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Japanese Swords

The following are stories and parables of which some are about the exploits of the famous Samurai warrior, Miyamoto Musashi. For the most part, these tales were an oral tradition, passed down from instructor to student. While there were many stories about numerous warriors throughout the ages, it seems that Musashi is credited with most of these deeds, even though he may not have been present during the said event. It must be understood that these adventures are not necessarily about a person, but rather an ideology. As such, it is the lesson, and not the individual, which must be acknowledged.

by Ray Ellingsen

A Link to – Examining a Japanese Sword

The Second Lesson of Spirit

One spring morning the renowned sword maker Muramasa was visited by a young sword maker named Hidoshi. “I have been told that you are the greatest sword maker in the land. I am here to prove that I am better,” stated the journeyman bladesmith. Muramasa shook his head sadly and ignored Hidoshi, continuing with his work. Hidoshi was relentless however, and challenged Muramasa to make a better blade than his own. “How do you propose that we judge such a contest?” asked Muramasa.

“We will cut through the bodies of convicts as they are condemned already and see who’s blade cuts deeper,” said Hidoshi. Muramasa refused this method but finally agreed to have a neutral party test the blades on inanimate objects.

The whole province gathered to watch the contest as an elected samurai tested each blade. First the warrior sliced through several large bamboo stalks with each blade. While both blades severed the stalks cleanly, the tester noted that Muramasa’s blade cleaved through the stalks with slightly more difficultly. Next the samurai placed each blade between two rocks and bent the blades as far as they would go to test the strength of their steel. While both blades bowed, they each straightened back to true. The finishes on each blade were flawless, and after exhaustive testing the exasperated samurai declared that he could tell no difference between the two swords.

Hidoshi clenched his fists in frustration while Muramasa sat calmly. Finally, Muramasa stood and said, “there is one final test if you are willing to take it.” Hidoshi eagerly agreed, believing that his blade could best Muramasa’s if given the chance. Muramasa took both swords and walked down to a large cherry tree at the bottom of a hill. A stream wound through the forest and around the base of the tree.

There in the shade Muramasa handed Hidoshi his blade and said, ” place the spine of your blade across the top of the water with the edge facing skyward.” Hidoshi complied. As they waited, cherry blossom petals drifted down into the stream to be carried away. Several of these fell across the edge of Hidoshi’s blade and were cleaved cleanly in half as they touched the blade. Hidoshi smiled and withdrew his blade. Muramasa placed his blade in the water in the same manner. Several petals floated down; but upon reaching Muramasa’s blade, the petals veered off at the last moment, landing unharmed in the water. Hidoshi’s smile faded. He flung his blade into the water and bowed before Muramasa. “Though I thought myself a master you have shown me that I am still only an apprentice. You are truly a master, and I can only hope that one day I may achieve your greatness.” in the coming years Hidoshi studied faithfully under Muramasa, and one day did indeed himself become a master.

The Lesson of Spirit

One spring day Musashi accepted an apprentice. The young man was bright, respectful, and eager, and as such, learned his lessons very quickly. In the winter of his third year under Musashi, the apprentice began training in the way of the sword. One morning, Musashi told the lad to take his sword down to the forest and cut through a stalk of bamboo.

That evening, Musashi went to check on his young student’s progress. He found the apprentice standing in front of a large bamboo stalk, dejected. He noted that, while there were many deep cuts in the bamboo, none had severed the stalk.

“I have tried all day, but I do not have the strength to do as you asked,” admitted the apprentice, “but I will try again.” As the student nervously steeled himself to strike again, Musashi calmly put his hand to the back of the apprentice’s blade, lowering the weapon.

“Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try,” replied Musashi. “To simply attempt a task is to allow yourself the option of failure. By doing, your mind will be clear, and your intentions will not be distracted by fear or doubt,” he added.

The apprentice pondered this as he and his teacher walked home to retire for the evening.

The next morning, the apprentice returned to the forest, drew his blade, and sliced cleanly through a bamboo stalk with one single stroke. He felt no triumph, only a stillness in his mind. He turned to find Musashi standing a few feet away.

“Be wise and careful in what you choose to do,” noted Musashi, “for in doing, your actions may sometimes be irrevocable.”

The apprentice looked at his sword, and then at the severed stalk. He sheathed his blade, and he and Musashi walked up the path together.

The Lesson of Intention

One spring morning, while walking in the public gardens, Musashi, at the time, in his 50’s, was challenged to a sword duel by a young Ronin. Musashi, having nothing to prove, declined. The Ronin informed him that he would challenge him each day in public until Musashi accepted. After one month of this, Musashi reluctantly accepted.

