A common posture found within kenjutsu and kendō is called “Hassō”, or “Hassō no kamae”¹. Like most postures, Hassō serves a particular purpose, although there may be slight variations based on school of thought², which can include type of gear one is wearing (armor vs. plain clothing), as well as intention of use (battlefield, dueling, indoors, etc.). One particular trait of Hassō is it’s form makes it perfect for delivering a counter strike, or a followup strike when an opening arises. While this is one of it’s traits, “Hassō” doesn’t literally translate into “counter strike”. One theory³ I recently came across (in relations to the aforementioned posture from the kenjutsu style I study) is that it is coded to stand for it. To understand this, one needs to grasp the idea of when a counter strike is possible, which can be achieved through the concept of enlightenment.
Examples of Hassō no kamae. From Wikipedia
The Hassō in question is written with the kanji “八相”, and translates to “8 stages”. It originates from Buddhism and is related to the Gautama Buddha named Shakyamuni and the life events he went through in order to remove himself from the cycle of rebirth and attain enlightenment in order to become a Buddha. Out of his life events are 8 that are considered the necessary “steps” or “stages” to achieve this⁴.
Here is a short description of Shakyamuni’s 8 stages from Jōdoshu Daijiten, an online resource pertaining to Jōdo sect Buddhism, followed by my translation:
” “Eight Stages of Gautama Buddha” refers to 8 important events in Shakyamuni’s life⁵ (conception, birth, learning, becoming a monk, penance, conquering demons to become enlightened, turning the “wheel of Dharma”, and arriving to Nirvana)….”
Another phrase for reaching enlightenment based off of Shakyamuni’s story is “hassō jōdō” (八相成道).
What’s the connection to the posture Hassō? In some Japanese martial systems that have a long history contain mysterious and esoteric instructions. Those with religious influences tend to give instructions about reaching a level where you perform techniques through “divine powers” or through the “will of the gods”. This level goes beyond thought or consciousness. If done as so, then the martial artist can become unbeatable. Taking this into account, one can grasp the hidden meaning of counterattack within the title Hassō“.
Example of a counter strike through Hassō no kamae. Here, the posture is not static, but acts as a transitional medium for both the sabaki (evasion) and hangeki (counterattack).
Depending on the practitioner, one can take this concept of enlightenment seriously, or not. The main point is to use lessons like this as a guide to understand the traits of one’s sword style. For me, reaching enlightenment’s probably out of my reach, but I sure will enjoy the thought of almost achieving it every time I perform a successful counter strike through Hassō no kamae (jk)!
1) 八相 or 八相の構え. Other ways Hassō is written are “八双” and “撥草”. Different in meaning, as well as in attitude when executing sword cuts.
2) Depending on the school or style, there are variants known as In no kamae (陰の構え), Moku no kamae (木の構え), and Tonbo (蜻蛉). Differences in name include body structure, principle, and application.
3) There are other theories behind the naming scheme of Hassō, but we have to keep in mind that these are style-specific, meaning they require specific principles and movements that could differ from one another. For example, one theory I’ve heard commonly is that this posture makes the shape of the kanji “eight” (八) by how we stand in accordance to leg placement while holding our sword up. Interestingly, this theory is for a different “Hassō” (八双).
4) The idea of Shakyamuni’s story told based on 8 events is believed to have been established first in China. First version of this is said to have been found in the book called Shjiaoyi (四教義), which was written by a Buddhist monk named Zhiyi (智顗, 538~597).
5) Note that the events that enabled Shakyamuni to become a Buddha are not set in stone. Depending on the sources, some of these events differ from one another.