Religion and Spiritual Development: Japan (Martial Arts)

Japanese martial arts developed within a multifaceted ethos that aligned human activities with the ultimate forces or principles ruling the cosmos. Warriors drew upon their understanding of these cosmic forces as they disciplined their bodies to acquire or apply physical skills, psychological vigor, and special abilities. Modern authors frequently address aspects of Japanese cosmos and ethos under the Western rubrics of religion and spiritual development. Even in Western contexts, however, the terms religion and spiritual lack consistent and generally accepted definitions. It should not be surprising, therefore, that their application to Japanese contexts is frequently problematic. Nowhere are problems more abundant than in accounts of Japanese martial arts and religion. It is widely reported, for example, that Japanese martial arts constitute paths of spiritual development based on Zen Buddhism [1], the goal of which is to attain a state of no-mind (mushin [2]), characterized by spontaneous action and reaction without regrets. Such accounts not only romanticize the relationship between martial arts and religion, but greatly exaggerate the relative importance of Zen Buddhism and present a distorted image of the nature and aims of Zen training. The following presents an alternative account, one that is more comprehensive and that situates the religious aspects of Japanese martial arts within their historical context.

The simplistic myth of “Zen and the martial arts” has been so uncritically accepted and repeated so often, however, that it cannot be ignored or dismissed out of hand. Indeed it is difficult to gain a more balanced view of this topic without first attempting to understand the origins of this Zen motif and the reasons for its enduring appeal both in the West and in Japan. For this purpose, it is necessary to briefly review the development of scholarly discourses on the nature of religions, on Japanese religiosity, and on the religious nature of European sports and Japanese martial arts. All of these discourses emerged at the same time during a period of recent history when Western powers exerted colonial control over much of Asia and viewed contemporary Asians and their cultures with contempt. Japanese faced this challenge by actively importing Western intellectual methodologies and by fashioning new images of themselves to export to the West. Within this geopolitical context academic theories of religion and descriptions of the religious aspects of Japanese martial arts have never been value-free or impartial. Their development has been shaped by contemporaneous intellectual currents and has served to advance changing ideological agendas. Once these agendas have been assessed, we can turn our attention to the relationships among martial arts, religion, and spiritual development in premodern Japan.

A story from the famous series Biyu Suikoden (Handsome Heroes of the Water Margin) of the warrior Takagi Umanosuke undergoing a trial of courage by spending the night in a haunted ancient temple, 1866.

A story from the famous series Biyu Suikoden (Handsome Heroes of the Water Margin) of the warrior Takagi Umanosuke undergoing a trial of courage by spending the night in a haunted ancient temple, 1866.

Modern Theories of Religion and Martial Arts

Jonathan Z. Smith provocatively notes that religion “is a category imposed from the outside on some aspect of native culture” (1998, 269). Nowhere is this fact as well documented as in Japan, where a traditional Japanese word for religion did not exist. The concept of religion was forced on Japan during the 1860s by diplomats who employed the theretofore rare Chinese Buddhist technical term shukyo [3] (roughly, “seminal doctrines”) in treaties written to guarantee freedom of religion (shukyo wo jiyu [4]) for newly arrived foreign Christians. Significantly, this occurred just as the term religion was beginning to lose its exclusively Christian connotations in the West. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, European universities inaugurated the academic study of religions (in German, Religionswis-senschaft) to create a new framework independent from Christian theology for the analysis of common elements of evolution in myths, in propitiation of gods and ghosts, in social rituals, in taboos and norms of behavior, in sect organizations, and in psychological aspects of those elements. The founding generation of scholars approached this new field of research from a wide range of academic perspectives, but on the whole they shared several common beliefs: in scientific progress, in the universality of religion, in the common origin of religion, and in the evolution of religion through various stages beginning with the primitive and concluding, depending on the orientation of the scholar, either with Christianity or with secular science.

Belief in the universality of religion forced secular scholars to attempt to draw a distinction between the specific historical features of any particular religion and the general essence shared by all religions, which they then attempted to define. By the beginning of the twentieth century, scholars had postulated more than fifty competing definitions of religion, each one more or less useful in accordance with a given focus of study, theory of origin, or evolutionary scheme. As secular academic approaches asserted ever greater authority over explanations of the objective aspects of religion (e.g., historical accounts of scriptures, anthropological explanations of rituals, sociological theories of sectarianism), theologians and religious thinkers increasingly began to define the essential essence of religion in psychological terms as belief or experience—subjective realms lying beyond the reach of secular empirical critique. This conceptual separation of inner psychological essence from the external forms of religious life (e.g., ritual, dogma, institutions, history) laid the foundation for the popularization in the West of romanticized notions of Zen.

Japan also redefined itself during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1868 a new regime, known as the Meiji [5], overthrew the 300-year old Tokugawa [6] military government (called the bakufu [7]), opened Japan to the West, and began the rapid modernization and transformation of all aspects of society, especially religion and martial arts. Meiji leaders initiated a cultural revolution in which they attempted to destroy Japan’s religious traditions and to create a new state cult, eventually known as Shinto [8], to take its place. They commanded obedience by identifying their government with a divine emperor who claimed descent from the ancient gods who supposedly had created Japan. To more closely link the gods to Japan, Meiji leaders ordered their dissociation from Buddhism. In other words, all worship halls for gods were stripped of their Buddhist names, art, and symbols and given new native identities. This policy caused the destruction of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Buddhist temples and the loss of immeasurable quantities of Buddhist artifacts. In 1872, Buddhist monks were forced to register on the census as ordinary subjects with secular names and encouraged to eat meat and raise families. No one knows how many Buddhist monks and nuns were laicized immediately following 1868, but their numbers fell from a nationwide total of 82,000 in 1872 (the year of Japan’s first modern census) to 21,000 in 1876.

Next, the Meiji government began to strip the newly independent Shinto institutions of their ties to popular (i.e., nongovernmental) religious practices. Beginning in 1873 a wide variety of folk religious traditions were officially banned. Shinto shrines came to be defined as civic centers at which all citizens were required to participate in state-sanctioned rituals. When Western nations demanded freedom of religion, Meiji leaders exploited that concept’s lack of definition. They maintained the fiction that State Shinto was not a religion (i.e., not individual faith) but merely a social expression of patriotism, and in 1882 they forbade Shinto celebrants at government-supported shrines to discuss doctrine or officiate at private religious functions such as funerals. To more easily control Shinto activities, in 1906 the government initiated a nationwide program of shrine “mergers,” a euphemism for the destruction of shrines that were too small for direct government supervision. In Mie Prefecture, for example, the total number of smaller shrines was reduced from 8,763 to 519. Nationwide more than 52 percent of Shinto shrines were destroyed, thereby depriving rural villagers of local worship halls.

The vast dismantling of Buddhist temples, laicization of Buddhist monks and nuns, and destruction of Shinto shrines had immediate and far-reaching consequences. First, they rapidly accelerated the forces of secularization that accompanied Japan’s industrialization. Common people were led by the government to reject previous religious practices as corrupt, feudal, and superstitious. Second, because it left ordinary people alienated from firsthand knowledge of their own religious traditions, it encouraged their acceptance of new abstract interpretations of Japanese religiosity. Meiji leaders filled this spiritual vacuum with the vaguely mystical State Shinto ideology of emperor worship and ultranationalism. Buddhist intellectuals, many of whom were educated in European thought, sought to create a New Buddhism (shin bukkyo [9]) free from previous institutional ties, which would be scientific, cosmopolitan, socially useful, and loyal to the throne. They actively appropriated contemporary European intellectual trends and presented them to Western and to Japanese audiences alike as the pure essence of Japanese spirituality. Significantly, many intellectuals found this pure spirituality expressed best not in the traditional religious rituals that seemed too superstitious for modern sensibilities, but rather in the worldly skills of poetry, painting, tea ceremony, and martial arts.

