Tsuji Gettan Sukemochi
the founder of Mugai Ryu
Tsuji Gettan was born in Omi, Koga in 1648. The name he was given at birth that he used throughout his youth was Heinai. At 13 years of age he moved to Kyoto to begin sword training under Yamaguchi Bokushinsai, the founder of Yamaguchi-ryu swordsmanship. After receiving his instructor license (menkyo) from Yamaguchi, Heinai was dispatched to Edo (now Tokyo) to open a dojo for Yamaguchi-ryu. He was only 26 years old at that time and was seen as a lowly country kid. Despite being conveniently located in the Kojimachi district of town, his country boy image did not help him to amass more than a handful of students.
Feeling that he lacked a certain education and maturity as a result of his failure to operate a swordsmanship school, Heinai left his dojo and began studying classical Chinese literature and Zen with Sekitan, a Buddhist priest at Kyukoji temple in the Azabu district of Edo. After Sekitan’s passing, Heinai continued his Zen studies under another priest, Kanshu, and attained enlightenment at 45 years of age. Kanshu gave Gettan the following poem and signed it in Sekitan’s name.
“Ippo jitsu mugai
Kenkon toku ittei
Suimo hono mitsu
Dochaku soku kosei”
“There is nothing but his one truth
it’s all-encompassing and everlasting
a feather carried by the winds upholds this truth.
To experience harmony in the face of confusion
Heinai changd his name to Gettan Sukemochi at this time and decided to start his own style of swordsmanship, calling it Mugairyu, taking the name for his style from the first line of this poem. Nearly twenty years of Zen training had changed him from a simple swordsman to a Zen practitioner and philosopher who had met and conversed with a variety of visitors to Kyukoji, including various lords (daimyo) such as Ogasawara Nagashige, the lord of Umayabashi, Sakai Tadataka, and the lord of Tosa, Yamanouchi Toyomasa.
In the 8th year of Genroku (1695), Gettan’s home was burned to the ground in one of Edo’s many great fires that consumed large areas of the city from time to time, and as a result, the number of students under Gettan at this time is unclear. According to records of oaths taken by his students during the 14 year period between the 9th year of Genroku (1696) and the 6th year of Hoei (1710), Gettan’s wealthier students included daimyo from 32 houses, numbering 356 students, in addition to 930 of their vassals.
Gettan was only hoping to lead a life in pursuit of truth and often refused daimyo requesting his instruction. Gettan later appointed his nephew and successor, Tsuji Uheita, as the head master of the Sakai family in the Umayabashi domain (later becoming part of the Himeji domain) as well the teacher of the Isezaki branch of the Sakai family and the Koromo domain’s Naito family. His adopted son and tertiary successor, Tsuji Tsukehide, was appointed master for the Yamanouchi family in Tosa.
At 61 years of age, Gettan was granted an audience with the fifth generation Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. Unfortunately, Tsunayoshi passed away before the formal meeting could be finalized. However, at that time in Japan’s history, a masterless (ronin) swordsman being granted an audience with the Shogun was an unprecedented achievement.
Gettan was a swordsman and zen practitioner who believed that sword and zen training were two sides of the same coin, which he wrote about in detail in his manuscript, “Mugairyu Swordsmanship”. Concluding this treatise on his style of swordsmanship, Gettan writes, “Mugairyu is taught with zen principles at its roots, and it is my sincere, heartfelt hope that your study and understanding of zen will guide your practice of this art of swordsmanship.” Gettan had his students practice zen mediation, and without this practice they were not allowed to read Gettan’s writings on Mugairyu.
Three months before his death, Gettan was drawn wearing a kesa (a Buddhist priest’s robes) holding a hossu (a whisk carried by a Buddhist priest), reinforcing the importance that he placed on zen training. In a separate picture, Gettan is wearing a kesa but is holding a wooden sword instead of a whisk. His piercing gaze is that of a true swordsman.
Gettan passed away in the 20th year of Kyoho (1727) having lived a life in pursuit of truth but without a family of his own. His passing was on the same month and same day as the passing of his zen teacher, Sekitan. It is said that he was sitting in mediation when he died at the age of 79 with prayer beads in his left hand and whisk in his right.