Mudra in the Martial Arts
by Wayne Muromoto
One of the more curious things that I encountered in my martial arts training was the use of mudra in combative arts. Mudra (Japanese: in), for those who aren’t familiar with them, are these weird hand gestures that are derived from esoteric Buddhism (mikkyo), particularly the Tendai and Shingon sects. These gestures are supposed to generate spiritual focus and power which then are manifested in some way externally.
Unfortunately for the greater amount of martial artists in the modern budo (martial ways), mudra are not part of their training. Most “modern” budo are based in some way on modern concepts of physical education and sports training, and do not include, unless a particular teacher is himself/herself an adherent of a Buddhist sect, the use of esoteric Buddhist rituals, such as mudra, mantra (chanting or words of power), and mandala (inscriptions, paintings or scrolls that can create spiritual energy). Thus mudra are absent, by and large, in judo, kendo, iaido, kyudo, karatedo, and even aikido as it is presently formulated.
Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of aikido, was a devotee of a Shinto sect called Omoto-kyo, which made use of some unusual rituals, including the use of chinkon and kotodama and several body exercises to generate spiritual power, but by and large, in my opinion, most of the esoteric nature of aikido goes back to Omoto-kyo and esoteric Shinto rituals.
Although esoteric Buddhism and other sects such as Zen share the same goals, that of the salvation of the soul, their routes to this end differ somewhat. Mikkyo makes more use of rituals and rites that go back to tantric sources, which some say predates Buddhism itself, and may even be as ancient as prehistoric magical shamanistic rites of Asia, as found in India, Tibet, China, Mongolia and Japan. Zen lowered the importance of these arcane rites, and instead focused on the intellect, on direct experience, in the emptying of the mind rather than of the filling up of the mind. I know that this is really a simplistic statement that does neither mikkyo or Zen much justice, but that’s about as basic as I can get with the differences in this short span of pages. (Lest anyone get all upset in the mistaken notion that I’m taking sides, I prefer to be open-minded about all sects; my family was originally Soto Zen but my parents sent me to Hongwanji and Jodo Shinshu temple schools to learn Japanese–which didn’t work. But they also allowed Christian missionaries to preach to the neighborhood kids in our backyard, I attended a Baptist summer school once, and my Filipino and Portuguese friends even took me to Catholic church a couple of times. So I’m really messed up.)
In any case, I had known of the use of mudra in koryu (“old” martial arts) since the time I was privy to a discussion with the training master of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, Otake Risuke, and the late Donn F. Draeger. Otake sensei described some of the mudra used in his school, which is one of the oldest martial ryu still in existence in Kanto (Eastern)Japan.
For us martial artists involved in the koryu, use of mudra sometimes explain some odd movements in the middle of kata that we cannot logically understand as being necessary in a particular fighting technique. In the case of the Katori Shinto-ryu, Otake sensei was replying to a query one of us observers had of a naginata form in which the naginata wielder pointed an open palm at a swordsman. We thought that if the distance was shorter, he’d have his hand cut off, so why introduce a needless opening? Because, Otake sensei said, in that palm, the naginata person had inscribed with a pass of his fingers a secret mikkyo sign to ward off evil spirits and then directed that force at the attacker. Of course, samurai being practical-minded warriors, they did so at a distance far enough away so that if the magic didn’t work, their hand wouldn’t get chopped off in the process.
Otake Sensei also described other mikkyo-derived rituals that his system used before a battle and even apart from martial arts in general, such as rituals used to heal people with various ailments and so on. Some years later, when I was training in the Takeuchi-ryu, my own sensei informed me that I had to place my fingers a certain way when returning the sword to its scabbard. I thought it was simply an affectation of our particular style, but he then told me that I was secretly inscribing a mudra with my fingers to finish the combat, to ward off evil spirits, and to offer prayers to the dead.
“Even if the attacker was your enemy, once he’s dead, he becomes a Buddha, so you should pray for his enlightenment,” my sensei said. “That is the compassion of a warrior. Battleis battle, so you had to slay him, but afterwards, pray for his spirit. That is the spirit of being a bugeisha.”