In the early 1900s, martial arts became identified not just with new interpretations of Japanese spirituality, but specifically with the mystical aspects of militarism and emperor worship. The government promoted the transformation of martial arts into a particular type of “spiritual education” (seishin kyoiku; see below) and incorporated them into the national school curriculum to inculcate in schoolchildren (i.e., future soldiers) a religious willingness to sacrifice themselves for the state and to die for the emperor. Before martial arts could be transformed into so-called spiritual education, however, Japanese had to develop new forms of martial art education based on recently developed European notions of sport.

Modern sports emerged during the nineteenth century, when Europeans united physical training with nationalism and games with imperialism. The Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) and their large conscript armies had vividly demonstrated the importance of a physically fit citizenry for modern warfare and for the exercise of national power. In response to this need there developed two competing and, in the minds of many, mutually incompatible methods of providing general citizens with physical vitality: continental gymnastics and English sports. The ardent German nationalist Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) advocated gymnastics (turnen) to unify the Germanic races (volk) and to develop soldiers stronger than those of France. Adolf Spiess (1810-1858) and other German educators developed Jahn’s turnen into a system of group exercises closely resembling military drill, which demanded physical discipline, strict obedience, and precision teamwork. Competitive games (i.e., sports) were denounced for harming moral development (defined as sacrifice for the nation) and for encouraging pride and egoism. This German model was emulated elsewhere on the continent, most notably in Denmark, Sweden, and Czechoslovakia. Militaristic gymnastic societies and their nationalistic ideology were vindicated by Prussian victory over France in the war of 1870-1871, and they became an integral part of the German empire produced by that victory.

In contrast to the intense nationalism and militarism featured in continental gymnastics, British leaders emphasized acquisition of an individualistic games ethic that they called sportsmanship. While Germans rejected competition as morally corrupting, the British believed that effort to surpass previous performances possesses morally uplifting qualities when tempered by adherence to ideals of fair play and mutual respect. Games, especially cricket, were elevated to the status of moral discipline, and successful competition according to the rules of the game was identified with certain Victorian conceptions of manliness: seriousness, rectitude, courage, honesty, leadership, individual initiative, and self-reliance, tempered by altruism and a sense of duty. Although the Duke of Wellington (Arthur Welles-ley, 1769-1852) probably never said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, most Britons nonetheless believed that their empire had been won through the superior spiritual qualities and moral character inculcated by public school sports. Colonial administrators promoted English games to instill British values and loyalty to the crown. So great was the British transformation of games that historians generally credit England with the invention of the modern concept of sport and its diffusion throughout the world.

In 1892, a French educator named Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) advocated the creation of a modern Olympiad as a means of combining the team discipline and nationalistic sentiments of continental gymnastics with the individual ethical qualities of English sports. Coubertin believed that the moral discipline of English sports gave England a hidden source of military power. He was especially influenced by the doctrines of “Muscular Christianity” (i.e., teaching Christian ethics through physical contests) as epitomized in the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) by Hughes (1822-1896). Based on these ideals, Coubertin argued that sports and the ethical values of sports constituted a modern, secular religion that should supplant the old-fashioned theistic creeds of Europe. He carefully selected religious symbolism to imbue Olympic ceremonies with a sense of spirituality: flags, processions, eternal flames, oaths, hymns, and so forth. Coubertin wrote: “For me sport is a religion with church, dogma, ritual” (Guttmann 1992, 3). Coubertin’s explicit emphasis on the spiritual and religious qualities of competition helped him overcome the skepticism of continental leaders who saw games as incompatible with the altruistic ideals of their own gymnastic drills. In the face of this skepticism, Coubertin’s first Olympiad in 1896 was a small affair with teams from only eleven European countries plus a few contestants from the United States and Chile.

Notwithstanding its shaky start, the Olympic movement quickly spread throughout the world. It reached Japan in 1909 when Kano Jigoro [10] was selected to become the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee. Kano Jigoro (1860-1938) was the ideal conduit for introducing to Japan the Olympic creed of athletics mixed with ethics and spiritualism. Kano had initiated the academic study of physical education in Japan when in 1899 he established a department of physical education at Tokyo Teacher’s College (koto shihan gakko [11]), an institution he headed for twenty-seven years, from 1893 to 1920. He also founded the Japanese Amateur Athletic Association and served as its president from 1911 to 1920. Kano’s most famous achievement, though, is his Kodokan [12] school of jujutsu [13] (unarmed combat), from which modern judo developed. From his student days Kano had studied the German-style gymnastics drills introduced to Japan in 1878 by the American George A. Le-land (1850-1924) as well as the new educational theories advocated by the Swiss reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), and he used ideas from both to adapt jujutsu training to the needs of youth education. He presented jujutsu in the rational terms of Western thought while emphasizing its ties to Japanese tradition and culture. Kodokan grew in popularity in large part because it incorporated the new European sports ethic: innovation and rigorous empiricism, systematic training methods, repetitive drills to develop fundamental skills, high standards of safety and hygiene, public lectures and published text topics, competitive contests with clear rules and fair judging, tournaments with spectators, all presented as means of ethical and spiritual development.

As early as 1889, Kano had addressed the Japanese Education Association on the educational value of teaching jujutsu as part of the public school curriculum. He argued that his methods presented pupils with a balanced approach to physical education, competitive matches, and mental cultivation. This initial attempt to introduce martial arts to the public schools failed. After examining many different styles of jujutsu and swordsmanship (gekken or gekiken [14]) in 1890, the Ministry of Education ruled that martial arts were physically, spiritually, and pedagogically inappropriate for schools. This sweeping denunciation is important because it documents how methods of martial art instruction at that time differed dramatically from Kano’s ideals and from modern educational standards. Instead of martial arts, the Ministry of Education devised a physical education curriculum based on military calisthenics (heishiki taiso [15]). The Ministry stated that these gymnastic exercises would promote physical health, obedience, and spiritual fortitude. As many Japanese scholars have noted, the idea that this kind of physical training could promote spiritual values reflected Christian pedagogical theory (see Endo 1994, 51). The next generation of martial art instructors were schooled in this approach.

Eventually, they would adopt text topics and training methods developed by educators at Tokyo Teacher’s College in the department of physical education that had been founded by Kano Jigoro.

When the Ministry of Education finally adopted jujutsu and gekken as part of the standard school curriculum in 1911, Japan’s political situation had changed dramatically. Military victories against China in 1894-1895 and against Russia in 1905 not only demonstrated Japan’s ability to challenge European nations but also gave Japan control over neighboring territories. Nonetheless, Japan’s industrial capacity could not supply armaments in the quantities required by its military ambitions. Faced with this insurmountable economic inferiority, Japanese army leaders decided to rely on fighting spirit (kogeki seishin [16]) to defeat the material superiority of Western forces. Beginning in 1905 the development of a program of spiritual education (seishin kyoiku [17]) became a top priority. In 1907 the army identified martial arts as one of its basic methods for training the spirit. Thereafter, it became increasingly common for Japanese intellectuals to contrast Japanese spirituality with Western materialism and to link martial arts to spiritual development. In this context, however, the term spirit (seishin) denoted “willpower” as in the well-known phrase “indomitable spirit” (seishin itto [18]) coined by the Chinese Confucian scholar Zhu Xi [19] (a.k.a. Chu Hsi, Japanese Shushi, 1130-1200). Malcolm Kennedy, a British soldier assigned to a Japanese army unit from 1917 to 1920, correctly captured the true sense of spiritual education when he explained it as “training of the martial spirit.” He notes that it was designed to foster aggression on battlefields abroad and to dispel “dangerous thoughts” (e.g., bolshevism or antidynastic sentiments) at home (54-55, 311, 337).

