Literally this translates as "Zen, Sword, Brush." More broadly, it means that the unity of Zen practice, physical culture, and artistic endeavor is a truly well-rounded training for human beings.Since that post, however, I have received requests from a number of students for more information. In particular, questions have often centered on whether such-and-such activity can fit into the Zen, Ken, Sho model. A number of questions also have come from students who have no interest in something like martial art training, and perhaps worry that the approach of Zen, Ken, Sho means they cannot practice with us. So I would like to unpack the origin and meaning of all this a bit more.
Regarding the origin of this training model in our lineage, it essentially comes to us from Omori Roshi. It is true, of course, that Rinzai Zen has long had an association with cultural arts and physical culture, and that there were many persons in Zen history who cultivated and manifested the embodiment of Zen insight through activities like calligraphy, painting, tea, martial arts, and so on according to their interests. Omori Roshi, however, appreciated the example of one person in particular who was famous for his mastery of Zen, Ken, Sho: Yamaoka Tesshu.
Tesshu was a deeply realized Zen layman of the late Edo and early Meiji period. Training under Tekisui Giboku of Tenryu-ji, he was able to manifest the fruition of Zen. However, he was someone who arrived at this fruition through a unified training of Zen, calligraphy and swordsmanship. From youth Tesshu trained in the Jubokudo school of calligraphy, as well as the Jikishinkage and Itto schools of fencing. It was his encounter with the Nakanishi Itto Ryu teacher Asari Gimei at age 28, though, that threw Tesshu into the great crisis eventually leading to a decisive awakening experience.
In fencing matches with this teacher, Tesshu found that, though he was by far larger and more physically powerful, he could not defeat Asari nor match his inner state. It is said that Asari would repeatedly force Tesshu back across the dojo, causing him to stumble out the door and into the street, whereupon Asari would shut the door behind him. Redoubling his training with ferocity and focusing on swordsmanship at all hours of day and night, Tesshu sought a solution to this impasse.
Finally, at age 45, Tesshu experienced a breakthrough while sitting in zazen. He rushed to the dojo to confront Asari. The teacher, however, declined to fence with him, remarking simply, "You have arrived." After this, Tesshu founded his own school of swordsmanship, the Muto Ryu.
Omori Roshi, taking Tesshu as an example, was someone who did calligraphy and swordsmanship in a similar way; he even served as head of the Tesshu-kai and lived at Koho-in, a temple that had been built on land previously owned by Tesshu. Because he, like Tesshu, manifested the unified training of Zen, Ken, Sho in his body, Omori Roshi stressed it in his own teaching. His students would not only do traditional Zen practice, but also calligraphy and traditional martial arts (Budo). Because of his own background as a teacher of Jikishinkage Ryu swordsmanship, he was also able to take the four initial forms of that system, the Hojo kata, and use them specifically as a tool to train modern Zen students in the fundamentals of posture, breath, and energy which they lacked. All of this reflected, and was made possible by, his own training experience. It seems clear also that Omori Roshi was something of a genius when it came to training others, able to adapt various disciplines to address whatever strengths or lacks each student displayed.
At Chozen-ji, the temple Omori Roshi founded in Hawaii, this approach to practice was further informed by the background and training experience of Omori Roshi's students, Tanouye Roshi and Hosokawa Roshi, who served as the first two abbots. Tanouye Roshi was an advanced practitioner of Kendo and Judo as well as a music teacher. The Zen, Ken, Sho training program he developed for Chozen-ji included Zen training (zazen and sanzen/koan practice), Budo (traditional martial arts), the Hojo kata, and fine arts like calligraphy, ceramics and music. Hosokawa Roshi, though not a martial artist, was one of Omori Roshi's dharma heirs who refined his calligraphy to an extremely high degree; he also brought to Chozen-ji his experience of traditional monastic practice, and knowledge of the full koan shitsunai inherited from Omori Roshi. Between these two teachers, then, there was a tremendous depth of practice experience.
Toyoda Rokoji, Tanouye Roshi's Dharma heir and through whose work our lineage took root on the mainland, was another exceptional individual. He was, of course, a master of Aikido as well as a Zen practitioner, and had a background of intensive residential practice at Ichikukai dojo, the famous training hall in Tokyo founded by one of Tesshu's students. Because of his experiences, the training system he instituted for his inner students consisted of severe training in Budo as well as Zen practice. He encouraged training in fine arts, though did not himself have much background in them, and valued the Hojo kata, though he did not personally practice them. Above all, we can say that he considered himself a martial artist, and was specifically interested to express Zen through his Aikido teaching. In fact, upon his own breakthrough, he had been told by Tanouye Roshi that he was then qualified to start his own style of martial arts...much in the model of Tesshu.