The use of mudra and other aspects of mikkyo are found in many instances in many koryu, because mikkyo and Shinto were the religions of the samurai who founded those ryu that were created before the 1600s. Subsequent ryu developed after the imposition of the Tokugawa government were heavily influenced by Neo-Confucianism, and then later by Zen Buddhism. Although Zen was popularized among the warrior class in theKamakuraperiod, the 1300s, it did not greatly affect martial arts until the latter part of the Edo Period, with the writings of the Zen priests Takuan and Hakuin. And even at that, Edo Period (1600-1868) martial arts were equally influenced by Neo-Confucianism and even, in the latter part, mystical Shinto.
When Japan modernized, the modern derivatives of martial arts, the -do forms, needed spiritual underpinnings that were not as particularized or esoteric as mikkyo, so Zen became even more widely adopted because many of its practices and philosophies, such as zazen, could be taken out of context and used as part of a training regime without having the practitioner necessarily needing to become a devout Zen Buddhist. Budo, with Zen underpinnings, could therefore become a national and international pastime without regards to religious affiliation.
The same, in some way, holds true of the koryu; you do not necessarily have to be a card-carrying member of a particular religious organization. But it does require a certain suspension of beliefs, or at the very least, an acceptance of different ways to understand the spiritual universe for non-Buddhists. Can you be a devout Christian and still do koryu that are influenced by mikkyo? I have friends that do so, and they don’t have much conflict with that, but they are what I would call “general” Christians who belong to mainstream sects, such as Protestantism. They can accept the possibility that the rituals they perform in practice may not be part of the Christian orthodox beliefs, but neither is it the tool of the Devil. Mikkyo may, in their minds, be another expression of a universal belief in a spiritual world. (Even Jesuit priests, when I was living inKyoto, visited Daitokuji, a Zen Buddhist temple, to learn zazen as perhaps another way to reach an understanding of God.) If, however, you are a fundamentalist and cannot accept a different cultural or religious interpretation of God, then you may have a difficult time correlating your beliefs with the use of mudra and other mikkyo practices and beliefs in koryu, and perhaps these martial arts are not for you.
If any of you have seen those Star Wars movies, you will understand what kinds of power the samurai thought a knowledge of mikkyo may endow them with. In the recent movie, “The Phantom Menace,” Jedi Knights are supposed to be able to sense other people’s thoughts, peer into the future, have a sixth sense of their surroundings, influence people by the use of their words, or gesture and send out an invisible force that can send objects flying through the air. I can’t say I’ve seen a real manifestation of such powers in myself except in my dreams, although I have heard some of the oddest stories from several usually reputable sources of some very, very unexplainable powers wielded by martial arts masters in Asia. Quite naturally, these masters are not the ones you will read about in the latest issue of “Killer Kuh-rottee-Kick-Boxing-Kung-Fu and Pro Wrestling’ Magazine.” They by and large eschew such tacky publicity and continue to remain somewhat in the shadows.
Mikkyo uses mudra most often in combination with various rituals, chants and so on. One common mudra is that of the “knife hand,” or shuto. The first two fingers are extended while the thumb and other fingers are clenched. If you look closely, you may see this movement subtlely hidden in some koryu kata, especially by old schools such as the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, or in statues of divine Buddhist beings. This represents the sword of enlightenment, which cuts away all delusions. Sometimes the tips of the extended fingers are grasped in the fist of the other hand. There is a symbolic meaning for this, derived from mikkyo.
Another common mudra is the kuji no in, or the nine hand signs used in conjunction with nine words of power that generates spiritual strength for the user. The two hands weave a series of nine gestures, at the same time you utter nine words derived from Sanskrit (bonji).
Other than seeing a mikkyo priest or a koryu practitioner perform a mudra, you may even see it in a cheesy Japanese ninja movie or the like, because in popular culture, ninja were like magicians in the eyes of common people.
