Esoteric Training in Classical Japanese Martial Arts - 古現武道 (2022)

Some time ago, I was sent the following question:

I have been researching the kuji/juji method, and one thing I could never understand is, how can koryu (classical Japanese martial training)training enable someone to switch to a state of muga almost instantly? With Shugendo, to which I already have been initiated, it’s more simple to understand, but not so with martial arts In the book The Deity and the Sword, Otake Risuke Sensei only mentions the difference between zen meditation and kuji very briefly, and doesn’t go into any real explanation how to achieve that, other than to mentioning the sanmitsu method itself.I have read anything I could on the subject, and even went to the Diet Library in Tokyo, but this question is difficult. Even though I have received transmission from another koryu, which includes such teaching, it’s still very hard to understand it could be done just by waking up every morning, and doing it towards the sun.

I need to start by providing some definitions for the reader.

Kuji/juji is a specific ritual derived from Shingon mikkyo, an esoteric sect of Buddhism, known as Mìzōng in China and Vajrayana in Tibet.This is an immense subject, but one way to think of suchesoteric sects (mikkyo is a general term for esoteric practices) is they use ‘skillful means’ – any and every ritual that best fits a postulant to become enlightened in a single lifetime.

Shugendo is a syncretic Japanese religion, sometimes regarded as a ‘mountain cult.’ It is an amalgam of primordial Shinto and Taoist ritual practices (the latter, of course, derived from China) and esoteric Buddhism. It is associated with magic, and wonder-working, enacted by yamabushi, postulants who walk deep in the mountains, engaging in severe ascetic practices.Among its lore is an association with nature’s elemental powers, known as tengu.

Warriors, too, used to go into temples and shrines in isolated forest and mountain areas to engage in ascetic training, and in the process, they utilized mikkyo rituals, sometimes those already present in their ryuha, and sometimes acquired through contact with such ascetics. The questioner refers tomuga, a Buddhist term that is usually translated as ‘no-self.’ Or perhaps, the ‘that which is attached or identified with no thing in particular.’ However, whether such warriors were religious or not, their practice was for the purpose of accumulating power, not achieving ‘enlightenment.’ They were training in order to enhance their ability to survive, in order to better serve their lord. Most specifically, this was training in how to more effectively kill in combative engagements. They used mikkyoas a psycho-physical technology to enhance these capabilities.

Finally, the term kuji/juji. This is a specific ritual practice in which one makes kuji (nine)mudra (ritual gestures) with the hands/fingers (truly the whole body and breath are involved), each which corresponds to a deity or other nexus of power, whose names – or a syllable associated with that name – are chanted (mantra). This practice imbues the postulant with the powers associated with each deity. These gestures could be considered ‘sacred script’ – words made flesh. Juji adds a tenth gesture/syllable, which is what one wants to be empowered for or against. Let’s say one wishes to be protected from fire (as I did when I once took part in a Shugendo firewalking ritual), and thus, the tenth syllable was 火 (‘KA!’ – fire).

Is a Complete Ritual Understanding of orthodox Shingon or Shugendo necessary to become educated in koryu bujutsu? Two Perspectives

The above is the briefest of exegesis of a subject that fills libraries, and takes over entire lives of study. There are koryu schools that very assiduously practice a number of such rituals in depth – or at least a very few of its members do in this present age. I am personally acquainted with several individuals who strive to imbue and inform every moment of their practice with the elements of mikkyo – it weaves through their training like a second nervous system. For example, one practitioner practices five portions of a kata, in an association with rituals based on the guardian deva, Marishiten, ‘taking on the movements of Venus, above and below the horizon.’

In the two arts that I have studied for most of my life, Toda-ha Buko-ryu andAraki-ryu,the former has only the briefest of remnants of such rituals in our documents – specifically, the kuji ritual I just described above. It has not been taught within Toda-ha Buko-ryu in many generations. Whatever we had is mostly lost.