Public school education played an indispensable role in preparing students for military training. In 1907, therefore, the same year that the army linked martial arts to spiritual education, Japan’s legislative Diet passed a law requiring the Ministry of Education to develop jujutsu and gekken cur-riculums. This law explicitly identified martial art instruction with bushido [20] (warrior ways), and the law’s sponsors argued that bushido was more important than ever because everyone in the country must become a soldier (zenkoku kaihei [21]).

Significantly, Japanese Christians originally had popularized the concept of bushido. They had justified their own conversion to Christianity by describing it as the modern way to uphold traditional Tokugawa-period Confucian values, which they referred to as bushido. The first topic ever published with the word bushido in its title, for example, was Kirisutokyo to bushido [22] (Christianity and Bushido, 1894) by Uemura Masahisa [23] (1858-1925), a professor of theology at Meiji Gakuin Academy. In this work, Uemura argued that modern Japanese should rely on Christianity just as warriors (bushi [24]) of earlier times had relied on Confucianism. He lamented what he saw as the decline of public morality and cited the Bible and European history to show how Christianity not only endorses heroic deeds but also ennobles them. Uemura’s theme of Christian and Confucian compatibility reappeared in Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1900) by Nitobe Inazo [25] (1862-1933), a Quaker. Writing in English for a Western audience, however, Nitobe’s goals differed from those of Uemura. Nitobe sought to introduce the newly victorious Japan to the court of world opinion as a civilized nation with a sound system of moral education compatible with but not dependent on Christianity. He asserted that just as “fair play” is the basis on which England’s greatness is built, “bushido does not stand on a lesser pedestal” (Hanai 1994, 8-9). Although Nitobe concluded his topic by asserting that bushido is dying and needs to be revived by Christianity, it was his inspirational and idealized account of traditional virtues that most impressed readers. His work was an instant bestseller in New York and London. Soon it was translated into German, French, Polish, Norwegian, Hungarian, Russian, Rumanian, Chinese, and finally (in 1909) into Japanese.

Ironically, whereas Uemura and Nitobe had conceived of bushido as a bridge linking Japan to Christianity and to the games ethic of fair play, once the term bushido entered the popular vocabulary it tended to be defined in ethnocentric terms as a unique and unchanging ethos that opposed Christian teachings and distinguished Japanese martial arts from European sports. Nowhere was this ethnocentric vision of bushido emphasized more strongly than at the Dainippon Butokukai [26] (Greater Japan Martial Virtue Association), a quasi-governmental institution founded in 1895 to unify various martial arts under the control of a single national organization. The Butokukai appeared just when Europeans and Americans also were establishing nationalistic athletic associations, and it shared many characteristics with those counterparts. From its very inception the Bu-tokukai’s publications touted martial arts as the best method of inculcating traditional national values (i.e., bushido) in a modern citizenry. In 1906 the Butokukai defined bushido as the Japanese spirit (wakon or yamato-damashii [27]) expressed as service to the emperor, strict obedience to authority, and a willingness to regard the sacrifice of one’s own life as lightly as a feather. It asserted that modern citizens (kokumin [28]) must follow a “citizen way” (kokumindo [29]) based on the bushido of old (Hayashi).

As seen in the above example, the suffix do of “bushido” soon acquired specific connotations of duty to the emperor (i.e., imperial way, kodo [30]), an ideal that grew stronger as Japanese society became ever more militaristic. Because martial arts constituted the prime method for instilling this ideology, they too became ever more frequently called “some thing-do.” In 1914 the superintendent-general of police, Nishikubo Hi-romichi [31], published a series of articles in which he argued that Japanese martial arts must be called budo [32] (martial ways) instead of the more common term bujutsu [33] (martial techniques) to clearly show that they teach service to the emperor, not technical skills. In 1919 Nishikubo became head of the martial art academy (senmon gakko [34]) affiliated with the Dainippon Butokukai and changed its name from “Bujutsu Academy” to “Budo Academy.” Thereafter, Butokukai publications replaced the terms bujutsu (martial arts), gekken or kenjutsu [35] (swordsmanship), jujutsu (unarmed combat), and kyujutsu [36] (archery) with budo, kendo [37], judo [38], and kyudo [39] respectively. Although the Butokukai immediately recommended that the Ministry of Education do likewise, it took seven years until 1926 before the names kendo and judo replaced gekken and jujutsu in school curriculums. This deliberate change in names signaled that ideological indoctrination had become the central focus of these classes. Similar “do” nomenclature eventually was applied to all athletic activities regardless of national origin, so that Western-style horsemanship became kido [40] or bado [41], bayonet techniques became jukendo [42], and gunnery became shagekido [43]. By the late 1930s, recreational sports had become supootsu-do [44], the highest expression of which was one’s ability to sacrifice oneself (sutemi [45]) and “die crazy” (shikyo [46]) for the emperor.

Official attitudes toward sports (i.e., the games ethic) were strongly influenced by German physical education theory, which valued gymnastic drills for their ability to mold group identity and rejected competition as a morally corrupt form of individualism. The goal of this molding process lay in creating new men. Therefore, the ideological content and psychological import of the training were more important than mastering physical skills (see Irie 1986, 122-128; Abe, Kiyohara, and Nakajima 1990). To reinforce this point the Dainippon Butokukai referred to competitive matches as “martial art performances” (enbu [47]) and adopted rules that recognized contestants more for displaying proper warriorlike aggression and self-abandon than for winning techniques. Among students, however, the popularity of martial arts derived primarily from the thrill of winning. These contradictory orientations were highlighted in 1922 when the College Kendo League organized a national championship tournament. The Butokukai argued against recognizing a champion on the grounds that kendo must not be regarded as a technical skill (jutsu [48], i.e., a means of competition). In response the students composed a petition in which they argued that spiritual training in kendo is similar to the sportsmanship ideal taught in competitive games. Eventually the Butokukai relented and a few years later even staged its own national championship.

To counter the influence of the British games ethic, officials continually devised new ways to more closely identify martial arts with symbols of imperial ideology, especially the religious symbols of State Shinto. In the 1920s, police began inspecting martial art training halls to ensure that they were equipped with Shinto altars (kamidana [49]) enshrining officially designated Shinto deities. In 1931 the roof over the ring for professional sumo wrestling matches was redesigned to resemble Shinto architecture. In 1936 the Ministry of Education issued an order requiring Shinto altars in all public school martial art training halls. New rules of martial art etiquette appeared that required students to begin and to end each workout by paying obeisance to the altars. By the 1930s, martial art training halls had commonly become known as dojo [50], a word that previously had denoted religious chapels. Finally, many Tokugawa-period martial art treatises (including formerly secret texts such as Gorin no sho [51], 1643; Ittosai sensei kenpo sho [52], 1664; and Kenpo Seikun sensei soden [53], 1686) were published in popular editions (e.g., Hayakawa et al. 1915). Esoteric vocabulary that originally referred to specific physical techniques was borrowed from these texts and given new generic psychological interpretations to explain the correct mental attitude during practice. These religious symbols and psychological vocabulary helped to disguise the newness of the new elements and gave the entire ideological enterprise an aura of antiquity in a manner similar to what Eric Hobsbawm has termed “the reinvention of tradition” (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).

