Jest of a Master Swordsman
by Dr. Maurice Zalle
"I'll chop you into dog-meat," roared the bully Oku, Inatitsu smiled.
The little village of Koshu, many leagues distant from Kyoto, the capital of sixteenth century Japan, was awake with the activity of the farmers in the rice fields, sowing their new crop this very early spring day.
Their little huts were redolent with the odors of the frying fish, the cooking rice, the steaming vegetables in iron pots. The women of the household, their heads wrapped in bandannas, their skirts tucked up, were busily engaged in serving breakfast to their men before the morning planting should begin. The farmers wolfed down their food with chopsticks, greedily, giving an occasional burp or grunt of appreciation as the food tickled their palates and left them with a sense of fullness and satisfaction. Soon they left their homes with their rice bags tied around them. The hamlet was quiet, bathed in the golden rays of the sun passing from the east across the horizon, majestically.
In the center of the little village was erected a oneroom dwelling, one floor high. A long white pole was stuck up over the entrance, and from the pole flew a streamer of white cloth bearing the legend Kenjitsu Dojothe Hall of Sword Play. Outside this building were congregated many neophyte or apprentice warriors, and scattered among them were a few ronin, warriors without a master, samurai serving no Daimyo Lord of a fief or territory. This was their meeting house, a so called clubhouse of their peers.
The master swordsman of this was a vain coxcomb by the name of Hasame Oku. He owned the dojo because he had a few years back bested the Master, Sensei Onake Kama, an old man grown feeble with years. Thus this dojo had passed to him, as was the custom in kenjitsu etiquette.
Oku was a braggart and a bully. He had not the fine selfless quality of the dedicated fencing master, neither had he practiced the samurai code of chivalry, nor did he even attempt to learn it. Thus fencing either with the staff, with the wooden sword or with the naked weapon was Oku's facile way of living the good life of donated food, clothing and shelter in the tradition of the sensei or teacher. The villagers detested him as a man but revered him as a master. Inside his dojo Oku was desultorily teaching his students various aspects of kendo and kenjitsu, interspersed with sadistic blows with the flat of the sword or the tilting staff. He was warm with sake, having plied himself plentifully with this potent rice wine before sauntering arrogantly to his court, the dojo. The room became hot with sweat and humidity. Oku mopped his streaming face and said, "The dojo is closed until after we eat fish and rice. And sake! Always our sake!" He roared aloud his decision and laughed uproariously. None of his coterie or the itinerant samurai feeding on his bounty and largesse dared utter a word of protest. All left the dojo quietly, streaming after their swaggering sensei. Oku led the way to the grocery store which served as a restaurant for passing travelers, noble and common. "Food and drink to my retainers" he roared with a rough laugh and a note of menace. "And make it fast!" He pushed the storekeeper roughly by the shoulder, "or else I won't protect you from the bandits when they next pass through here." The humble peasant bowed deeply and said, "Yes, sensei, at once, at once." He scurried into the rear of the establishment and prepared their food. Soon he brought it out and they ate noisily.
This was the usual routine of Sword Master Oku, day in and day out. But this was to provide a surprise that would be engraved on his heart until the day that he would pass away.
A man walked effortlessly along the road that stretched from Kyoto to this town of Koshu. He was a man of medium height, his muscles supple as a leopard's, his stride flowing and unhurried. His kimono was a modest dark blue and his sash was simply black. In his sash were tucked the long and short swords of the knights of Japan, the samurai. His name was Fumimaro Inatitsu, a man of peace, an upholder of tranquility, a lover of calm and quietness a man of Zen.
He entered the street leading through the middle of Koshu. There was only one streetunpaved, firmly packed dirt. He trod the street raising no dust as he walked. He came to the small temple located to one side of the shops and the homes of the residents. He lifted the knocker on the temple door and knocked.
The Buddhist priest who was the caretaker of the temple opened. "Welcome my son," he intoned. "Do you come to pray to the Sakya Muni, the Daibutsu?" The samurai bowed with humility. "I come to pay reverence to the Tathagata, the Accomplished One. May I enter and perform a meditation?"
The priest eyed him with deep feeling. His voice broke with emotion. "Sensei, you have found it have you not?"
The samurai said, humbly, "I have passed the Gateless Gate. No opening exists in emptiness." The priest bowed. Together with the visitor he made his meditation, recited the sutras of dedication and made the vows of the consecrated Buddhist. Step by step the samurai performed the ceremony. Then, taking his long sword out of its scabbard, he laid it at the feet of the Compassionate One, the image of the Buddha in repose, and said, "I vow to use this sword only to defend the helpless sentient being." Lifting up the sword he put its pommel to his fore head in reverence, then sheathed it again in the scabbard.
