The Master Swordsman

by Willem Bekink

Chapter 1 / 2

The cross child looked around the hut, angrily kicking some of its sparse furnishings to pieces. His invisible following watched, disturbed, noting that compensation should be offered to the Old Man – if he did not himself ask for it. Then the small aspirant-swordsman went outside, sat down in front of the doorway and started to sob. 

This, however, resulted in a red face, dizziness and a great thirst. So he stopped, sunk in bitter thought about the injustice he had suffered. And later, tired even by thought, he just sat, until evening fell. He had decided not to leave his place and eventually fell over, sleeping where he lay, to the great concern of his concealed guard. Awakening in the early morning he stretched, dived into the bushes to attend to his needs and hastened back to his post. To his amazement, he saw the Old Man came out of the hut, relieve himself and disappear into the forest. 

Filled anew with anger he weighed up what to do: give the old idiot another chance, or give up the whole thing. In the meantime his concealed entourage discussed whether to disclose themselves, so as to feed the undoubtedly famished little warrior-to-be, or whether to leave him hungry, so that he might himself end this laughable enterprise. 

While they debated this the boy sat motionless, like a miniature Daruma, his face angry, now and then swatting away a couple of flies. And so he continued to sit, for the whole day, the very picture of determination. His guards looked in amazed admiration, finally sending someone to the Daimyo’s palace to ask for guidance on how to proceed. At this the Great Daimyo sent a short message to the Old Swordmaster with an invitation to come to the palace to talk about the boy. 

His answer was equally brief: “No son can learn respect if the father cannot show it. I have no time to come to you and I am also not sure that I will have the time to talk if you come to me. 

Early the next day the Daimyo arrived with a large retinue at the Old Master’s hut and went to sit next to his son. Thus they waited together for the whole morning, until the Master was ready for his meditation. 

When the Old One was finished he emerged, sat before father and son and bowed, albeit not too deeply. His face expressionless, he looked directly at the Daimyo, eventually saying: “You wish me to teach Kendo, an art which I have already distanced myself from, to a spoiled boy with the self-conceit of one certainly ten times his age.

I must add that he is the perfect type to effectively and energetically hack other idiots into pieces. 

Regrettably, I do not intend to place such power in those hands, regardless of how valuable I find such tidying up.” 

At this the boy, who in the preceding days had become considerably more adult, bowed deeply and reverently before the Old Master, his forehead touching the ground and his fists next to his ears and said: “Sensei, forgive me, I do not plan to indiscriminately hack people into pieces. On the contrary, I wish indeed to learn the Art of preventing injustice and protecting life. 

I beseech you, Sensei, be my guide on the way of the Sword.” For a long time the Old Master observed the boy’s bowed head and eventually said: “Sit up, your face is dirty enough without your rubbing it in the ground”.

Then he addressed the Daimyo, saying: “Your son can stay here with me. I cannot promise that I can make a swordfighter of him, or master of the tea ceremony, or even perhaps an average wood chopper – but perhaps I can be successful in at least making a Man of him. If so, I wish to do this in MY way, in MY own time and without the least interference from You or YOUR court. 

Further, I do not want the even smallest undertaking to be made to reward me in any way whatsoever – no favours, no money or goods, in whatever form. 

I undertake this task not for him and also not for you, but for myself – and perhaps will also make myself look ridiculous in the process. The Daimyo gazed straight ahead and then, to the surprise of all, reverently and deeply bowed before the Old Master. 

Then he stood up and left, suppressing the urge to take his leave of the boy. He was halfway on his return journey when he realized that he had not said a word throughout the entire visit.

Chapter 3

For a year the boy did nothing other than chop wood. The first month flew by and he obeyed meekly in expectation of a glorious future. 

He even made it a point of honor to excel in his use of the axe and energetically fulfilled the Sensei’s assignment to keep the fire in the hut burning day and night, although he personally couldn’t see the sense in it. But he took it all in his stride in order to attain the GREAT goal. 

He even gained a certain sense of pleasure in getting up at every hour of the night to put wood on the fire. 

After a while he could even hear, from the sound of the crackling wood, when the fire was in need of new fuel, even though his eyes were closed. His sleep was now less deep and his awakening quicker than was previously the case. 

In the second month he began to get doubts. 

