The Duel on Funashima Island

This statue commemorates a duel that took place on April 13, 1612, on Funashima Island, Japan between Sasaki Kojiro “Ganryu” and Miyamoto Musashi. Kojiro was a retainer to the Hosokawa clan, while Musashi was still a “Ronin” a masterless samurai. The duel had been arranged by another Hosokawa general, Nagaoka Sado, upon Musashi’s formal request. Hosokawa Tadaoki agreed and the choosen place was a little island in the Kamon strait, between Honshu and Kyushu. The Hosokawa found an isolated place suitable for the duel because, if Sasaki Kojiro won, they could avoid any possible revenge from Musashi’s followers. The day of the duel, Nagaoka Sado, lord Hosokawa Tadaoki himself and many men accompained Kojiro to Funashima, while Musashi traveled alone in a boat alone except for the boatman.

Kojiro was famous for his legendary speed with the sword. His favourite sword was a nodachi, a long sword (90 cm) he called Monohoshi Zao (“Drying Pole”). It’s said that he was able to draw his katana out of the scabbard, execute his most famed technique, “tsubame gaeshi”, and return the sword to the scabbard in the blink of an eye
Musashi, was a master of strategy and knowing of Kojiro’s pride in his sword, carved a bokken (wooden sword) from the boat’s spare oar during the trip to the island. In order to further unnerve his opponent Musashi kept Kojiro waiting for three hours before he arrived at the island.

The duel didn’t last too long. Kojiro, impatient from waiting so long, unsheathed his sword and tossed his scabbard aside. Musashi faced Kojiro with his carved bokken and said “You won’t need that anymore, you have already lost”.  After facing each other unmoving for a very long time, then Musashi moved to position himself so the sun was at his back and in Kojiro’s eyes. This resulted in a brief burst of swordplay in which Kojiro cut Musashi’s headband off , and Musashi hit Kojiro with his makeshift bokken and cracked his skull.

Test Cutting – How a Swordsman keeps his Edge

Test Cutting – How a Swordsman keeps his Edge

There are few opportunities for a Samurai swordsman to test his skill. One of the most common ways this is done is by Tameshigiri; test cutting.

Back in the days of Feudal Japan the test cutting was as much about testing the sword smith’s new creation as it was about the skill of the swordsman wielding the blade. Targets were often condemned criminals who were tied in various positions or their corpses were unceremoniously stacked like fire wood. Records were kept of the results, ie; how many human torsos the blade could pass through in a single stroke. The record I believe was seven according to the engraving on one blades tang.

Since battle was a real possibility in those days steel helmets were also a preferred target for this cutting demonstrations. Making a gash a couple of inches long during Kabutowari – Helmet-Splitting would have been an mpressive feat.

Over time the use of human targets dead or alive became less socially acceptable and so some ingenious individual determined that if you rolled the straw tatami mats, that were used for floor coverings in the traditional Japanese household, around a hollow bamboo shaft, tied them in place and submerged these rolls in water over night that they provided a target that closely replicated the consistency and resistance to human flesh and bone. To cut such a target cleanly requires a sharp sword, excellent eye/hand coordination, proper blade angle and follow through.

Now a days this is the most common target for test cutting and being competitive beings tournaments have been created and certain sequences of cuts arranged to test a swordman’s skill.

Fruit and vegetables are also common objects to slice and dice for martial arts demonstrations. I’ve done a few that way myself utilizing cantaloupes and pumpkins as the season dictates availability. As long as you are careful to clean the blade well afterwards there’s no reason not to use such targets. They are easy to come by don’t take a 24 hour prep time.

Placing your trusting assistant in a potentially dangerous situation always adds the WOW factor to these demonstrations. Be smart. Don’t try anything like this unless you know for a fact you can without endangering your partner.

Cutting can be a lot of fun. Check out the two videos below and be amazed by the hours/years of training that have gone into developing the skill to do this kind of cutting.

or check this guy out AMAZING!

