The Life Giving Sword

  Weapons are instruments of ill omen. The Way of Heaven
  finds them repugnant. The Way of Heaven is to use them
  only when necessary.

Finally finished reading The Life Giving Sword by Yagyu Munenori last night. The version I have is translated into English by William Scott and is and absolutely wonderful read. It is considered to be one of the most important and influential texts on Japanese Martial Arts. Scott’s introduction, which is a third of the book, is essential reading and provides, in great detail, the historical context in which this book was written. He not only provides an insight into the life of Munenori but also into life in Japan almost four hundred years ago.

It was also nice to see, in Scott’s account, references to Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings – which to my mind is another seminal text on Japanese Swordsmanship. What’s amazing is that both these men were alive at the same time, and yet they never met. It’s widely acknowledged that Musashi coveted Munenori’s position as Official Swords Instructor to the Tokugawa Shogunate but was never able to gain it over his great rival.

What sets this text apart from others is that it combines the technical refinements of Shikage-Ryu with the philosophical and psychological insights of Zen Buddhism, which Munenori was greatly influenced by through his close friendship with the famous Zen priest Takuan Soho ( author of The Unfettered Mind ). In fact, having read some of Soho’s essays,  I’m convinced that this Buddhist spirituality is reflected in the whole idea of the "life giving sword" – this notion that you can control an opponent through your own spiritual readiness to fight. It is further reflected in Munenori’s mastery of restraint and diplomacy through which he became a trusted advisor to the Shoganate – and whilst this might surprise some it really is an insight into the most personal thoughts on non-attachment and non-violence of one of the greatest of all master swordsmen.

It is missing the point to think that the martial arts is
solely in cutting a man down. It is not in cutting people down;
it is in killing evil. It is in the stratagem of killing the
evil of one man and giving life to ten thousand...truly the sword
that kills one man will be the blade that gives others life.

or …

In Zen there is a saying, "Beat the grass and scare up the snake".
Just as you beat the grass to scare up the snake that lies within,
there is a technique of suprising your opponent to cause his mind
to become agitated. Deception is doing something unexpected by your
opponent, and suprising him. This is the martial arts.

Once surprised, your opponent's mind will be taken, and his skill
undone. Raising your fan or hand in front of him will also take your
opponent's mind. Tossing aside the sword you are carrying is also a
martial art. If you have obtained the skill of No-Sword, what will
a sword be to you? 

Whilst his words can seem cryptic and inpenetrable at times there is no doubting Munenori’s immense skill as a swordsman, and yet apart from one instance there is no recorded account of him ever killing another in a duel. That one incident though is legendary,and remembered to this day:

... a desperate force of about twenty to thirty men ... broke into
the Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada's camp. The Shogun's men were thrown
into confusion as the assailants, almost incredibly, pressed their
way to within a short distance of the shogun himself. There, however,
they confronted a middle-aged samurai, who was standing calmly in front
of the shogun's horse. The man stepped forward and, with shocking speed,
dexterity, and grace, killed seven of the attackers, giving the shogun's
guards a chance to regroup ... the middle aged samurai was Yagyu Tajima
no kami Munenori.

I often find it interesting to contrast the lives of Musashi and Munenori, the former’s fame was gained through numerous duels and was regarded as an outstanding swordsman having killed so many, and the latter maintained an aire of invincibility without ever having fought a duel. It seems paradoxical. For some odd reason this reminds me of something Plutarch once wrote when he compared the Lives of Numa and Lycurgus

Virtue rendered the one so respectable to deserve a throne, 
and other so great as to be above it.

I know it doesn’t quite fit but it certainly resonates. I thoroughly recommend this book, it’s deeply philosophical and deeply profound and will change your understanding of the nature of any martial art.

p.s. and no I guess it’s not a coincidence that my new sword arrived the other day 🙂

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