As for myself, I was primarily Toyoda Rokoji's student for many years, while simultaneously doing sanzen with Hosokawa Roshi. For this reason my training was almost solely in Zen and Budo following Toyoda Rokoji's direction, and I did not train according to Tanouye Roshi's full model of Zen, Budo, Hojo and fine arts. In recent years, however, I have been studying to fill in the gap of artistic training in various ways. I did not ever practice Hojo much. So'zan Roshi, however, is one of the few western Dharma heirs who has practiced sufficiently in all four aspects of the Chozen-ji training model, and experienced training under Tanouye Roshi, Hosokawa Roshi (whose Dharma heir he is) and Toyoda Rokoji. I know he would like me to learn it.
So that is a bit of background. Turning now to some of the questions I have recently received, I would like to stress something that should be obvious when reading all of this: there is no one set model of training. Zen, Ken, Sho is a guiding principle, a way to express that training can, and should, be varied to suit the individual. It affirms that our practice should be of sufficient breadth to not only arrive at Zen insight, but to embody it energetically and with great refinement. The teachers mentioned above all had their own expressions of this approach according to the disciplines they undertook: Omori Roshi practicing Jikishinkage Ryu kenjutsu and calligraphy; Tanouye Roshi practicing Kendo and Judo and further informed by his background in music; Hosokawa Roshi mastering calligraphy and doing Hojo; Toyoda Rokoji training as a Budo master.
So this means that all of you, also, must express Zen, Ken, Sho in some manner that fits your abilities, backgrounds, limitations, and needs. Arriving at the initial awakening which is the entrance gate of Zen practice, we must all then use whatever tools we can to further deepen and clarify our recognition of wisdom, to cause it to penetrate our bodies with great energy, and to refine it again and again such that it functions freely in a seamless samadhi, illuminating all phenomenon and shining forth from our every action. However, it is this general principle of Zen, Ken, Sho - of awakening, embodiment, and refinement - that we should preserve, not any person's particular expression of it. It may be that martial arts, for example, don't fit a particular student's condition. But in such a case, we could still ask: what other ways are there to cultivate the intense energy (kiai) necessary for the path, and to express it bodily even in situations of duress and crisis? Martial arts are valuable precisely because they have proven useful for accomplishing this. But what other activities might also be used in such a way?
I think, actually, that there could be many such ways to train, and we should not conceive of any limitations whatsoever to activities that might be integrated within our practice. To say that all persons should do a particular practice activity would, in fact, be ridiculous, and would offend against Zen as an expression of the endlessly creative and harmonizing One Vehicle. I thus do not ever describe Ken as solely martial training, but rather more broadly as "physical culture". It is likewise with fine arts: Sho means "brush", but we do not ever say that only calligraphy is useful to impart refinement and master the use of time, space and energy to express Zen realization through a medium. There are actually many possibilities, such as music, ceramics, painting, writing, photography, various crafts, and so on.
In short, I would like my own students to grasp how important it is that our Zen realization be not solely a conceptual thing, but something arrived at - and expressed through - the body. Only that is the genuine Zen realization. It is in order to more quickly manifest such realization, and to do so in ways marked by great creativity and adaptability, that the principle of Zen, Ken, Sho has been set up. What Zen, Ken, Sho therefore truly means is that we must become people who can manifest our Zen awakening in any activity, and who can freely use many such tools to help other beings. We must become practitioners for whom the line between "practice" and "non-practice" disappears.
So, in the future I may suggest to some of my students that they consider taking up various activities. Those who are naturally introverted and nervous, like myself, might indeed benefit from martial arts or other physical culture. Those who have great energy but are, shall we say, a little rough around the edges, might truly benefit from an artistic practice of refinement. And of course, a person without such lacks might not need to do these things at all. In the end, regardless, the choice to pursue anything is up to each of us; all teachers can do in this regard is make suggestions.
As for the future at Korinji, we will certainly offer training reflecting this model of Zen, Ken, Sho for those persons so suited. Unavoidably, the exact forms this training takes will initially reflect my own character and background. Future abbots will develop things in accord with theirs. But for now I can say that I plan to do metalworking there, since I have trained as a bladesmith. I would like also to see ink painting done there, and perhaps ceramics: our locale may in fact be ideal for a traditional step kiln. Finally, in terms of Budo, Korinji will have its own curriculum. I do not wish to reveal too much regarding this yet. However, following Hosokawa Roshi's advice, I believe it needs to contain forms suited to the modern world yet maintaining insights from the past situations. It needs to also include spontaneous, non-kata practice facing an opponent, since this is the way to more truly test non-abiding samadhi in movement and to realize the instant, free manifestation of kiai.
Thus, in the future there will be many interesting practice opportunities in our community, and events featuring teachers of different disciplines. Basically, when it comes to Zen practice we have a versatile and expansive toolbox. You are all very welcome to pursue whatever interests you.
Everyone, however, has to do Zen practice...no exceptions!