Within Araki-ryu, our documents are far more extensive. However, when I asked my instructor if he would teach them to me, he said the following: “Why? You have come to a foreign land where you will not live your whole life. And as a foreigner, you’ll never be a part of us anyway. To truly learn this, you’ll have to master not only modern Japanese, but archaic Japanese as well as kanbun (Japanese written in Chinese script), and furthermore, learn Sanskrit. Beyond this, you’ll have to somehow become part of a worldview that not even modern Japanese comprehend. And what’s the point? All of this is a form of applied psychology, a science of mind so that you can master yourself and other people in combat. Whatever you don’t learn here, go back to your country and study psychology. It’s the same material – a science of mind – but in a language and worldview that will be natural to you.” He left something out in his answer – that he was, in fact, already teaching me everything I needed to know. His statement, rather than ghettoizing me as a foreigner, not worthy of the real knowledge, pushed me not to lose myself in mental processes, be it academic study or meditation: rather, I should concentrate on what was right in front of me.

So what follows is one perspective. I have several training brothers in otherryuha who have delved very deeply in an orthodox understanding of esoteric knowledge as it applies to their art, along strictly traditional lines. I do not question or doubt their process in the least. I am simply contrasting it to mine.

my answer to The writer’s question, which also includes what was hidden in Plain sight Within my teacher’s Admonition

NOTE: There may be some overlap with some of what I wrote above, but I want to reproduce my answer in full:

In terms of your reference to Otake Risuke, the dichotomy is not Zen and kuji/juji – It’s Zen and Shingon mikkyo. They are radically different. Zen is an ‘emptiness’ meditation practice, a study of how to be non-attached to any particular perspective. The method they use to strive to accomplish this is through such things as counting breaths, focusing on …nothing….until one’s mind is under control – which means, again, non-attached to any particular object or identity. In addition, one sect, Rinzai, includes paradoxical/nonsensical puzzles, called koan, which are used to ‘break up’ the students attempts to use concepts to figure out their existence. How does this translate to koryu bujutsu? Only a little bit:

  • Zen practice is grueling and if you can tolerate it, you can tolerate the endless hours of repetition of bujutsu practice
  • If you are truly non-attached to any particular, that includes your own life-and-death, and thus, in Buddhist terms, you are ‘enlightened.’ In the context of Japanese martial traditions, however, it simply means that one, ideally, will sacrifice oneself for one’s lord or cause. In that sense, Zen practice could be quite useful. There is a serious pitfall with such an attitude, however. Non-attachment in the service of another (yes, one is still ‘attached’ to service to that other) can actually foster a psychopathic detachment, because morality itself can be viewed as an attachment, rather than a core attribute of the universe. For example, EVERY major Zen priest and patriarch supported the Japanese military in WWII, stating such things as: if you have to bayonet a child, that comports with the Buddha-nature, because the Emperor has the Buddha-nature, and the Emperor’s will is you go to this war and therefore, you will be helping the baby live his karma by killing her.
  • Although individual warriors may have practiced Zen, it was NOT a part of the curriculum of any older ryuha. However, in more modern times, Zen ideology used to define/describe ascetic and artistic practices, be it tea ceremony, flower arrangement or such practices as iaido. The idea is any art can be the same as ’sitting zazen.

Esoteric Buddhism, such as Shingon, has a different approach. As each person is ‘constructed’ in a unique fashion, there is, theoretically, a best means to help each achieve a non-dualistic consciousness. Rather than plunging into the void, as in Zen, one embarks within an ‘individualized labyrinth’- if one is in the ‘right’ maze, and follows all its turns and twists (a journey which will challenge your existence) one arrives in the center, and that center, too, is Void. However, this is for the very few. For most, Shingon, and other esoteric sects are merely elaborate rituals that fascinate and preoccupy. One ends up simply worshiping the labyrinth – or simply getting lost.

What is important to remember is that Shingon mikkyo rituals within classical martial traditions were not religious rites. Consider: the Yata no Kagami(八咫鏡 ‘sacred mirror, part of the Imperial Regalia’), is a representation of pure wisdom and truth; a mirror can also be used to shave your face. A gong can call you to prayer; it can also call you to dinner. Thus, in the latter sense,mikkyo is applied psychology – specific practices to hack into the nervous system to improve reflexes, courage, and resolve any mental limitations that keep one from effectively using one’s sword or other weapon to cut another down. In addition, one can acquire magic spells (which, from a Buddhist perspective, one ultimately ’sees through’ as illusion, but for ordinary people, you use to protect yourself) and the acquisition of paranormal power. For example, by writing a specific Sanskrit character within the hoof print, one can cause a horse to throw its rider.