They met atop cherry blossom hill at dawn. They bowed, drew their swords, and commenced to do battle. Upon the second exchange, the Ronin realized that he was far outclassed, but vowed to fight to the death in order to retain his own honor.

Upon the forth exchange, much to the Ronin’s astonishment, Musashi raised his sword to strike, but left his ribs exposed. Not in the position to stab, the Ronin sliced across Musashi’s side instead, only slightly wounding the elder man.

Musashi stepped back and lowered his sword, offering it to the Ronin in the customary gesture of acknowledging defeat. The Ronin accepted the sword, thus ending the duel. As was also the custom when both warriors survived an encounter, Musashi prepared tea for both of them.

While they partook of the tea, the Ronin could not help himself and proudly announced, “I have beaten the greatest swordsman in the land, now I am the best.” Musashi calmly blew on his tea to cool it, and replied, “but you did not win the battle, I did.”

Dumbfounded, the Ronin could only stare at Musashi in disbelief.

“When you met me on the hill this morning, what was your intention?” asked Musashi.

“To become the greatest warrior in the land”. Replied the perplexed Ronin.

“My intention was that we both survive the contest. As such, I did what was necessary to insure that this was the outcome.” countered Musashi. With that, he returned drinking his tea.

The Ronin pondered this for a while, then set down his cup. The Ronin returned Musashi’s sword to him, then offered his own sword to Musashi, as was the customary gesture of acknowledging defeat.

The Second Lesson of Intention

Musashi was traveling through the mountains one day on his way to report to the Province Shogun. As he and his attendant came upon a fork in the path, they were suddenly surrounded by several bandits. The leader of the group ordered Musashi and his charge to hand over all of their possessions. Musashi gave no reply and simply stood unmoving. The bandit again made his demand, this time louder. He also brandished a club menacingly to emphasis his point. Still, Musashi stood his ground quietly. Frustrated, the leader screamed to Musashi, “Give us everything you have, now; or we will attack you.”

In one swift motion, Musashi drew his sword and sliced the bandit’s club cleanly in half. Musashi’s return stroke arced toward the bandit’s neck, stopping barely one inch in front of the startled thief’s throat.

Wide eyed, the bandit carefully motioned his comrades to back away. As Musashi lowered his blade, the hoodlums all turned and fled back into the forest.

Two days later, on their return trip, Musashi and his attendant were again stopped along the pathway. This time by two different brigands. Musashi stared at the two men; and they stared back, holding their weapons at the ready.

Without warning, Musashi’s blade seemingly leapt from its sheath. Musashi’s first stroke severed the head from the lead bandit. His second, cut across the second man’s stomach, disemboweling him. Both of them fell to the ground, dead.

The attendant, still in shock from what he had just witnessed, turned to Musashi and asked, “When we were besieged two days ago, you only discouraged the men who attacked us; and yet today you killed these two without hesitation. Why?’

As Musashi cleaned his blade and prepared to sheath it, he replied, “Those men the other day, while hungry, were not committed to doing us harm. As such, it was a simple matter to convince them that we were not worth their efforts. These men at your feet were committed to robbing us at any cost. There was nothing I could do to convince them otherwise.”

“Those who talk are not prepared to act. Those that are prepared to act, do not talk, they simply do. To be in control of your actions, you must be able to distinguish between the two.”

Musashi and his attendant continued their journey without further incident.

The Lesson of Preparedness

One day Musashi and his attendant were walking down a forest path. Several dozen yards behind them, quite by chance, a fellow samurai followed, traveling in the same direction. After a time, Musashi and his charge came upon the body of a man lying along the side of the narrow path. Musashi calmly drew his Wakasashi and held it casually at his side as they passed by. Once they were a good distance away, Musashi re-sheathed his blade.

The Samurai traveling behind them approached the same body and stopped to kick it. When it failed to move, the samurai laughed, and in a loud voice taunted Musashi. ” Do all the Samurai in your province fear the dead so?” he asked. The attendant’s face reddened with shame as he heard the man continue to ridicule his master. Musashi ignored the comments and continued walking.

Suddenly the “dead” man leapt to his feet and, brandishing a knife, stabbed the criticizing Samurai through the heart, killing him instantly. The deceptive bandit quickly began stripping the fallen warrior of his possessions.

Musashi stopped to witness this. The thief, seeing that Musashi was watching, gathered what he could and fled into the forest. Musashi’s attendant turned to his master and asked, ” When we passed that man, how did you know that he was not dead?”