During this same period when martial arts were acquiring religious connotations, Japanese Zen Buddhism was introduced to the West as a secularized “pure experience” that, while not itself dependent on religious rituals or dogmas, nonetheless underlies all religious feeling and all aspects of Japanese culture. Most of all, Zen was identified with bushido and with Japanese intrepidity in the face of death. D. T. Suzuki [54] (1870-1966), the person most responsible for promoting this psychological interpretation of Zen, was not a Zen priest but a university-trained intellectual who spent eleven years from 1897 to 1908 in the United States studying the “Science of Religion” advocated by a German emigre named Paul Carus (1852-1919). Writing in English for a Western audience, Suzuki developed a new interpretation of Zen that combined the notion of pure experience first discussed by William James (1842-1910) with the irrational intuition and feeling that the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) had identified as the essence of religion. Suzuki’s numerous writings illustrate these Western ideas by recounting episodes in the hagiographies of Chinese and Japanese Zen monks and, in so doing, present Zen simultaneously as being a universal human experience and, paradoxically, as Japan’s unique cultural heritage (see Sharf 1995; James 1912; Schleiermacher 1988, 102).

Although Suzuki frequently quoted from Zen hagiographies, he argued that Zen is not the exclusive property of the Zen school, Zen temples, or Zen monks. Rather, Zen is to be found in the Japanese spirit as expressed in secular arts and in bushido. Suzuki’s very first essay on Zen in 1906 asserted: “The Lebensanschauung [outlook on life] of Bushido is no more nor less than that of Zen” (quoted in Sharf 1995, 121). In 1938 Suzuki wrote an entire topic on Zen, bushido, and Japanese culture based on lectures given in the United States and England during 1936. During the intervening year, 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded China and committed the atrocities known as the Rape of Nanking. Reflecting the zeitgeist of those years, Suzuki portrayed Zen in antinomian terms, as “a religion of will power” that advocates action unencumbered by ethics (Suzuki 1938, 37, 64; see also Suzuki 1959, 63, 84; Victoria 1997, 106-112). This topic, revised as Zen and Japanese Culture in 1959 and in print ever since, has become the classic argument for the identity of Zen and martial arts. Although Suzuki had no firsthand knowledge of martial arts, he freely interpreted passages from Tokugawa-period martial art treatises as expressions of Zen mysticism. His translations are full of fanciful embellishments. For example, he explains shuriken [55, a.k.a. 56], a term that simply means “to perceive the enemy’s technique” (tenouchi wo miru [57]), as “the secret sword” that appears when “the Unconscious dormant at the root of all existence is awakened” (Suzuki 1959, 163). This kind of mistranslation, in which a physical skill becomes a psychological experience, rendered the notion of Zen and the martial arts at once exotic and tantalizingly familiar to Western audiences.

Suzuki’s interpretations were repeated by Eugen Herrigel (18841955), a German professor who taught philosophy in Japan from 1923 to 1929. While in Japan he studied archery under the guidance of an eccentric mystic named Awa Kenzo [58] (1880-1939). Herrigel continued to practice archery after returning to Germany, and in 1936 he wrote an essay to explain its principles in which he acknowledges that he took up archery because of his interest in Zen and mysticism. Significantly, though, this first account did not equate archery with Zen. Herrigel’s views changed once he read Suzuki’s 1938 account of Zen and bushido. In 1948 Herrigel wrote a new topic (translated into English as Zen in the Art of Archery, 1953) in which, in addition to extensive quotations from Suzuki, Herrigel described Awa’s teachings as a Zen practice that has remained the same for centuries. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1920 Awa had founded a new religion called Daishakyodo [59] (literally, “way of the great doctrine of shooting”). In his topic Herrigel refers to Awa’s religion as the “Great Doctrine” and identifies it with Zen. Awa did not. Awa had no training in Zen and did not approve of Zen practice. Neither Awa nor

Herrigel spoke each other’s language. Writing from memory almost twenty years after he left Japan, Herrigel placed subtle metaphysical arguments first voiced by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) in Awa’s mouth. Moreover, subsequent testimony from Herrigel’s interpreter shows that the mystical episodes related in the topic either occurred when there was no interpreter present or were misunderstandings based on faulty translations. Regardless of these problems, Herrigel’s account has been uncritically accepted not only in Europe and the United States but also in Japan (where it was translated in 1956) as an accurate description of traditional Zen teaching methods.

During the 1950s, Japanese teachers of martial art readily embraced the “Zen” label because it served to rehabilitate their public image, which had been thoroughly discredited by Japan’s defeat and its occupation by the Allied Powers. In November 1945 all forms of martial arts were banned. Even the word budo (martial ways), with its imperialistic connotations, became taboo for almost ten years. In 1947 school curriculums in “physical training” (tairen [60]) were officially renamed “physical education” (taiiku [61]) to signal that henceforth they would emphasize democratic ideals, individualism, and sports instead of militaristic discipline. Once the Korean War began in 1950, however, occupation policy reversed course. Leftists were purged from official positions, and Japan became a silent partner in the Cold War. This policy shift permitted the revival of martial arts, provided that they assumed the characteristics of Western sports. In 1953, for example, when the Ministry of Education allowed high schools to teach kendo (officially renamed “bamboo-stick competition,” shinai kyogi [62]) the Ministry stipulated that “it must not be taught as budo, but as a physical education sport (kyoiku supootsu [63]) in exactly the same way as any other physical education sport” (quoted in Nakabayashi 1994, 128). In this environment, some martial art instructors defended their authoritarian teaching methods by identifying them as Zen instead of as a legacy of fascism. This Zen aura enhanced their charismatic power and permitted them to evaluate students on the basis of arbitrary criteria not tied directly to physical performance.

After the 1950s it became commonplace to define the -do suffix of martial art names (e.g., budo, kendo, judo) as denoting Zen-like “ways” of spiritual development. This trend found its most rigid expression in the publications of an American martial artist named Donn F. Draeger (1922-1982), whose numerous topics and essays comprise the first comprehensive survey in English of the entire range of Japanese martial arts. In these works, Draeger classified this subject into four distinct categories of classical (ko [64]) or modern (shin [65]) forms of arts (-jutsu [66]) or ways (-do [67]). Reflecting the postwar sensibilities of his teachers in Japan,

Draeger declared that these activities cannot be correctly understood in terms of the ultranationalistic militaristic training of the 1930s and 1940s. He asserted that martial arts whose name end with the suffix -jutsu (e.g., jujutsu, kenjutsu) are combative systems for self-protection, while those whose names end with the suffix -do (e.g., judo, kendo) are spiritual systems for self-perfection (Draeger 1973-1974, vol. 2: 19). The former primarily emphasize combat, followed by discipline and, lastly, morals, while the latter are chiefly concerned with morals, followed by discipline and aesthetic form (Draeger 1973-1974, vol. 1: 36). In spite of their rigid reduc-tionism, these definitions have been widely adopted by martial art enthusiasts outside of Japan and even by some within Japan. Indeed, in 1987 the Japanese Budo Association (Nihon Budo Kyogikai [68]) promulgated a Budo Charter (kensho [69]) that defines martial arts in a teleological manner reminiscent of Draeger as a unique cultural tradition that has “progressed from techniques to ways” (jutsu kara do ni hatten shita [70]).

