Tsukahara Bokuden: A Samurai Warrior Ahead of His Time
Tsukahara Bokuden (1490-1571) was renowned in Japan as the finest swordsman of his day, winning many battles through out his life. The son of a Shinto priest, he was always practicing his sword skills as a child and as a young man began forging a reputation for himself as a fearless warrior. By the time he reached later life, Bokuden would change his world view and came to believe that the merit of not fighting far outweighed the benefits of killing one’s opponents, a philosophy that was unusual in his day but is generally accepted today by martial artists of most styles throughout the world.
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At the age of twenty, Bokuden had his first real test as a warrior when he challenged the famous swordsman Ochiai Torazaemon to a dual. Ochiai was defeated by the younger man but survived the battle. Feeling humiliated, he ambushed Bokuden in a bid for revenge but this time, the young man showed no mercy and killed his adversary.
In what would later become a popular tradition amongst Samurai, Bokuden undertook a pilgrimage around Japan seeking out the best swordsmen and challenging them to duals while also seeking the best teachers and learning from them. It is believed he took part in thirty-seven challenges without defeat on his travels and studied under some of the best teachers the country had to offer.
After his journey, Bokuden had to return to his lord and be ready to serve him in his army, then at the age of thirty-seven, he settled down and opened up his own Ryu (school) where he developed his ‘Single Cut Style’ known as ‘Shinto Ryu’.
By the time he reached his 50s, Bokuden had grown tired of fighting and no longer felt the need to prove himself. One story, adapted by Bruce Lee in his film ‘Enter the Dragon’, perfectly demonstrates his new peaceful philosophy based on the power of the mind over the power of the sword. One day, while travelling on a ferry, he came across a samurai, boasting about his skills claiming to be the best swordsman in Japan. The samurai challenged Bokuden to a duel, enraged at his lack of fear, but the old master kept calm and said;
“My art is different from yours. It consists not so much in defeating others but in not being defeated”, Bokuden told him that his school was called ‘The Mutekatsu Ryu’ meaning ‘to defeat an enemy without hands’.
The samurai, now furious at what he perceived as cowardice, got the boats-man to stop on an island so they could fight. The man jumped out of the boat into the shallow waters expecting a battle to the death but Bokuden had other ideas. He took the boats-man’s pole and pushed the boat into deeper water laughing at the young samurai telling him; “Here is my no sword school!”
When he was ready for retirement, Bokuden set a test for his sons to help him decide which should take over his Ryu. He set a block of wood over his door so it would fall on anyone who entered to test the way his sons reacted to a threat. The first son, when called to the room, sensed the danger and caught the block. The second, half drew his sword and evaded the block. The third son entered the room and with lightning speed cut the block in half. The first son was chosen as his successor as his reaction showed he could defeat an enemy without striking a blow.
As Bokuden got older, he realised he was loosing his dexterity so after passing his school over to his son, he retired and went to live in a sanctuary in the mountains where he engaged in self reflection and study. Many young samurai sought him out on the mountain to teach and advise them.
He later went on a second pilgrimage and was invited to teach his sword skills to the Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru, in 1552 when Yoshiteru was seventeen. Bokuden died in 1571, aged eighty three and not long after his school died out as his best students kept dying while fighting in wars for their lord. Not much is known about what happened to his son who had taken over the school, but legend has it that after the death of his lord, Kitabatake Tomonori, he joined with Ninja groups in Iga.
A man ahead of his time, Bokuden embodied two sides of what it meant to be a samurai. In battle, he was fearless and willing to challenge anyone, regardless of their reputation. However, in later life, he came to realise the virtue of not fighting and understood that the most important lesson learned within the martial arts is not how to fight, but how not to fight.