A Samurai’s Creed

A Samurai’s Creed
Circa 1300, Anonymous (though I’ve seen this attributed to Miyamoto Musashi)

I have no parents; I make the heaven and earth my mother and father.
I have no home; I make awareness my dwelling.
I have no life and death; I make the tides of breathing my life and death.
I have no divine power; I make honesty my divine power.
I have no means; I make understanding my means.
I have no magic secrets; I make character my magic secret.
I have no body; I make endurance my body.
I have no eyes; I make the flash of lightning my eyes.
I have no ears; I make sensibility my ears.
I have no limbs; I make promptness my limbs.
I have no strategy; I make “unshadowed by thought” my strategy.
I have no designs; I make “seizing opportunity by the forelock” my design.
I have no miracles; I make right action my miracle.
I have no principles; I make adaptability to all circumstances my principles.
I have no tactics; I make emptiness and fullness my tactics.
I have no talents; I make ready wit my talent.
I have no friends; I make my mind my friend.
I have no enemy; I make carelessness my enemy.
I have no armor; I make benevolence and righteousness my armor.
I have no castle; I make immovable mind my castle.
I have no sword; I make absence of self my sword.”

The Fly – Samurai animation

A very cool short Samurai animation about meditation and distraction.

It reminds me of this quote by the Dalai Lama

‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.’


Fudo Myoo and the Japanese Swordsman

Fudo Myoo and the Japanese Swordsman

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Fudo Myoo and the Japanese Swordsman

The unmovable Fudo, known in India as Acala or Achalanatha, one of the many manifestations of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and reincarnation, is one of the Wisdom Kings (Myoo). He is a Japanese Buddhist deity, introduced by Kooboo Daishi about 806 and soon became a special protector of the Mountain Ascetics (yamabushi) who believed that an impressive waterfall was the personification of Fudo.

Fudo is typically portrayed holding a two-edged sword with a three-pronged hilt in his right hand and a coiled rope in his left hand. With this sword of wisdom, Fudo cuts through deluded and ignorant minds and with the rope he binds those who are ruled by their violent passions and emotions. He is sometimes pictured seated or standing upon a rock to symbolize his immovability. He is also depicted surrounded by flames, the result of his entering into a flame-emitting meditation (‘kasho zammai’). This fire is a symbol of purification and destroys all karmic hindrances.

Perhaps because he is a fierce guardian who wields a sword, Fudo Myoo became a significant symbol to many famous samurai, as can be seen by the following demonstrations of their devotion.

Goro Nyudo Masamune (1265-1358), undeniably the most famous and arguably the best swordsmith in Japanese history produced a very famous tanto known as the “Fudo Masamune” because it features a horimono (engraving) of the Buddhist deity Fudo Myoo.

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Takuan Soho (1573-1645), Zen Teacher to many famous samurai including Munenori Yagyu and Miyamoto Musashi, wrote the follow passage in a letter to Munenori.

“Fudo Myoo grasps a sword in his right hand and holds a rope in his left hand. He bares his teeth and his eyes flash with anger. His form stands firmly, ready to defeat the evil spirits that would obstruct the Buddhist Law. His form is made in the shape of a protector of Buddhism, while his embodiment is that of immovable wisdom. This is what is known to living things.
Seeing this form, the ordinary man becomes afraid and has no thoughts of becoming an enemy of Buddhism. The man who is close to enlightenment understands that this manifests immovable wisdom and clears away all delusion. For the man who can make dharma as well as Fudo Myoo, the evil spirits will no longer proliferate. This is the purpose of Fudo Myoo’s tidings. What is said to be Fudo Myoo is one’s unmoving mind and an unvacillating body.”

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), author of the Go Rin No Sho (Book of Five Rings), founder of the Niten Ichi Ryu (two swords in one school) of swordsmanship, and unquestionably the most famous of all Japanese swordsmen, was also a fine artist who carved this representation of the deity.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketYamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888), Zen master, founder of the Muto Ryu (no-sword school) of swordsmanship and master calligrapher brushed this scroll, the kanji of which read Fudo Myoo.
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I’ll never forget seeing a statue of Fudo Myoo at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It had a definite presence that was beyond creepy, to the point of being terrifying.
The photo below from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC is similar to the one in I saw in Boston but is only 20 1/4 inches high. The one I saw was life-size.

