InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Feb 2006

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Neo-Confucianism and the Japanese Martial Arts

By William M. Bodiford

Copyright © 2005. All rights reserved.


Editor's note: Recently, I was discussing Japanese martial art pedagogy with a correspondent, and when I wrote that this model was reasonably neo-Confucian, my correspondent replied, "What's that?" So this prompted me to ask Professor Bodiford for some recommended English-language readings on the topic of Confucianism and the Japanese martial arts. The following was his reply.


Alas, there is really nothing good to recommend. As you might expect, people who study Confucianism in Japan are interested primarily in abstract philosophy. Few of them have any firsthand experience in Confucian methods of training. People interested in Japanese martial arts, alas, often know even less about Confucianism. It really is a topic that cries out for study. If I had time, I would argue that neo-Confucianist methods of self-cultivation constitute about 80% of the training in koryu (old-style) martial arts, so it is a pity that no one has bothered to explain these in English. There is some information about Confucian methods of training used in China, but it cannot be automatically applied to the Japanese context.

Basically, neo-Confucian training emphasizes pattern repetition (rei or etiquette; i.e., kata). The kata actually are metaphysical ideals (or platonic ideals; ri or li) that are given physical form (embodied; ji or shih) by breath (i.e., ki or qi; sometimes translated as "energy," but "breath" gives a better sense of what it involves). One performs breathing exercises while repeating kata to internalize (embody) abstract ideals. These ideals have moral implications, but they are not themselves moral abstractions. In other words, there is little discussion of "good vs. bad", only emphasis on the "good way to do something." Everything is very concrete, very physical, and very repetitious. The kata embody Confucian notions of self-control, social harmony, etiquette, respect for elders, and obedience to the teacher.

The following works will provide further information, but all must be read with caution.

1) Kammer, Reinhard. 1978. Zen and Confucius in the Art of Swordsmanship: The Tengu-geijutsu-ron of Chozan Shissai. Translated into English by Betty J. Fitzgerald. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Originally published in German as Die Kunst der Bergdamonen, 1969.

Betty Fitzgerald is not a specialist in Japan or Asian religions. Her translation sometimes obscures Kammer's points. Also, Kammer did not fully realize just how important the Confucian side actually is. Otherwise, he would have dropped "Zen" from his title completely. He accepts D.T. Suzuki's interpretation of Zen, and merely attempts to supplement it by pointing out that Confucianism also was important.

2) Bocking, Brian. 1980. "Neo-Confucian Spirituality and the Samurai Ethic." Religion vol. 10.

Like Kammer, Bocking tries to supplement D.T. Suzuki.

3) Tucker, Mary Evelyn. 1989. Moral and Spiritual Cultivation in Japanese Neo-Confucianism: The Life and Thought of Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714). Albany: SUNY Press.

Kaibara Ekken (a.k.a. Ekiken, lived 1630-1714) was the single most influential neo-Confucian writer. His ideas on education held sway until Herbert Spencer and John Dewey came along. Unfortunately, Tucker did not translate the single most influential work by Kaibara, which is available only in the popular edition listed next:

4) Kaibara, Ekiken. 1974. Yojokun: Japanese Secret of Good Health. Translated by Masao Kunihiro. Tokyo: Tokuma Shoten Pub. Co.

Yojokun can be translated as Lessons for Cultivating Life. Its approach provides a model of traditional pedagogy. Everyone in pre-modern Japan trained according to the instructions provided in this text. However, the translator renders it for a modern audience in ways that can be misleading when trying to understand its pre-modern content.

5) Mencius (multiple translations)

After Kaibara's Yojokun, the next most influential text is Mencius. In print, D.C. Lau's translation (Penguin, 1970) is recommended. Online, the most common translation is James Legge's. See, for example, Legge was an excellent Sinologist whose translations can still be read with much profit, but his translation renders the vocabulary as if it is discussing abstract qualities. For example, what Legge translates as "passion nature," Lau simply transliterates as qi. Anyway, the original Chinese can be read as if it is providing concrete instructions on how to train. See, for example, the discussion of how to cultivate fearlessness in chapter 2, part A, sections 1-21.

      1. Kung-sun Ch'ow asked Mencius, saying, "Master, if you were to be appointed a high noble and the prime minister of Ts'e, so as to be able to carry your principles into practice, though you should thereupon raise the prince to the headship of all the other princes, or even to the imperial dignity, it would not to be wondered at. In such a position would your mind be perturbed or not?" Mencius replied, "No. At forty, I attained to an unperturbed mind."

Note that the "unperturbed mind" mentioned here is translated as "unmoving mind" in English renditions of Takuan Soho's famous treatise on Fudochi Shinmyo roku. Takuan was not writing about a Zen approach to swordsmanship, but commenting on Mencius's Confucian approach. Regarding this point, see my essay "Zen and Japanese Swordsmanship Reconsidered" in Budo Perspectives, edited by Alexander Bennett, Auckland: Kendo World Publications, 2005, pp. 69-103.

This section continues through the assertion by Mencius that:

11. "I venture to ask," said Ch'ow again, "wherein you, Master, surpass Kaou." Mencius told him, "I understand words. I am skillful in nourishing my vast, flowing passion nature."

"Vast, flowing passion nature" is ki, and it is the key to attaining an unmoving mind, the key to fearlessness, and the key to defeating any foe. Before ca. 1900, Japanese martial artists studied Mencius to learn how to cultivate or nourish their own ki so that it would become vast and flowing. See, for example, Takuan's essay on the unmoving mind (Fudochi shinmyo roku) and Yagyu Munenori's equally famous essay on "Our Family's Tradition of Swordsmanship" (Heiho kadensho).


6) Taylor, Rodney L. 1988. The Confucian Way of Contemplation: Okada Takehiko and the Tradition of Quiet Sitting. Columbia, S.C.: Univ. of South Carolina Press.

See especially pp. 13-73. Although Taylor explains neo-Confucian training solely in terms of meditation, he provides a good corrective to the widespread tendency to automatically equate any and all forms of Japanese meditation with Zen.


About the Author

William M. Bodiford is a professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is the author of Soto Zen in Medieval Japan (1994), the entries "Religion and Spiritual Development: Japan" and "Written Texts: Japan" in Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia (2001), and "Zen and Japanese Swordsmanship Reconsidered" in Budo Perspectives (2005). He holds menkyo kaiden and shihan licenses in Kashima-Shinryu.

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