No hands fighting

Posted by on Feb 9, 2011 in Stories of the Way

The story is told of an actual 16th Century Japanese warrior named Tsukahara Bokuden, and his art of “mutekatsu“, or “no hands fighting”.

Bokuden, like many samurai warriors of that time, was traveling around Japan to test his martial skills. One day, when crossing Lake Biwa on a ferry boat crowded with passengers, he was challenged by a ruffian, who in a loud manner had been boasting about his skill with the sword. Only Bokuden, feigning sleep appeared to ignore the braggard. Rudely waking Bokuden the ruffian demanded to know, “What practice school are you from, what is your sword style?”

Bokuden calmly replied that his style of fencing was the “mutekatsu” style. He explained it was the highest form of skill possible with a sword, for it relied on the use of no hands.

“Rubbish” shouted the ruffian, “How can your sword defeat me if you don’t use your hands?”

Now enraged, the ruffian demanded that the conflict be settled immediately by a duel. Bokuden agreed, but to save injury to any passenger, suggested that the ferryman row them to the nearest island, which was in the centre of the lake.

As soon as the boat touched the beach, the ruffian leapt ashore and brandishing his sword yelled at Bokuden to come and show his “no hands style” of fencing.

At this Bokuden stood up and removed his jacket in preparation for the fight. But to the great surprise of all, especially the swordsman waiting on the shore, Bokuden quickly grabbed the oar from the ferryman and pushed the boat back into the lake. As he did, he called out in a calm and clear voice to the ruffian, now stranded by his anger and haste, “That is how the no-hands style defeats its opponents”.

For warriors like Bokuden, who practised the art of swordsmanship, this was the acme of skill.

To defeat an opponent with the sword was to give death, to defeat them without using the sword was to give life.

[Excerpted from the book Classical Budo by Donn F. Draeger]