Absently picking at the callouses on his hands he assured himself each night anew that the next day would certainly be the start of the lessons. But week followed week of just chopping wood and he felt himself becoming angrier and angrier. 

He chopped with increasing ease from all angles and from the most absurd positions. 

At the end of the third month he resolved that he would continue for but one more day at his insane task. If the lessons still had not started he would then literally down tools and go home. He would tell his father how he had been treated and he would certainly do something to make it clear to the Old Man who called the shots in the province. Of course he would give the Old One the chance to apologize, but thereafter he would now determine when the lessons should start what the timetable would be. 

Brushing a formal note to this effect he pushed it, folded, halfway under the door, so he could immediately see when it was removed. An hour passed but the note still lay there. Another hour and the hours became days and the days weeks, the note becoming grubbier the longer it lay. 

His annoyance grew by the day and he eventually decided to take stern measures. He had now given the Old One enough chances! He jerked the note from under the door and walked to the fire with it. When he unfolded it in order that it would burn more quickly he discovered that the paper was blank. It was not his note, it was even folded differently! His rage at the Sensei exploded, he felt cheated and insulted. The old scumbag! 

To think that he had begged him on his knees to be taken on as pupil. It was enough, he would leave immediately.

Of course there would be those that would think he had given up and would secretly gloat. 

But he would show them that he could also master the art of the sword elsewhere and without all that useless timewasting. He trembled with rage at the thought of how the Old Man would laugh to himself that he had finally got rid of his nuisance of a pupil. The insults that he had had to bear all this time! 

How he hated the grinning, wrinkled face of the old rascal who, when there were peas for dinner, would lay two peas on his portion of rice. And then that remark about flower-arranging, that everyone had overheard. It was unacceptable and unbearable! 

When his rage had somewhat subsided an ancient samurai saying suddenly occurred to him: “To bear what you think unbearable…is to truly bear.”

He sighed.

And so it is that a good saying can sometimes help one through a small crisis.

In the fourth month, collecting all his courage he went to the Old Man, bowed deeply and respectfully asked when his first lesson in Kendo would start. 

Above his bowed head the Old One mumbled: “Hmm…a fish that longs for a worm can seemingly not enjoy a meal of flies.” For days the boy searched for the meaning of this riddle-like answer, coming to the conclusion that it had absolutely no meaning and was also not an answer to his question. He went again to the Old Master and repeated his question. This time the answer was short: “When you are ready.” 

“But I am ready”, cried the boy, whereon the Old One answered: “Oh yes..? Well drop your pants and let’s see then.”

The boy almost screamed with rage. He went back to his axe and woodpile and splintered one log after the other as if possessed by the devil. 

Every night he carefully inspected the state of development of his genitals in the firelight but there was not much to note and in dull despair time passed by. 

He received a new task alongside that of wood chopping. He had to carry water from the river below to the top of the hill so that the old man could take his bath at the hut. That meant chopping the wood quicker as he now had only half the time for this. And other senseless tasks were added. He had to read and do writing exercises and remembr all sorts of nonsense. This was surely not work for a future sanurai? 

The more time he had to spend learning, the less remained for his obligatory fatigue of water-carrying and wood-chopping. At first he laboured until deep into the night – then falling asleep, dead tired, only to be kicked awake frequently and unfeelingly for allowing the fire to die. He had no time for anything any more, not to think nor to be angry. There was only time for uninterrupted work, bitterly executed out of fear of being sent away: For that was a pleasure he wouldn’t grant the Old Man!

And so he gradually came to discover that he had lost all interest. He took pleasure in nothing, nature didn’t interest him and he remembered little of his earlier youth. 

Little remained of the hate that he had harboured for the Old Man and he could even get worked up about eth two little peas on his handful of rice. He felt himself as broken as the farmers whose lives, he had heard, passed by in ceaseless, exhausting labour, without any prospect than mere survival. 

When the first year was over he would not have the energy to even spit at the Old One’s feet, let alone to become a great swordfighter. He was just exhausted, weary in body and soul. So he decided to throw it in and to leave on the night of the next full moon. 

But on the night of the full moon he did not take flight. Something happened that caused him to forget his resolution.

And it was painful!