Regardless of how widely disseminated this kind of lexicographical distinction between -jutsu and -do has become, it must be emphasized that there simply is no historical evidence for it. Martial art names ending in the -do suffix have a long linguistic history. For example, the first documented appearance of the words budo, kendo, and judo occurred about 1200, 1630, and 1760 respectively (see Nakamura 1994, 13; Tominaga 1972, 19; Oimatsu 1982, 209). Until the 1910s, these terms were used interchangeably with a wide variety of other names, some ending in the -jutsu suffix and some not, with no generally agreed-upon difference in denotation or religious connotations. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that martial art names became standardized in public discourse as “something-do,” and they did so precisely because of their association with the militaristic ideology that Draeger excludes from consideration. Draeger’s definitions ignore the fact that one of the goals of this ideological discourse was to disguise its coercive agenda by presenting budo primarily as a spiritual endeavor, distinct from either pure combat techniques or recreational sports. In this respect, these definitions not only depart from linguistic evidence but also obfuscate crucial developments in Japanese martial art history. If or how any martial arts constituted “spiritual systems for self-perfection” prior to the advent of government-sponsored programs of nationalistic spiritual education is the issue that must now be considered.

Religion and Martial Arts before 1868

Prior to 1868 the kind of nationwide uniformity achieved by the Ministry of Education and Dainippon Butokukai was impossible. No governmental, religious, or other authorities ever possessed sufficient power to impose standardized definitions, concepts, or practices on the entire population of Japan. Variation by region and social class was the rule. One cannot even say with certainty when martial arts began. Some recent scholars suggest that codified systems of martial art were not developed until the seventeenth century, when Tokugawa peace and social regulation prompted the appearance of a class of professional instructors. It is more widely assumed that systematic martial training developed throughout the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries, as warrior families (buke [71]) fought one another for governmental authority, and attained maturity during the following two centuries of Tokugawa peace. Over these centuries, however, warrior families changed so much that they cannot be identified by any consistent criteria. Moreover, warrior families (however defined) never monopolized military arts. The centuries of unrest preceding Tokugawa rule saw organized fighting units among other social strata, such as shrine militia (jinin [72]), monastic legions (a.k.a. warrior monks, sohei [73]), criminal gangs (akuto [74]), naval raiders (a.k.a. pirates, wako [75]), and peasant rebels (ikki [76]). Even after clergy and peasants were disarmed, Tokugawa-period regulations could not confine martial arts just to officially designated samurai [77] (i.e., senior members of each domain’s military government). Martial arts proliferated among warriors who lacked samurai status (e.g., ashigara [78], kachi [79]), townsmen (chonin [80]), rural warriors (goshi [81]), and in many cases among peasants. Naturally, between different populations the goals, techniques, and training methods of martial cur-riculums would not have been the same.

The religious scene was no less varied. A few developments selected almost at random can illustrate this point. Exclusive (Ikko [82]) Pure Land Buddhism grew from an outlawed heretical sect in the thirteenth century into Japan’s largest denomination, possessing armed forces capable of ruling several provinces in the sixteenth century. In 1571 Mt. Hiei [83], the nation’s most powerful Buddhist center, lost its domination over religious discourse when Oda Nobunaga [84] (1534-1582) set it ablaze and killed tens of thousands of Mt. Hiei’s priests, soldiers, craftsmen, women, and children. Next, Oda defeated the Ikko forces. In the 1590s, Christianity boasted of 300,000 converts, including major warlords (e.g., Otomo [85], Omura [86], Arima [87]) whose armies fought under the sign of the cross, but rigorous persecution eliminated it within a century. In the early 1600s, the first Toku-gawa ruler (shogun [88]), Ieyasu [89] (1542-1616), was deified as the Great Avatar Shining over the East (Tosho Dai Gongen [90]), a title signifying that he had become the divine Buddhist protector of Japan. Subsequent regulation of religious activities prompted the most rapid proliferation of Buddhist temples in Japan’s history. Ironically, this Buddhist expansion prompted growing anti-Buddhist sentiments among Confucian and Nativist (koku-gaku [91]) scholars. New publications of Buddhist scriptures, for example, fostered the development of textual criticism, which enabled the Confucian Tominaga Nakamoto [92] (1715-1746) to deny their veracity.

Given such wide diversity of combatants and religious developments over such a long span of time, it is impossible to explain interactions between religion and martial arts in terms of any single simplistic formula. Neither the familiar trope of “Zen and/in the martial arts” nor the teleo-logical determinism of “progressing from techniques to ways” can possibly do justice to the variety of practices employed before 1868 to associate martial training with cosmic forces and principles. The complexity of the data is compounded by the fact that few scholars have researched either Japanese religious practices or the vast literature describing premodern martial arts. At this preliminary stage, tentative order can be imposed on this vast topic by surveying it in terms of the three dominant religious patterns of premodern Japan: familial religion of tutelary ancestors, alliances, and control over land; exoteric-esoteric Buddhist systems of resemblances and ritual mastery; and Chinese notions of cosmological and social order. These three systems of meaning usually reinforced one another, but in some circumstances they could just as easily stand in conflict. Even their conflicts, however, never approached the degree of mutually exclusive intolerance historically associated with monotheistic religions. Instead of monotheism, Japanese in those days recognized a hierarchical cosmology populated by deities of local, regional, national, international, and universal significance, each type of which concerned only those spiritual matters appropriate to their station.

Warriors relied on ancestral spirits and local tutelary deities to reinforce their familial bonds, to intensify their military alliances, and to cement their control over lands and over the peasants who worked those lands. Individual warrior families publicly proclaimed their control over estate lands by establishing a religious shrine for the worship of their clan ancestor (ujigami [93]) or local tutelary deity who would assume the same functions. Each male member of the household established permanent links to the family’s tutelary spirits through special coming-of-age ceremonies at their shrine. Obligations to contribute resources for and to participate in the annual cycle of shrine rites forced otherwise estranged branches of the family to cooperate with one another. Lower-ranked warriors who became vassals also were obligated to participate in these ceremonies as a public confirmation of their alliance. The relative positions and assigned roles among participants in these ceremonies clearly revealed each family’s status, and thereby constituted a mutual recognition of each one’s respective hierarchical rank. Before battles the entire warrior band invoked the protection of their leader’s tutelary spirits. During peacetime, warriors invoked their tutelary spirits to threaten local peasants with divine punishment if they failed to deliver the labor and taxes demanded of them. In this way, local gods symbolized the authority that rulers exercised over people and land.

After the late thirteenth century, it became common for rural warriors to augment their clan shrines by establishing clan-centered Buddhist temples (ujidera [94]), especially ones associated with Pure Land or Zen. Pure Land teachings were especially popular among warriors because they promised that even killers could escape the torments of hell and attain deliverance to the Buddha’s Pure Land. The main appeal of Zen priests lay in their ability to perform Chinese-style funeral rites and elaborate memorial services that enhanced the earthly prestige of deceased warrior rulers and their descendants. These different forms of Buddhism did not necessarily preclude one another. A single family could, for example, sponsor many types of religious institutions simultaneously: an esoteric temple to pray for military success, a Pure Land temple for the salvation of soldiers killed in battle, a Confucian hall to teach duty and loyalty to their living vassals, and a Zen temple for the aggrandizement of their clan ancestors. Regardless of their denominational affiliation, however, Buddhist temples functioned like clan shrines as religious reinforcements for social and political status. In many cases, for example, the abbot of the main temple would be a blood relation of the leader of the local warrior band that sponsored the temple. The abbot’s disciples consisted primarily of kinsmen of the vassals who comprised the warrior band, and these disciples would serve as head priests at affiliated branch temples sponsored by those vassal families. In this way familial, military, and ecclesiastical hierarchies merged or mirrored one another. Peasants found themselves subjected to social domination justified by unified religious and military authority. The deification of Tokugawa Ieyasu served this same purpose for Japan as a whole.

