The Spears of Hozoin

“Any instant is the same as thousands of infinite eons. And thousands of infinite eons are the same as a single instant.”

Kegon-kyo (“The Sutra of Flowered Splendor”)

From its outward appearances, this temple-monastery was little different from others of the Buddhist faith throughout 17th-century Japan. It contained a main dojo, or votive room, with a great wooden effigy of the Buddhist patriarch Tojun in the center of its altar. There were spacious abbot’s quarters, and other buildings for the monks, retired abbots, and those who frequented such temples in their travels. Spaced throughout the grounds were the customary gardens, their perfectly placed stones and cultivated trees intermingled with more prosaic varieties of growing things useful to a monastery of hungry holy men: daikon radishes, scallions, beans, and other vegetables.

There were some characteristics distinguishing this temple. It was one dedicated to the Kegon sect of Buddhism, which accounted for the statue of Tojun, known in China as To-shun, one of the religion’s primogenitors. It was favorably located on the crest of steep Abura Hill, in the shady middle of a grove of evergreen cryptomeria that funneled the coolest breezes of summer over its walls and sheltered the temple too, from the harshest gusts of winter. Looking out in one direction from the temple walls, one could spy the tiled roof of a public bathhouse in the forest below, one that had been commissioned in the 14th century by the Empress Komyo. From another vantage point, the towering outline of Mt. Kasuga loomed. Then too, this particular temple had a certain “air” about it. The sharp scent of pepper to be exact. The temple was famous for the spicy pickled vegetables its monks fermented in wooden vats in their kitchen. Yet what really set this temple apart from others was the long bladed poles that were stored under the eaves of the monk’s quarters, their oaken shafts polished with use, their steel edges kept razored with care. For this temple was the Hozoin, and its monks were the feared and respected spearmen of the Hozoin ryu, one of ancient Japan’s most feared schools of spearmanship.

The Hozoin was consecrated to the Kegon sect of Buddhism. Kegon, known as Hua-yen in Chinese, was formalized in China very early in the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Kegon sprouted at almost exactly the same time another school of Chinese Buddhism came into prominence, the Chan or Zen sect, and in many ways, Kegon was an intellectual approach to Buddhism, complementing the more spontaneous methods of Zen. Kegon drew its inspiration from the Avatamsaka sutra, a sacred text that based enlightenment upon adherence to the principles of the Ten Mysterious Gates. In simplified form, the doctrines of Kegon maintain that all existence is dependent upon a vast, interlocking network of karma, or personal actions. In Kegon thought, the universe is like an enormous machine, one with millions upon millions of cogs, each of them turning in relation to all the others. Enlightenment comes to the Kegon practitioner when he realizes independence is illusory and that existence is an ultimate interdependence upon others, past and present. And so, the follower of Kegon Buddhism seeks to integrate himself into the world, understanding the greater scheme of things by understanding his own little cog.

Exactly when Kegon Buddhism was imported to Japan is a mystery. But by the 16th century, there were several temples there dedicated to it. One of these was in Nara, named the Hozo, after the Japanese pronunciation of Fa-tsang, the Chinese priest who formalized Kegon teachings. For many years, the Hozoin monks lived in simple solitude, making their renowned pickles and contemplating the scriptures of Kegon thought. It wasn’t until about 1620, with the appointment of Kakuzenbo Innei as chief abbot, that things began to change.

Innei had been, like many other clergymen in feudal Japan, the younger son of a large family. Denied by custom any of his family’s estate and faced with a life of poverty, he entered the priesthood while still virtually a child. He applied himself to a study of the canons of Kegon faith, the Sanskrit Gandavyuha sutra and the Chinese Chin-shi-tsu-chang, and was rewarded, while still quite young, with an advancement to the post of abbot. The position meant many new duties, but it also allowed him an opportunity to pursue a lifelong dream, a strange one for a priest. Kakuzenbo Innei immersed himself in the deadly art of swordsmanship. With his temple’s political connections, he was able to become the friend and student of Kitabatake Tomonori, the governor of Ise Province and a master fencer of the Kashima Shinto ryu. Later, he undertook a study of the Katori Shinto ryu, under the teaching of Onishiki Shunken.

As his years of training piled up, however, Innei became more and more interested in a corollary art of both ryu, the methods of the spear, called sojutsu. The young priest concentrated his energies on the spear, polishing his skill and gradually incorporating his own ideas into his practice. On afternoons after the day’s devotional liturgy were finished, the air of the temple courtyard hummed as Innei’s spear cut through it in sojutsu’s precise thrusts and sweeps. It wasn’t long before many of the monks watching Innei begged their abbot to teach, and thus was born the Hozoin ryu.

By the mid-1500s, the Hozoin had become a pilgrimage site, not just for members of the Kegon sect, but for wandering martial artists as well, who wished to test their abilities. According to legend, a young, aspiring swordsman named Miyamoto Musashi paid a visit to the temple. In reality, through the gates of the Hozoin passed many of that age’s greatest martial arts masters. Yagyu Muneyoshi and his son, Yagyu Munenori, founders of the Yagyu Shinkage school of fencing, were acquaintances of the master Innei. Okuyama Kimishige, headmaster of the Okuyama ryu, visited, as did Ono Jiroemon Tadaaki, second headmaster of the Itto ryu, and Toda Shigemasa, of the Toda style of swordsmanship. For so small a temple as the Hozo to have been the center of so much exalted attention, not to mention the hordes of lesser known warriors who journeyed there for a match or lesson, the methods of the ryu must have been truly impressive. Unfortunately, we know comparatively little of the Hozoin spear techniques. There is a Hozoin ryu still in existence, but its movements have been changed considerably. About twenty kata with the spear used in the manner of the Hozoin ryu are still extant, most of them featuring the school’s most distinctive technique. This involves thrusting the blade and tip of the spear toward the joints of an opponent’s body, at the knee, for example, or under the arm, and then twisting the weapon forcefully in a circular motion that bends the joint, throwing the opponent as neatly as any judo throw.

