The Gift of Fearlessness

hard zen training

“Do not look upon this world with fear and loathing.

Bravely face whatever the gods offer.” -Morehei Ueshiba


I trained in a lineage of Rinzai Zen and I consider my teacher there to be among the finest human beings alive today, a feat largely attributable to decades of hard Zen training. A friend of mine who is much my senior and also trained in a related lineage (lots of strong personalities, politics and break-aways in the real world of Zen) as personal attendant to a man named Tenshin Tanouye Roshi filled me in a bit about this deceased Roshi’s history, practice and the nature of his awakening. I believe this perspective on training and practice is valuable and inspiring to any serious student seeking a major opening, seeking enlightenment.

Our Buddha nature is awakened through our bodies, as our bodies are the gateway. In this lineage, these awakenings are lived and taught in a physical, practical and immediate way. Coming through Japanese warrior society, one’s Zen was tested in confrontation among people who had little use for dogmatic theory. In the raw, clear environment of the warrior, sutra learning, intellectualization and erudition were hardly mistaken for enlightenment. Books don’t hit back. This is the mind that birthed and was birthed by Morehei Ueshiba, Yamaoka Tesshu, Koichi Tohei, Omori Sogen and Tenshin Tanouye Roshi, who I wish to discuss today.

Tanouye was no stranger to hard work.  By the time he was in his early teens, he had highest dan in three martial arts and travelled Japan looking for any teachers who could teach him.  Becoming frustrated that hard training and true mastery were dying in Japan and having exhausted every teacher in the country, he was finally told to go see an “old man” named Omori Sogen.  Omori was living in the deceased samurai Tesshu’s house which had become a small temple.  “Demon” Tesshu was a well respected samurai whose famously ferocious Zen and martial arts training lead to great enlightenment at the age of forty-five.  Omori was the man Tanouye had been waiting for and the two became teacher and student.

Omori agreed that teachers in Japan were losing their edge and realized that he needed to get the hard training out of Japan or it would die.  He set up a temple called Chozen-ji in Hawaii and sent Tanouye to be abbot. I have never met Tanouye Roshi and I consider this a great shame. His open way and Zen embodiment was, by all accounts, something to behold and rare in the world. To have trained with him must have been something special. He was once asked to speak to a large group of masseuses, body workers and “healers.” He got up on stage in his robes and remained silent for a minute or two before asking “What on earth makes you people think you can heal anybody?”  He then walked off stage – speech over.

At another speech my friend was recruited to attack him with the wooden sword as he spoke to the crowd. He effortlessly defended each blow with only the tip of a bamboo short sword without even turning to see my friend’s attacks. He spoke uninterruptedly about “no mind” to the audience as he blocked the attacks. The audience did not realize the depth of the feat that was taking place before their very eyes, but my friend did. Afterwards he spoke to Tanouye about this and Tanouye responded “they have no understanding or basis to even recognize these things.”

He was, at times, a teacher of the utmost severity and seriousness. A great teacher does not make good students, they make masters. However, Tanouye realized the near impossibility of this task. He once said to his students “don’t try to be like me. No matter how hard you train, it’s not going to make you me. Try to be the best you can be, but don’t expect to be me.” He said something else that I think is very important. He said it isn’t grace, it isn’t samadhi, it isn’t devotion that will take you as far as you can go. He said, very plainly, “it’s your wits.”

Tanouye was a musician and school teacher and every summer he would leave Los Angeles on a plane to Japan to train in the police Kendo dojo. He would train all day, essentially living in the dojo. He would train until he pissed blood. When he walked down the street after training, people would cross the street to avoid him as his energy and eyes were so focused from ki he had built up over the day that he looked downright dangerous. He once stepped out into oncoming traffic and a car almost hit him. It was at this moment that “the world fell apart.” His great opening had occurred. Once enlightened, every time an attacker in the Kendo dojo lifted his sword, Tanouye caught the attacker’s hand in the air with the tip of his sword before an attack could be made.  He had become beyond defeat.

Tanouye was once vexed about causing death accidentally. He realized that in martial arts and in training death could occur and he would feel horrible if it did.  Upon seeing into this fear, he told my friend, his student, “I’ve realized that killing does not occur without intent.” Therefore, he was free to bring his students within an inch of their lives in training without fear as he did not intend to kill them but only to offer the Dharma! This insight of Tanouye’s frightened my friend, to say the least.

Sesshin is a Zen retreat. In this lineage, it means sleeping for four hours on the floor and then up to alternate between ten to twelve hours of Zazen, work periods, calligraphy, chanting and rigidly stylized meals. The practitioner’s back is not to touch a wall or floor or solid surface other than four hours of sleep (on the floor). A more severe form of training, called Misogi, was done in seiza (knees bent, sitting on heals) for an hour at a time, ringing a bell and chanting while students periodically beat you on your back and shouted at you. This would be done for eight hours or more per day. Once, a practitioner had a muscle in his back which had hardened and essentially rotted solid from a hard period of Misogi training.

Hakuin Ekaku’s first student is said to have cut his arm off to prove that he was serious about training. I was once in a circle with Father Thomas Keating when he said that sometimes it seemed that God bounced you like a ball and the heights you reached seemed to be a function of the depths you plumbed.  Morehei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, knew that our true enemy was within, and that “There are no contests in the art of peace.  A true warrior is invincible because he contests with nothing.  Defeat means to defeat the mind of contention that we harbor within.”  Above the butsudan (alter) at Chozen-ji is a wooden plaque with Omori Sogen’s calligraphy.  It says “the gift of fearlessness.”  To meet death on your cushion is to receive this gift of fearlessness and there may be no quicker way.

11 thoughts on “The Gift of Fearlessness

  1. Enjoyed reading this well crafted article. I don’t have much knowledge of Zen, however reading this article reminds me when I read Hakuin’s biography who is now revered as one of the greats. Like Tanouye he went and tested his realisation/state against the prevailing understandings in a time when Zen was reportedly in decline in search of the highest truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Mike. 🙂
    Check out some of my posts on Buddhism…in the categories on the right on

    Couldn’t remember if you’d already read some in that category or not.
    Have a good rest of the week!

    Liked by 1 person

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