The Sword Taia

Takuan Sōhō (沢庵 宗彭) was one of the notable Japanese Zen monks in the 17th century. While he did not care about his socio-political status, his relationships with the sword-masters made him inevitably famous. He was also well-known as Miyamoto Musashi’s mentor.

What made him mainly famous was a series of letters he wrote for the prominent sword-masters like Yagyū Munenori, Ono Tadaaki, and others. Yagyū Munenori was the head of the Yagyū Shinkage-ryū school and the official instructor for the Shōguns, Tokugawa family. Ono Tadaaki was also the head of the Ittō school and an official instructor for the Shōgun’s family as well.

Among many Takuan’s writings, the following three gained the classic position, compiled as one volume called The Unfettered Mind (不動心) — the shortened title for the first essay.

  • The Mysterious Records of Immovable Wisdom (不動智神妙録)
  • The Clear Sound of Jewels (玲瓏集)
  • Annals of the Sword Taia (太阿記)

I’ve mentioned the first essay in my other entry. In this entry, let me focus on the third one, Annals of the Sword Taia.

What is the Sword Taia?

The Sword Taia (太阿剣) is the legendary sword that could cut everything and penetrate itself into everywhere, from stones to steels. Takuan, however, provided his insights on this special sword from the point of view of Zen Buddhism. In cutting everything and penetrating itself everywhere, such omnipotence must be rather on something fundamental and transcendental.

Becoming everything means becoming nothing. Being everywhere means being nowhere. Thus, it represents Emptiness and Oneness; Lao Tzu called it the Way.

In his writing, Takuan used the style of commentary. That means, presenting the excerpts of Annals of the Sword as special citations, he added his insights on the key phrases.

It starts with this excerpt:

Presumably, as a martial artist, I do not fight for gain or loss, am not concerned with strength or weakness, and neither advance a step nor retreat a step. The enemy does not see me. I do not see the enemy. Penetrating to a place where heaven and earth have not yet divided, where Yin and Yang have not yet arrived, I quickly and necessarily gain effect.

Why can the Sword Taia cut everything and penetrate itself into everywhere?

According to Takuan, it is because the Sword Taia is rested in the domain of the Way, where heaven and earth have not yet divided. The Sword Taia does not see any divisions and discriminations. Thus, there is no concern at all with strength, weakness, advance, and retreat. With the Sword Taia, the enemy does not recognize you, and even you don’t see the enemy.

Paradoxically enough, holding the Sword Taia, you are no longer “you” as a separate self, but what Takuan calls the True Self.

In the domain of divisions, nobody can see the True Self. Therefore, you are nobody. And your enemy is nobody, either. Everyone is nobody. In the True Self, everyone and everything are the same.

In it, even you can love your enemy. We can easily associate it with the following verses.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Matthew 5:44-48

The Sword of Life

The second citation, therefore, goes as follows. The Sword Taia is not to kill others. It is to give others life. Cutting everything and penetrating itself into everywhere, it could look more like the quantum particles and waves. In this quantum superposition, killing others no longer makes any sense. It is rather on the state of Life.

Well then, the accomplished man uses the sword but does not kill others. He uses the sword and gives others life. When it is necessary to kill, he kills. When it is necessary to give life, he gives life. When killing, he kills in complete concentration; when giving life, he gives life in complete concentration. Without looking at right and wrong, he is able to see right and wrong; without attempting to discriminate, he is able to discriminate well. Treading on water is just like treading on land, and treading on land is just like treading on water. If he is able to gain this freedom, he will not be perplexed by anyone on earth. In all things, he will be beyond companions.

In this state, holding the Sword Taia, you can even tread on the water as if you are on the land.

Interestingly, we can recall the following verses in the Gospels.

Peter was able to walk on water as long as he was with Jesus. Only at the moment when Peter’s attention was not with Him, he was about to drown.

And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.

And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

Matthew 14:25-31

The Sword Unlearned

The third excerpt focuses on how to obtain the state where you could hold the Sword Taia.

