Mountain learning…

Traditional Japanese culture – and learning – is not standardised… …and this, in itself, is a delight and an education to those of us raised in a heritage marked by a hundred years or more of Industrial Revolution and mass-production. One particular dynamic at play in this endless variety is the typical ‘ryu’ attitude of “well, you think you know what N means, but our version of N is different and better and we will teach it to you…over the course of several years…” Mu-to (‘no-sword’) is like this: Tsukuhara Bokuden had one version of mu-to; Yagyu Munetoshi had another; and Tesshu had a third. And, being a product of the intellectual opening and intellectual ferment post Meiji Revolution, O’Sensei knew and referred to all three of those meanings.

It is important – and surprising – to understand that this is a process of adding meaning – and not of denying meaning. And the awareness that there is always more to learn, by meeting a different wise person, from a different ryu, from another place, adds to the mystery and depth of what we already know.

And often this involves homonyms. In practice: asserting a different spelling –  adopting some different Chinese characters – for the same spoken word.

So this is what is going on when O’Sensei adopts terminology from the shugendo of the mountains above Tanabe, associated with the shrines of Kumano so important to his family and forebears – and with the ridge-trails over to the Yamato Basin, and the ancient city of Nara.

So Myou-Hou (‘miraculous method’ – but also ‘miraculous Dharma’) is actually the name of the mountain above Nachi Falls.


And Myou-Ken (‘miraculous sword’) is one of the three mountains of the celebrated Dewa Sanzan centre of Haguro Shugendo.

Doshu is the rank in Haguro Shugendo that is attained by participating in two ascetic ‘pilgrimages’ into the mountains.

More interestingly:  san-gaku 1) is the triangle in SUTRISQUsmall – and it is the three-fold  Buddhist study of kai (precepts), jo (meditation), and e (wisdom), or any ‘three studies’ – but it is also ‘mountain-knowledge’:  and the thing you gain from stepping under a freezing cold waterfall, from sleeping little and climbing far, from being dangled over a cliff-face by your ankles and ropes, is surely more integral to a good irimi than a ki-shape that is triangular.

And even ‘bu’ is an echo of ‘Bu-chu’  (to be up on the mountain peak, taking part in one of the four seasonal, ascetic Shugendo festivals) and ‘Nyu-bu’ (entering the mountain, ascending to the mountain ridge, to take part in one of these festivals). ‘Bu’ is the Chinese  reading of mine– (‘peak’ or ‘ridge’) which by metonymy refers to the entire ascetic retreat/pilgrimage experience: for instance, in the names of the four major festivals: haru-no-mine (‘spring-peak’), natsu-no-mine (‘summer-peak’),  aki-no-mine (‘fall-peak’), fuyu-no-mine (‘winter-peak’).

So that O’Sensei’s use of the word ‘bu’ always implies that enlightened martial practice is a way of accessing traditional Shugendo wisdom.

1) or ‘san-kaku

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