Parenthetically, concerning what Otake Risuke released in his books concerning mikkyo, the information in Deity and the Sword is useless, other than providing a literal series of snapshots of what they do. All he provides is minor generic information: you can actually get far more extensive information on the subject within Japanese-equivalent books of Shingon For Dummies. [There is a huge market of such works in Japan]. I have no knowledge how many people within Otake Risuke’s dojoare assiduously practicing themikkyo that he discusses.

Each koryusystem uses the rituals of Shingon mikkyo to fuel specific techniques, mindset, and practices within their own ryuha. It like buying a computer chip: you can put it in a drone and use it to spy on eagle nests; you can put it in a surveillance system in your home and watch who walks onto your property; you can put it in a bomb and blow things up. What Otake Risuke does in Katori Shinto-ryu is, in general terms, utilized in a similar manner to that of other schools that still maintain such practices, but think of it as a fuel, gasoline, that can drive very different vehicles to very different ends.

With all this preliminary out of the way, let me address to your question regarding ‘switching instantaneously’ to muga (and to your reference tosanmitsu, which is amikkyo vehicle to reach muga). Sanmitsu is three things:mantra, mudraandmandala. An almost cavalier definition of these three items would be:

  • sacred/ritual/empowered sounds
  • sacred/ritual/empowered gesture
  • sacred/ritual/empowered forms & lines

Another definition, more standard, would be voice, body, mind.

Enacting classical kuji/juji and the rituals, you twine your fingers, sitting or standing in various postures (mudra), chant ‘seed syllables and deities’ names, (mantra) and contemplate such things as already created drawings and forms or the moon itself, referred to as gachirinkan (mandala). These activities are often done under severe ascetic privation: sleeplessness, near starvation, isolation, or subject to the forces of nature, such as standing under a pounding waterfall, or exposed to harsh weather. And you must, in the process, truly believe in things such as gods and demons so as to see through their non-existence later.

Concurrently, you will be incessantly training in your martial tradition. Perhaps, after many years and almost unimaginable commitment, you will be one of the very rare individuals who truly succeeds, becoming kind of an enlightened man or woman, part-warrior, part-sage. Your martial art resonates with the knowledge of these rituals that you have enacted many hours, many years, many decades, this being so despite this world view being no more your own culture than that of an Amazonian shaman who literally does transform into a jaguar and take knowledge from other realms.

OR: you spend all of that time only doing the kata of your martial tradition. Truly doing the kata, not enacted as sterile choreography, but with full intent, with a kind of savage grace that encompasses joy and ferocity – and the possibility of chance. (Because in higher levels of training, you break the patterns you enact, just as the mikkyo postulant must break up the existence of the gods he called to his aid).

The true sanmitsu of any authentic classical martial system is the kata themselves.

  • Kiai & kokyu aremantra. Rather than prayers, they are the use of breathing, of the controlled release of breath through sound, of manipulating tension and relaxation throughout the body.
  • Kamae are mudra.Rather than twining one’s fingers, each stance is the embodiment of an entire psychophysical reality that affects the minds (and bodies) of all around you and creates particular states of mind within oneself. When I assumetakagasumi (‘high mist’ inToda-ha Buko-ryu) oryamakage (‘shadow of the mountain’ inAraki-ryu), each is the embodiment of a different mind, different tactical intent, different world view, different incarnation, even though, to an observer, they look physically similar.
  • Taisabaki/ashi-sabakiis mandala.Usually translated as ‘body displacement’ and ‘foot displacement,’ it is more like a diagraming of lines of force (‘ley lines‘) on the floor of the world. At its extreme, this is the ‘dance of Shiva,’ the destroyer – that savage ferocious grace of a warrior. What is more pure than the walk of a tiger?

