Yamaoka Tesshu was born in Edo (modern day Tokyo) in 1836. At the time of his birth, he was known as Ono Tetsutaro. Later, he adopted the family name of Yamaoka from his spear instructor, who’s sister he married.
Tesshu was born into a samurai family and began his study of swordsmanship when he was nine years old. Over time Tesshu studied a number of fencing styles and became highly proficient.
When he was twenty-eight, Tesshu was defeated by a swordsman named Asari Gimei and became his student. Although larger and younger, Tesshu could not match his teacher’s mental state. During training sessions, Asari was known to force Tesshu all the way to the back of the dojo, then out into the street, knock him to the ground, and then slam the dojo door in his face. Confronted with this challenge, Tesshu increased his efforts in training and meditation continuously. Even when he was eating or sleeping, Tesshu was constantly thinking about fencing. He would sometimes wake up at night, jump out of bed, and get his wife to hold a sword so he could explore a new insight. Then, one morning in 1880, when he was 45 years old, Tesshu attained enlightenment while sitting in zazen. Later that morning he went to the dojo to practice Kendo with Asari. Upon seeing Tesshu, Asari recognized at once that Tesshu had reached enlightenment. Asari, declined to fence with Tesshu, acknowledging Tesshu’s attainment by saying, “You have arrived.” Shortly after this, Tesshu went on to open his own school of fencing.
Tesshu was 6ft tall, unusual for a Japanese person of his time, and very athletic. He was a natural leader and very competitive. So intense was his practice of his three main pursuits (fencing, Zen, and calligraphy), that his nickname was Demon Tesshu. Tesshu was also famous for combining his competitive nature with his love of drinking.
Tesshu was a master calligrapher and is estimated to have created over 1,000,000 calligraphy paintings. His art works are considered important and are studied now, even as they were in his lifetime.
Tesshu’s life bridged the time between feudal and modern Japan. Tesshu held a position as a bodyguard for the last Togugawa Shogun. Tesshu even played a role in the transition of power. Then Tesshu became a tutor for the Emperor Meiji during the emperor’s early adulthood.
On one occasion the young emperor challenged Tesshu to a wrestling match. The emperor enjoyed sumo wrestling but he had acquired the inappropriate habit of challenging his aids to impromptu wrestling matches. On one occasion, following a bout of sake drinking, the emperor challenged Tesshu to wrestle. When Tesshu refused the challenge, whereupon the emperor tried to push and pull Tesshu, but the emperor found Tesshu to be immoveable. Then the emperor tried to strike Tesshu, but Tesshu moved slightly aside. The force of the emperor’s blow caused him to fall down, whereupon Tesshu pinned the emperor to the ground. The emperor’s other aids were furious with Tesshu and demanded that Tesshu apologize to the emperor. Tesshu asserted that he was in fact doing his duty and would commit suicide if the emperor requested, but he would not apologize. The emperor saw the wisdom of Tesshu’s way and gave up (temporarily) both wrestling and drinking. From then on Tesshu was one of the emperor’s most trusted advisors.
On another occasion, the emperor, observing how worn Tesshu’s clothing was, gave Tesshu some money to buy new clothes. Tesshu, however, had little regard for material possessions and gave the money to the numerous poor people who sought the hospitality of his household. The next time Tesshu appeared before the emperor, he was wearing the same old clothes.
"What became of the new clothes?" asked the emperor. Tesshu responded back, “They went to you majesty’s children.”
Tesshu died from stomach cancer, in the year 1888, at the age of fifty-three. On the day before he died, Tesshu noticed that there were no sounds of training to be heard from his dojo. When Tessu was told that the students had canceled training to be with him in his last hours, he ordered them to return to the dojo saying, “Training is the only way to honor me!”
Tesshu’s last moments before his death were classical. First he composed his death poem, then he sat in zazen until he died.
Tightening my abdomen
against the pain.
The caw of a morning crow.