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Famous Swordsmen of Japan (2): Toru Shirai

by Yoshinori Kono

Aikido Journal #105 (1995)


Shirai Abandons Cold-Water Ablutions to Adopt Abdominal Training

Renewing his training under the tutelage of Goroemon Terada, Shirai set out in pursuit othe what he considered to be an ideal form of kenjutsu. Adhering faithfully to his new teacher’s admonitions, he began practicing perfusion, or cold-water ablutions, with the hope that it would wash away what he felt was the tainted and base kenjutsu that had gripped him before.

His tremendous efforts are recorded in his work, Heiho Michishirube (Guideposts on the Path of Heiho). Further details are provided by Okunojo Yoshida, a pupil of Shirai in his later years, in Tenshinden Shirai-ryu Heiho Tsukaikata (The Methods of Heavenly Shirai-ryu Heiho). Yoshida writes:

“Shirai Sensei abstained from liquor and meat, and poured a hundred, two hundred, even three hundred pails of water over himself a day. He dipped his pail so often that the water in the well he used would become stirred up and muddy, so he would go to the Sumida River to continue. He repeated this day after day for years—in the morning in the hottest weather, at dawn in the depths of winter, and even at inns during journeys to Bishu, Kyoto, and Setsu. On two occasions he fasted and performed his ablutions for seven days—once at Mt. Yuga in Biyo and once again at his home.”

It seems that in the end Shirai’s extraordinary dedication to Terada’s suggested method did little or nothing for him, and in fact left him in somewhat broken health. Shirai writes in Heiho Michishirube, “My efforts were fruitless. Worse, they put me in such ill health that neither acupuncture nor medicines had any effect. Eventually my mother and other close relatives begged me to ‘cease those baneful ablutions.’ Unable to bear my mother’s lamentations, I was finally convinced to give up the practice.”

Strong willed as he was, Shirai seems to have been terribly sensitive to his mother’s feelings and wishes, and found it easier to defer to her wishes than face her tears.

Giving up this practice, however, provided Shirai with his first opportunity to explore rentan no ho, a well-known abdominal training method devised by the Zen monk Hakuin. Shirai had heard of this method from Terada, but he now realized how much more suited it was to his nature and temperament. Not only did it restore his health, it also instilled in him the self-awareness and ability to take the first steps toward the establishment of his Tenshin Shirai-ryu.

In Heiho Michishirube, Shirai describes his situation then. “At the age of thirty-three, on January 18, 1815, I abandoned cold-water ablutions once and for all and adopted the abdominal training method. I had previously read a number of the posthumous works of Hakuin and I had heard from my teacher Terada about the effectiveness of rentan no ho, but I had neglected it in favor of the more arduous practice of ablutions. Now I practice rentan no ho exclusively. 1 have rallied my spirit and, as Hakuin did, integrated rentan no ho into every part of my life and ways—into my prayers to Buddha, into my studies, into my swordsmanship. Within two short months of such practice I felt my health return as energy flowed into me and filled my abdomen (seika.) My illness has melted away and I feel myself as bouncy as a brand-new ball.”

The abdominal training method known as rentan no ho, made famous by Hakuin, is characteristic of health and strengthening practices in Japan and throughout most of the East. Its pervasiveness may be seen in the widely used vernacular admonition to “put energy into your abdomen.”

Still, whether the method has a great effect or means nothing depends on a person’s state of mind and the circumstances. Given the bodily and spiritual deterioration Shirai had suffered through years of constant cold-water ablutions, the discovery of rentan no ho amounted to a rediscovery of himself and suited his state of mind perfectly.

As a point of reference, I will quote a selection on rentan no ho from Hakuin’s Yasenkanna (Evening Chat on a Boat).

“Happily, I say that I have a secret way of becoming like the hermit in the mountains. Perhaps you might like to try it, for if you do you will be amazed to see the clouds opening before you to reveal the brilliant sunlight. If you think you might like to try, then pause, for a moment, your seated meditations and your contemplation of koans. Instead, drop off into a short sleep; but before you do, before you close your eyelids, extend your two legs and fill your lower abdomen, hips, and legs with all your vitality, all the way to the arches of your feet. Then meditate as follows: ‘My lower abdomen, hips, and legs, and the arches of my feet are my true nature. My face cannot exist as part of my true nature. My lower abdomen is my original home. There should be no news or letters from home. My lower abdomen is all my heart and it is the Pure Land. There is no majesty of the Pure Land other than my heart. My lower abdomen is the Amitabha who exists within me. If my body is Amitabha, then I need no other Amitabha to preach the truth.’ Constantly and repeatedly meditate in this way, and when the effect of meditation has accumulated, the vitality within your body will fill your lower abdomen, hips, and legs, to the arches of your feet before you are aware of it. Your lower abdomen will be expanded and firm, like a ball that has never seen the game and you will be brimming over with energy. You will be cured of the ki illness of the five viscera and six entrails within five or six days time, or two or three weeks at most if you meditate exclusively as I have just said. If you find my method ineffective, why, you may cut off this old man’s head and carry it away!”

Shirai Separates from His Teacher

Whatever Shirai gained from his practice of rentan no ho allowed him a margin of freedom to step back from Terada and view his teachings more objectively. In Heiho Michishirube he clearly states that, “the exclusive practice of rentan no ho advocated by Hakuin is quick and effective, while the method of perfusion has little effect.” Shirai had become utterly disgusted with cold-water ablutions as a means to enlightenment and it seems that in his later years he even told his pupils that “dousing oneself with cold water and fasting are poor ways to achieve tenshin (understanding one’s own heaven-sent nature).”

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