I do not practice kuji/juji and I do not need it. I do not practice Shingon mikkyo or Shugendo chants, and I do not need them. I do not meditate on a mandala or gachirinand I do not need to. What I do is the kata – I do them so often, under pressure, under danger with an opponent whose natural responsibility is to strive to destroy my stance, my footwork, my breathing (mudra,mandala and mantra) as I do his, and bit by bit, I become the kata. And when I have been successful, whether in thedojo or real life– for it is conditional, not constant – in the fraction of a second that I am engaged in a dangerous situation, I find myself in the state that you refer to as muga: but not an enlightened state, not a religious state at all.In becoming thekata, you become what thekatateaches – not the choreography of certain pattern drills.

To accomplish this requires years and years of training, but not just walking through kata; you could do that your entire life, as most do, and achieve nothing. You are striving to have the kata literally take possession of you – to infect you. Then it becomes one substance to you and then further, subject to your will. This, too, is derived from Shingon ritual, something that was previously taken from such shamanistic religions as Tibetan Bon or primordial Taoism or Shinto. In shamanistic practices, however, they stay at the level of possession – a deity takes one over. In Shingon, ultimately, you take possession of the possession, you ’see through’ the reality of the deity. In Shingon ideology, that’s the enlightened state. On a martial level, however, it merely means that you are not longer stuck in either instinctive or mindless automatic responses; you have the best response for each situation, something that is symbolized by the ‘moon in water’ teaching that many ryuha use to explain this perfect state.


After my first reply, my questioner later wrote to me to ask if this was something one could learn on one’s own, with enough intent and dedication: My reply: “I can teach you how to kill someone with a dagger, with a specific thrust to the heart from the back. The correct angle, etc. Just a bit of data. That is interesting, I suppose, and one could add it to one’s collection of martial arts data. But what would happen to you if you obsessively practiced that technique alone for several hours a day? For a number of years. Just that. How about if your training partner was a family member? What will that do to your mind?”

Similarly, one could pick up the instructions for various mikkyo rituals or initiations, from all kinds of sources: books, workshops, seminars, or even teachers. Even if the instruction is correct, how about if you then start practicing it a number of hours a day, without guidance or supervision? These rituals, with their combination of particular breathing methods and sophisticated visualizations, tap into the same parts of the brain as psychedelic drugs. If you get ‘good’ at it, you’ll be tripping every day. Without a senior: a teacher, a guide, who has been there before, you can terribly mess up your mind. Permanently. These were some of the rituals that Asahara Shoko of the Aum Shinrikyo was tampering with. As a friend of mine said, “Marx said that religion is the opiate of the people. Mikkyo is the crack cocaine”

If you want to get enlightened – and frankly, I know the words, but I’ve no idea what it is – you have to find a trustworthy, reliable guide, just as you would were you to walk through a dark forest full of wild beasts – and by the way, that guide will not be pleasant. He or she will be harsh and uncompromising and the confusion between that integrity and abuse is another pitfall that causes most people to fail.

If you want to learn the heart of a classical Japanese martial tradition, as marvelous as that esoteric practice may be, it will not help you in the slightest, learning on your own. You are not only studying how to kill, you are trying to enhance that ability through very intricate psychophysical techniques, that incorporated incorrectly, can not only cause you harm but also to those around you.

You have to find a teacher and seniors, moral men and women, who embody the martial system and have an unreserved commitment to impart it to you, as best as they can, as completely as they can, and as quickly as they can. That is true whether you are studying this information only through the kata, or even with even more risk and difficulty, through augmentation with these explicit esoteric practices. Your seniors must be able to push you to the edge of your possibilities, but never forcing you over the edge or allowing you to fall. The classical term for this is uketachi – ‘receiving sword.’ Without this, you’ll either waste your time in esoteric intellectualization, or mess up your mind.

And this is true whether you enter a classical tradition that hews closely to the esoteric knowledge of thousands of years of Eurasian ritual practice, or one such as mine, where that practice is impregnated within every movement of the kata:the word/ritual made flesh.

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