Chapter 4

It happened as he climbed the steep path to the hut carrying the last two buckets of water, a stinging blow from behind landing precisely on his right ear. He saw stars and tumbled to the ground. As the two buckets rolled blithely back down the hill, the Old Man looked satisfiedly down on the boy, leaning on a freshly cut bamboo, apparently cut just for the occasion. The pain was intense and the boy struggled to control his tears. Brushing them hastily away as if he had something in his eye, he kneeled before the Old Man to explain why he was so late with the water. He had hardly uttered a word when the Old One interrupted him: “That water makes no difference to me. I just throw it away in any event when I’ve used it”, and he wandered off leaving the surprised boy behind. With a sigh he gathered the buckets and walked down the hill again towards the stream. He had not gone ten paces when the bamboo struck again with a stinging blow to his back. 

The boy screamed out from the pain and crawled as quickly as he could on all fours into the undergrowth. 

Not knowing what to do next he peered through the leaves at the Old Man. He must have gone totally mad! He stayed where he was until the old idiot disappeared into his hut and he heard the door lock. 

Not sure whether he should do it, the boy eventually picked up the buckets and climbed cautiously down to fill them. 

He carried them to the top and just as he was about to empty the first bucket into the barrel something warned him to duck. The third blow glanced off along his shoulder and he leapt sideways. 

There was nothing to see!

Suddenly he heard a light rustling behind him. 

Without looking around he leapt away, but not soon enough, as the blow caught him neatly on the coccyx. 

With his hands on his rear he ran groaning into the forest. He endured three more attacks until dinnertime. 

The Old Man ordered him to come inside and he obeyed. When he somewhat abruptly passed him a full bowl the boy started away, frightened. “Idiot!”, said the old voice, “do you think that I would waste good food?” 

They ate silently. Suddenly the voice of the Old One sounded in the gloom: “Only an animal jumps at every movement or sound, the rustling of leaves or a falling pine cone. A person with self-discipline only moves when it’s necessary.” 

While the boy was still considering this the voice continued: “That is to say, just one moment before it is necessary.”

The enigmatic words instilled all but comfort in the boy. He watched the face of the wrinkled monster carefully and moved cautiously, carefuly keeping his distance. He also decided it was not advisable to sleep near the fire and dragged his mat to the darkest corner of the room. Twice that night he heard an unusual noise and immedialey jumped to his feet.

It was only after many nerve-wracking days that the boy remembered his resolve to leave at the full moon. Bitterly he recalled that he had wanted to leave because his life had become so monotonous. Now, startling at the slightest sound, he would have given much for even an hour of that comfortable and restful monotony. 

He made a habit of never turning his back on the Old Man. Even if he was meditating or in his bath. Part of his brain was continuously on guard against the swishing, stinging bamboo. 

And when it came he dropped everything and leapt, as swiftly as he could, out of reach. He cleared up the mess later when the Old lunatic had disappeared from the scene. But at the same time he made the surprising discovery that it was enough to duck or sidestep a blow instead of jumping away in panic, dropping everything. 

He became pleasurably aware that he could do his work without letting his guard down for a moment. He realised with pride that he suffered fewer bruises and weals and, with the growth of this pride, part of his fear disappeared. Now he understood the difference between the desperate fear of an animal and the controlled watchfulness of man. At the same time his anger with regard to the Old Man reduced. On the odd occasion that the bamboo did come down hard and full on its mark, the boy’s admiring reaction was: “That was a good one!” 

No longer did he walk unthinkingly into a space or around a blind corner. 

He no longer walked blindly up the hill or close by the trees. His dreaminess had disappeared and in place of it came a more comprehensive awareness of everything happening around him, regardless of what he was doing. Later yet he began to feel what he could not see. Then he would stand for minutes before the dark opening of the hut, nearly certain that a raised bamboo awaited him inside. If he overcame his doubts – as, after all, he couldn’t stand the whole night before a probably empty hut – then on entry he was felled instantly by a hefty blow, heard through the ensuing hail of strokes the rasping voice of the Old Man: “You knew it! You knew it! And still you came inside! You are an idiot beyond redemption, no good will come of you!” 

He became even more cautious and resolutely curtailed all old habits of convenience and order to which he had become accustomed. If he had the faintest suspicion that along his way the stick lay waiting, he took another route, even it was considerably longer. Time was less important than a beating. 