“I didn’t,” replied Musashi. “But only a foolish man walks unprepared into something that stands plainly before him.”

The attendant pondered this as he and his master continued down the path together.

The Lesson of Priority

One day a young Ronin was walking a path down the mountainside. A group of ruffians approached him coming from the other direction. Upon seeing the Ronin they decided to harass him. Their taunts turned to shoving and suddenly one of the thugs drew a weapon. Without warning, the Ronin leapt off the narrow path and tumbled down the mountain. The ruffians stared in disbelief as the Ronin picked himself up at the bottom of the hill, dusted himself off, and walked away.

Several weeks later the Ronin was walking along a river near a village when he was approached by the same group of bandits. Upon recognizing the Ronin the ruffians picked up their pace, eager to torment the timid warrior once again. As they approached, the Ronin calmly threw himself into the swift current of river, floating away from the troublemakers to safety.

Some time later, the Ronin was granted an audience with the local Shogun, who was seeking a warrior to protect him. The Shogun, although impressed with the young Ronin’s appearance and demeanor, expressed his concerns about hiring the warrior. “I have been told that on several occasions you have demonstrated cowardice in the face of adversity. This concerns me; but as I am in dire need of a warrior’s services and can find no one else, I shall hire you.” The Ronin did not respond to the allegations, but simply bowed quietly.

One day the warrior was escorting his new master through the province when they were set upon by the now familiar group of rouges. The bandits, recognizing the Ronin turned Samurai, all grinned maliciously and charged forward to chase the cowardly warrior off. Without hesitation, the Samurai drew his sword and stabbed the first man through the stomach. In one deft motion he withdrew the blade and stepped forward, severing another bandit’s head from his body. With two more swift motions of his blade, the warrior dispatched the remaining two thugs.

As the Samurai cleaned his blade, the Shogun and his charges stared at the carnage around them. The Shogun turned to the warrior and asked, “Are these the same brigands that you once ran from?” When the Samurai nodded, the Shogun added, “You obviously are not a coward, but why did you flee from these men before?” The warrior turned to his master and said, “When I met these men before, the only thing that was at stake was my pride. Today the stakes were our lives. A true warrior must know the difference between the two.”

The Lesson of Strategy

One spring morning Musashi decided to take a boat trip to the islands. During the voyage, as he leaned against the railing enjoying the ocean view, a bully circulated through the passengers, harassing them. Soon he made his way to Musashi and bumped Musashi rather rudely. Musashi ignored this and continued to stare out onto the sea. The bully appraised Musashi and began to taunt him with insults. When Musashi refused to reply the bully shook his head in disgust.

“My sword method is the cleaving sword style from the northern mountains and the most fierce in the land,” said the bully. He patted the large sword protruding from his sash and smiled with satisfaction. “I see you wear a sword as well. What is your style?” the thug asked. Musashi calmly turned to the man and said, “My sword method is the style of fighting without fighting.”

The bully stared at Musashi in dismay. “I have never heard of such a method,” he said. “show it to me.” Musashi looked about the cramped quarters of the sailing vessel and shook his head. “There is not enough room here, and others might get hurt if we draw our blades.,” said Musashi, and turned back to survey the water around him. The bully stared at him for a moment then began to draw his sword. Musashi held up his hand to stop the man and calmly said, “obviously you require a demonstration so let me propose this.” Musashi pointed to a dingy being pulled along behind their boat and said, “We will take that small skiff and row to one of the small islands nearby. There we can demonstrate our methods to one another.”

Satisfied, the bully nodded and they proceeded to mount the small dingy. Once they settled into the little boat Musashi removed his sword and set it between them. After rowing a few strokes and banging his paddle against the handle of his own sword, the bully reluctantly removed his sword and did the same. The two men concentrated their efforts on making for a small island.

Finally, upon reaching the island, the bully jumped out and pulled the boat up onto the beach. He turned to find Musashi returning his sword under his sash. “Hand me my blade.” demanded the bully. Musashi stepped out of the boat and drew his own blade. He pointed the tip of his sword at the thug and backed him, unarmed, up the beach. “Where is my sword?” cried the man. Musashi regarded the whimpering bully and said, “I dropped it in the ocean while you rowed here. Now, let us do battle.” the bully eyed Musashi’s sword then lowered his eyes in defeat. “All the skills and all the swords in the world are useless if one does not have the strategy and wisdom with which to wield them.” The thug bowed respectfully and he and Musashi got back in their boat and continued on their journey.

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