MY SWORD PILGRIMAGE

In old Japan, warriors, priests and the blind made their entire lives a pilgrimage, walking and begging from one end of the islands to the other. The man who inspried me sojourned alone for forty years, up and down the country, seeking opponents his passage marked only by the defeated he left befind. Legend has located him in Tokyo, in Kyoto, in the narrow isthmus between Honshu and Kyushu but we know for certain where he was only for the five years before his death. And we know that because he told us in his own words. I quote The Book of Five Rings in its mellifluent translation by William Scott Wilson.

"In the first week of the Tenth month in the Twentieth year of Kan'ei [1643] I climbed Mount Iwato in the province of Higo on the island of Kyushu, bowed in veneration to Heaven, worshipped Kannon and stood before the Buddha."

The worshipper in question, and the man whose route I will follow, is Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman who ever lived. The moment he describes, when he presented himself to his gods, came near the end of a lifetime of violence. A peculiar suffering, that of the free lance lancer, had driven him there. Musashi was not a hired killer, though some consider him one. He was a swordsman and teacher and, in the codified society of feudal Japan, only killed people in mutually agreed situations, when both swordsman sought to test their styles. A particular wisdom, a power of concentration attained by only the rare few who dedicate years to practice, what we call in his words "the mind like water", has given him a fame as lasting as Shakespeare's. At the age of forty-eight, I went in search of my mind and became an unlikely student of martial arts. I learned a little of Musashi's art and thought, and I was fascinated by that confrontation: samurai and god of compassion. I thought that I would climb Mount Iwato too.

When I go to Reigan Cave, I do not "climb Mount Iwato" as Musashi did. The "mountain" is a large hill outside Kumamoto, and it is on the bus route. However, I take a taxi and ask the driver to let me off so that I can walk the last few hundred yards.

And thus I come to the gatehouse, where a black robed monk takes entrance fees. A tall pile of stones with thirteen levels dates this monastery to the fourteen century: it was a holy place long before Musashi came. On the lichen-covered slope, there are 500 toppling, disintegrating stone Buddha heads. Each granite face wears a different expression. It is said that everyone who comes here can find his own. I search for my face, but conclude it must have rolled off and planted itself in the moss. If you climb a little farther and look between hills you could spot any invader who might approach across the Ariake Sea. But Musashi would have sat with his back to the view.


There, ahead of me, is the cave I have come all this way to see. It is a good cave, deep, dark. It is fenced, decorated with plaques and tied paper, and stocked with gift sake bottles. Visitors with the contained, wary carriage of martial artists climb the stone steps and bow. I follow. I hear the words again in my mind. "I climbed Mount Iwato in the province of Higo on the island of Kyushu, bowed in veneration to Heaven, worshipped Kannon and stood before the Buddha."

Here Musashi spent his ninety days, or six months, depending on which version you read, in zazen. Here he began the book about ways to live and ways to die that has inspired millions. The Buddha he stood before is locked away: no one is allowed to see it.

I withdraw up the hillside and breathe the blossom-scented sea air.

This fragrant, simple place is a shrine to the greatest warrior in Japanese history. Or perhaps it is simply a shrine to a book.

The first four rings of the five rings of the title are names of elements: earth, for the foundation; water, for the clear mind; fire, for battle; wind, for style. The book is full of arcane instructions applicable only to battle. "When you have faced off with your opponent and your swords are equally set, it is essential that you be constantly intent on stabbing his face with the tip of your sword." Or, a little later on, "From time to time practice herding your opponents into a group and chasing after them." Many chapters end with a lovely writerly cop-out. "This is an oral tradition". Certain phrases seem created to serve as a mnemonic for the secrets of his art, reminding us that the book was written not to disseminate knowledge, but to keep it for a particular school.
Yet- and this is its magic- parts of the book are eerily contemporary. "The various arts have been tailored to be items for sale. Likewise a person thinks of himself as an item for sale." Killing the next person up the ladder is a way of life, a career move. "One desires to make a name for oneself and to raise his position..." You can feel the lone artist slashing his way through society. Scattered amongst the sword instructions are more general instructions that have been applied to everything from tennis, to career building, to golf: "Discriminate thoroughly between the rhythm of success and the rhythm of failure." Most striking is how Musashi visualizes the thing called mind, even giving instructions on where to put it. It should not be placed in the enemy sword, or in the enemy's eyes, or in your own sword, nor anywhere at all. It should be wide and smooth and swaying and not stop at anything. "...and if you can freely move your entire body at will you will defeat others with this body. And if your mind becomes trained in the Way you will defeat others with your mind."

Finally, the mind is the sword. A perfect smooth, whistling cut may divide soul from body, but when you are as powerfully concentrated as a samurai, you do not need to kill. Cowering before it, others make themselves as dead men.


The fifth chapter revisits the Buddhist concept of emptiness. I must confess I find this difficult to understand. "The heart of Emptiness is the absence of anything with form and the inability to have knowledge thereof... A true warrior polishes the two hearts of his mind and will, and sharpens the two eyes of broad observation and focused vision. He is not the least bit clouded, but rather clears away the clouds of confusion. You should know that this is true Emptiness."

Although I don't understand, I do find the prose exhilarating. Reading it again I have the almost physical sensation of freedom and lightness that I gained from the practice of the ancient cuts. Words can do that too.

Perhaps this is my reward. Perhaps this is what I sought. I don't know; I realize that I don't know what I expected to happen here; I don't recognize the moment. I walk down the mountain and end up at a hikers' hostel. Children are playing, and on the walls are butterflies under glass, stuffed foxes and birds. Walking toward the bus, I scare up a blue heron in an irrigation ditch.

 

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