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Famous Swordsmen of Japan (4): Toru Shirai

by Yoshinori Kono

Aikido Journal #108 (1996)

The Ascetic Tokuhon—Another of Shirai’s Teachers

Toru Shirai received his license in Tenshin Itto-ryu from founder Goroemon Terada. Some sources, however, point to another individual who may have contributed briefly yet significantly to Shirai’s development as a swordsman, the Buddhist ascetic Tokuhon, first priest of Musashi Ikko-In.

Although Tokuhon never appears in Shirai’s own Heiho Michishirube (Guideposts on the Path of Heiho), he is mentioned in writings by Meikei Tsuda, Shirai’s designated successor to the Tenshin Itto-ryu, as well as in Okunojo Yoshida’s Tenshinden Shirai-ryu Heiho Tsitkaikata (The Methods of Heavenly Shirai-ryu Heiho).

Tsuda mentions Tokuhon in an epilogue to Itto-ryu Heiho Toho Kigen (The Origins of Itto-ryu Swordsmanship) by Koresuke Nakanishi [fourth headmaster of the Nakanishi-ha Itto-ryu].

It came to pass that Terada was to accompany his lord to Naniwa [Osaka]. Shirai called on him seeking advice on how he might continue his training, whereupon Terada instructed him to seek out Tokuhon, an ascetic Buddhist monk, and learn to chant the nembutsu [“Namu Amida Butsu,” (I take my refuge in the Buddha Amida); chanting this phrase was thought to be the way to gain rebirth into Amida’s Pure Land].

There was no other way, he said.

Following Terada’s advice faithfully, Shirai sought out Tokuhon. One day, observing him striking his prayer bell with a wooden mallet, he realized that the ascetic’s hand seemingly did not move; rather his whole being was one with the Cosmos in a way that brought an exquisite quality to his action. At that instant, Shirai’s questions and uncertainties melted away and his spirit became clear and enlightened.

Returning home, he grasped his bokuto in the way he had seen the ascetic wield his bell-striker and discovered that he had attained a exceptional new level of ability. This revelation, along with his use of projection through the tip of the bokuto (nobi) and the relaxation of the limbs and body, became the three principles that Shirai Sensei attained during his life as a swordsman—secrets so deep that even the ancient masters had not known of them. This episode has been often quoted in stories and tales of famous swordsmen and will likely be familiar to anyone with even a little knowledge of Shirai. It suggests that Shirai visited Terada seeking advice about how to continue training in his teacher’s absence, was told to visit Tokuhon, and while observing nembutsu devotions was Tokuhon’s deeply enlightened.

However, Yoshida’s mention of Tokuhon, in a passage describing the major influences on Shirai’s kenjutsu, paints a somewhat different picture of the events.

Shirai Sensei had learned of the effectiveness of the abdominal method from the Zen monk Hakuin. He knew, too, of the philosophies of Lao-Tzu and Chung-Tzu. He studied the writings of past masters and added concepts gleaned from his own experience. He was influenced by the writings of Ichiun Odagiri, Hachiryusai Renshin Yamanouchi, and Mugen Kaneko. Further, he once visited the temple where the holy priest Tokuhon pursued his nembutsu devotions. There he observed the priest’s formlessness, the true emptiness (shinku) of his nembutsu, and the utter harmony and clarity of the movement of his bell-striker. He realized that while other monks struck the bell with a motion of their hand—a motion that separates the body and the mallet and leaves openings everywhere—Tokuhon struck it in such a way that left not even a hairsbreadth of opening in his countenance. Shirai Sensei took this experience to heart and made it his own. Thus, he gradually cultivated a path toward the attainment of tenshin [understanding of one’s own heaven-sent nature]. Also, in 1815, when he was thirty-three, he accompanied Master Terada, then age seventy-one, to Sanshu to worship at the Itsu-kushima shrine in Geishu, and apparently along the way was thoroughly questioned by Master Terada. [See AJ106]

Yoshida’s account hardly suggests that Terada introduced Tokuhon as a replacement teacher under whom to continue studying. Rather, he mentions the encounter with the Buddhist ascetic simply as one of many influences on Shirai’s training that led to his enlightenment and developed him into a swordsman worthy of receiving a license from Terada in August of 1815.

We also have the following material from a source on the Tokuhon side.

It was in the early years of Bunka (1804-1818) that a swordsman named Toru Shirai called upon the holy priest Tokuhon as he gave a sermon at Sho’o-ji temple. Sensing the priest’s deep spirituality, the swordsman sought an audience the following day. Facing him he said, “I am a swordsman. My teacher has instructed me that when I meet a great monk I should ask him to teach me about swordsmanship, and it is for that purpose that I have come so very far. I beg of you a few words of instruction.” Tokuhon, smiling, simply replied, “I am a nembutsu ascetic who knows nothing of martial ways. I know only to chant the nembutsu and thereby enter the realm of Paradise. I advise that you do the same.”

And with that, the story continues, he struck his prayer bell and commenced his devotions to Amida. As he did so, Shirai was enlightened and the mysteries and secrets of swordsmanship opened to him in a flash of inspiration. He later recounted the experience saying, “I once met an ascetic who performed devotions to Amida. He had not a single opening and 1 felt that with his bell-striker he could have taken on a thousand enemies.” Given that the Bunka era lasted only fourteen years, it is difficult to reconcile this account’s “early years of Bunka” with Bunka 12 (1815), and in any case Shirai did not become Terada’s pupil until Bunka 8 (1811). Thus, the reference to “the early years of Bunka” is somewhat suspect. It would also be odd for Terada, who was about to relocate to the Kansai region himself, to advise Shirai to pursue further training by introducing Tokuhon and for Shirai to journey to Sho’o-ji in Kansai to seek him out.

