111. Kegare: Impurity and Purity in Koryu

(Note: My apologies to the thousands…well, actually, under a dozen of…regular readers of this blog. I have been absent from writing for a while due to increased responsibilities with work and my various non-profit volunteer work. I will still be busy with those responsibilities but I did have a break this morning, while a handyman fixes my kitchen floor so…)

It was the last scheduled training session for me on my recent trip to Japan. When I arrived at my teacher’s front-yard dojo (training hall), no one else was around. I turned on the lights, swept the floor, and found some towels that I could use to wipe the mats down before practice.

My teacher showed up just when I was finishing the last tatami mats.

For me, it wasn’t even a matter of trying to ingratiate myself or follow some strict dojo rule. I was wiping down the mats to say “Thank you” to the training hall that had absorbed so much of my sweat, tears and even bits of blood (from nose bleeds more than actual wounds in practice!). Cleaning the dojo floors was a labor of love. As I cleaned the mats, I reflected on the hours spent in years past on the tatami, enclosed by those wooden walls, surrounded by maple and pine trees outside.

Besides the basic fact that cleaning one’s dojo regularly helps with peoples’ hygiene and it keeps skin rashes and diseases down, the Japanese dojo is regularly cleaned because of the sense of ritual (and real) purity, as opposed to spiritual defilement (kegare). The sense of purity and defilement is a large part of the sensibilities of traditional koryu in Japan, and depending on the system, still plays a role in how and why some modern Japanese budo (martial ways) do the things they do the way they do it, for better or worse.

This sense of ritual purity may even supersede the practical cleaning outcomes, in some cases.

Sumo is the oldest martial art and sport of Japan. In a traditional sumo bout, I’m sure you notice the elaborate rituals performed at the beginning and end of a tournament, and the stylized ritual at the start of the bout, which often take longer than the match itself. While an obscure worker sweeps the packed earth around them, the sumo wrestlers stamp the floor and perform ritual hand-clapping and gestures. They will wave a Japanese bamboo bow about. This is all based on Shinto religious rites to spiritually purify the arena. And if a drop of blood is spilled from a wound or cut, the rest of the matches are halted while the ring is again purified and cleaned, practically and symbolically.

In Shinto, blood spilled from an inflicted wound signified the pain and suffering incurred on a living being, hence impure spirituality. (Interestingly, this was a reason given by the Japanese sumo authorities as to why women were not supposed to enter the sumo arena, because they have menstrual cycles. In 1990, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Mayumi Moriyama was disallowed from presenting an award, the Prime Minister’s Cup, because she was a woman. That caused quite an uproar in Japan over the stubborn misogyny of the sumo world. An old gentleman I knew who helped recruit and sponsor several foreign sumo wrestlers from Hawaii quipped to me that, “Well, you got to understand, a lot of the senior leadership in the sumo world are not what you would call educated people. To be frank, they are sexist and prejudiced when it comes to race and sex. It’s going to take another generation or so to get smarter, more worldly people into that world.” But I digress…)

Now, already some of you may be wondering at the obvious paradox. The martial arts are about fighting, combat, self-defense, defeating an enemy, right? It’s about using bare hands and weapons to punch, kick, choke, twist and even cut and bash an opponent, so how can you consider the purity (sei) and impure (kegare) dichotomy in arts that originally were meant for a warrior’s training?

In actuality, you need to go back in history to look at the roots of this paradox. Besides the Shinto underpinnings, there is also Chinese Confucian and Taoist revulsion to the act of unnecessary and wanton killing and aggression. The Tao Te Ching notes: “Weapons are instruments of ill omen; they are not the instruments of the princely man, who uses them only when he needs must…” (Lionel Gates translation from www.sacredtext.com.)

The samurai class (buke) were hardly hippie types living in communes. But they studied the Chinese classics in their education and carried this sense of ambivalence as they engaged in their duties as hereditary warriors. While it is true that a good many of them were belligerent aggressors in the many wars during the ascendancy of the buke class, the more power and social status they gained, the more they tried to emulate the nobility. Many of the samurai balanced their warriorship with a study of literary and academic arts, studying Noh drama, poetry, and tea ceremony. The very essential concept of bunbu ryodo (the literary and martial arts are one spiritual path) attempted to temper the bloody necessity of studying the arts of war with a loftier goal of tying it to a wholistic spiritual and mental training, rather than simply a violent means to attain more land and power.

