Zen and the Eastern Spirit

Yamaoka Tesshu

Tesshu had heart of sincerity since his childhood . As a consequence of his meeting with the selfless and highly respected Jouzan, Tesshu began to practice this "lifestyle of single-minded sincerity" continuously.

1, Tesshu, A Man Who Embodied "Selflessness and Sincerity"

Previously we have been quoting passages from the writings of the saints and sages about "selflessness and sincerity."
Now, we will introduce Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888) as a master of the human way that embodies "selflessness and sincerity." My concern is not with telling Tesshu's biography for its own sake, but rather with using the example of his life as an illustration of what "selflessness and sincerity" is really all about.

Of course, all the saints and sages are "selfless and sincere." However, as an eminent Zen master, Nanin, testified: "Since ancient times in China and Japan there have been but few genuinely sincere persons. But the layman Tesshu is a truly sincere person."

His close friend, Katsu Kaishu, also appreciated his sincere personality. "Tesshu was like a clear mirror without having any egoistic mind. Therefore, he made his decisions instantly and never made a mistake in any situation."

Tesshu was a master of the sword fighting, Zen and calligraphy. But most important, the core of his personality was "selflessness and sincerity." We find in Tesshu, an exemplary figure of "true Japanese life" and indeed the true way of "humankind."

Saigo Takamori, who ended the Tokugawa Shogunate, was politically on the side opposing Tesshu. He nevertheless praised Tesshu very highly. "He is the treasure of Shogun Tokugawa. He is a tough man to negotiate with, for he is not concerned with his life, honor or money. If he were not such a tough man, we wouldn't be able to talk together about the important matters of our country. A person with true selflessness , that's Tesshu."

2, The Heartfelt Teaching of Tesshu's Mother

Because he was born the son of a samurai, Tesshu was taught sword fighting and calligraphy. Looking back on that time, Tesshu wrote a remarkable essay titled, "The Teaching of my Parents, and the Beginning of my Training in the Art of the Sword and Zen." He wrote:

"When I was eight or nine years old, my mother taught me how to write letters. As it happened, my eyes fell on the letters 'loyalty and filial piety' . I wondered what those letters meant and so I asked my mother. She answered, 'The meaning of "loyalty" differs depending on how it is used, but in this case it means "the rightness of the heart to serve ones lord." And "filial piety" means to serve ones parents. However loyalty and filial piety have the same root, and there would be no reason to be born as a human being in this world, if the principle of "loyalty and filial piety" were not understood.' She said this sincerely.

"Because I was only a child, I did not know how important this was; and yet, as I was lying on my mother's lap and watching her face, I sensed her deep feelings when she said this. So I asked her whether she always kept to this way of life, and how I might be able to go that way. Then my mother must have felt something in her heart, and tears ran down her face.
She said, 'Oh my son, oh my son. I am always trying to keep the way, but because I am an immature woman, I haven't always been able to keep the way and I regret it very much. But luckily, you were born with a healthy body, so my wish for you is never to forget what I have just taught you. The way of "loyalty and filial piety" is very profound. Even though I have just told you what it means, you are not yet able to grasp the meaning. From now on, I want you to dedicate yourself in practice with the heart of "loyalty and filial piety," and then, in the future you will naturally be able to understand the true meaning of this word. Never abandon this heart.'
This sincere teaching of my mother filled my heart."

Thus, moved by his own mother exposing her true feelings in front of her own child, her true sincerity left a deep impression even in Tesshu's young mind. From this case we can understand well the importance of a mother's home education. If a child is educated with a warm and sincere heart, in the manner of Tesshu's mother, the child will grow up to be respected by everyone. At the age of fifteen, he made himself a list of "twenty rules of moral-training" as a reminder for polishing his own behavior every day.

3, The Encounter with "the Master of the Human Way"

The most remarkable event in Tesshu's life was his encounter with Yamaoka Jozan, whom he called "The Master of the Human Way." After Jozan died at the age of twenty-seven, Tesshu wrote about how he felt when training under him.

Tesshu said,
"Of course Jozan-sensei was exquisite in spear skills, and the greatest spear master in Japan. Everybody praised him for it. And on the inside he was always directing his spirit into the human way of loyalty, filial piety, humanity and justice . How many are there in this country who are superior to him? It is certain that Jozan-sensei's skill manifested the true functioning of selflessness. And this is the part of him I respect most. I am a student of sword fighting, and the master is the expert in spear fighting. Therefore I am not learning the master's skill. What I respect is the master's mind, a clear conscience without any evil thoughts. Thus, even though our skills are different, I went to his school to learn his teaching."

