Gunnasoki's Bo

Gunnosuke’s Bo

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After the duel, Muso Gunnosuke had years to contemplate his defeat.

His reputation as a swordsman had stood unthreatened until that fateful day he met the unorthodox challenger. It was a challenge he could not refuse. The upstart Musashi was single-handedly redefining the art of bladed strategy. Putting Musashi in his rightful place would surely further Muso's own aspirations for a position at court.

Muso remembers entering the arena. He approached the clearing cautiously, holding the honored family sword out and to the front, showing respect and courtesy to his opponent.

The challenger sat unkempt, his topknot hidden by a soiled towel. The face beneath, unshaven. If one's nose could be trusted, he was unbathed.

"So this is Miyamato Musashi. The stuff legends are made of,” thought Muso Gunnosuke.

Nodding his head gruffly, Musashi jumped to his feet, reached for a wooden staff, then broke it in two against his knee. Placing the shorter segment in his right hand, the longer in his left, he stared deeply into Gunnosuke, "To the death?"

Gunnosuke nodded, then assumed the battle ready position.

What followed was to become forever the hard substance of Gunnosuke's dreams, or should we say nightmares.

Musashi was a genius; Gunnosuke, simply a great swordsman. The blow to Gunnosuke's head might have been fatal, except Musashi held firm as it touched contact.

After the loss, Gunnosuke retired from the path of influence, dedicating his every moment to removing those distractions which had slowed his responses to Musashi's attacks.

When they met again, Muso Gunnosuke arrived with a staff, as had Musashi on the first occasion. Years of meditation had quieted Muso's spirit. If the raging sea became still, the ship could sail in all directions with ease. He had forsaken all, even his family sword. Thoughts of dividends at court no longer distracted his focus. He served no master, save for his technique. He stood before Musashi as an equal, a kindred spirit.

Recognizing this, Musashi smiled in acknowledgment.

The joust commenced at dawn's first light. To honor the rivalry, Musashi wore full Samurai regalia.

Their blows stirred the morning breeze as they flowed like two boats, drifting wildly on a raging stream beneath the forest canopy.

Gunnosuke knew he could never match the fury of Musashi's twin swords.

He chose the Bo because it gave him needed distance from the blistering slashes. His sword technique could not survive Musashi's at close quarter. Using a Bo, the extra sliver of time might be all he needed to open his counter.

During the years since the first match, Gunnosuke synthesized a strategy to neutralize Musashi's movement. Against Musashi, even the slightest error could result in loss of limb, or death. Gunnosuke's new fight embodied short definitive blocks, followed instantly by bone crunching counters. Completing this concept, he incorporated tactics from other masters, employing a wide range of sweeps, takedowns and pressure point attacks.

The contest continued for hours. The defenses of both masters were complete. Late in the afternoon, as Gunnosuke committed to strike #7 of the well-rehearsed 12 strike sequence, Musashi angled slightly left. Though a lesser man would have seen nothing, Gunnosuke knew Musashi had stumbled. As the swordsman adjusted, strike #8 locked onto its mark. Gunnosuke angled the Bo one-half body width to the right in a vicious downward arc aimed to extinguish the flame that was history's greatest swordsman.

The power tip of the Bo met Musashi's brow, stopping as it touched. Musashi stepped back and placed his weapons on the ground.

Gunnosuke had won!

Gunnosuke's success over Musashi opened the door for acceptance of the Jo (5 foot staff) and later the Bo (full size staff) as legitimate pursuits in the Japanese fighting arts.

Sensei Donald Wasielewski (8th dan Isshinryu) explains that the techniques developed by Gunnosuke and his successors eventually took root on the island archipelago of Okinawa. Though the sword remained weapon of choice on the mainland, elsewhere bladed weapons were unavailable to common folk. The Bo became the natural first alternative. For Okinawans, the man-sized staff was always within easy reach.