Contemporaneous accounts of the samurai attest to their skills as warriors. European visitors to Japan and native accounts outside of Japan (where ronin samurai were employed in places like Southeast Asia, along trade routes) write about their fearsomeness and technical skill with a sword. But the best of them tempered the bloodthirsty nature of their craft with this senses of forbearance due to the sense of kegare. You do not want to engage in battle (and cause bloodshed) unless absolutely necessary.

This whole discussion, in fact, came about when I was teaching my students some of the rope-tying methods in my koryu martial art. Our particular ryuha was famous for being one of the first such schools to systematize hojojutsu, or rope-capturing, to tie up and capture prisoners. I mentioned that my own teacher admitted to not being as versed in it as he was in other weaponry in the school’s repertoire. The reason, he said, was that in spite of the reputation of the school, hojojutsu was considered not very “auspicious.” While there were specific kata to tie up a samurai, he said, many of the kata dealt with binding up common criminals in the course of law enforcement. Dealing with criminals, he said, gave a samurai a feeling of kegare, of coming into contact with spiritually unclean persons. The other weapons, in comparison, were meant for dueling with other samurai. Even if they were your enemy, you were dealing with someone of your own class, and for a supposedly just and necessary cause.

With criminals, you were dealing simply with a bad guy with bad intentions. And that spiritual kegare would soil your own spirit, hence the reluctance to practice a lot of hojojutsu.

When I brought the matter up with a colleague who practiced two other, different ryuha, he had an interesting comment. One of his schools of koryu martial arts was once taught only to the most upper-class of samurai, and they had no hojojutsu at all in it. His teacher thought it was distasteful, and of course if you were a samurai daimyo (lord) or an administrator for the shogun, you wouldn’t be learning such an art at your lofty rank and prestige. But another ryu he studied included weaponry most often used by the rank-and-file samurai-era police, and they had hojojutsu, and didn’t think about it as being uniquely distasteful or not. It was just something else they had to know in order to fulfill their duties at their social and professional position.

So a side note therefore is that the level of ritual purity and kegare, and the amount of rites and rules involved, will depend on the social status of the past practitioners of that particular koryu.

Now, for sports budo, this discussion may not be of much interest, as sports budo is more concerned with winning tournaments and sportive competition. Nor should particular concepts of one koryu’s sense of kegare be adopted and bolted onto a modern budo like karatedo or aikido because it simply won’t fit or be appropriate.

However, there is a very important lesson to be learned from how the samurai-inspired koryu approached conflict, resolution, and how to deal with the emotional and spiritual aftermath. By acknowledging that combat and violence, and the spilling of blood, were extraordinary and not to be overtly condoned without hesitation, the founders of the koryu developed barriers to contain the mental and emotional dislocation that accompanied the experience of war, and any such emotional conflict.

When a battle was over, the returning warrior, although victorious, had shed blood. He had to undergo rituals to purify himself, physically, mentally and emotionally. This sounds very much like having to deal with PTSD, doesn’t it? The samurai often erected monuments even to former enemies, to mollify the spirits of the defeated, but more so, perhaps to also deal with the complex emotions that arise out of being a survivor of a traumatic event.

When I was learning iaijutsu, I asked my teacher what a particular motion at the end of the forms meant. What was the practical application? None, my teacher replied. The gesture was a symbolic prayer for the person you killed. “Better him than you,” he said. “But even if that person was your enemy, he becomes a Buddha when he dies, and you pray that he becomes enlightened and finds his path in the next life. You have to have that spirit, of letting go of your own hate, or you will never find your own peace.”

So therefore, hundreds of years ago, a professional class of warriors was already learning to deal with issues of post traumatic stress, “shell shock,” “survivor syndrome,” and other issues that our own society, enmeshed in the ongoing military and civil action against terrorist groups and rogue states, have to deal with, through the lens of kegare and being ritually cleansed. The koryu documented and preserved such methods. This shows the value of retaining the lore and tradition of those arts for future generations. Even though the weaponry may be antiquated, the nature of conflict and the resultant trauma are often very similar. Mankind’s technology may have advanced, but our mental and spiritual experiences, at root, remain very much unchanged. An understanding of how the ancient warriors treated purity and kegare may have a lot of practical implications for us even in this era of smart bombs and unmanned drones.

