some forms, these things don’t take shape.

Now, I thought, as something different, to give a little translation here. There was a great teacher of kendo, who died in 1930 at the age of 66, and he had a great influence on the fencing and the spiritual atmosphere of the time, especially on layman’s Zen. And 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. This book is a compilation of things which were written, sometimes long ago ‑ eighty or so years ‑ so it is in the old Japanese and is fiendishly difficult.

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, but when you begin to understand the conventions and the context in which this was written, then it was not quite so difficult. The section I want to read was collected from some of his disciples and then they were put together. The whole work was printed privately in a small edition. I translated a few for you so that you could get an idea of the connection between zen and budo, especially Kendo, and the daily life as it was reflected in this man:


The Master used to say to children: ‘Money won’t stay with you.’ He never said what should 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 for himself.

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 he was talking to people, someone said something unworthy or abusive, the Master 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 supporters’ 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, and so lead 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 he tried to describe it in words, they would be useless. Whereas if he 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.

Tokusai (Yamada firo) famous as a fencing (Kendo) master of the 19th century (1866‑1930), and as a Buddhist. A book was compiled from his writings, and from memories of those who knew him: it was privately printed. This is a translation of the short chapter called Character and Conduct: Fragments.

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 fell 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.

Making a visit to the Master, it was never necessary to prepare anything beforehand. If someone went with a burning concern about what to do in the Way, he always profited immensely from the meeting. It happened again and again that someone went and came away without a single word uttered. Sometimes he could not help a rueful smile with the thought that he might as well never have gone. But then he found to his amazement that the anxieties or distress and so on, that had been filling his heart when he went, had cleared up, and his heart was 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 was patting its head, when the owner came running, white‑faced and 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 as aggressive and vicious, and it had bitten people who had gone near it. ,

He often said 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 however 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 wrong‑doing, and then say: ‘He’s just like me, isn’t he.., ‘or ‘We are all like that these days.’ and would not join in the condemnation on his own account.

When a certain disciple was leaving him to go on military service, he asked the Master if he would help him to select a sword 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 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 him, and finally in complete accord with the Master. 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 practice of Kendo in the practice hall, but in their daily lives as well.

Like the sun, the teacher gave an energising 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 Ki‑energy holds in it’s essence quite enough to nourish the human body. So if a man can take in and absorb the breath of Ki, he will not need other nourishment‑ Though the ordinary man does not have to try like that still he must not cease to be aware of the possibility.’

About school education, 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 Shiryti. 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 recognised 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 to him 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 spring‑like breeze, the watchers felt there was a shining god‑like 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 it, fragments which were collected, and I thought it gave some sort of picture of the teacher, 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, and some of them have a great charm of humility and modesty. But he was one of the Master Swordsmen of the time. So he had both what is called ‘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.

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: A Hundred Hearings. Not Like One Seeing

Part 2: The only way to win is to forget

Part 3: We think by breaking rules we shall get freedom

Part 4: Worldly people aim at triumph, spiritual people aim at success


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