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Zen master indulges Japanese sword myth

by Joseph S. O'leary

SWORD OF ZEN: Master Takuan and His Writings on Immovable Wisdom and the Sword Tale, by Peter Haskel. University of Hawaii, 2012, 182 pp., $23 (paperback)

“The one who kills is empty, his sword is empty, and the one who is attacked is empty, too. Thus the one who attacks is not a person. And the sword that strikes is not a sword. For the one who is attacked, it is just like cleaving in a lightning flash the breeze blowing in the spring sky.”

That’s how Master Takuan (1573-1645) talks in Peter Haskel’s fresh translation of “Marvelous Power of Immovable Wisdom,” a text well known to readers of D.T. Suzuki’s “Zen and Japanese Culture” (1959).

Takuan’s rhetoric is certainly attractive in many ways. It is borne up by the dash and elan of early Edo, and has some of the spice of his admired predecessor, the subversive Ikkyu (1394-1481). Haskel’s lucid and expert annotation shows how thoroughly Takuan was steeped in the literary and spiritual heritage of the Daitokuji Temple complex in Kyoto, and in the whole range of Rinzai Zen tradition. The emptiness of swordsman, sword and slain has a deep foundation in the Buddhist ideal of perfect giving, marked by the emptiness of giver, gift and recipient.

But infectious rhetoric and deep spiritual insight should not mislead the reader into imagining that death by the sword is a pleasant experience, or that the swordsman’s empty, unattached and flexible mind will keep him from being splashed with blood. In fact, Takuan is indulging in mythological fantasy and writing for a samurai elite who developed the art of the sword at a great distance from battlefields. “The redoubtable Japanese sword of legend,” Haskel judges, “is essentially a myth.”

Haskel demystifies Takuan’s language by showing that the sword played only a minor and rather squalid role in Japanese warfare. Its chief use was the taking of enemy heads (kubi tori), which were “prepared for display by specially trained women who cleansed the gore, arranged the hair, reblackened the teeth, and applied powder to the face.”

Takuan’s idealizations were recycled to bolster militarism in the 20th century. Haskel quotes one patriotic Zen propagandist: “If one is called upon to die, one should not be the least bit agitated. On the contrary, one should be in a realm where something called ‘oneself’ does not intrude even slightly.”

Takuan provided spiritual underpinning for Yagyu Munenori’s New Shadow school of swordsmanship and was also inclined to scold the swordsman for his unvirtuous behavior. To be free, natural and spontaneous, he insists, is the opposite of being impulsive and self-indulgent.

In the eyes of critics the cult of the sword as an art or a “way,” comparable to the tea ceremony, was a wimpish travesty. But to Takuan it was a chance to preach Zen more fetchingly. In the second text translated by Haskel, Takuan glorifies a legendary Chinese sword, which he identifies with the sword of the mind, of the true self, of the Buddha nature, or the sword of wisdom held by the bodhisattva Manjusri.

Haskel brings out several other dimensions of Takuan’s cultural role, such as his critique of Confucianism, seen as “stopping” the mind rather than freeing it, and his adroit use of Shinto: The attached mind belongs to the realm of demons (oni), the free mind to that of gods (kami).

The story of the Zen master’s relationship with the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu is a piquant one. He had been bullied and exiled under the previous shogun and his religious counselor, the Shingon priest Suden. Iemitsu’s friendship overjoyed him at first: “For two hours we sat and conversed, our knees only two shaku apart. No one else remains for so long so close to His Majesty.” But it soon became too much of a good thing.

Takuan never wanted to live in Edo, where he was struck by the “truly pitiful sight” of 600 beggars at Nihonbashi, several of whom perished every day. But Iemitsu thrust on him a role like Suden’s and built for him a spacious temple complex, Tokaiji, near Shinagawa. He spent his last seven years at Iemitsu’s beck and call, receiving him in Tokaiji 75 times. He felt like a monkey tied to a leash.

No doubt he maintained under these conditions the spiritual freedom he had so inspiringly written about. His sojourn in Edo was a blessing for the city, and the stone takuan that adorns his tomb is a fitting emblem of his place in popular memory.

Joseph S. O’Leary, an Irish theologian, is a professor of English literature at Sophia University.