This unusual method of sojutsu was possible for the spearman of the ryu because he used a particular weapon sometimes referred to as a Hozoin yari (spear). The Hozoin yari had a crescent-shaped hook fixed at right angles to the shaft a couple of feet down from the point. The wide crescent helped to entangle an attacker and kept him from moving any closer to the spearman.

Historians generally agree that the Hozoin yari was an adaptation of spears used by aboriginal Ainu bear hunters in the far northern province of Hokkaido. The Ainu would attach a crossbar to their weapons so a bear, already impaled on the point, couldn’t force itself down the shaft in its dying anguish, killing the hunter. But a popular tale gives a different rendering to the Hozoin spear’s creation.

The story has it that a young man from a nearby village came to the Hozoin seeking admittance to become a monk. His family was impoverished, but he was healthy and exceptionally strong, and although he had a reputation as being rather strong willed as well, the monks took pity on him. They accepted him as a servant, often the position taken by aspirants to the priesthood. Most of these novices accepted their temporary lot. They performed the various menial tasks they were assigned, looking forward to the day when they might join the ranks of the other monks. Young Matsu, however, was not content with waiting. He worked at a demon’s pace, finishing an entire day’s jobs in a couple of hours. He was up before the most faithful and was still hard at it when the last candle was extinguished at night. Even so, after two weeks of such frantic activity, his efforts had not earned him so much as an encouraging smile from his seniors.

Angry at what he perceived as a snub, Matsu changed his tactics in a bold way. While his family was poor, they were among the ranks of the jizamurai, farmers who, in times of need, had served their lords as warriors. When he was little more than a toddler, Matsu’s father had taught him to hold and thrust a spear. It didn’t occur to him that the spear his father had shown him how to use was nothing but a broken rake handle. Matsu had practiced the basic moves of spearmanship for most of his life. He was not intimidated by the reputation of the fighting Hozoin monks. Brazenly, he approached a senior who was supervising training one morning, and made his challenge. The monk, thinking to pound some sense into the boy, gave him a practice spear and took a stance against him. Incredibly, Matsu screamed and charged, smashing a wicked blow against the forehead of the monk, who did not regain consciousness for an hour, by which time the entire temple buzzed with accounts of the incident.

Some of the monks thought Matsu might be a child prodigy. They had their best spearmen face him. These were expert warriors, accustomed to all the maneuvers and stances of the various schools of the martial arts. But they were taken completely off-guard by the unorthodox yet devastating way Matsu leaped at them, brushing their weapons aside and raining blows down clumsily and painfully upon them. Innei himself witnessed the final two of these “duels.” He addressed the losers firmly.

“You have been too easy on the boy,” he said. “He defeated you because you were so concerned with not hurting him. Tomorrow,” he said, “I will see to putting an end to his arrogance.”

Innei suspected his students weren’t really so poor they could be defeated by a servant. Wanting to punish Matsu for his insolence, they nevertheless had no desire to endanger his life. Indeed, Innei realized he’d put himself in the same predicament. The only way he could show Matsu the error of his ways was to risk killing him, hardly a worthy act for a Buddhist abbot. In a quandary, Innei spent the evening in his garden, moving about with the spear. He continued his exercise, even when clouds billowed up in the nighttime sky, crackling with the energy of a coming storm. Lost in thought, Innei stood on the bank of a small pond, watching the reflection of his spear as he swung it over the dark water. That is when inspiration appeared, the story goes, quite literally in a flash of illumination. A finger of lightning streaked across the sky, reflecting off the surface of the pond, and appearing to cross the shaft of Innei’s spear.

The next morning, in one of the Hozoin’s gardens, Innei and Matsu squared off with practice spears. But instead of a straight polearm, Innei’s yari had a curved crossbar of wood fixed tightly to the shaft with cord. A more experienced martial artist would have paused to consider this modification. Changing even a few inches of the length of a weapon could mean a drastic difference in the way it was used. Matsu ignored the results of Innei’s inspiration, though. He rushed at the abbot, his spear clutched in his hand. His face was ablaze with determination to prove himself worthy of the priesthood, or at least to gain some attention. In response, Innei pushed his spear up, catching Matsu at the knees with the crosspiece. Then, with a twist, the abbot flung him into the air. Matsu crashed at the feet of the monks assembled to watch the match. Innei slowly walked over to the fallen boy and stood over him to check for any damage. “You must learn to be patient,” he said. “Rushing into the priesthood will work no better than rushing in against a warrior.”

If we are to believe the story, Matsu took the counsel seriously. So much so that he went on to become the second headmaster of the ryu, achieving almost as much fame in his time as Innei had received in his.

Is the tale of the Hozoin spear’s inspiration in the reflection of lightning in a pond true? Or just a legend? It is impossible to tell. But there is no doubt at all that the most renowned school of the spear in old Japan was not founded by great samurai or noble warriors. Its creation is owed to the monks of an otherwise insignificant temple on the southeastern edge of Nara. So lasting was their reputation, in fact, that even today priests of all Buddhist sects all over Japan are sometimes referred to by the title of Osho. It is a title that has nothing to do with their religious calling. Instead, it means, “Honorable Teacher of the Spear.”

Copyright ©2002 Dave Lowry. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in Traditions: Essays on the Japanese Martial Arts and Ways, 2002.