Martial arts were taught by one generation to the next within real or fictional familial lineages (ryuha [95]). These martial art lineages, like warrior families in general, also worshiped ancestral spirits and tutelary deities. Anyone who wished to learn martial curricula was required to sign a pledge (kishomon [96]) requesting membership in one of these lineages. Such pledges usually concluded by stating that any violations of the lineage’s rules would invite divine punishment by their tutelary deities. Members of the lineage observed ancestor rites and participated in religious ceremonies at clan temples and shrines just as if they were related by blood. Group devotion was symbolized by the donation of votive plaques (hono kaku [97]) to local shrines or temples. These plaques typically proclaimed the historical ties of that particular martial lineage to a religious institution, listed the names of all the lineage members, and requested divine assistance. Donation of a plaque was accompanied by monetary gifts and performance of religious ceremonies, including ritual performance of martial arts. Participation in public ceremonies not only reinforced hierarchical distinctions within the lineage, but also constituted public notice of a martial lineage’s assertion of authority within that locality. Anyone who attempted to introduce a rival martial art lineage in that same area would risk retaliation by the established lineage as well as religious sanctions. Acceptance of a martial art plaque by a temple or shrine, therefore, sanctified that lineage’s local hegemony.

Tutelary deities and their institutions functioned as local agents for the Japanese form of East Asian Buddhism usually known—using the designation popularized by Kuroda Toshio [98] (1926-1993)—as exoteric-esoteric (kenmitsu [99]) systems. In premodern Japan almost all Buddhist lineages (e.g., Hosso [100], Nichiren [101], Sanron [102], Shingon [103], Shugendo [104], Tendai [105], Zen [106]), as well as priestly lineages now considered non-Buddhist (e.g., Shinto), taught to greater or lesser degrees variations of these exoteric-esoteric systems. This form of Buddhism integrated exoteric doctrines, especially impermanence (mujo [107]) and no-self (muga [108]) as taught in the Agama scriptures and emptiness (ku [109]) and consciousness-only (yuishiki [110]) as taught in the Mahayana scriptures, with esoteric tantric rituals as taught in Vajrayana scriptures to produce all-encompassing systems of metaphysical resemblances. These resemblances were illustrated by means of cosmogonic diagrams (mandalas) that depict how the single undifferentiated realm of the Buddha’s bliss, knowledge, and power unfolds to appear as infinitely diverse yet illusory realms within which ignorant beings suffer. All the objects, sounds, and movements depicted in these mandala diagrams can be manipulated ritually to transform one level of reality into the other. In particular, mandalas were projected outward to become the physical landscape of Japan, especially the mountains and precincts of temple-shrine (jisha [111]) organizations, and were absorbed inward to become the individual bodies of practitioners. In this way local gods became temporal manifestations (gongen [112]) of universal Buddhas, and all the places and practices of daily life became ciphers of cosmic meaning.

Knowledge of the secret significance of these ciphers allowed priests to define, literally, the terms of public discourse and thereby to control all aspects of cultural production, from religious rituals to government ceremonies, from poetry to military strategies. Enterprises gained respectability through their associations with prominent religious institutions that inscribed them with the secret signs of Buddhas and gods (butsujin [113]). The basis of all social positions, employment, and products would be traced back to divine origins. All activities, even killing, were justified through association with divine models. The tools of all trades were visualized as mandalas that mapped the locations and links between Buddhas and gods and all creatures. Success in worldly endeavors was attributed to one’s mastery of these resemblances. The complexity of these systems, with their infinite accumulation of hidden resemblances, could be mastered only through ritual performances, which lent them coherence and consistency. The Buddhist doctrines of emptiness and consciousness-only provided these rituals with an internal logic that admitted no distinction between mind and body nor any differences between the ritual enactment of correspondences and actual relationships among objects of the real world. Therefore, it was commonly asserted that mastery of any one system of ritual resemblances revealed the core principles of every other system, since they all consisted of the same process of merging the individual’s mind with the universal Buddha realm.

These kinds of exoteric-esoteric associations are ubiquitous in the oldest surviving martial art initiation documents (densho [114]). Some documents assert divine origins for martial arts by linking them to bodhisattvas of India, to sage kings of China, and to the founding gods of Japan (e.g., Omori 1991, 15). Or they describe how secret martial techniques were first revealed by the Buddhas and gods in dreams at famous temples and shrines (Tominaga 1972, 62; Ishioka 1981, 25-29). Many documents contain simplified instructions for esoteric Buddhist rituals, such as magical spells written in Sanskrit script that supposedly offer protection from enemies or diagrams that show how swords and other weapons correspond to mandalas populated by Buddhas, gods, and sacred animals (Omori 1991, 260-267; Kuroki 1967). Tantric rituals to invoke the protection of Buddhist deities, such as Acalanatha (Fudo [115]) or Marici (Marishiten [116]), were especially popular among medieval fighting men. Because most warriors were illiterate prior to the seventeenth century, they relied on Buddhist priests (the most literate members of society) to compose these early martial art documents. Priests not only listed the Buddhist names of warrior religious rites, but also used Buddhist vocabulary as names of fighting techniques that lacked any relationship to Buddhist doctrines or practices. The martial techniques themselves consisted primarily of prearranged patterns (kata [117]) of stances, attacks, and parries that students imitated in choreographed exercises. As with Buddhist tantric ritual performances, the inter-nalization of these patterns through constant repetition gave coherence to the curriculum’s apparent complexity.

Assertions of divine origins and use of religious terminology imbued martial arts with a mystical authority that helped to ensure their survival, even after many of their fighting techniques became anachronistic. Students of these traditions in subsequent centuries began their training by signing written pledges (kishomon) to keep secret the esoteric lore they would learn. In many lineages, students who completed their training received martial art diplomas at pseudoreligious rituals modeled after tantric initiations: The student would perform ascetic practices (shojin [118]) for a set number of days, after which a chapel (dojo) would be decorated, a special altar erected, and Buddhist deities such as Acalanatha or Marici invited; the student would present ritual offerings of weapons to the deities and give a specified number of gold coins to his teacher as a token of thanks. Sanctified in this manner, martial art lore became closely guarded secrets, knowledge of which conferred social status. Many martial art documents equated this lore with knowledge of the “one mind” (isshin [119]) underlying the infinite Buddha realms. Thus, it was widely proclaimed that success in battle depended as much on religious devotions and ritual performances as on fighting skills.

Chinese notions of cosmological and social order became widely incorporated into martial arts during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Establishment of the Tokugawa military government (bakufu) in 1603 ushered in an age of peace and stability that witnessed the spread of literacy and the development of a new class of professional martial art instructors. These professional martial artists for the first time in Japanese history composed systematic martial treatises (of which more than fifteen thousand separate titles still survive) and published many of them for an audience of avid readers. The authors of these treatises drew on systems of Chinese learning concerning cosmology, military theory, Daoist (Taoist) alchemy, and Confucianism to endow traditional kata with a veneer of literary and metaphysical sophistication.

