It was cool under the pines.
The abbot came up behind us, his steps muffled by the thatch of fallen needles. He hugged us both—James Seki Roshi was renowned for asking, “How can we embrace the dharma if we can’t embrace one another?” Then he turned his head to the grave marker.
It’s a polished grey stone pillar. The characters chiseled into the surface are simple enough to read. There’s his name, Yamashita Rinsuke. And, underneath there is the phrase Zetsumyo Ken.
“The Miraculous Sword,” the abbot translated out loud.
“I’m not sure whether it’s a summary of his life or a message” I admitted.
He nodded. “Good point. It’s an apt summary for certain. The literal translation of ‘miracle’ is ‘a thing of wonder.’ In your master’s hands, the sword truly was just that.”
“Probably more to it, though,” I said, and smiled sadly. “Hard to tell. But ambiguity would be more his style.” I remembered years of frustration under Yamashita’s tutelage, trying to discern what he was really getting at, what he wanted from me. In some ways it was simple: he wanted me to be better. But except for technique he was maddingly vague about how he wanted me to go about doing that.
“Oh, more to it than that, undoubtedly,” the Roshi agreed.
It would be just like him. Even from the grave he’s prodding at me.
The Roshi watched my face. I felt as if he could read my mind. “I find most things of significance in this word to be . . .” He turned his gaze up into the pines. “. . . complex.” Then he turned back to face me. “And certainly, your master knew this. So, maybe you’re right—it’s a summary of his life but a message as well.” He paused. I heard the blue jays protesting in the distance, nothing if not persistent. “What does it mean for you, Connor?”
I shrugged. “The phrase from the Itto Ryu tradition. A quote from the founder, Ittosai.”
“Tradition was important to Yamashita,” he noted.
It was an accurate enough observation, but the Roshi wasn’t a swordsman, so the full import of the phrase wasn’t something he’d grasp fully. It wasn’t just some old saying. The inscription hinted at the seemingly miraculous nature of an advanced swordsman’s skill, where actions take place without conscious thought, like sparks flying out from the striking of flint and steel. It was the experience Yamashita pursued all his life. I tried to explain that to the Roshi.
He listened with kindness and understanding. “So, even now, your master is teaching you, Connor. It may be a description, or a pious echo of his tradition. But it’s more than that, isn’t it?”
I turned to look at the Roshi. His expression was watchful. He spends his days doing this kind of thing. Leading his students in the give and take of question and answer they call mondo in Zen Buddhism. And in his past life, James Seki Roshi had been a therapist. So, he knew how to nudge and how to wait. He knew when silence could pry thoughts loose. The experience was like walking in the woods, alone in early spring. The leaves are brown and wet, matted down by the weight of winter. But if you scuff them, sometimes you find a translucent shoot, pushing up through the damp, seeking light and warmth. In retrospect, it’s a commonplace event, but always a revelation. Mondo is like that: the insights are as striking and yet as prosaic as the everyday miracle of new growth after a long, chill season.
“I don’t think it’s just a description,” I admitted, but kept quiet as I thought. A miracle makes you think of good things. But I’ve come to learn that there is darkness as well. The miraculous sword sounds like something wonderful to behold. But in the last moments of Yamashita’s life there had been none of the elegance of his art, no beautiful integration of flesh and intention and shining blade. That wasn’t the memory I was left with. There was, instead, noise and pain and a moment where his history demanded a sacrifice that he wouldn’t escape.
“It’s something he lived,” the Roshi nudged, “The miraculous sword.” I looked hard at him. He had been there in the hall with us when Yamashita died. What did he see that I didn’t?
In my memory, it was all simply terrifying. No wonder about it at all. Just a terrible inevitability. In the last moments of his life, Yamashita hadn’t flinched or hesitated. He did what he had to do. So, in some ways, a lifetime of discipline showed in his actions. But in his last glance at me I saw that it was more than simple training reflex on his part. It was a choice he was making willingly. It was why he was gone, and I was alive to stand there under the pines with Chie and the Zen monk.
“Zetsumyo ken,” the Roshi repeated. “It is something he hoped you would pursue as well, Connor.”
I stiffened involuntarily and Chie felt it and squeezed my arm gently. In the end we were on the floor together, soaked in blood. That’s the miracle to pursue?
And there it was. It’s not only my injuries that wake me in the night. In the vulnerability of the dark, I wonder if the point of Yamashita’s art is not about skill or technique but simply about pursuing an unshakeable willingness to surrender the self in the pursuit of something higher. And if the demands of his art were a duty, heavy as a mountain, then at the end surrender was meant to be as light as a feather.
I’m not sure I buy it. I had trained with him for years, intent on self-development. Now the path was leading me somewhere unexpected. Away from the self. But to where? I couldn’t see that far ahead. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
The Roshi has a long face with bushy eyebrows, thick bars of hair that contrast with his shaved head. Above the smile, his eyes seem to pull you in toward him, toward unfathomable places. He’s the most gentle of men in many ways, but if you look carefully at his eyes, you don’t see your reflection. Or comfort. You see a place beyond the self. Maybe that’s what his students accept when they experience insight. The willingness to let go, to have that small light of the self, blown out like a candle.
The Roshi watched me carefully. He smiled sadly. “He wanted you to follow after him, Connor.”
My mouth was dry with the shock of acknowledgment. “I’m not sure I can.”
In his office we had tea. We talked a little about my problems with the Miyazaki Foundation and the changes they were hinting at for the dojo.
“Not quite what you want,” the Roshi noted.
I grimaced. “Not really.”
“Surely it is not their place to dictate how you run the dojo?
So why are you hesitant to object?”
I shrugged and made some comments about owing them.
About honoring their generosity. The Roshi looked at me, silent for a few uncomfortable minutes. I could see the questions in his eyes, his awareness that I was evading an answer. Somewhere in the monastery we could hear the murmur of distant chants. Faint bells.
He got up and brought out a small parcel, wrapped in the cloth the Japanese call a furoshiki. He carefully undid the cloth. “Some of Yamashita’s things he left here,” he noted. “I was very interested in this.” He passed the scroll to me. “You recognize it?”
I nodded. “It’s a record of keppan.”
“A vow,” Chie asked.
I nodded. “Of a sort.”
The Roshi smiled. “I think rather more than that. Isn’t it called a blood oath?” He pointed out the rustcolored thumb prints. “Isn’t it a vow sealed in blood?”
“Jesus,” Chie muttered. “High drama.”
“Maybe,” I admitted to her. “The koryu—the old school martial arts systems—have their advanced students make the vow. We have to promise to stay faithful to the ryu and not study in any other traditions.”
“You commit to the tradition and no other,” the Roshi pointed out.
The above is an excerpt from Keppan: The Blood Oath by John Donohue, Publication Date September 1, 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399381.