The shakujo is also somewhat unique in that it is one of only three weapons practiced in Shorinji Kempo. Alongside the nyoi (如意, sceptre, baton) and dokko (独鈷, single-pronged vajra, palm-stick), likely chosen by Doshin So due to their deep Buddhist symbolism and connection to the Shaolin temple monks, their techniques have been all but lost due to years of de-emphasis from the core syllabus. We are fortunate in the UK that Mizuno Sensei made a special study of shakujo and nyoi techniques, in part directly from the famous shakujo master Ueda Sensei (more on him later), to ensure he was able to pass them on to a new generation of students. It is something of which I in turn have attempted to make a detailed study (although I still have a long way to go myself!).
In this article, I'd like to delve a bit into the rich history and meaning of the shakujo, as well as talk about its application within the Shorinji Kempo system. Because while it doesn't necessarily add any practical value, I think understanding where something comes from enriches our practice. And of course it's also important to retain our connection to the past whenever looking forward.
My (1st place!) shakujo embu from the BSKF 2017 national taikai.
What is a shakujo
The name shakujo (錫杖) in Japanese translates literally as "tin cane", from shaku (錫, tin/copper), and jo (杖, staff/cane). This is likely in reference to the metal head, which would presumably have been made from tin or copper in early times. It is cognate with the Sanskrit term khakkhara, from which the Tibetan Buddhist name 'kar-ghisl is derived.¹ Khakkhara means "sounding staff" (sometimes translated as "rattle"), in reference to the jangling noise the rings make. Note that "shaku" in this context is not to be confused with the Japanese unit of measurement (尺, shaku, approx 30cm), despite the fact it is also (somewhat confusingly) sometimes used to describe the 6 foot staff (roku shaku bo).
The name shakujo or khakkhara refers to the whole object, consisting of the metal head and stick shaft, with the head mounted on either a long (6ft/182cm) staff or short handle. The head of the shakujo is on its own known as the shakutou or suzuatama (錫頭, tin head).² It consists of an encircled finial with loose interlocking rings and a protruding tip, fashioned originally from tin, bronze, copper or iron, and designed to make a noise when shaken.
The shaft itself would most often be wooden, or sometimes iron or bamboo, and generally 27-30mm in diameter.
On a longer staff, the opposite end to the head would feature a ferrule or butt, called ishizuki (石突, stone-strike) in Japanese, made from the same metal as the head. This would be used both to protect the bottom of the staff from the ground when used as a walking stick, and as a counterweight and blunt implement when the shakujo was employed in self defence.
Originally the shakujo served as a walking stick for travelling monks. By attaching jangling metal rings to one end, the noise from shaking it could be used to scare away small animals such as snakes from their path, to avoid them being stepped on.
In addition, with many monks forbidden to speak or having taken a vow of silence, the noise from the rings enabled them to announce their arrival outside a house when begging for alms. Three shakes would be followed by five and then seven, and if none elicited a response the monk would be obliged to move on.³
With many itinerant monks wandering secluded roads and mountain paths, attacks from wild animals or bandits were a real threat, and so the shakujo also became a useful tool for the traveller's self-defence. As well as intimidating wild animals with the noise, the rings could be slammed into an assailaint's face to stun or blind them, the tip could be used to strike weak points, and the butt could be used to deliver a crushing blow.⁴ In this way the shakujo came to be associated with the yamabushi, mountain aescetics with a reputation as fierce warriors.
When the carrying of weapons by the peasantry was banned during the Edo period, the shakujo became an even more important accoutrements for the travelling monk; and indeed a useful tool for the shinobi (spy) posing as a monk or yamabushi. What would appear ostensibly to be a walking stick or religious item became an effective weapon in the right hands, with some designs even concealing spear tips or blades within their form.
Another similar type of staff, also associated with the yamabushi, was known as the kongojo (金剛杖). Made of hardwood or sometimes iron, this differed from the shakujo or bo staff in that it was slightly thinker and had an octagonal (or sometimes square) cross section. The angular cross section would have made an edge-on blow particularly painful compared to a rounded staff. In the Shorinji Kempo Fukudoku-hon (English Edition) the kongojo is described as being 120cm long⁵ (similar in length to a traditional jō staff), while in some other traditions its length may have been adapted to the height of the wielder.
As with many religious items, as the original conditions that gave cause for its practical purpose waned (for example as travelling freely became safer), so the shakujo took on a more stylised and symbolic form. It came to be carried by the head monk, thus "bishop's staff", and was symbolic of their position. A shakujo was also one of the few items a Buddhist monk of that level would be allowed to possess.
As a symbolic Buddhist object, the form itself contains many levels of meaning. At the centre of the head is a stylised reliquary stupa: a dome shaped mound storing sacred Buddhist relics (often the interred ashes of a particular monk), and serving as a place of meditation. Two (or sometimes 4) trefoil arcs enclose this stupa, with the whole pattern being topped by a second stupa forming the finial or tip.⁶ The central stupa is often supported by two downward arcing petals, each in turn supporting a funeral urn or stupal spire. Such funerary symbolism is suggestive of the impermanence and transience of life, and may serve to remind the bearer of their place in the karmic cycle of existence.