Daoist alchemical practices were widespread because many of them already had been absorbed by established Buddhist systems of resemblances. Chief among these was the Nine-Word Spell (kuji [120]) for warding off evil spirits and enemy soldiers. The earliest Chinese version, as described in the Baopu zi [121] (Pao-p’u tzu, in Japanese Hobokushi; a fourth-century alchemy manual), involves drawing a cross four times in the air in front of one’s chest while chanting nine words, each one of which corresponds to a Daoist deity. Japanese versions taught in Buddhist, Shinto, and martial art lineages accompany each word with a tantric hand sign (mudra) corresponding to one of nine Buddhas. The Steps of Yu (uho [122]), another Daoist ritual from the Baopu zi, invokes the protection of Pole Star (hokushin [123]) Master of Destinies by means of dance steps that align the body with the Ursa Minor constellation (e.g., Sasamori 1965, 329-331; Omori 1991, 267-269). These steps have been incorporated into many of the sword dances (kenbu [124]) still performed at Shinto shrines. Daoist rituals such as the Nine-Word Spell and Steps of Yu supposedly concealed the practitioner from his enemies and rendered him safe from their weapons.

Aside from magical spells, the alchemical practice most widely found in Japanese martial arts is embryonic breathing (taisoku [125]). Daoist texts associate breath with a cosmogonic material life force known as qi [126] (chi, Japanese ki) and teach special breathing methods as a means of cultivating the youthful vigor and longevity derived from this force. Martial art treatises teach that mastery of this material force enables one to control and defeat opponents without relying on physical strength. Hakuin Ekaku [127] (1685-1768), an influential Zen monk, helped popularize embryonic breathing by publishing a description of it in his Yasen kanna [128] (Evening Chat on a Boat, 1757; translated by Shaw and Schiffer 1956). In this work, Hakuin describes how he relied on Daoist inner contemplation (naikan [129]) to congeal the ocean of qi within the lower field of cinnabar (tanden [130]; i.e., lower abdomen) and thereby restore his own health after he had become ill as a result of excessive periods of Buddhist sitting Zen (zazen [131]) meditation. Hakuin said that he learned these techniques in 1710 from a perfected Daoist (shinjin [132]) named Hakuyu [133] who was then between 180 and 240 years old. The fact that Hakuin and his disciples gave firsthand instruction in these breathing methods to many swordsmen is often cited by historians as a link between Zen and martial arts (e.g., Ishioka 1981, 180-181). One must not overlook, however, the clear distinction in Hakuin’s writings between Buddhist forms of Zen meditation and Daoist techniques of breath control.

Hakuin’s methods of breath control came to form a core curriculum within the Nakanishi [134] lineage of the Itto-ryu [135] style of fencing. Swordsmen in this lineage labeled instruction in embryonic breathing the Tenshin (Heavenly True) transmission. Tenshin [136] (in Chinese, Tian-zhen) is the name of a Daoist deity who, according to the Baopu zi, first discovered the technique for prolonging life by circulating breath among the three fields of cinnabar and who then revealed these secrets to the Yellow Emperor. A fencer in this lineage, Shirai Toru Yoshinori [137] (1783-1843), wrote perhaps the most detailed account of how embryonic breathing is applied to martial arts in his Heiho michi shirube [138] (Guide to the Way of Fencing; see Watanabe 1979, 162-167). Shirai defined Tenshin as the original material force (qi) of the Great Ultimate and as the source of divine cinnabar (shintan [139]; i.e., the elixir of immortality). Shirai asserted that his mastery of Tenshin enabled him to project qi out the tip of his sword blade like a flaming aura. His instructions for duplicating this feat, however, are so cryptic and laden with Daoist alchemical vocabulary that they are impossible to understand without direct guidance by a teacher.

While Daoist breathing techniques remain popular to this day, the single greatest Chinese influence on Japanese martial arts undoubtedly was exerted by Confucianism. During the Tokugawa period the study of Confucian texts spread beyond the confines of the court nobility and of the Buddhist monasteries into hundreds of newly established domain schools and private academies. Confucian scholars adhered to a wide variety of academic approaches: ancient learning that emphasized the original Confucian classics, neo-Confucianism that emphasized later Chinese and Korean commentaries, as well as approaches that linked Confucian teachings to Japanese shrine rituals (i.e., Shinto) or to the study of Japanese history, to name only a few. In spite of academic variations, all these approaches shared a reliance on Confucian texts as authoritative guides to the ideal social norms taught by the sages of antiquity. These sagely norms were said to reflect the order, regularity, and harmonious integration of the universe itself, as revealed by the topic of Changes (Yijing, I Ching [140]; Japanese Ekikyo). Like nature, human society should attain a stable continuity of harmonious integration based on a hierarchy of high and low, strong and weak, within which everyone interacts according to proper etiquette and ritual. Achievement of this ideal society begins with benevolent rulers (jin-sei [141]) who teach the people to rectify their own heart-minds (shin, or, in Japanese, kokoro [142]) by properly fulfilling the individual social roles appropriate to their own position within the hierarchy. In turn, individuals must investigate (kyu) the principles (ri) of their roles (i.e., kyuri [143]) and perform them with serious-minded (kei [144], “reverent”) diligence.

Many Confucian scholars during the Tokugawa period were men of samurai status who also wrote about military affairs and about the proper role of military rulers (shido [145]; i.e., bushido) during an age of peace. Yamaga Soko [146] (1632-1685), for example, combined lectures on military science with moral exhortations, arguing that samurai should practice self-discipline so that their rule would serve all members of society. In this way Confucian teachings not only justified military rule, but also helped to humanize the battle-hardened warriors of medieval Japan and transform them into the military bureaucrats required by Tokugawa peace. With no more wars to fight, people born into warrior families found that their assigned social roles lacked any meaningful purpose. Contemporary accounts commonly chastise them for being lazy, corrupt, and bereft of any higher ideals. Government leaders repeatedly sought to improve morale among warrior households by encouraging them to pursue Confucian learning and martial arts. As a result, many types of martial art training, which normally consist of paired student-teacher workouts before other students, gradually became reinterpreted as practical exercises in the investigation of Confucian principles and serious-minded performance. Within larger urban centers, especially, martial art academies functioned more like finishing schools, where instructors lectured on proper moral values and ceremonial decorum.

Over time, the Confucian ideals proclaimed by and for military rulers found an audience among powerful merchants, wealthy landowners (chonin), village administrators, prosperous peasants, and other commoners who aspired to higher status. Yasumaru Yoshio [147] has analyzed how moral virtues (such as serious-mindedness, diligence, thrift, humility, submission to authority, and uprightness) emerged during the Tokugawa period as a new form of public discourse and hardened into a “conventional morality” (tsu-zoku dotoku [148]) that exerted rigid control over all aspects of everyday life. This morality was extremely idealistic, insofar as it posited limitless possibilities for human development. Mind, or rather the moral qualities of mind, were seen as the source of all forms of success, whether measured in terms of social status, material wealth, or martial art prowess. This same moral discourse, however, justified and rendered invisible to criticism the most atrocious social inequities and contradictions. It reassured the wealthy and powerful of their moral superiority, while teaching the poor and oppressed that their misery resulted from their own moral shortcomings. Since it placed mind above the external world, malcontents were told that they should find happiness not by rebelling against that world but by reforming their own minds.