The master Jozan was always talking to people about Tesshu, saying such things as: "Though there are many young men in this world, men with great skills usually have no bravery, and men with high souls usually have no skills. So, there are many imperfect men--except for Tetsutaro Ono (Tesshu), who has a generous heart, as if a Bodhisattva has appeared. Tesshu is a man who should be known world-wide. How promising he is!"

Like master, like disciple. How noble this relationship between the master and his disciple was!

After Jozan's sudden death, Tesshu was in deep mourning, longing for his master. He secretly visited his master's grave every night. The temple's priest mistook Tesshu, who was a big man, for a monster, and told Jozan's younger brother, Deishu, about this. One day, while Deishu was watching, a cloud began covering the sky, eventually becoming a great thunderstorm.
In the wind and rain, a big man came running up to the grave and politely bowed his head with his hands together. And then he took off his kimono and covered the grave stone. As if talking to a real live person, he said, "My master, I will be here for you, so don't worry." With this, he stayed there and guarded the gravestone until the thunderstorm passed. Tesshu knew Jozan was scared of the thunder.

Watching Tesshu's sincere actions from a distance, Deishu's eyes were filled with tears.

4, Yamaoka Jozan

Venerated by a person like Tesshu, what kind of person was Jozan?
Katsu Kaishu testified as follows:
"Jozan always used to say, 'Going the right way makes me brave, but with a personal agenda, somehow I loose confidence.' On the side of the short wooden sword, which never left his side, was carved, 'Never mention other people's faults, and never say how proud you are.' And on the other side was carved, 'Put aside what you have done for other people, but never forget what people have done for you.' Jozan's personality can be gleaned from this.

Jozan also said,
"If we want to win over others, we must become virtuous. If the virtue we gain is superior to that of the enemy, he would naturally surrender and this would be a true win."

"What we must warn ourselves against is our pride. Once pride arises in our mind, all of our skill comes to nothing. Remembering the past, I can't say that pride never rose in my mind. Whenever I think about it, I get overwhelmed with shame and regret, and my whole body is covered with sweat."

5, The Practice of Selflessness and Sincerity

When Tesshu was twenty-three years old, he wrote an essay titled, "The Matter of Cultivating Heart and Courage." To gain the secret essence of cultivating heart and courage, he investigated, by studying their achievements thoroughly, how "the saints and the eminent persons of the past and present" mastered and practiced the way.

And he also humbly added, "From my childhood until now, though I have been learning to cultivate my heart and courage, the reason why I cannot make a profound study of it, is that I am lacking in sincerity."

6, The Amazing Activity of Selflessness

Finally, I would like to introduce a typical episode of Tesshu's selflessness and sincerity.

One day a butcher visited Tesshu to ask him to write a sign for his store.
This made the disciples of Tesshu angry. "How rude and ill-mannered you are! How dare you come and ask the great master Tesshu to write a sign for your poor store! How can you be so disrespectful!"
But upon hearing this from where he was standing, Tesshu stopped them and said, "I do not mind at all. There is nothing better than my bringing prosperity to your store by writing a sign for you."
As soon as he said this he wrote the sign and said, "I do not make a living by writing calligraphy so I will write for whoever asks me. I will even write a sign for a street stall, a notice of birth, a letter, or even signing a paper, whatever is asked of me."

Tesshu was a very famous sword and calligraphy master and his calligraphy was extremely high quality and very expensive. Usually he was asked to write signs for temples. Thus, it was quite inappropriate for an ordinary butcher to ask him to make a sign for his store, and so Tesshu’s disciples were naturally angry. However, Tesshu did’t care about any of these things.

His amazing act was performed without effort, and it naturally gushed forth from that selflessness which abandons needless pride and conceit. How great this amazing action is!

There is still much to say about Yamaoka Tesshu. Yet perhaps his incomparably great selflessness and sincerity can be discerned from what has been written here.

The following section concerns Ishida Baigan and Kurozumi Munetada, two eminent Japanese who lived in the Edo era. By relating the fundamental experiences of the founders of the "Study of the Heart" and the "Kurozumikyo" school of Shinto,
we will see that the state of mind of "selflessness and sincerity" is the ground ofthe Eastern spirit.

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