Yamaoka Tesshu – the Swordsman, Calligrapher and Zen Teacher

Thanks to a fellow kendo dojo member, I recently started reading the life story of Yamaoka Tesshu (山岡 鉄舟, 1836-1888), a master swordsman, calligrapher and Zen teacher as recounted in this beautifully written book and a chapter from a different book available on-line:

His life story seems exemplary, selfless and inspiring.  I highlight below some snippets illustrating his character from Steven’s book.


  • His generosity to those in need and his apparent non-attachment to wealth:
    • Since Tesshu had distributed his inheritance among his siblings, he and his wife lacked money to set up house. …  They averaged seven foodless days a month; Tesshu ate every other day for several extended periodsp. 47
    • The emperor kept giving him money for a new suit of clothes (as he served as an aide to the emperor).  Invariably, it was passed on to one more needy. p. 49
    • Half of Tesshu’s dinner was left untouched so the maids, abandoned country girls Tesshu had taken in, could have extra food.  p. 49
      • When they protested, he told them he preferred the taste of daikon leaves, a “food” most people threw in the trash. p. 49
    • Since Tesshu had no money to donate, he used his brush to raise funds.  Tesshu wrote 10,000 large sheets of calligraphy … that were mounted on 1,200 folding screens. p. 62
      • Upon completion of all 1,200 screens, … (t)wo thousand wandering musicians, vagabond craftsmen, and just plain derelicts were rounded up and invited to attend (a) feast, where they were served the finest vegetarian fare and treated to an unlimited amount of sake … (and) a “thank you” envelope containing a small gift of money. p. 62
  • How his contemporaries described him:
    • Saigo (Takamori) (an influential samurai) once said of Tesshu, “He doesn’t need fame, fortune, status, or even life itself – how do you deal with such man?” p. 55
  • His interest in fostering enlightenment in others:
    • “The purpose of Muto Ryu (the style of ‘No-Sword’) swordsmanship is not to fight to defeat others in contests.  Training in my dojo is to foster enlightenment, and for this, you must be willing to risk your life.” p. 39
  • His interest in the perseverance of students over their sword technique:
    • To Tesshu, the prime requisite of a swordsman is unyielding determination. p. 39
      • If single-minded determination is absent, one will never advance regardless of the years in training … technique has its place, but spiritual forging is far more important.” p. 39
    • Tesshu wrote: 
      • Swordsmanship should lead to the heart of things where one can directly confront life and death. … I have instituted a one-week, one-thousand-four-hundred-match training session (called the third stage of ‘seigan’ 誓願 meaning  ‘vow’). p. 25
        • Initially, the swordsman will find the contests similar to regular training; however, as the number of consecutive matches piles up, it will assume the dimensions of a fight to the finish – one must rely on spiritual strength.  This is real swordsmanship. p. 25
    • Tesshu placed little emphasis on complicated explanations or rational analysis of technique.  He rarely corrected his trainee’s hand or foot work.  … (N)ew Muto Ryu swordsmen were instructed to devote themselves exclusively to uchi-komi for at least three years. … The important element was never to retreat or hesitate; swordsmen must keep up the attack until they drop. p. 22
      • It was not that Tesshu disregarded technique; forbearance can be developed in no other way.
      • The many benefits of three years of uchi-komi training is described on p. 22.  The one that I found most remarkable was:
        • (U)nconcerned with winning and losing, totally absorbed in the moment at hand, one attained presence of mind.
  • His integrity:
    • Stevens recounts stories such as Tesshu’s straightness and candor with the Emperor Meiji and government ministers starting from p. 52.
      • Be it emperor or bureaucrat, Tesshu took no nonsense from anyone in the government. p. 53

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