Seen within this background of conventional morality, it is not surprising that Tokugawa-period martial art treatises devote numerous pages to mind and proper mental attitudes. The example most familiar to modern readers (both in Japan and abroad) is the treatise usually titled Fudochi shinmyoroku [149] (Marvelous Power of Immovable Wisdom; reprint in Hayakawa et al. 1915) attributed to the Zen monk Takuan Soho [150] (1573-1643). Nominally written in the form of a personal letter to Yagyu Munenori [151] (1571-1646), who served as fencing instructor to the Tokugawa family, Takuan’s essay uses examples from fencing to illustrate basic Buddhist teachings and Zen sayings. He does not discuss the techniques or vocabulary of fencing, but rather emphasizes that a Buddhist approach to mental training improves not just one’s fencing but especially one’s ability to serve a lord. Significantly, Takuan rejected both the Daoist practice of concentrating the mind in the lower abdomen (lower field of cinnabar) and the Confucian practice of serious-mindedness (kei, “reverence”), which he likened to keeping a cat on a leash. Instead of constraining the mind through these practices, Takuan advocated cultivating a strong sense of imperturbability, which he described as a type of immovable wisdom that allows the mind to move freely without calculation. Takuan termed this mental freedom “not minding” (mushin [152]) and compared it to a well-trained cat that behaves even when released from its leash. Although “not minding” is sometimes misunderstood as a type of amoral automatic response, for Takuan imperturbability implied a firm moral sense that cannot be swayed by fear, intimidation, or temptation.

In spite of the enduring popularity of Takuan’s essay, his advocacy of a Zen approach to mental training represented a minority opinion amidst the predominantly Confucian inclinations of Tokugawa-period martial treatises. Confucian critics commonly asserted that martial artists could learn nothing useful from Zen monks. Issai Chozan [153] (1659-1741), for example, argued in his Tengu geijutsuron [154] (Performance Theory of the Mountain Demons, 1727; reprinted in Hayakawa et al. 1915) that Zen teachings are impractical because Zen monks are unconcerned with society: They “abandon the proper relations between lords and ministers, ignore the rites, music, punishments, and politics taught by the sages, and wish to discard life and seek death” (Hayakawa et al.,1915, 320). Moreover, monks lack military training. Buddhist awakening alone, Issai maintained, cannot substitute for correct technique and suitable drill. For Issai and other Confucian instructors, mental training in martial arts consists of devotion to proper social relations, elimination of selfish private inclinations, acquiring a clear sense of right and wrong, and discipleship under a Confucian military instructor. Otherwise, the freedom of not minding (mushin) will be nothing more than a kind of arrogant vacuity (ganku [155], “foolishness”).

Many Confucian instructors advocated quiet sitting (seiza [156]) rather than Buddhist forms of sitting Zen (zazen) meditation as a simplified method of mental cultivation. Quiet sitting differed from Zen meditation insofar as it eliminated all distinctive aspects of Buddhist ritual, such as sitting in the lotus posture, burning incense, observing fixed periods of time, and so forth (e.g., Tengu geijutsuron in Hayakawa et al. 1915, 337). The lack of these features allowed its advocates to portray quiet sitting as more compatible with secular life and less removed from worldly affairs. Noting that both Confucian instructors and Zen monks advocated forms of meditation and discussed the same conventional morality in similar terms, some scholars have referred to Tokugawa-period Confucian teachings as a kind of “popular Zen” for lay-people (e.g., Sawada). The ultimate result of these Confucian teachings, however, was not the popularization of Zen practice but a decline in Buddhist piety as their practitioners came to rely less on the worship of Buddhist divinities.

Adherence both to religious practices and to abstract metaphysics declined throughout the late eighteenth and, especially, nineteenth centuries, due to the widespread adoption of competitive forms of martial training and to foreign threats. Significantly, competition developed first in rural areas outside of the urban mainstream. The spread of martial art training among peasants and other commoners has not been well studied, partially from lack of scholarly interest but mainly because peasants did not write scholastic martial art treatises. Nonetheless it is clear that many rural households maintained or developed family traditions of martial art training and that as rural society became more stratified, they began to practice them openly as a means of acquiring status. Lacking scholarly pretensions, rural martial artists emphasized mastery of technique and physical prowess, which they tested in competitive matches. In the early 1800s, when rural-trained fencers finally appeared in Edo (modern Tokyo), they easily defeated men of samurai status who had been trained in Confucian theory (or Zen), ceremonial decorum, and prearranged pattern exercises (kata). Thereafter established martial art lineages that had emphasized theory or mental training became subjects of ridicule, while new lineages that taught competition (uchikomi keiko [157]) flourished. The abandonment of theory accelerated with the ever more frequent arrival of foreign ships. Suddenly practical application (jitsuyo [158]) became more important than mental training or moral development. The Tokugawa government gave its stamp of approval to this change when it decreed that competition alone would be taught at Kobusho [159], the military training school it established in 1856.

Kubota Seion [160] (1791-1866), one of the directors of the Kobusho, amply illustrates late Tokugawa attitudes toward religious influences on martial arts. Kubota authored more than a hundred treatises on all aspects of military strategy and martial arts. He edited and wrote the preface for Bukyo zensho [161] (Complete Works on Military Education, five volumes) published by the Kobusho in 1860. He is credited with having trained more than three thousand samurai soldiers. More than any other writer, he can be seen as representing the prevailing military views of government officials. According to Kubota, any martial art instructor who said that the founder of his lineage was initiated into religious secrets, or had learned his skills through an inspirational dream, or had been taught by mountain demons (tengu [162]), or had mastered his art through Zen training was simply a liar preying on the religious sentiments of gullible students.

Of course, conventional morality and its religious framework was too much a part of martial arts (and of everyday life) to be so easily abandoned. Many martial artists persisted in religious practices and mental training. Of these traditionalists, none became better known than Yamaoka Tesshu [163] (1836-1888). Yamaoka gained fame for his heroism during the brief civil war of 1868 that overthrew the Tokugawa regime and for his political role in the new Meiji government, first as a councilor and later as one of the emperor’s chamberlains. A natural athlete, in 1856 Yamaoka became an assistant fencing instructor at the Kobusho. His approach to martial training changed completely, however, when in 1863 he lost a match to Asari Yoshiaki [164], the head of the same Nakanishi lineage of fencing mentioned above. Yamaoka became Asari’s student, and at Asari’s urging undertook an intense regimen of meditation practice under the guidance of several prominent Zen teachers. Yamaoka continued his training for the next seventeen years until, in 1880, he attained certification both in Zen and in the Nakanishi lineage. By that time, most educated people already had abandoned traditional martial arts as old-fashioned. Four years earlier, in 1876, wearing swords in public had been made illegal. Fencing had lost all practical purpose. Yamaoka, however, was not deterred. He renamed his lineage the No-Sword Style (Muto-ryu [165]) and announced that he would teach fencing not for the purpose of dueling but for training the mind. His students, he asserted, would learn how to defeat opponents not with swords but with their minds.

Yamaoka died within a few years of announcing his new approach, before it could become fully established. Although many posthumously published texts purport to convey his teachings, they are filled with contradictions and incongruities. We know more speculation than fact about his methods or the extent to which they were based on Nakanishi traditions of embryonic breathing. Nonetheless, it is clear that his own Zen training occurred with monks at Buddhist temples. Zen practice was an external supplement to his fencing, not something intrinsic within it. Ya-maoka’s political prominence, the novelty of his methods, and his anachronistic effort to turn back the tide of history and revive the mental training of earlier Tokugawa times, however, ensured that upon his death he immediately became known as the quintessential Zen swordsman. In 1897, when the chancellor of the Japanese consulate in London, England, gave a lecture on “The Influence of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan,” for example, he concluded by discussing Yamaoka’s No-Sword Style (Yamashita). The chancellor argued that Yamaoka’s swordsmanship was a real-life example of Takuan’s Zen teachings, which in turn perfectly illustrated the findings advanced by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in his Principles of Psychology (1855). In this way, Yamaoka was more than just a traditionalist who sought to cling to older styles of swordsmanship during a new age in which people no longer wore swords. He also served as a forerunner for the introduction of the now familiar motif of the psychological unity of Zen and the martial arts to the English-speaking world.

List of Ideograms


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