The Sword of No-Sword: Life of the Master Warrior Tesshuby John Stevens
Master swordsman, calligrapher, and Zen practitioner, Yamoaka Tesshu is a seminal figure in martial arts history. John Stevens's biography is a fascinating, detailed account of Tesshu's remarkable life. From Tesshu's superhuman feats of endurance and keen perception in life-threatening situations, to his skillful handling of military affairs during the politically volatile era of early nineteenth-century Japan, Stevens recounts the stories that have made Tesshu a legend. This is the book all martial artists must own.
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Chapter 1: Tesshu's Life and Times
After two hundred and fifty years of relative calm and isolation, the once mighty
Tokugawa Shogunate was tottering. Established in 1603 by Ieyasu, the last of the "Three Unifiers"—the other two being Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi
Hideyoshi—the regime followed a rigid closed-door policy. By 1640, all foreign missionaries were expelled from the country (native Christians who did not recant were executed) and, with the exception of a tiny Dutch concession, all overseas trade was suspended.
The island nation flourished in the peace and security of the early years of the
Tokugawa reign, but by 1830 a number of factors had undermined the economy:
strict adherence to a four-tier social system
(samurai-peasant-craftsman-merchant); a cumbersome and inefficient bureaucracy;
huge deficits incurred by both the national and local governments, caused in part by the ruinously expensive requirement that all daimyo (feudal lords)
maintain households in the capital city of Edo; repeated crop failures,
widespread famine, and food riots.
On top of all this, Russia, England, and the United States were ominously probing
Japan's coastal waters with their powerful men-of-war, demanding that the
Shogunate open up the country to foreign intercourse.
Against this background of uncertainty and crisis, Ono Tetsutaro—later known as
Yamaoka Tesshu—was born in Edo on June 10, 1836. His father, Ono Asaemon, was a fairly high-ranking Tokugawa retainer with a good income of 600
(One koku was approximately five bushels of rice; it represented the standard medium of exchange and measure of wealth in the Tokugawa period.) Tesshu took after his mother Iso, a tall, solidly built woman of dark beauty. Spirited yet tender, she was the daughter of a Shinto priest at the famous Kashima Shrine.
Although the sixty-three-year-old Asaemon had a number of children, natural and adopted, from previous unions, he considered the twenty-six-year-old Iso to be his "official" wife and her children to be his legal heirs. Thus,
even though Tesshu was Asaemon's fourth boy, he was designated head son.
(Asaemon fathered five more boys over the next fourteen years until his death at age seventy-nine.)
Tesshu passed the first ten years of his life in Edo. In 1845,
his father was assigned to a new post in the Hida district and the family moved to the lovely mountain town of Takayama. There Tesshu began earnest study of the samurai curriculum: classical learning and martial arts. In addition, his father urged him to practice Zen in order to develop
"imperturbable mind" a true samurai needed.
Tesshu always aimed high, even as a child. Once a neighbor invited the Ono family over to feast on eels, a special delicacy. Tesshu declined and remained at home.
When asked why he preferred his books to a succulent meal of roasted eels, the boy replied, "Why should I waste time dining on worms? If they served up a whale then I would go!"
Although a keen student of Confucianism, Tesshu was more attracted to Buddhism; from an early age, he was a devotee of both zazen and Kannon, the Goddess of
Compassion. Morning and evening, Tesshu never failed to offer tea and cakes to his small Kannon image. When he was fifteen, Tesshu, acting as his aged father's representative, made an obligatory pilgrimage to Ise Shrine. It was a long arduous journey, carried out on foot and, that particular year, in a constant downpour. Near the end of the trip, following an especially exhausting day, Tesshu failed to appear for dinner at the inn. He was discovered, still soaking wet, face down before his little Kannon statue. When Tesshu had touched the floor to make a prostration he had fallen fast asleep.
In other ways, this pilgrimage was more eye-opening. It was Tesshu's first opportunity to meet samurai and scholars from other parts of the country and to learn about the real situation of the nation.
Tesshu's mother died of a stroke at age forty-one, leaving six sons, one a nursing infant. Since Tesshu's father, then an ailing seventy-eight-year-old, was incapable of handling family affairs, Tesshu took charge. He arranged for a wet nurse for the baby during the day and cared for his father and brothers. After everyone was in bed for the night, Tesshu would visit his mother's grave,
offering fresh cakes, chanting sutras, and "talking" with her till daybreak. (This went on for fifty days, a traditional period of mourning.) Half a year later, Asaemon died, making Tesshu and his brothers orphans.
Fortunately, Asaemon left a sizable estate of 3,500
(One ryo was a gold coin roughly equal in value to one koku.) Tesshu was able to place his brothers with various relatives and divided the inheritance among them, keeping only 100 ryo for his own use.