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I am drawn to Fudo Myoo because he is a protector who stands up for what he believes to be right. He is the guardian of the way and I believe that he uses his fierce continence, not to scare people into staying on the path but, as a reminder of the demons that we may fall prey to should our discipline weaken, and we stray from what we know is the right path.

Keep Training my friends. I know I intend to.



The Swordless Swordsman – Part 1

The Swordless Swordsman – Part 1

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The Swordless Swordsman – Part 1

Muto translated literally means No-Sword. This term has over the years been used three different ways in the martial arts. 1.) The Use of Strategy. 2.) Facing an Armed Opponent Empty-Handed. 3.) A Zen Mindset.

The Use of Strategy
In his famous treatise The Art of War, Sun Tzu states “To fight and conquer in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy with no fight at all, that’s the highest skill.” There is a story about Tsukahara Bokuden (1489-1571) that illustrates this concept quite well. Once, Bokuden was crossing Lake Biwa in a boat with a rough-looking samurai who was bragging of his martial prowess to all of the passengers who would listen. Bokuden sat as if dozing ignoring the man. The boastful young samurai noticing that Bokuden also carried two swords and asked what style he studied. Bokuden answered quietly, “My art is called the Muto-ryu.”
The angry samurai challenged the master. “Do you really mean to fight me with no swords?” “Why not?” Bokuden answered.
They agreed to go to an island where no bystanders could get hurt. As they landed on the island, the braggart jumped off the boat, drew his sword and was ready for combat. Suddenly Bokuden took the oar and, pushed off, leaving the angry samurai stranded. Bokuden, smiling as he rowed into deeper water, remarked, “This is my ‘no-sword’ school.”

This classic story was also a favorite of Bruce Lee’s (1940-1973) which is why he worked it into his film, Enter the Dragon, in the scene on the junk to the island where he offers to show the bully the art of “Fighting without Fighting”

Training with Tengu on Mt. Kurama

Training with Tengu on Mt. Kurama

Training with Tengu on Mt. Kurama

A tengu is a goblin. These mischievous mythological creatures, half-human/half-bird, who were said to inhabit the mountains of Japan, were also experts in martial arts. Scholars believe however that the tengu were actually yamabushi, mountain priests. Many of these practitioners of Shingon Buddhism were retired samurai who revered the mountains as sacred and found solace there to seek spiritual, mystical and supernatural powers through asceticism. Many famous swordsmen have stories attached to their legends of, encounters with, or, learning some secret technique from tengu..

One such tale concerns Ushiwakamaru, (the childhood name of Minamoto Yoshitsune) (1159-89) who, at age seven, after his Minamoto clan was defeated by the Taira clan, was sent to a temple north of Kyoto, to become a monk.

Yoshitsune remained on Mt Kurama until he was sixteen years old. During this decade of study, when he wasn’t learning the Buddhist scriptures, Yoshitsune passed the time walking the steep trails through the sacred forest of pines, cedars, cypress, and other trees. It was there, deep in the mountains, some distance above the temple, he was befriended by Sojobo, the white-haired King of the Tengu on Mt. Kurama, who trained him in sword fighting and military strategy. It has also been said that Yoshitsune practiced his footwork among the prevalent roots of the trees that line the paths up the mountain.

Sojobo was a harsh task master, yet, through the spiritual and physical hardships of this training, Yoshitsune forged his warrior spirit and honed the martial skills that he hoped would make it possible to re-establish the honor of the Minamoto Clan.

During the battle at Yashima in 1184, Yoshitsune demonstrated reportedly superhuman agility, defeating the Taira Clan, and helping his brother Yoritomo establish the Kamakura Shogunate. This only served to lend plausibility to his tengu connection.

