This tale of Miyamoto Musashi and Muso Gonnosuke illustrates the role compassion must play whenever deadly combat skills are being taught. Essential learning for all martial artists!

Some legends are so wonderful you want them to be true. The legend of bo specialist Muso Gonnosuke’s two meetings with Miyamoto Musashi is a good example. As a young man, Muso wandered around Japan, challenging other martial artists to duels — both to make a name for himself and to perfect his art. Despite the risk of serious injury or worse, he bested a number of skilled warriors with his staff.


While visiting the capital city of Edo (Tokyo), Muso found Musashi, a renowned swordsman whose reputation was rapidly growing. Musashi was an unconventional fighter whose training in a formal ryu was rudimentary, but he used cunning, strategy and bravado to overcome his opponents. Indeed, in his duel with Muso, Musashi didn’t use a steel sword or even a wooden training weapon.

Instead, he employed a tree limb to thoroughly and convincingly defeat his opponent — but he spared Muso’s life.

Muso retreated to a mountaintop in Kyushu, where he trained furiously and meditated on his art and his loss. He was eventually rewarded with what he took to be a divine vision that compelled him to shorten his 6-foot-long staff. The modification enabled him to manipulate the weapon like a sword and a spear while retaining its use as a pole arm.

Once again, he sought out Musashi and requested a rematch. Musashi obliged. This time, however, Muso was able to defeat his opponent. But just as Musashi had spared his life in their initial encounter, Muso let Musashi live, handing him — if the story is true — his only defeat.

More than four centuries later, Muso’s descendants still practice the stick techniques he devised, which constitute part of the curriculum of shindo muso ryu, or jojutsu (art of the stick). Within the kata of the school are a range of lethal methods, as well as a good example of hodoku, or compassion, as shown by the founder of the ryu.

Whenever I hear people’s petty arguments that Japanese terminology in the dojo should be replaced with English or another language, I think of terms like hodoku. I wonder what non-Japanese equivalent they would use because the concept and its application would require pages of explanation to describe adequately.

Classical martial arts kata — nearly always an exchange between two participants and not the solo sequences with which most karateka are familiar — teach a variety of combative strategies. Some are long and complex, while others involve only a single attack and counter. No matter their length, once the forms are finished, both participants are left in potentially mortal situations. For example, your weapon is pointed directly at my throat, and mine is set to break your wrist.

How do we resolve the standoff? We turn to an unlikely source: the terminology of Buddhism. In Buddhism, the word ko is defined as being one moment longer than the longest stretch of time any human can comprehend. Perhaps our standoff wouldn’t last that long; but in our positions and our attitude, we must be in a technical state of ko. I’m willing to try to keep my advantage, just as you’re willing to try to keep yours.

In the dojo, the combative ko is broken when one participant voluntarily moves his weapon into a nonthreatening posture. Even though he may still be in position to continue fighting, he shows a willingness to promote charity to his partner. (Of course, he would not do this if the situation were real. In that case, ko is broken when one participant stops breathing.) This attitude of compassion is hodoku.

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In shindo muso ryu, one trainee is armed with a stick, and the other wields a bokken, or wooden practice sword. At the conclusion of the kata, the swordsman slowly moves his weapon slightly off to his side, lowering it. This posture is called hodoku kamae. 

Slowly and carefully and without losing his concentration, the person with the stick slides his weapon back to his side, responding in an equally humane way to the swordsman’s charity. Both partners then retreat to take up positions to begin practicing the next kata. 

On one level, the process of hodoku is purely mechanical. The swordsman’s lowering of his blade is a way to bring the kata to a technically safe conclusion. Even though the forms are precisely ritualized, they expose both practitioners to extreme danger. Weapons are swung with full force and stopped only at the last second, a fraction of an inch from a vulnerable target.

Kata cannot be perfected without entering a mental state polished under the stresses of danger. Anything less and you’re merely doing a dance.

Given these concerns, a safe method for finishing a kata is important. But on a higher level, hodoku is a central precept that elevates classical kata beyond the medium of simple physical exercise or mental training. As much as it instills combative skills, it imbues the form and its practice with humanity.

The sole purpose of kata in a traditional martial art is to teach and perfect skills and attitudes necessary to destroy life efficiently. Nobody in one of these schools is trying to look beautiful or find inner peace. The kata are designed to teach killing or crippling, and anything else that may arise is purely secondary.

Nevertheless, within the structure of the kata is built, in hodoku and other aspects of practice, the potential for great insight into human nature and the real meaning of what it is to fight. It’s all well and good to talk about the spiritual rewards of the martial ways and to teach their wonderful philosophical attributes. It’s another thing entirely to include physical examples of these teachings in your daily practice. Shindo muso ryu does just that — as do, in one way or another, all the classical Japanese combative disciplines. 

So the question you should ask yourself and your teacher is, Does my budo have hodoku within the kata or anywhere else in my training? An even more crucial question is, Do I have the spirit of hodoku within myself?

(Photos by Rick Hustead)

Dave Lowry is a freelance writer who has trained extensively in the Japanese and Okinawan arts. He started writing Black Belt magazine’s Karate Way column in 1986. Go here to subscribe to Black Belt.

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