Budo World

The Ideology of Tōken (swords)

Body, Mind and Sword
The Gateway to Spiritual Culture

1. Introduction

The cultural aspects that attract people to the kendō today are, to a large extent, those of Edo period kenjutsu.  Incidentally, during this era it was not common to attach the character michi (道) to techniques concerning the tsurugi (剣), this is most certainly a development of the modern era.

Where the word “civilisation” implies a more tangible concept, it is the word “culture” that identifies with both material and spiritual ideas. So when referring to the culture of kendō, it may be suggested that one particular characteristic is that of a “spiritual culture”. As such, it was the “ideology of tōken” that came to play a significant part in the formation of this spirituality in modern age kenjutsu. With this in mind, I would now like to work towards clarifying this aspect of kendō cultural aspects.

2. The Mind as the Essence of the Body

I suspect that many people have experienced some kind of anxiety or fright that has rendered them motionless for a moment. Even nowadays in kendō, we are instructed in the old teaching concerning the four “illnesses of mind”: “surprise”, “fear”, “doubt”, and “confusion” (also known as the “four ailments of the heart”). Such psychological matters pertaining to the mind / heart are still considered to be of paramount importance today.

Still, traditional kenjutsu is very different to modern kendō, particularly when one considers shinken-shōbu or mortal combat. Considering the act of holding kamae (position) with the live-blade katana, skin trembling with fear as both put their life on the line to engage in battle, undoubtedly one’s state of mind was a critical concern.    

In early-modern kenjutsu, much attention was given to the mind as being central to the  body and action. This line of thought follows the notion that, for good or for bad, the body draws heavily from the mind, and the mind acts to direct the reactions and responses of the body.

In the first year of Kansei (1789), Natsume Jiroemon of the Ittō-ryū authored the manuscript Kenjutsu kudensho. In it he states “The most important thing about a person is his mind.” Furthermore, in Yagyū Munenori’s Heihō kadensho, the same sentiment is referenced incessantly. Similar comments can also be seen in the scrolls of the Jigen-ryū. It is certain that this mode of thought was not at all uncommon in early-modern kenjutsu, and issues concerning the mind-body relationship were principal in the study of swordsmanship.

This is a good juncture to deliberate on the often stated “spiritual characteristics” of kenjutsu (kendō).

3. The Sword that Defeats the Self and the Enemy

How did swordsmen address issues of the mind? In the first year of the Tenmei era (1781), Kubo Shichibee Kinoyukihide of the Jigen-ryū wrote the Jigen-ryū kikigaki kikkin-roku where he states the following:

“Although the tachi (太刀) can be used to cut and kill one’s enemy, one must first kill the three ailments in his own heart; and only when his heart has become strong, clear, right, and vivid should he pick up his sword and kill his enemy.”

The three ailments mentioned in this exert stem from Buddhist teachings regarding worldly desires or passions, specifically greed, anger and foolishness, and are generally understood as evil or idle thoughts. In other words, although it is obviously the enemy who is the target of one’s cut with the katana (tachi),  before this it is the evils inside one’s self that must be smited.

A similar sentiment is displayed within the action of “onken” which is performed in the Shintō-ryū. Having taken a ready stance for engagement (kamae), the sword is held in front of the chest. Then, by turning the right wrist inwards, the blade of the sword is directed towards the self. It is said that this movement signifies the ridding of impurities within, and only after having cleansed the self can one engage his enemy. Over and above all, this establishes the idea that one must utilise the two swords (tōken—刀剣) to defeat both inner and outer demons. Further, as it is the mind that directs the actions of the body, failing to properly manage the problems of the mind will result in an inability to execute the ideal technique.

