Yamaoka Tesshu was an outstanding swordsman of the nineteenth century who attained spiritual enlightenment at the age of 45. As well as a master swordsman, he was a renowned calligrapher- another testament to his mastery of Zen. He was born in Edo (modern day Tokyo) as Ono Tetsutaro on June 10th, 1836. His father was a retainer of the Tokugawa Government and his mother was the daughter of a Shinto priest from Kashima Shrine.
Tesshu practiced kendo from the age of nine, starting in the Shinkage Ryu Tradition. Later his family were to move to Takayama where he began the Ono Ha Itto-Ryu style of fencing. When he was seventeen, he returned to Edo and joined the Kobukan Military Institute and the Yamaoka School of Spear Fighting under Yamaoka Seizan. Not long after Tesshu had joined the dojo, Seizan died, Tesshu went on to marry Seizan’s sister in order to carry on the Yamaoka name.
Obviously tales of Tesshu’s life differ and exaggerate to some degree, but by all accounts he seemed to be a man of immense spirit. It is said that Tesshu divided every day into four parts, Kendo, calligraphy, drinking and sleeping. Renowned for his drinking abilities, on one occasion whilst drinking with friends, they spoke of a horse that was so wild no-one could get a hold of it let alone ride it. Tesshu replied “An animal that man cannot control! That is ridiculous! So his friends baited him to ride it and together they went to the stable. Tesshu marched up to the wild horse, grabbed it by the tail and started yanking it hard. Tesshu’s friends all dived for cover expecting the horse to buck and kick. Then to all their surprise the horse turned quietly and obediently followed Tesshu. He explained to his friends “Animals confronted with determination greater than their own immediately submit”. However he later admitted that he had been quite drunk and had felt a bit braver than usual.
Tesshu’s pursuit of Kendo and enlightenment knew no bounds. He would practice daily in his loincloth, any visitors to his house, regardless of the reason were immediately invited to practice with him, postmen, deliverymen or friends. Eventually they complained to his brother begging him to make Tesshu stop. In his younger years in Edo he took part in thousands of contests with the best swordsmen in Japan. At practice sessions he would not rest between partners and practiced continually. When he was twenty-eight, he met Asari Gimei (Yoshiaki) a superior swordsman of the Nakanishi-ha Itto-Ryu, who defeated him in a contest. Tesshu became Asari’s student, as it was the custom to do so.
Tesshu was unusual for a Japanese, he was well built and around six feet tall, Asari on the other hand was almost half his size. Asari was also twelve years his senior. When Tesshu, a determined young man, met Asari in his dojo, he repeatedly could not defeat him. Asari ‘s spirit was much stronger, he forced Tesshu all the way to the back of the dojo, continued out into the street, knocked him to the ground and then slammed the door in his face. This was too much for Tesshu. He increased his efforts in training and meditation. Constantly pondering fencing scenarios, he would wake up at night jump out of bed and get his wife to hold a sword so he could work out problems. Whilst eating he would cross his chopsticks or during conversations he would cross pipes looking for solutions. On the morning of March 30th 1880 whilst sitting in zazen, Tesshu attained enlightenment. Later that morning he went to practice Kendo with Asari. Asari realising that Tesshu had reached the level of ‘no-enemy’, declined a match telling Tesshu that “You have arrived.”
Shortly after this time Tesshu started his Muto-Ryu (No-sword) School of fencing. Later he became the tenth headmaster of the Ono ha Itto-Ryu, from this time on he called his school the Itto Shoden Muto-Ryu “The No-Sword System of the Correct Transmission of Ito Ittosai”. (Ito Ittosai Kagehisa 1560-1653 founder of The Itto-Ryu School of Fencing) He named his dojo ‘Shumpukan’. During this time another famous story of Tesshu occurred when he met the famous dualist Shimizu Jirocho. Jirocho had never been beaten in a contest. Tesshu asked him what was the secret of his success? Jirocho replied “When I touch tips with the sword of my opponent, I strike his sword hard. If I hear a loud clang and his is held sword stiffly, I cut him down. If I hear nothing and his sword whips back like a willow branch, I run away and shout ‘Sorry!’” Tesshu awarded him a certificate of sword mastery because of his superior knowledge.
As well as a great teacher and swordsman, Tesshu had even played a role in the modernisation of Japan, employed by the Tokugawa government before the restoration, he subsequently was taken in the direct employ of the emperor. It is said that he was the negotiator with Saigo Takamori during the civil uprisings following the restoration when Takamori rebelled against the new government. Tesshu died at the young age of fifty-three on July 19th 1888 of stomach cancer. He died like a true samurai and Zen master by first composing his death poem then closing his eyes and slipping into death whilst sitting in the formal Japanese manner. Master swordsman, master calligrapher, negotiator, Tesshu was a man of many talents, his enlightenment allowing him to not attach his life to any particular way, an amazing inspiration for swordsmen then and still today.