The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts
By Issai Chozanshi; translated by William Scott Wilson.
Kodansha International, 2006.
222 p. 5.5" x 7.75"; hardcover.
Often recommended among the Japanese classic warrior texts is Issai Chozanji's Tengu Geijutsuron, which until now has been available in English only in a translation from a German translation of the Japanese. Worse, that edition is out-of-print and selling online for ridiculous prices. Thank heavens for William Scott Wilson! He has turned his attention to this significant work with his usual elegance and attention to detail.
In this latest addition to Kodansha's series of classic warrior texts, Wilson presents a selection of Issai's writings. The centerpiece is "The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts"--the Tengu Geijutsuron. Tengu are winged beings, sometimes with the head and beak of a crow; others have more human faces, with Pinocchio-like noses. They lurk in the heights of the most sacred mountains, and are studiously avoided by most Japanese, for they are capricious and an encounter with one rarely ends well for the human. Yet, the most highly evolved of these winged "demons" are also known for their miraculous swordsmanship, and a few very brave warriors deliberately sought their tutelage. One such warrior sets out at the beginning of Issai's tale; one night a "flock" of tengu settle in the cedar tree under which he rests and he overhears their discussion on the nature of ki, the role of form, No-Mind, spontaneity, and action/non-action.
Wilson chooses to supplement the central text, by introducing it with some of Issai's playful (and remarkably easy to understand) tales that stress the importance of equilibrium in all things. He closes the volume with a new translation of the Neko no Myojutsu (which also appears in a translation by Karl Friday in our Keiko Shokon), as "The Mysterious Technique of the Cat." This piece bears re-reading.
Those who have managed to get through the other well-known warrior texts--translated admirably by Wilson as The Life-Giving Sword, The Book of Five Rings, The Unfettered Mind, and Hagakure--may well find, as I did, that the presentation here of the fairly complex Japanese thought that infuses much of the koryu is more accessible (and dare I say, a little less sleep-inducing?). As such I most definitely recommend The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts as a first step in your investigation of the philosophy and spiritual stance of the Japanese warrior. There's also much that can be applied directly to your own training--but beware that it is easy to go astray and be sure to seek guidance from your own instructor.