A Hostage Rescued

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A famous tale of Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, a renowned Japanese swordsman:

“One day, when their path took them to Myōkō Temple in Owari Province, the three saw a large crowd of villagers standing some distance from a solitary cottage. They all seemed concerned about something and were deep in a heated discussion. When asked what had happened, the villagers replied that a criminal had been holding a child hostage since early in the morning. Although the child’s parents had been desperately seeking help, no one knew what to do. All was confusion.

As soon as he understood the situation, Nobutsuna said to the villagers, “Don’t worry. I will rescue the child in the cottage.” Then he turned to a priest standing within the circle of villagers, and said, “Please shave my head and lend me your robe.” Even Nobutsuna’s companions were struck dumb with amazement. Nobutsuna led the priest to an area that couldn’t be seen from the cottage. There he stuck out his head to have it shaved.

Seeing a priest approaching the cottage, the criminal, a brutal, gigantic man, yelled in a thundering voice, “Don’t come any closer. Don’t approach me or I’ll kill this child.” Putting his left arm around the child’s neck, the criminal put his right hand on the hilt of the sword at his side. Without hesitating, Nobutsuna strode forward towards the cottage, saying, “I have rice balls for the child. He must be so hungry by this time. Since a priest’s vocation is to serve people with compassion, he cannot be indifferent to people in situations like this.”

Nobutsuna took a rice ball from his robe and threw it towards the child. Then he took out a second and said, “You must be hungry, too. You are, aren’t you? Eat this and take a breather!” He rolled it towards the man, who reached for it without thinking. Just at the moment the criminal let down his guard for a second, Nobutsuna jumped. Holding the criminal’s right arm, Nobutsuna wrestled him to the floor. Then he grabbed the child and rushed out of the cottage. It was a feat done as quickly as lightning by a man completely alert. The villagers swooped down on the criminal as Nobutsuna returned the child to his parent’s arms and took off the priest’s robe.

Admiring Nobutsuna’s feat, the priest said, “You must be a man who has attained enlightenment through swordsmanship.” Then the priest offered the robe to Nobutsuna. By offering the robe, the priest showed that he had perceived greatness in Nobutsuna’s character. ”

From: Sugawara, Makoto, Lives of Master Swordsmen, 1988. (pp.93-95).


You may have seen this tale replayed in an Akira Kurosawa film. I’ve read other accounts of it – as I recall one had it that the priest bestowed the robe on Nobutsuna with the belief that the warrior facing death-in-action, training skills of the highest order, risking life to save life in the realest of senses, is a surer route to enlightenment than a monk seeking the same sitting in meditation.

Whatever and however it is, this story has layers of meaning.

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