The essence of Gunnosuke's fighting tactics and of Okinawan Bo is tranquility. It would be highly uncharacteristic for one of the island masters to exercise a circular rotation or spin as part of his or her fight. From its platform of stillness, the Bo must be responsive explains Wasielewski, "As a defensive weapon, it is without match. When responding, the strikes are short, quick and incapacitating." Echoing the precepts of Tatsuo Shimabuku (founder of Isshinryu) he adds, "The time to respond is when the opportunity presents itself."

At the basic level, students learn this by reacting against grabbing attacks.


Photo Sequence #1 (Bo Against Two Handed Grab):

Attacker grabs defender's clothing, getting "inside" the Bo. Defender simultaneously breaks the hold and delivers a head strike, all in one movement. A full power, opposing direction strike concludes the encounter.

A preferred clearing move is to "fan" the Bo against the grabbing arms while pivoting from one side to the other. This breaks the hold, exposing the opponent to counter. Almost always, the counter flows naturally from the pivot.

Once the clearing moves are perfected, the practitioner advances to defenses against an attacking Bo or Sword. "We learn to meet an attack with confidence, then counter without hesitation. Though there are infinite variations, it is understood the Bo moves no further than two feet from the point of block to the point of first strike in counter.  Most likely, it was proper positioning, combined with ability to find the nearest vital target that gave victory to Gunnosuke," according to Wasielewski.

Photo Sequence #2 (Bo Against Striking Bo):

Reacting against the common "side" strike, Sensei Wasielewski wards off the strike, then executes a head counter, all the while maintaining the Bo in proper defensive "chamber."

Bo training at the highest level involves reacting to street attacks. These include attacks using maximum power and speed as well as out of the ordinary attacks like airborne strikes with full commitment. Wasielewski adds, "In this context, the principle of stillness becomes paramount. Here the martial artist must truly learn to 'accept' the incoming attack, meet it with conviction, then counter decisively."

Photo Sequence #3:
(Bo Against Airborne Bo)

Defender chooses to remain still against the "aerial" onslaught. Once the attack is met and the "opportunity presents itself", defender arches forward, driving the attacker backwards to the ground.

Tatsuo Shimabuku taught that the Bo, as a line in physical space, becomes an impenetrable wall when positioned effectively against an attack. Behind the wall, the protected defender sets up the strongest possible counter.

Learning to string moves effortlessly into sequences characterizes the final element of Bo mastery. Facing Musashi the second time, Gunnosuke no longer had gaps in his motion. Against Musashi's twin blades, the moves were there in sequence, as needed. When the opportunity arose, the decisive strike materialized.

Photo Sequence #4:
(Basic Takedown)

Strength can be hidden in weakness, as defender executes a powerful off-angle block, delivering energy from his turning hips into the attacker's gripping hand. A quick follow-up to the rear left knee pressure point drops opponent to the ground, where he is quickly dealt with.

Sensei Wasielewski summarizes, "The martial arts world is full of people practicing baseball-bat, handlebar, baseball-bat striking drills without becoming effective Bo tacticians. In a nutshell, the master remains still and unaffected under duress, then counters without hesitation ... but only when an opening presents itself."

Closing the loop, Sensei Wasielewski adds one final wrinkle to the saga of Gunnosuke and Musashi.

After going undefeated for many more years, Musashi retired to the mountains, essentially living as a hermit. He occasionally painted (his works of art exist today as priceless treasures in the Orient) and ultimately penned his Book of Strategy.


Wasielewski says he sometimes entertains the thought a third meeting occurred between the two.

Though lifetimes of achievement had passed between them, Musashi cautioned Gunnosuke not to place more emphasis on the "apparent" victory than was due.

Sensing Gunnosuke's puzzlement, Musashi explained that the second joust had gone according to plan, nothing more, nothing less.

"If you could not be defeated and had the choice of extinguishing a wonderful spark or accepting a token defeat so that it could flourish, what would you have done?"

Acknowledging the Master's comments, Gunnosuke bowed humbly three times, then left to forge his own unique path into history.

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