Without being aware of it, the boy developed an inner calm. Observation and perception allowed him little time for fantasy and dreaming. He began to pay more attention to the world around him than to the world in himself. 

The second year ended with an almost unbelievable triumph! Walking silently, as he had taught himself to, he happened suddenly on the Old Man – who was in wait for him, but with his back towards the boy! Now he was the hunter and the Old One helpless prey! What denigration for the Old Man to be surprised by a mere pupil. Silently as a shadow the boy returned the way he had come. 

The Old Master turned around just in time to see him disappearing. For a moment his eyes widened, then his face softened in a smile. 

The next day the Old Man called the boy to him. 

The boy came, knelt and bowed deeply.

For some moments they looked unwaveringly at each other and it was as if a mutual bond rivetted their gaze. Then the Old One reached behind him and produced a new bamboo stick and offered it to to the boy. 

Slowly, as if with the greatest difficulty, the boy reached out his hand and took the stick. He bowed, coming slowly upright and walked off into the forest. The Old Man needed only a single glance at the young, straight back to know that the boy wept. They were tears of happiness! 

Chapter 5 – deel 1

A new acquisition doesn’t only bring joy.

No king was prouder of his sceptre than the boy of his bamboo stick, his shinai.

But at very encounter the Old Man struck the stick with disconcerting ease from the boy’s hands. 

The boy swept it up, assumed the chudan challenge position and yet, somehow, the stick just flew out of his hands again. 

With gritted teeth he bent, grabbed the stick and held it in a grip so tight that his knuckles whitened. Once again it slipped and flew from his grasp, as if it was an eel. In this way he scooped up the stick from the ground perhaps a thousand times, his heart filled with despair and doubt as to whether he would ever become a feared swordfighter. Perhaps he simply lacked the talent. Their remained but one problem – how to disappear without too much loss of face. And yet life, there on the mountain top, was tremendous. There were no fixed practice times. 

The boy carried the stick in his belt as a permanent part of his attire, always at hand if he were attacked. Theoretically, he was killed in every fight. That stood beyond doubt. The question was not whether it would happen, but when. 

Then he would stand, looking for an opening, opposite the Old Man with his expressionless face and stick in a grip of iron, knowing that his victory existed only in maintaining his own grip on his stick for one second longer than the last time. 

He fought grimly for every second and prized them like a miser’s gold. And still it drove him to desperation as his stick, for the thousandth time and more, lay on the ground. It looked like wizardry and he wanted to shout at the Old Man: “Damn it! At least give me a chance!” Until he thought of the eleven teachers at the Palace, who had always let him win. At a certain point he discovered that the Sensei’s right thumb curled a fraction more around the grip just before he attacked. The boy started to focus on this, managing every now and then to avoid a hissingly fast stroke. “At last, I’m beginning to understand something about this”, he thought – but before he could savour the results of his discovery the old man had followed his gaze. He furrowed his brow and curled his thumb, without launching an attack. 

The boy instantly dodged. 

His face filled with disapproval, the Old One turned away, leaving the boy standing. For days he puzzled endlessly, understading nothing of the strange attitude of the Old One. Then, suddenly, something like an inner voice said to him: “How often does it happen, in a duel, that you have the opportunity to study the peculiarities of your opponent? When you are using the sharp steel of a real sword…just once!” 

And so he learned, excruciatingly slowly, how he should regard his opponent. The clue lay in the expression of his eyes and not in his movements. 

Immersing himself in those eyes he should, as it were, become one with the opponent and see through his eyes. 

Five months after receiving the bamboo stick he finally launched an attack himself. 

But it was the frst time that he had hmself taken the initiative. The Sensei looked at him long and hard, nodded approvingly en went into the hut. It was a celebratory day for the boy. Hardly a year later he parried a thrust and struck the Old One precisely and forcefully on the shoulder. He immediately dropped his weapon, wanting to throw himelf on the ground to ask the Old Man’s forgiveness, when he suddenly found himself embraced by two sinewy arms. 

The old voice, with barely controlled emotion, whispered in his ear: “Well done my boy, very well done.” A second later the boy was deperately looking for his weapon as a rain of blows fell on him. Again a year went by and the young prince turned thirteen, more mature than many of his age. 

