Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Priest of Myoko Temple

Photo above: "Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, the founder of Shinkage Ryu"

Douglas Tong

Copyright © 2012 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved. All photos from Iaido Journal

One day, when their path took them to Myōkō Temple in Owari Province, the three saw a large crowd of villagers standing some distance from a solitary cottage. They all seemed concerned about something and were deep in a heated discussion. When asked what had happened, the villagers replied that a criminal had been holding a child hostage since early in the morning. Although the child’s parents had been desperately seeking help, no one knew what to do. All was confusion.

As soon as he understood the situation, Nobutsuna said to the villagers, “Don’t worry. I will rescue the child in the cottage.” Then he turned to a priest standing within the circle of villagers, and said, “Please shave my head and lend me your robe.” Even Nobutsuna’s companions were struck dumb with amazement. Nobutsuna led the priest to an area that couldn’t be seen from the cottage. There he stuck out his head to have it shaved.

Seeing a priest approaching the cottage, the criminal, a brutal, gigantic man, yelled in a thundering voice, “Don’t come any closer. Don’t approach me or I’ll kill this child.” Putting his left arm around the child’s neck, the criminal put his right hand on the hilt of the sword at his side. Without hesitating, Nobutsuna strode forward towards the cottage, saying, “I have rice balls for the child. He must be so hungry by this time. Since a priest’s vocation is to serve people with 
compassion, he cannot be indifferent to people in situations like this.” 

Nobutsuna took a rice ball from his robe and threw it towards the child. Then he took out a second and said, “You must be hungry, too. You are, aren’t you? Eat this and take a breather!” He rolled it towards the man, who reached for it without thinking. Just at the moment the criminal let down his guard for a second, Nobutsuna jumped. Holding the criminal’s right arm, Nobutsuna wrestled him to the floor. Then he grabbed the child and rushed out of the cottage. It was a feat done as quickly as lightning by a man completely alert. The villagers swooped down on the criminal as Nobutsuna returned the child to his parent’s arms and took off the priest’s robe.

Admiring Nobutsuna’s feat, the priest said, “You must be a man who has attained enlightenment through swordsmanship.” Then the priest offered the robe to Nobutsuna. By offering the robe, the priest showed that he had perceived greatness in Nobutsuna’s character.

This excerpt from: Sugawara, Makoto (1988). Lives of Master Swordsmen (pp.93-95), The East Publications, Tokyo, Japan. 

"This is the famous scene in Seven Samurai where Kambei shaves off his hair to take the guise of a priest to go and save the child. This whole episode was a re-enactment of the real event faced by Kamiizumi at Myoko Temple."

Author’s post-script: 

Of course, this story is one of the great adventures of the famous swordmaster Kamiizumi Nobutsuna. It is so famous that it was borrowed by Director Akira Kurosawa and used as the opening scene for his pivotal samurai period movie (jidai-geki), the Seven Samurai. For those who are not familiar with Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, he was a veteran samurai and leader of the illustrious elite fighting unit, the Sixteen Spears of Nagano. He was also the founder of the Shinkage school of swordsmanship. On his journeys through Japan, he would later meet and teach a talented swordsman from the Kinki district, a man named Yagyu Munetoshi. Yagyu Munetoshi (also known as Yagyu Muneyoshi) would later create a style of swordsmanship which he called Yagyu Shinkage Ryu and the rest is history.

Why is this story so fascinating? Well, for one, Nobutsuna’s actions that day epitomized one of the
Seven Virtues of Bushido: “gi” or rectitude.

Rectitude (Right Decisions/ Justice)

That is definitely one of the lessons from this tale. He didn’t need to rescue the child or even offer to help. He could have continued on his way. It was a small village he was going through, so I don’t think he did it for fame or glory. In fact, there was nothing to gain and actually more to lose in his case. As a famous 
sword teacher who was travelling with his two disciples, to lose this skirmish would be disastrous for his reputation. Why stake it on such an insignificant cause? But he did what was morally right.

He could have been selfish and thought only of himself and his reputation. But he did a selfless act, to save the life of another human being. Reminds me a lot of the selfless acts of heroism from many of the survivors of the 9/11 tragedy in New York City.

In reading about the acts of heroism in the accounts of 9/11, I found their readings intriguing and fascinating. I read up on why I was so fascinated and found this quote:

So why are we so intrigued by every detail of the sacrifices some people are capable of in times of need? because we know how exceptional these acts are and because they are the reflection of our own sense of altruism.

The reason heroic acts are so valued is because they are physically and psychologically contradictory to survival.”