In the 1920’s, Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, was known to take several of his best students with him on yearly week long retreats to Mt. Kurama to undergo austere training. Their daily routine began at 5 a.m. with prayer, misogi (purification), followed by suburito (heavy sword swinging) practice and footwork drills. Some days the training didn’t end until after midnight. Some of these students have said that O’Sensei would make a point of reminding them that they were training on the very spot where Sojobo taught Ushiwakamaru 850 years earlier.

Though no one claimed to have seen a tengu during these sessions, the students who crossed swords with master Ueshiba said, he fought with such intensity, it was as though his opponent were one of the goblins. No doubt their spirit was still on the mountain guiding the training.

So next time you’re thinking about how hard you work, imagine 20 hrs a day facing a demon. Hmm, now that I think about it, that reminds me of boot camp 😉

Put a Lid on it!

Put a Lid on it!

Put a Lid on it!

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), whose name means “Storehouse of military knowledge.” is best remembered as the author of, the treatise on strategy, A Book of Five Rings. A famous swordsman, Musashi was the son of the celebrated fencing master Yoshioka Tarozaemon. Musashi was a bold and reputedly reckless adventurer who by his own admission survived armed combat more than 60 times and at age 61 died a natural death. As you can imagine many tales and myths have sprung up around this legendary kensei (sword saint).

In one tale of the famous swordsman, that has been made into a play called Katakiuchi nito no eiyuki, Musashi encounters an old man named Kasahara Roo, after getting lost in the mountains. Roo (literally “old man”) took him in out of the snow and proceeded to make rice for the hungry young man. As Musashi watched the old man preparing the meal he began to brag about his various exploits of martial prowess. Kasahara laughed at the young man’s egotism. When Musashi asked why he was laughing the old man quoted to him the Tao Te Ching, saying, “Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know”, whereupon Musashi, enraged by this insult, attacked him.

Kasahara, seeming not to notice the assault, calmly took the lid off the pot of rice and proceeded to easily parry a fury of the young hot-head’s sword strikes. Musashi continued until he was short of breath and exhausted, then finally asked, who are you? When he discovered that Kasahara Roo, was the celebrated fencing master Tsukahara Bokuden, he apologized, and stayed awhile to learn more advanced fighting techniques.


If we check our dates we see that since Miyamoto Musashi was born in 1584, and Tsukahara Bokuden died in 1571, such an encounter between these two legendary swordmen was physically impossible. However, at some point in his life Musashi did learn humility as can be seen in the “Dokkodo,” or  21 Precepts About Life, which he wrote a week before his death. His 5th precept is, “Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”

I guess the moral of this story is…when you are so full of yourself that you feel the need to brag to others, put a lid on it.

The Essence of Swordsmanship

The Essence of Swordsmanship

What is the Essence of Swordsmanship? Let us answer this question, from the feudal Japanese perspective, by using quotes from the swordsmen themselves. There seem to be two schools of thought on the matter; the practical, and the zen-influenced.

The Practical…

Nagahara Inosuke, a great swordsman said “the essence of swordsmanship consists in giving yourself up altogether to the business of striking down the opponent.”

Samurai general Kenshin Uesugi (1530-78), told his troops to “Go to the battlefield firmly confident of victory and you will come home with no wounds whatsoever”.

Kiyomasa Kato (1562-1611) said that “The warrior’s intention should be simply to grasp his sword and to die”.

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), founder of the Niten Ichi-ryu  said that “To be swayed neither by the opponent nor by his sword is the essence of swordsmanship”.

Ito Ittosai Kagehisa (1560-1653) founder of the Itto-ryu  believed that the essence of swordsmanship could be stated in a simple phrase, itto sunawachi banto, “one sword [technique] gives rise to ten thousand sword [technique]s”.

The Zen Influenced…

Yagyu Munenori. (1571-1646), official kenjitsu teacher to three Tokugawa shoguns said “Conquering evil, not the opponent, is the essence of swordsmanship.” This was no doubt as a result of the influence of his Zen teacher, the priest Takuan Soho (1573-1645) who taught him that if you “Conquer the self and you will conquer the opponent.”