In an alternative design, the petals and urns are sometimes found replaced with stylised wings, whilst the finial stupa is replaced with a diamond-shaped or winged spear tip. The significance of this difference is unknown to me, and I've struggled to find any literature on the subject. It could perhaps be derived from an older more defensive design, from before the shakujo took on its heavier religious symbolism. Certainly the form in this second design appears more directly martial. If anyone does know, or has a reference source, please share in the comments :-)
Three common designs of shakujo head
The number of interlocking rings featured is also highly significant. A shakujo can feature either 4, 6, 8 or 12 rings, with 6 ring models being the most commonly available and the number used within Shorinji Kempo. As far as meaning goes⁶:
The shakujo overall is often most closely associated with Jizo Bosatsu (the bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha); in Japan considered a guardian of children and a kind of patron saint of travellers. According to tradition, Jizo carries a shakujo to open passage between realms and acts as a guide (a sort of friendly ferryman) to help the souls of lost children depart the underworld.
The shakujo in Shorinji Kempo
Only a very limited number of martial arts schools train in the shakujo, and its defensive application lies somewhere between the bo and spear; combining thrusting and parrying with the finial or butt, with blunt striking and blocking with the shaft. Masaaki Hatsumi's book Advanced Stick Fighting⁸, which will be of interest to many budding kobudoka and kenshi alike, contains several references to the shakujo as well as some great photos from the author's personal collection.
Here’s what the founder of Shorinji Kempo, Doshin So, had to say on the matter:
Since Shorinji Kempo was originally designed for the use of Buddhist priests, it cannot countenance the use of spears, swords, or any other weapons. On the other hand, in time of absolute necessity, the priest’s staff can become an effective defense tool.⁹
Shorinji Kempo includes a set of houki (traditional weapon) techniques, covering the shakujo, nyoi and dokko-sho, known collectively as kongo den (金剛伝). Shorinji Kempo's shakujo techniques were heavily developed by the late Ueda Sensei, one of So Doshin's earliest students. Having lost an arm in a munitions accident following World War 2, Ueda Sensei was given the shakujo as a particular area of study by So Doshin; being told that since he had only one arm, he better learn to use a weapon to better defend himself. Much of the early teaching and practice for Ueda Sensei was in secret as So Doshin didn't want his other students to be jealous or feel overlooked.¹⁰
Shakujo demonstration by Ueda Sensei
The particular application of the shakujo in Shorinji Kempo differs from many other bojutsu styles, primarily (at least as far as I have observed) in the use of sliding movements. In many striking techniques the whole length of the staff is brought into play in order to increase reach and power. A characteristic strike in Shorinji Kempo-style shakujo, for example, is 'shigoki zuki' where the front hand loosely supports the staff while the back hand thrusts forward, thus delivering a deep and particularly devastating strike to the foot, body, or face. Similarly, hand position changes are employed to increase the leverage or torque in strikes and are achieved through a continuous change in grip, as opposed to spinning the bo across an open hand (this is to reduce the risk of losing grip when under pressure). Many of these tehcniques and applications were developed independently by Ueda Sensei through long years of personal study, but it's likely some may also have roots in the schools of jujutsu and quan fa that So Doshin studied prior to his founding of Shorinji Kempo. Sadly due to the secretive nature of Ueda Sensei's instruction, we may never know.
All standard Shorinji Kempo kata (with the exception of those from the juho families) have applications for the shakujo; some very close proxies, and others with more extensive adaptations of the movements. In addition, ten special shakujo kata exist known as “Ido Enren” (移動演練, continuous movement drills). These bring into play a greater range of movement specific to Shorinji Kempo shakujo and contain many of the unique spinning (mawashi, 回し) and intimidation (ikaku, 威嚇) techniques.
Shorinji Kempo's shakujo techniques have historically only been known to a small number of masters, and were generally only taught to interested students. However in the UK, under the guidance of Mizuno Sensei the BSKF has actively reintroduced shakujo (and nyoi) into the dan grade syllabus, in an attempt to preserve the knowledge and teachings for future generations.
For those interested in further study, you can of course get in touch - I occasionally teach special seminars with the shakujo (and nyoi) for interested kenshi. A great online resource is also the BSKF's Kongo Den video series (something I helped produce 😁). It's available exclusively on Vimeo On Demand (plug!), and features demonstrations from Mizuno sensei and senior instructors.
1. Robert Beer, The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols (2013), p184.
2. Yuseido, Shakujou (retrieved 13 July 2018 from http://shakujou.web.fc2.com/shakujou.html)
3. Robert Beer, The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols (2013), p184.
4. Serge Mol, Classical Weaponry of Japan: Special Weapons and Tactics of the Martial Arts (2003), p197.
5. Doshin So/WSKO, Shorinji Kempo: Fukudoku-hon (1991), p31.
6. Robert Beer, The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols (2013), p184.
7. Mark Schumacher, Ritual Objects, Symbols and Weapons in Japanese Buddhism (retrieved 13 July 2018 from http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/objects-symbols-weapons-senju.html).
8. Masaaki Hatsumi, Advanced Stick Fighting (2014).
9. Doshin So, What is Shorinji Kempo (1973), p28.
10. Personal recollections of Mizuno Sensei (around 2014).
Ben is instructor at East London Shorinji Kempo. He has been practicing for 16 years and has reached the rank of 3rd dan.
Shorinji kempo stances