Book of Five Rings > Translator's Introduction > Kendo & Zen

Kendo and Zen

The Way of the sword is the moral teaching of the samurai, fostered by the Confucianist philosophy which shaped the Tokugawa system, together with the native Shinto religion of Japan. The warrior courts of Japan from the Kamakura period to the Muromachi period encouraged the austre Zen study among the samurai, and Zen went hand in hand with the arts of war. In Zen the are no elaborations, it aims directly at the true nature of things. There are no ceremonies, no teachings: the prize of Zen is essentially personal. Enlightenment in Zen does not mean a change in behavior, but realisation of the nature of ordinary life. The end point is the beginning, and the great virtue is simplicity. The secret teaching of the Itto Ryu school of Kendo, Kiriotoshi, is the first technique of some hundred or so. The teaching is "Ai Uchi", meaning to cut the opponent just as he cuts you. This is the ultimate training... it is lack of anger. It means to treat your enemy as an honoured guest. It also means to abandon your life or throw away fear.

The first technique is the last, the beginner and the master behave in the same way. Knowledge is a full circle. The first of Musashi's chapter headings is Ground, for the basis of Kendo and Zen, and the last book is Void, for that understanding which can only be expressed as nothingness. The teachings of Kendo are like the fierce verbal forays to which the Zen student is subjected. Assailed with doubts and misery, his mind and spirit in a whirl, the student is gradually guided to realisation and understanding by his teacher. The Kendo student practises furiously, thousands of cuts morning and night, learning fierce techniques of horrible war, until eventually sword becomes "no sword", intention becomes "no intention", a spontaneous knowledge of every situation. The first elementary teaching becomes the highest knowledge, and the master still continues to practise this simple training, his everyday prayer.

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