There was joy in the palace of the Daimyo when the messenger brought the glad news that the young man was ready for a real sword. For days the Daimyo discussed with his counselors whether the boy should receive the “Sukasade” from the Great Hall or the “Yoshimitsu” cared for by a member of the family. An entire procession brought the chosen sword up the mountain to the hut of the Old Master.

Chapter 5 – deel 2

Hardly anyone recognised, in the strong, tall young man who gravely and courteously received them, the difficult and spoiled lad that had left the palace so many years ago. 

The company wanted to wait with the presentation of the sword until the Old Teacher was present. 

Eventually, after a long and fruitless wait, they had just decided to start without him when, from the edge of the wood, the voice of the Old One echoed, loud and clear: “So now! Are you satisfied? Now that your prince is closer to his own death? Go away. Go home and leave the sword behind. We’ll see in due course if it’s suitable for him. 

The retinue was cleary disturbed by the Old One’s arrogance but the Daimyo just nodded and left. 

The boy was not sure what to make of the sword. It looked beautiful but seemed so light after the heavy bamboo stick, to which he had become so accustomed. 

The Old Master took it to an open space and for an hour practised various strokes and thrusts, after which he silently handed it to the young man. He exercised daily with the sword, alone and without opponent, as one does with a razor-sharp sword. From early morning, when mist still hung in the trees, until the coming of the night, his “kiai” sounded in the forest. 

Very much later, not knowing himself whether weeks or months had passed by, the moment came when he felt that the sword had indeed become his own, that he was one with it. He gave it its own, secret name and knew that it had become a part of himself from which, in this life, he would not be separated. 

Although he had not neglected a single one of his daily duties while busying himself in this manner, the feeling grew that he had forgotten something. 

For weeks the feeling gnawed at him, until he suddenly realised that he had forgotten his fourteenth birthday. 

And he remembered the story of the siege of Osaka, when the young son of Ieyasu was placed in the last ranks, to his deep disappointment and extreme indignation. When one of Ieyasu’s samurai tried to comfort him he snapped: “So tell me, when will I again be fourteen?” 

The daily practice fights with bamboo sticks gained a new dimension. They were executed with an intensity and force that seemed to silence the entire forest. 

At a certain point the young man discovered that he had to contain his force in order not to injure the Old One. 

It was then that the Old Master said: “My task is complete, from me you can learn nothing more.” 

Only through meditation can you proceed further. Go to the Shinto temple on the northern slopes of this mountain.”

He left the same day and found an empty temple containing only, in a gloomy corner, a mirror. 

He found this strange but set immediately to work. 

He chopped firewood, fetched water and cleaned the place with great care. The months flew by, meditation alternating with exercising with the sword. There was no past and future. Goal and will blurred, becoming just words; the meaning becoming part of his being. 

One day the Old Man visited him, arriving just as he was getting out of the tub in which he had bathed. Pointing with his stick between the dripping thighs of the young man he said: “What has become of the peas? You’ve turned them into acorns! Watch out that you don’t turn them into pine cones; remember that PRIDE is just a hindrance. 

The young man blushed and smiled and he continued to work, to meditate – and to grow. He turned fifteen and became a man. He also became the greatest swordsman in the land. There were those that doubted this and went to seek him out. The came back wiser, or not all. 

Although aware that his deadly art was hardly to be surpassed and, because of this, avoiding confrontation as much as possible, the young man still felt himself to be a pupil. 

One day, while gathering wood, he came to a cliff, from which he could look down on a large lake. 

He saw a man and a woman in a small boat, the wake of which had formed itself like an arrow. He was perplexed and it was as if he had wakened from a deep sleep into a world filled with sound. Filled with conflicting emotions he came to the realisation that there was another world and another life. 

An hour later he left the mountain, leaving a note behind: “As a child I grew up with my parents. My teacher made a Man of me.” Beneath, as if well-considered, stood these words: “The broken-off branch will always remain part of the tree.”

The Old Man read the note.

He folded it carefully and laid it on the fire. 

Then he laid his bamboo exercise stick on the fire and watched while it was slowly eaten by the flames. 

He rose and continued with what he was busy with when, years before, the boy had come to him. 

Translated from a Dutch text by John Holloway