These affairs settled, seventeen-year-old Tesshu decided to return to Edo. After arriving in Edo in 1853,
Tesshu continued his intense study of swordsmanship. He also began familiarizing himself with some of the other eighteen classical martial arts. Tesshu enrolled in both the government-sponsored Kobukan Military Institute and the Yamaoka
School of spear fighting (
Seizan was one of the finest masters of the era. As a youth he followed the standard samurai curriculum of budo and classical learning but at nineteen abandoned all other pursuits to concentrate on the spear. In his early twenties
Seizan was enlightened to the inner principles of the art after meeting wave after wave of attackers for twenty-four straight hours. His zeal for hard training was legendary. Summer or winter he wore only the same thin cotton uniform and subsisted on the simplest food. He executed as many as 30,000
thrusts in a single day and frequently trained all night with a twenty-pound spear. Once, after a four-hour match with another master, Seizan discovered his spear tip worn down four inches from his tremendous thrusts.
Seizan was much more than a fierce warrior. He was a model of filial piety, devoted to the care of his widowed mother, gently massaging her shoulders and sitting up with her in the evening to gaze at the moon. Seizan's motto was "Do not speak of others' faults; do not boast about yourself; never expect anything for services rendered; never forget kindnesses received." He once told his disciples: "If you want to attain true victory, broaden your understanding of virtue. No enemy can defeat a man of superior virtue. Attempting to win through exclusive reliance on technique will lead you nowhere."
soon after Tesshu's enrollment in the dojo, Seizan died of heart failure while defending a friend under attack. The nobility of Seizan's character, however,
made a lasting impression on Tesshu.
Seizan's death, there were strange reports of an apparition lurking in the cemetery. Seizan's brother, Deishu, went to investigate. While he sat quietly out of sight in the darkness, a fierce storm blew up. As the rain poured down and the lightning flashed, a huge figure suddenly approached Seizan's grave,
bowed deeply, removed his coat, and placed it around Seizan's tombstone.
"Don't worry, Sensei," Deishu heard a familiar voice say in reassuring tones, "Tetsutaro is here now and everything will be all right." (Seizan, fearless in combat, was terrified of thunder.) Tesshu's devotion to his parents and teachers knew nothing of the barriers erected by death.
Seizan died a bachelor, leaving no heir. He had two brothers, but one was deaf and the other (Deishu) had previously been adopted into the maternal Takahashi clan because that family lacked a male heir. Fusako, Seizan's sixteen-year-old sister, would have to marry soon in order to have her husband assume the
Yamaoka name. She reportedly told her brother Deishu: "If I cannot marry
Ono Tetsutaro I will die." Nonplussed—what did his sister see in that penniless trainee whose nickname was "Ragged Tetsu?"—Deishu consulted with the family elders. Since Fusako would not relent and Tesshu agreed to the match, the two were married in 1855.
the deaf brother, carried on the family tradition as a spear-fighter. Years later, Tesshu arranged for Shinkichi to give a demonstration before the emperor. After thrusting his opponent, a senior instructor of another school,
to the floor, Shinkichi kept up the attack because he was unable to hear the opponent's cry of submission. Tesshu had to grab Shinkichi's wooden spear to stop the contest.)
Following his marriage, Tesshu became more involved with politics. The kendo training halls in Edo were gathering places for
("men of determination"), young displaced samurai who rallied around the slogan
"Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians."
1853, the year after Tesshu had returned to Edo, an American fleet of menacing
"black ships" commanded by Matthew Perry anchored off Uraga and demanded the right to deliver a letter from President Fillmore to the leader of
Japan. In better times, the Tokugawa Shogun might have been able to live up to his title of "Barbarian-subduing Generalissimo," but by now his rule was so weakened by internal dissension that he was powerless to refuse Perry's demand. An initial treaty with the Americans was negotiated in 1854. Four years later, a treaty granting full diplomatic relations, open trade, and other important concessions was signed.
In reaction to the forced opening of the country, Tesshu and a group of other
(masterless samurai) formed the Sonno-joi Party. "Revere the emperor" was originally a call to revive the flagging spirit of self-sacrifice and loyalty to the traditional leader of the nation; "expel the barbarians" was more a battle cry designed to stiffen the country's resolve against colonization by Western powers than a rational policy—given the circumstances there was no possibility of driving out foreigners. During the years
1853–1868, confusion reigned supreme: the Shogunate disintegrated;
allegiances shifted daily; the economy crumbled under the pressures of foreign trade; acts of terrorism and assassination were rife; finally, there was civil war.
Since the old order was unable to deal with the deteriorating situation, it was energetic young samurai such as Tesshu who took control. An accomplished swordsman who stood over six feet tall and weighed some two hundred forty pounds, Tesshu was a natural leader. He joined the Shogunate as a minor official in 1856, authored a variety of pamphlets on political affairs, and by
1863 he was a recognized ronin spokesman.
Meet the Author
John Stevens is Professor of Buddhist Studies and Aikido instructor at Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, Japan. He is the author or translator of over twenty books on Buddhism, Zen, Aikido, and Asian culture. He has practiced and taught Aikido all over the world.
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