This is the technical aspect of the idea of “directing the sword at the self and at the enemy.” As previously discussed, of the two swords, the single edged katana and the double edged tsurugi, it was the tsurugi that is historically considered sacred.  Until here, it has been the katana that has been discussed on the surface (from the point of view of it being referred to as tachi 太刀 in the Jigen-ryū scrolls, and as the katana or tachi that is actually used in Shintō-ryū). Yet, delving even deeper, we find that these are conceptually the ideals of surrounding the tsurugi. Regarding the Shintō-ryū’s use of the katana in the onken practice, let us know turn our attention the text Bushi-kun, a work that was authored in the fifth year of Shōtoku (1715) by Izawa Banryō, as it further expresses this concept:  “The reiken (spiritual sword) reveals one’s resolve. It gives strength and has no want. Internally, it destroys voracity, the enemy of the mind. Externally, it rescinds evildoers.” 

Later referenced in the scrolls of the Shintō-ryū, this is an extremely important passage that explains the reiken or “sacred (tsurugi) sword” as something that works to expel evils within oneself, whilst still being able to cut down an external foe. This is clearly a technique that is based on the ideology of the tsurugi. Therefore, it can be said that the use of the katana is conceptually based on the ideology of the tsurugi, and that the actual techniques of the katana are underpinned on the ideals of the tsurugi.

Conceptually, the idea of the tsurugi’s double-edge is significant. The blade is directed at both the enemy and the self, which is highly symbolic. The tsurugi was viewed as a sword that could conquer not only an external enemy, but also one’s own internal demons. It was the sword that could be used to overcome the complicated yet critical “weaknesses of the mind”.  It was “the sword that could cut the self, and then the enemy”.

4. The Tsurugi Symbolic of the Mind

Although it may be possible to cut and kill a living enemy, the other adversary in need of subduing, the evils of the internal mind, cannot be physically attacked. This is extremely conceptual, and cannot be accomplished with conventional technique. Thus, the solution advanced in early-modern kenjutsu was to seek and realise the “image” of using the sacred tsurugi sword. One work that confronts this issue is Matsuura Seizan’s Kenkō.

“There is sword within the self, and it is called the riken (利剣- ‘the sword of reason’). One must not kill a man with the sword of the gods. Use it to rid malice and spite from one’s heart. This is the riken of the mind.”

This passage attempts to explain the notion of overcoming evil (malice and spite) within one’s heart and mind by way of the “riken of the mind” (kokoro-no-riken), which put simply, is the mind itself. The ability to overcome or cut down the evils in the mind is only achievable through the mind. This capability resides within the consciousness, and although somewhat difficult to grasp, is expressed as one’s riken (利剣). Thus, the character tsurugi (剣) used in this word acts to represent the mind. This line of thought where the sword is understood to represent the heart and mind, can also be seen in written works such as Taiaki authored by Takuan Sōhō, a man said to have had much influence on the Shinkage-ryū.  It could also be said that for a mind that cannot be contained, it is through the concepts of the sacred tsurugi sword, that the symbolic sense of techniques can be found. 

5. Summary

The argument made in Matsura Seizan’s Kenkō regarding the sword that represents the mind as “the sword of the gods” (shinbutsu-no-ken) is very interesting. Based on the premise that the image of the tsurugi is founded in Shintō-Budhhist thought, this concept is an extremely important one in the Japanese ideology of the token, something that will require more discussion later in this article.

To recap, the ideas we have established are: 1) the mind/heart directs the techniques performed by the body; 2) therefore, for a technique to cut down/defeat an opponent one must, at the same time, overcome the evils inside the self; 3) the object that governs the heart/mind is the heart/mind itself; and very importantly, 4) techniques should be performed with an image and ideals of the tsurugi sword at their root.

Development of the movement culture of kendō becomes clearer through these examples concerning the philosophy of the tsurugi sword and the extensive part such a concept plays in the relationship between ‘body’ and ‘mind’. The issues discussed to this point have concerned the mind / spirit required of techniques to confront an opponent, something that may be considered the ‘gateway’ to the spirituality of kenjutsu. From this point, my discussion will focus on a curious development regarding this facet.