Musha shugyō 武者修行 or “training in warriorship” was inspired by Zen monks, who would engage in similar ascetic wanderings (which they called angya, “travelling on foot”) before attaining Satori, enlightenment.
During musha shugyō the samurai would take on various roles within society. This included helping peasants, providing justice and upholding high moral standards. They would also engage in martial arts training with various teachers and schools to perfect their skills and gain knowledge of different techniques. Musha shugyō was also said to be a form of self-discovery and self-transcendence. The samurai would often travel alone and live off the land, allowing them to come into contact with nature and reflect on life’s great questions. Through this process they would gain greater understanding of themselves and their own capabilities.
One day Kamiizumi (上泉 信綱) Ise no kami was passing through a small village. On entering the hamlet he immediately sensed fear and confusion. A monk approached him. ‘A notorious killer has seized a child and is holding them in an abandoned house. The parents are hysterical and the local magistrate is fearful and useless. Please do something, brother traveller.’
Kamiizumi shaved his head, borrowed a kesa (monk’s robe) from the priest, and approached the barn with two rice balls. Kamiizumi used the rice balls to lull the man into dropping his guard, and then quickly seized him by hand, dragged him outside and saved the child. He could have used a blade, but chose to show compassion even to a dangerous criminal.
This was part of the origin story of Shinkage-ryū (新陰流). A system of martial strategy founded by Kamiizumi Nobutsuna.
This event was part of his Musha-shugyo, travel, testing and self discovery. Along the path we fail, succeed, but always learn something of our true self. Without testing, without peril, without the crucible. Our public face (tatemae) becomes large, but in private we question ourselves. In the event of true crisis, do we have the heart and mind to stand steadfast no matter of danger?
Kamiizumi was true being of sword. Like a true Budoka, no thoughts of Nirvāṇa or Saṃsāra, life or death. Only effortless action. Being free from mind-attachments.
Ganbarimashō ~ C.Borkowski
*This episode was later used by famed director Akira Kurosawa in the iconic movie Seven Samurai, 1954 Toho Studios.