A Father’s Everlasting Gift
By N Mark Castro
This story is narrated in the book ‘Autumn Lightning’ in the context of ‘zanshin’ – constant peripheral awareness, concentration and attention at all times – ‘continuing mind.’
A glossary of some terms used in the story:
Yagyu – a family famous for sword warriors and a school to teach swordsmanship.
Bugeisha – practitioners of the bugei, the martial crafts/skills.
Dojo – a class; a teaching environment
Kenjutsu – art of sword; sword craft
Sake – an alcoholic brew made from rice.
Hakama – an overcoat
Legend has it that Matajuro was born into the Yagyu family after their clan had already gained a reputation as talented bugeisha.
As a boy, his interest in the art of the blade was encouraged. He proved to be a promising, but lazy pupil, in danger of never realizing the limits of his potential. In an attempt to shake him from his lethargy, his father banished him from the dojo.Matajuro was stung by the harshness of the punishment. He was determined to dedicate himself to mastering kenjutsu – even if only to show his family, how wrong they had been – so he set off to find a worthy master. The young fencer’s travels took him to the province of Kii, to a region of mountains there threaded with forty eight magnificent waterfalls, some of them cascading over four hundred feet into a rock-bordered pool where mists swirl constantly. In a thick forest, at the foot of the Nachi falls, the tallest and most beautiful of the cataracts, sits the Kumano Nachi shrine, the site of ancient and mysterious rituals since time began in Japan.
More importantly, as far as Yagyu Matajuro was concerned, was that, according to rumours he’d heard in sake shops and inns along the highway, a sword maser of incomparable skills was living near the shrine. After a long journey, the young Yagyu reached the Kumano shrine, where he was old by the priests to follow a barely visible path even further back into the forest. At the end, the priests said, was a senile hermit named Banzo who was reputed to have once been a swordsman. The track led Matajuro to a hut.
“How long will it take me to become a master?” he asked. “Suppose I become your servant, to be with you every minute, how long?”
“Ten years,” said Banzo.
“My father is getting old,” pleaded Matajura. “Before ten years have passed I will have to return home to take care of him. Suppose I work twice as hard. How long will it take me?”
“Thirty years,” said Banzo.
“How is that?” asked Matajura. “When I offer to work twice as hard, you say it will take three times as long. Let me make myself clear. I will work unceasingly. No hardship will be too much. How long will it take?”
“Seventy years,” said Banzo “A pupil in such a hurry learns slowly.”
Matajura understood. Without asking for any promises in terms of time, he became Banzo’s servant. Three years passed. Matajura cleaned, cooked, washed, and gardened. He was ordered never to speak of fencing or to touch a sword. He was very sad at this, but he had given his promise to the master and resolved to keep his word.
It was a peculiar apprenticeship. Matajuro was forbidden to handle a sword or even speak of fencing. Instead he was put to work cutting firewood, cooking for Banzo, and cleaning the hut – chores that lasted every day from before dawn until after he lit the lanterns that chased away the forest’s darkness. Rarely did his master speak and never did he mention anything about teaching the swordsmanship.
Finally, after a year of ceaseless work, Matajuro grew frustrated, suspecting at last that he had been tricked into becoming nothing more than a servant for the surely demented Banzo. Angrily chopping at a log one day, he nearly convinced himself to find instruction somewhere else. There were plenty of teachers around, who would be honoured to have a member of the famous Yagyu family as a student – and plenty of conniving old swordslingers who made slaves of eager, would be disciples, he concluded bitterly as he eyed the stack of wood still left to be cut. He sank the blade of his axe into a log, as if cutting would remedy the problems absorbing him. He failed to notice that he was no longer alone until he was sent reeling into the woodpile by a vicious blow. Dazed, he looked up from the ground to find the master brandishing a length of hard green bamboo above him. Wordlessly, Banzo left as silently as he had come, leading Matajuro to conclude that his beating was for inattentiveness to his chores.
The offspring of samurai blood was ashamed of slighting his responsibilities, even if he was plotting to leave the crazy old man. He decided to make the next chore of the day, washing Banzo’s clothes, his last, but he would do such a good job of it that his master could find no fault with his work. If was a couple of hours later, while the boy was scrubbing clothes near the Falls, that Banzo struck again, harder this time, driving Matajuro splashing into the water. Behind him, Banzo roared over the crashing the Falls.
“You expect to learn swordsmanship, but you cannot even dodge a stick!”
Yagyu Matajuro’s aristocratic pride was once more inflamed. Just as he had left his home to show his father that he could become a great fencer, he resolved to stay at the Nachi shrine to prove the old master wrong. He began to concentrate, no matter what else he was doing, on keeping himself ready for an attack. Banzo struck five times a day, then ten, then twenty, always when his student was busy at his chores. He was so stealthy that Matajuro’s only warning would be a rustle of the hakama or the whoosh of the bamboo stick cutting down. Weeding in the garden, washing at the Falls, mending the hut’s leaky roof, Matajuro would be occupied with one task or another, to find himself suddenly jumping at the slightest unusual noise and missing more and more of the swipes aimed at him.
When Banzo failed to connect his stick to Matajuro’s head of shoulders or even to touch him with it a single time for a period of many months, he switched his strategy. In addition to the daytime assaults, he started slashing at Matajuro, when the boy slept. Matajuro was forced to redouble his efforts, teaching himself to sleep lightly with his subconscious remaining alert. Grimly, he realized that the more successful he became at avoiding the bamboo stick, the more frequently it was lashed at him. Seventy, eighty, a hundred times a day and night, his master would appear like a ghost, swinging at him. It was growing increasingly harder for Banzo to catch him unaware, though, for his instincts were sharpened to a level almost supernatural.
On an evening four years after he had first come looking for a sword master at the Nachi shrine, Matajuro was preparing a meal of Chirashizushi, a steamed mixture of rice and vegetables. He was carefully peeling a burdock root for the dish when Banzo struck from behind. Matajuro didn’t move from his crouching position by the fire. With one hand, he snatched up a pot lid and fended off the blow, then returned to the cooking without a pause.
That night, Banzo presented his student with a certificate of full proficiency in the art of fencing and a fine old sword.
Matajuro needed neither.
Without ever having taken a formal lesson or even handling a weapon, he had reached the highest peak of the bugei – the mastery of zanshin … and the greatest gift of his father, his master, and Zen.