Though Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888), a Zen master as well as being a sword master stated that “The true essence of swordsmanship is like the willow blowing in the gentle breeze”, he also said, “The end of our Way of the sword is to be fearless when confronting our inner enemies and our outer enemies”

This Buddhist concept gave rise to an expression popular in modern-day Iaido circles which relates that “The essence of swordsmanship lies in its perfection. It does not mean to cut the enemy, but rather to “strike down” the enemy within oneself”. This concept is drawn from the bodhisattva’s Manjusri and Fudo Myo both of whom wield their swords of wisdom to cut away ignorance and any other obstructions on the path to enlightenment.

In Summary…

In order for a swordsman to have the best chance of success he must incorporate all of these statements. He must be technically proficient and know himself. He must have the confidence of a samurai mind-set while simultaneously letting go of all thought.

Like Nagahara Inosuke advises, he must not forget that his ultimate purpose as a warrior is to neutralize the opponent. Following the lead of General Uesugi he must enter the fray with supreme confidence that he will come out unscathed, but acknowledge as Kato suggests that he may die and have no fear of that. Like Musashi advises he must not allow the opponent to psych him out, physically or mentally. And taking Ito’s advice he must have a complete understanding of all of the technical basics, such as; maai(distancing), hyoshi/choshi (timing/rhythm), hasuji ( “blade line,” trajectory / targeting), and kurai (mental and physical preparedness), in order that he may transcend them and be free. But what is this path to freedom?

Musashi tells us that “The Way is in Training”. Tesshu relates that if you “Practice day and night and you will attain the state of no-enemy”. The path of the warrior is a life-long pursuit, and sometimes attaining mastery is just a matter of staying on the path.

Keep Training my friends, I know I intend to.

Impatient Young Samurai and the Old Master

Impatient Young Samurai and the Old Master


Impatient Young Samurai and the Old Master

Matajuro (a.k.a. Munefuyu) Yagyu (1613-75) was the son of the famous swordsman Munenori Yagyu who was fencing teacher to the Shogun, Ieyasu Tokagawa.Believing that Matajuro was too undisciplined to ever achieve mastery, Munenori disowned him.

So Matajuro, hoping to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, went to seek out a famous swordsman named Banzo, who had retired to Mount Futara.

“You wish to learn swordsmanship under my guidance?” asked Banzo. “You cannot fulfill the requirements.”

” I will work very hard, how many years will it take me to become a master?” asked the youth.

“Oh, maybe ten years,” Banzo replied.

“I can’t wait that long,” continued Matajuro. “If I work far more intensively, how long would it take me?”

“Oh, maybe thirty years,” said Banzo.

“Why is that?” asked Matajuro.

“Well,” said Banzo, “with one eye fixed on your destination, you have only one eye to find your way.”

“Very well,” declared the youth, understanding that he was being rebuked for impatience, “I will be your devoted servant and endure any hardship, Please teach me.”

Banzo agreed under the conditions that Matajuro never speak of fencing and never touch a sword. For three years Matajuro cooked for his master, washed the dishes, made his bed, cared for the garden, all without a word of swordsmanship. He had begun to think he would never learn the art he had come to learn, when one day, while Matajuro was cooking rice, Banzo crept up behind him and hit him quite hard with a wooden sword.

The following day, when Matajuro was fetching water from the well, Banzo again sprang upon him unexpectedly.

After that, day and night, Matajuro had to defend himself from unexpected thrusts. Not a moment passed in any day that he did not have to stay alert to avoid the sword of the master.

He learnt so quickly that his Zanshin (awareness), concentration, his speed and a sort of sixth sense enabled him to avoid Banzo’s attacks. Then one day, before completing ten years after his arrival, the master told him he had nothing more to teach him.


Matajuro returned home to his father and proved himself to be one of the best swordsmen in the land. He eventually took over as head of the Edo branch of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, and while in service to the shogunate, he too rose to the level of a minor daimyo, like Munenori.


This story is a reminder to be patient, that training is not always what it appears to be, and to realize that constant vigilance day and night is necessary if one truly wants to reach mastery of any thing, including oneself. Or in other words “good things come to those who endure”.