One final example: One of the hot-button issues now in America is the bad publicity concerning police officers hurting or killing suspects in their custody. One of my students works for a federal agency and he noted that in his study of such accounts, some of the red flats that stand out include the lack of proper training and the bad attitude of locally-run police officers. Sure, he said, the suspects may have acted contrary to the expectations of how a “law abiding citizen” should act, docilely submitting to a law enforcement officer. But the number of such incidents, he said, would be lessened if the local municipalities had better training, better guidelines, and if the officers didn’t have such a macho mind-set of “us against them, they are all scumbags.”

That was interesting, because my teacher said that while learning hojojutsu was not considered a very spiritually “pure” endeavor, there may be times when necessity called for it, such as when holding an enemy samurai prisoner rather than killing him. You therefore spare his life. Or when having to restrain a suspected criminal, rather than beat him senseless so he or she will submit. So when you HAVE to do it, you have to capture the prisoner in a way that does not defile your own spirituality or add to the suspect’s own kegare. In other words, you do not act with malice towards the prisoner. You only do what is necessary to contain him.

“There is a whole etiquette to hojojusu,” my sensei said. “And you must teach this along with the hojojutsu, or you will be making your own self impure spiritually by acting like a thug.”

So he showed me how to tie up a captive quickly with rope, then how to formally help the prisoner up to a sitting position, then helping him to stand up so you can direct him to jail, all in the form of a kata. “I am going to turn you on this side, please,” you had to say in Japanese. “Now we will sit up so I will help you sit up, please,” step after step, we talked to the person like he was a guest at a five-star hotel, even though he was hogtied like a steer, the rope around his neck threatening to tighten even further if he struggled against the knots that bound his wrists.

Again, interestingly, when I talked to the student who was a federal agent, and to a student of mine who was involved in intelligence gathering in Afghanistan, they both reflected the same mind-set espoused by the koryu. You treat the prisoners humanely in order to glean further information and cooperation. “We don’t do waterboarding,” my student and former Army intelligence officer said. “It’s amazing what a cup of coffee, a cigarette, and just sitting down and talking will do to make most people open up.” And it also humanizes both you and your prisoner.

And he should know. He’s had former Taliban prisoners spill their guts out to him because he treated them better than their own leaders.

Thus, a sense of spiritual purity and kegare may seem antiquated and old-fashioned, as far as sports martial arts for tournaments and competitions go, but you never know how such old concepts may help in contemporary tactics and strategies that are outside of martial arts.





22 thoughts on “111. Kegare: Impurity and Purity in Koryu

  1. Thanks Wayne. Your insight is always well appreciated. Keep writing. Some of us are still waiting for a resurgence of Furyu.

    1. Thank you Mr. Wallace. For now, I can only afford to write on this blog since it’s free. I lost my pants on Furyu.

  2. Thank you for coming back! I’ve wondered what happened to you/your blog, and am thankful to hear that it was work that occupied you. 🙂

    When Black lives matters had made itself known to me (as a European) a film of two Swedish cops holding two men on the NY metro made its round on social media as a visual of how policing could be done.

    (It probably helped that they weren’t on their own turf. Better be careful not to enrage the local police!)

  3. Murumoto-san, Thanks for this interesting article. It made my morning train ride to work nice. I hope we will meet one day. I am training with Takagi Sensei at Shinpukan. Warmest regards, Marc Dernauer

  4. Hi Wayne, this is Sean from Singapore. Long ago I contacted you. I practice Shindo Muso Ryu with your old friend Ziggy when he was in Hawaii. Im glad to have discovered your blog. They have brought me hours of reading pleasure! Cheers!

      1. Indeed it was Wayne. I was in my mid 20s and now I’m 40. So your memory is fine. Is just time that went by too quickly. But it’s great to link up with you again.

  5. Wonderful that your back writing, what a timely story for everyone , including America and its troubles. hojojutsu is a wonderful art , but very interesting in the ways it does thing , a really wonderful article with many thought provoking ideas

  6. I have never thought of the rituals that surround koryu kata as being necessary for dealing with the trauma of “injuring” a fellow human being – to keep me human.

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