My interpretation of the events mentioned in these sources is that Shirai visited Tokuhon sometime during the period in which he was zealously pursuing the cold water ablutions (kansui no ho) that Terada constantly recommended. Specifically, it was probably around February 1815, shortly before he discovered the abdominal training method (rentan no ho) that was so much more suited to his needs.

In any case, Shirai’s encounters with Tokuhon—although certainly no more than a few—seem to have influenced him profoundly. Despite the fact that he was a student of Terada (who was heavily steeped in the individualistic and esoteric thought of Zen), he taught his own students in an easy to understand, approachable fashion that often included analogies with commonplace everyday items such as palanquins and ceramic food steamers. This strikes me as possibly due to the influence of Tokuhon, who is also said to have had great popular appeal.

Tokuhon came originally from the Tabuse clan, descendants of the famous Shigetada Hatakeyama of the Genji clan. He was born on June 22, 1758 in the village of Shigatanihisashi in Hidaka in the Kii region. It is said that at the age of four he witnessed the death of a child from a neighboring household and, perceiving the mutability of the world, began reciting the nembutsu, despite never having been taught it. By age nine he was expressing a desire to leave home, although he was not permitted to do so and remained in the household until he was twenty-five. Taking up the life of an itinerant priest, he devoted himself to Amida. Through his devotions he is said to have developed magical powers, manifested in the performance of miraculous deeds on behalf of any and all who asked, such as summoning rain and driving insects from the fields.

Tokuhon followed and taught the teachings of Honen devoutly, namely to practice the nembutsu single-mindedly, receiving and talcing in the work of Buddha as It Is, knowing that only in this is the attainment of the Pure Land in this life and the next assured. Able skillfully to explicate these teachings of Honen in a way that was accessible to all, Tokuhon earned the respect and reverence of people from all classes, from the lord of Kishu to the general public. Stricken ill in the summer of 1818, Tokuhon died on September 6, at the age of sixty-one.

Shirai’s Kenjutsu Evolves Into Shimpo

It was during Terada’s absence that Shirai began to innovate and develop his own approach to kenjutsu. Terada returned to Edo eight years later when his term in Osaka had been completed, and Shirai writes admiringly in Heiho Michishirube of an encounter with his seventy-seven year old teacher at that time.

“When Master Terada returned to the capital in September 1821, I called upon him to see if his swordsmanship had changed in any way during his eight year sojourn in Naniwa. I was simply overwhelmed, and I found him at age seventy-seven to be one of those rare old masters who is simply superior at all ages.”

Studies of Toru Shirai based on Shirai’s own writings have generally suggested that at this point he recognized keenly that he could not equal his teacher. There are, however, several reasons to question whether this conclusion is truly valid.

For one, Shirai remained extremely uncomfortable with Terada’s statement to the effect that “While rentan must be practiced with a spirit of tenshin, bujutsu is realistically a path of deceptive tactics and trickery by which to lure the opponent to defeat.” Such doubts may have been what led Shirai’s approach to kenjutsu to gradually take on an increasingly esoteric or spiritual flavor (shimpo) quite similar to that of Mujushin-ryu kenjutsu—in other words, much more esoteric than Terada’s kenjutsu had ever been. [Shimpo swordsmanship emphasizes the mental/spiritual aspects of swordsmanship (as opposed to giho, the technical/physical aspects); for example, maintaining and awareness of surroundings and keeping the mind calm and free of obstructions.]

That the kenjutsu technique of Shirai differed from that of his teacher Terada is suggested by Meikei Tsuda’s comment in Itto-ryu Heiho Toho Kigen that Shirai had attained “secrets so deep that even the ancient masters had not known of them.”

Although Tsuda was not nearly as close to Shirai as Okunojo Yoshida, Shirai’s choice of him as the third successor to the Tenshin Itto-ryu was likely based on the fact that he was searching desperately for an appropriate individual on whom he could “unload” the headmastership of a tradition that was increasingly becoming a burden and an obstacle to pursuing his own approach to kenjutsu.

Shirai following Terada’s Death

When Terada returned from Osaka, Shirai showed him the writings he had set down in the Meidoron (Clear Path Discourse), Shinmyoroku (Record of the Exquisite Divine), and Tenshinroku (Record of Tenshin), and told him of his intention to instruct based on the concepts and approaches set forth in these texts.

In Tenshinroku, Shirai quotes in its entirety the Tenshin Dokuro of Ichiun Odagiri, second headmaster of Mujushin-ryu kenjutsu, and adds profiles of both Odagiri and Mujushin-ryu founder Sekiun Harigaya. As such, the work could well be considered the transmitted traditions (densho) of Mujushin-ryu kenjutsu, a clear indication that Shirai was fully aware that he was restoring (or hoping to restore) that school.

There is no way to know how Terada really felt about Shirai’s actions, but from what we know of his character we can guess that he probably minded very little. Given the extreme independence and self-centeredness that characterized his own approach to training, he probably felt that Shirai, too, was free to do whatever he liked.

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