Yamaoka Tesshu

Yamaoka Tesshu, Renaissance swordsman of late 1800s Japan, calligrapher 1,000,000 pieces of art.
tesshu yamaoka calligraphy


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.”

When he died, he sat down, composed his death poem and then closed his eyes and died.
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.


I am not struck,
Nor is my opponent hit.
Unobstructed I move in
And attain the ultimate.

Against an opponent’s sword
Assume no stance
And keep your mind unmoved.
That is the place of victory.

Where swords meet
Throw off illusion.
Abandon yourself
And you will tread on the living path.

Spirit, swift
Mind, calm
Body, light
Eyes, clear
Technique, decisive!

Muto Ryu Strategy

The Five Components:
Myo-ken, Marvelous Sowrd
Zetsumyo-ken, Exquisite Sword
Shin-ken, True Sword
Konchichoo-ken, Sword of the Golden Garuda King
Dokumyo-ken, Sword of Solitary Splendor

The Seven Ways to Attain Victory

1. Suppressing the opponent’s ki
2. Anticipating the attack
3. Responding to the attack
4. Holding down
5. Driving back
6. Overwhelming
7. Proper adjustment
These seven ways of attaingin victory must always be kept in mind. If they are ignored, it will be difficult to have proper understanding of the Way of the Sword. if one trains aimlessly, Mind cannot develop, time is wasted, and there is useless expense of energy. Thus, I formulated these seven basic procedures at the request of Mr. Maeda and taught them to him over a seventeen-day period.
August, 1880

I think I know what he means by these, except for Holding Down.

Tesshu’s writings from The Sword of No Sword by John Stevens.