Rising, he thanked the priest and left the temple with a simple "Sayonara." The priest gazed after him and said, "Enlightened One, grant that this Bodhisattva free us from the plague in our small hamlet, the evil kenjitsuman Oku." He prayed thus.
The quiet samurai austerely directed his steps to the row of shops, and querying one of the townspeople as to a restaurant was pointed out the small food shop as the only establishment of its type in Koshi. Thither he went at a steady pace. His features were immobile, but kind.
As he came to the doorway of the shop and started to enter he was abruptly jostled by the outthrust arm of the dojo master, Oku, as the latter emerged swaggering.
Oku stopped and looked at the stranger disdainfully. Sneering, he said, "Look who has graced us with his presence. A homeless peasant with two swords, stolen no doubt. What's your name, ronin?"
The stranger bowed courteously, "I am called Fumimaro Inatitsu," he said in a kindly tone. "May I be excused to buy my food and drink?" Oku glared and turned red, "Stand still, two sword loafer; I haven't dismissed you yet. Whence and where, and no delay. You are in my village and when I give you leave to eat you eat, and not before!" He glared fiercely and swelled himself up with rage. The stranger smiled and said softly, "Please let me pass."
Furiously, Oku reached out to grab the throat of the insubordinate adversary. In a trice the latter gave a sudden movement of his body and the braggart was seen to hurtle over the shoulder of Inatitsu and fall heavily on the ground. The spectators gaped at the jujitsu maneuver of the quiet swordbearer. Then Inatitsu entered the shop and ordered a modest repast of fish, rice, vegetables and tea. He ate slowly, calmly.
After an interval Oku came to his senses and slowly got to his feet. His body was shaken by the impact of his fall.
"Where is that dog, that acrobat?" he screamed. "I'll cut him down with my blade and make dog-meat of him. Where is he?" Timidly, a student pointed into the shop. The discomfited, bruised samurai master started limpingly to enter the restaurant, just at the instant the satisfied diner was giving the gold ryu, a valuable coin, to the beaming shopkeeper. Oku retreated outside backing away hurriedly, and waited for his intended victim to emerge. Inatitsu appeared shortly after.
Oku put his hand on the handle of his sword and said wildly, "Dog of a homeless beggar, now you will die with my steel in you!" He started to draw when he felt an iron band grasp him around the wrist and force the sword back into its sheath. He gasped in pain, "Let go of my wrist!" he shrieked.
Inatitsu released Oku and stepped back. He spoke clearly, distinctly, so that all the townspeople who were now gathered at the spot should hear. "I have decided to live here and to teach. It is obvious that this town does not need two samurai teachers of kenjitsu. Either you or I must now leave for other parts."
Oku's eyes popped. Was this tricky jujitsuman to bamboozle him into leaving because of a wrestling throw, or should he avenge loss of face by running this interloper through with his steel blade? He spoke up harshly. "Let us have a game. He who wins shall stay and have the dojo. He who loses shall go." Inatitsu bowed, "One condition, sensei," he said mildly. "I see across the river an island. You and I will row there and settle our score there. He who returns will be taken to be the victor."
Oku rushed to the small rowboat tethered at the bank and loosing the rope frenziedly jumped in. "Come aboard, come quickly, I want to slash your head from your shoulders and mount it on my dojo flagpole, as a warning to other insolent vagrants that dare to challenge this master swordsman, Hasame Oku." He stood in the boat frothing with rage.
Inatitsu turned to the fearful towns folk and said reassuringly, "I will return. Be of good cheer. Your servitude is near its end." A few scattered banzais greeted him. There was an undercurrent of disbelief, however, as he entered the boat.
Both men rowed toward the far bank of the river. Oku continued to rant. "I will cut you into mincemeat, acrobat. Then I will take your two swords and use them to spit you for cooked dog-meat. Today our village dogs will have full bellies!" v Inatitsu said smilingly, "Will you flavor this poor body with salt, to increase its savor for your four footed associates?" Oku's complexion changed from brick red to a mottled blue of frenzy. They neared the other shore and Oku jumped onto land.
Oku whipped out his glittering steel blade, "Now you will taste death," he said menacingly. Inatitsu smiled. "Goodbye," he said courteously, and rowed back to the village shore.
Stepping out of the boat he tied it up to the pole and turned to the baffled throng. "I have returned from the other shore, friends. Your troubles are all passed. I am your new teacher of sword play. Please enter my dojo for instruction."
On the other shore Oku yelled, gulfed by his own tongue. Then he turned and trudged away, his shoulders bent, his form slumped