There are tales, even in modern historical times, of some adepts who could shout (kiai) and knock down birds in flight. Then the mystical kiaijutsu master could shout again and awaken the birds from their stupor. Ueshiba, it is said, could dumbfound his attackers, literally disappearing from their view, by the use of his ki energy. Tai chi chuan masters are supposed to be able to repel attackers with their spiritual chi energy. Mudra, like these fantastic powers, are found in many koryu as part of their esoteric nature.
That is why, too, I wince when I see karate students at a tournament who scream out a nonsensical “ki-yah!” or some sort of odd shout that they made up on their own. A kiai is different from a kakegoe. A kakegoe is a simple shout. A kiai is a shout, to be sure, but its older meaning is to “meet” (-ai) “each other’s spiritual energy” (ki-). Each ryu, therefore, had special kiai that signified their own style’s use of spiritual energy as expressed in a vocal explosion, or kiai. There were only specific sounds, such as “ei,” “toh,” “yah,” or so on, that had certain martial meanings in esoteric mikkyo, which were used in koryu. Kiai, therefore, were like secret mantras to the koryu; special words of power that should not be used lightly. When you did a kiai, you were directly attacking your opponent’s spirit with words of power that would literally shock them into defeat. The kiai “yah,” for example, pronounced in a certain way, represented the force of a released arrow (in Japanese: ya). Your voice was supposed to penetrate the person’s spirit like an arrow. The other kiai had other meanings and were used for specific movements.
I earlier noted that most modern budo are bereft of mudra and other esoterica. But I am actually not so sure that they are totally without any mikkyo influence. Look at the karate kata Kusanku (Kosokun). The opening movement has sometimes been described to me as a stylized example of how to break a grip and strike an opponent’s kidney area when he tries to bear-hug you. But in esoteric Shinto, a similar movement, with a hand clap, welcomes the Sun Goddess. By doing that movement in the direction of the rising sun, you absorb the sun’s positive spiritual energy. Is it possible that there are other mudra and esoteric movements hidden in other karate kata? Okinawan karate, after all, was related to ancient Okinawan dance and court rituals, which themselves incorporated some aspects of Okinawan folk beliefs. I’m not sure and not even positive that this one example or any other has any real significance. I leave that up to you, the reader, to figure out.
However, I digress. Besides the basic examples I have described above, I hesitate to actually describe the specific way some mudra are performed, because I don’t think it’s proper for anyone who doesn’t know what he’s doing to fool around with them. You should learn them from a proper instructor, a Buddhist minister, or the like, and not from some silly web site like this one. And the efficacy is also dependant on whether or not you truly believe it works.
And let’s put it this way, if mudra do really work, it would be like giving a loaded hand gun to a baby. After all, it wasn’t called mikkyo (“secret teachings”) for nothing. Some of the methods were considered too dangerous for any old fool to learn. And if they don’t really work because they are only superstitious traditions, then at the very least, some idiot is going to steal those techniques and start making up his/her own mish mash of esoteric mudra for their karate-gung-fu-jujutsu classes.
There is a danger here for anyone who is used to taking techniques and then making up their own “instant” koryu. Although my teacher was quite open about imparting some of the esoteric methods in my ryu to me, I had a discussion with a Shingon priest about the abuse of religion and religious ritual in today’s society. He noted that if by chance such rituals truly do have spiritual signficance, then someone who abuses them will cause very negative energies to accumulate around him/her. The negative energies may not manifest themselves in the form of those horror movies, in which a monster appears from out of the netherworlds. But at the very least, a person’s deceptive actions will eventually come home to roost and affect him in proportion to the wrong that he has committed. Karma has a way of creeping up on you, whether you’re Buddhist or not. In Christianity, we’d call it divine retribution.
In any case, even if you practice only a modern budo, you should bear in mind that many of the rituals and practices arose out of older, more esoteric forms and movements. That being the case, modern budo is therefore more than just punching and kicking, or seeing who can beat up who. Even with a more practical, scientific foundation, budo’s highest goals were to develop a more humane individual, not necessarily a better fighter. Its origins lay partly in a very religious, spiritual world view, in which even the direction you walked, the steps you took, the way you held your fingers and hand, could create a ripple in the fabric of the spiritual universe. That’s quite a responsibility, don’t you think?
by Wayne Muromoto