Everyday heroism 9/11/01

She’s right. Our primary instinct is survival for ourselves. To risk your life for others is counter-intuitive. But to do it, you must care for others and others’ welfare, even at the expense of your own. This type of sacrifice is what we admire. To give your life for others; that is one of the greatest gestures of humanity. It is also one of the highest forms of heroism and courage, as she remarks:

I believe that heroism is any act that involves the abandonment of one’s own needs for the good of another. The greater the sacrifice, the more heroic the individual is. A hero is a person who acts selflessly to help others.”

Let’s focus on one key phrase in what she says: the abandonment of one’s own needs for the good of another.

We have heard this story before. Watch any action movie and invariably, the hero’s story is about that. One of the most famous stories of heroism in human history, the story of Jesus, comes to mind.

Here is another: a person who acts selflessly to help others.

Robin Hood. The Good Samaritan. 

Jesus answered, "A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, 'Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.' Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?"
He said, "He who showed mercy on him."
Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

— Luke 10:30–37

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

There is another reason why this story is so appealing to me. Nobutsuna achieves his goal with no weapon! This is simply amazing. When you really think about it, to go into such a dangerous situation, most people would like to even the odds by taking a weapon with them. If the other guy has a sword, I’d at the very least like to have a sword as well. No one would purposefully put themselves at a disadvantage by going into a swordfight with no sword. That would be sheer recklessness or insanity. Or else, utter confidence in one’s ability to succeed, to win, even weaponless.

Granted, most veteran samurai of that era, and I mean seasoned battlefield fighters, probably had some training in jujutsu as part of their repertoire of essential battlefield martial skills that they needed to know. But this feat, especially for swordsmen, is even more amazing because he chooses to fight with no weapon.

Nobutsuna’s feat illustrates a high form of swordsmanship. From what Yagyu Munenori says, when one has reached a high level of swordsmanship, swordfighting ceases to be about the sword (the tool) but rather, more about the mind (the tactics) and the heart (spirit). 

No-sword means neither taking an opponent’s sword nor slashing him. If your opponent is determined to slash you, take his sword. But taking his sword must not be your intent from the outset. It is intended for you to learn to make good estimates. You must learn to estimate how much distance is needed between your opponent and your body for his sword not to strike you. With a good estimate of this distance you need not fear the sword your opponent strikes out with…
You will not be able to take the opponent’s sword as long as you stay far enough away not to be struck. You can take the sword only within the space in which it may touch you. Be slashed to take it.

Source: Sato, H. (trans.)(1986). The Sword and the Mind, (p. 99). New York: Overlook Press. 

This episode from Kamiizumi Nobutsuna’s adventures succeeds for me on a few different levels. He is one of my all-time favourite swordmasters because of his character.

He does what is right. He does it unselfishly. He is creative. He is daring. And he is courageous, fearless.

I just watched a movie with my son called Captain America. This comic book hero has pretty much the same characteristics. Whoever created Captain America created him on the basis of an archetype, a hero archetype. Archetypes are prototypes, the original blueprint for the copies that follow.

An archetype is a universally understood symbol, term, or pattern of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated. Archetypes are often used in myths and storytelling across different cultures.”

Source: Archetype

In other words, archetypes come from somewhere, some experience of the human condition, some model. They don’t just spring up out of nowhere. They are based on some sort of reality, like an actual event or an actual person. However, they eventually become universal images, prototypes of ideas. They take many forms (e.g., the Wise Old Man, the Martyr, etc…) but a typical recurring archetype is that of
the Hero:

The Hero (male) and Heroine (female) came to refer to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good of all 
humanity. This definition originally referred to martial courage or excellence but extended to more general moral excellence.”

Again, in this definition, we see the same general attribute for the hero, namely self-sacrifice for some greater good, for the benefit of humanity. Another key phrase from this excerpt: in the face of danger, he or she displays courage. In Nobutsuna’s case, yes, I would agree. He does display courage in the face of danger and yes, he sacrifices himself for the greater good. Moral excellence? No doubt. He does what is right.

Kamiizumi Nobutsuna. A true samurai hero. 

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies

As he has so often in the past, Tong sensei has contributed another excellent that reaches well beyond physical technique into the heart and soul of traditional martial arts.

I strongly encourage martial artists in this country, or internationally, to contact Tong sensei if you would like to experience one of his seminars. His contact information is posted below.

SEMINAR: We are so lucky to have Tong sensei schedule a seminar for our local area on Saturday, April 25 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at Elite Martial Arts, 200 Dundas Street East, Belleville, Ontario, Canada. The cost? – amazingly only $25. Tong sensei is only accepting 12 participants so you must contact me ASAP to get on the list!

Douglas Tong began his studies of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu with the late Mutou Sensei (Kajitsuka sensei’s teacher) in Zushi in 1992. Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at: or at

He can also be reached at 519-942-6381

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