Do you want to obtain this? Walking, stopping, sitting or lying down, in speaking and in remaining quiet, during tea and during rice, you must never neglect exertion, you must quickly set your eye on the goal, and investigate thoroughly, both coming and going. Thus should you look straight into things. As months pile up and years pass by, it should seem like a light appearing on its own in the dark. You will receive wisdom without a teacher and will generate mysterious ability without trying to do so. At just such a time, this does not depart from the ordinary, yet it transcends it. By name, I call it “Taia.”

The critical phrase Takuan focused is this part:

Walking, stopping, sitting or lying down, in speaking and in remaining quiet, during tea and during rice, you must never neglect exertion, you must quickly set your eye on the goal, and investigate thoroughly, both coming and going.

Using the Sword Taia is no longer the skill and technique you have to master. It must be your constant effort and mindfulness in every area of your life. It is the way of your life.

You must be aware of the Sword Taia, when you are walking, stopping, sitting, even lying down. You must be mindful, even when you are speaking and remaining silent, even when you are drinking a cup of tea and tasting a bowl of rice. It is indeed the state of your being, which would sense a glimpse of the state of Being.

As long as you think of the skill and technique you must learn, you can never reach this state. You must unlearn and forget your separate self that is supposed to be skillful and high-minded, even amid your everyday chores.

There is a constant background of Being behind your state of being. By name, it is called Taia. Takuan describes this state of Being as the Buddha-head and the Way. It is the most extraordinary in the most ordinary. As we know it through this verse:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3

The Sword Within

Thus, the fourth excerpt says as follows:

All men are equipped with this sharp sword Taia, and in each one it is perfectly complete. Those for whom this is clear are feared even by the Maras, but those for whom this is obscure are deceived even by the heretics. On the one hand, when two of equal skill meet at swords’ point, there is no conclusion to the match; it is like Shakyamuni’s holding the flower and Kashyapa’s subtle smile. On the other hand, raising the one and understanding the other three, or distinguishing subtle differences in weight with the unaided eye are examples of ordinary cleverness. If anyone has mastered this, he will quickly cut you into three pieces even before the one has been raised and the three understood. How much more so when you meet him face to face?

Using the Sword Taia is not a particular skill in this sense. All men are equipped with this special sword. Only your mind hides this truth. It is neither a special skill nor gifted talent, but the state of Being manifested from the state of your selfless being.

That is why the story of the Flower Sermon is mentioned in this fourth excerpt.

The disciples of the Buddha were so eager to learn and possess all the teachings. One day, the Buddha (Shakyamuni) was just holding a piece of small red lotus in front of all his students. He did not speak up anything but kept silent for a long time. Everyone was puzzled except for Kashyapa who showed a subtle smile. At the moment, the Buddha saw one of his disciples understood a glimpse of the Being out of the normal state of humble, selfless being.

The Sword of Selflessness

And in this fifth except, the message is more explicit.

In the end, a man like this never exposes the tip of his sword. Its speed—even lightning cannot keep up with it. Its brevity—it is gone even before the quick wind of the storm. Not having such a tactic, if one, in the end, becomes entangled or confused, he will damage his own blade or injure his own hand, and will fall short of adroitness. One does not divine this by impressions or knowledge. There is no transmitting it by words or speech, no learning it by any doctrine. This is the law of the special transmission beyond instruction.

Once you gain the Sword of Taia, you can be genuinely humble and selfless. You don’t show off the tip of the sword at all with any unique attributes. It can never make itself divine by impressions, knowledge, words, speeches, instructions, and doctrines. Rather, it looks worthless from the worldly view.

We can easily recall these verses. Let me cite this full length:

For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence.

1 Corinthians 1:19-29

The Sword of Surrender

And the last excerpt is as follows. The great ability of the Sword Taia can never be in any rules and skills. When we surrender ourselves to the Being, then we see this Being controls everything under heaven. That is the way one uses the Sword Taia.

There is no established rule for manifesting this great ability. Orderly action, contrary action—even heaven does not determine this. So what is the nature of this thing? The ancients said, “When a house does not have a painting of a Pai Che, it is like having no ghosts at all.” If a man has tempered himself and arrived at this principle, he will control everything under heaven with a single sword. For those who study this, let them not be thoughtless.

Image by Marc Bach

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