Monday, March 18, 2013


The last time we met I presented Part II of the relationship between Zen and the samurai swordsman. I had intended Part II as a wrap up of the subject, and you probably thought I had exhausted the topic. However, I’ve come across enough additional information to present one more Samurai Zen talk. It’s titled Samurai Mind Part III. I hope it isn’t too repetitious, and I trust it is the final lecture on this fascinating theme.

            Let’s go back in time, before Zen and before samurai, to Taoism. I’ll try not to belabor what you may already know.

            Taoism is about the Tao, which is usually translated as the Way, with a capital “W.”

So, what is the Way?

            To give a formal definition, the Way, or the Tao, is the ultimate system of existence. It’s the universe, the weather, the earth under our feet, and us. To give an informal definition, the Tao is the way things work.

            Existence is loaded with opposites. Cold, hot. Light, dark.

Taoism deals in the oneness of opposites. All things are connected. The Tao is not God the great authoritarian, or any other figure of worship. Taoism deals in harmony with nature, and in self awareness. Aside from outmoded folktale things such as fortune telling and feng shui, Taoism’s basic practice includes the avoidance of conflict, acceptance of the moment, and meditation.

            “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
            “The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
            “The Way is to man as rivers as lakes are to fish,
            “The natural conditions of life.”

            Those lines are from Tao te Ching, the Chinese classic text believed to have been written by Lao Tzu.

            To toss in a few other words of Lao Tzu:

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Do not resist them. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

            Because the Tao can’t be expressed in words, the important thing is how it works in the universe, and how individual beings relate to it. Reasoning and theory about what the Tao actually is is less important than living in harmony with the Tao.

            What does all this have to do with samurai warriors? I’m getting there. I’m getting there. Stay with me.

            Today’s newspapers and other forms of news media make much of the tender age early teenagers are trained as fighters in Africa and in the Middle East.  Such a revelation is nothing new. Whatever your age, if you can handle a weapon it’s assumed you can use it to kill people.

            Many of the ordinary samurai were young boys who were not literate. They may have had some basic fighting instructions, but even before they reached puberty they were considered ready for battle.

            In today’s terms, they were cannon fodder.

            However, in a book titled The Secrets of the Samurai (which I do not have) the authors ask what use is the warrior’s sword if the handler of it doesn’t have enough mental control to act or to react. This condition of intellectual stability was encouraged by almost every martial arts instructor in Japan.

            In other words, the instructors told students to learn the physical aspects of cutting, but let the cutting be the result of a stable inner platform.

            This stable inner platform was the result of Zen training.

            As the writer Winston L. King said, Zen was simple, spare, and natural. In a Zen monastery the surroundings were spartan. Physical and mental discipline was thorough. Masters hammered headstrong novices who could not or would not meditate properly.

            The purpose of such actions was not punishment but a message to mentally shape up. It was a reminder to not only learn to behave others but to know how to behave oneself.

            Training for the latent swordsmen did not emphasize scripture, or ritual, or doctrine. The average trainee was either too uneducated or too dumb to be interested in such mumbo jumbo. King mentioned that truth was not intellectual but real. Instead of being theoretical it was something to be grasped in life and in action.

            Getting back to Taoism, remember the yin-yang concept that symbolizes how in life contrary forces are interconnected and interrelated. Nothing is purely good or purely bad. At the center is the stable mental platform.

            The Zen swordsman lived in this center, and he acted on it. He didn’t mess around figuring it out intellectually but lived it.  This center was known as “pointing to the real self” of man.

            Swordsman, or otherwise, Zen, and Taoism, encouraged one to live with coolness and calm, recognizing but not accepting the headaches of the world.

            To conclude, if you find this talk moralistic, that’s fine. If you interpret it as a lesson, that’s fine. If you don’t understand it at all, that’s better yet.

            A samurai named Sakawa Koresada entered the main hall of a monastery and bowed before an image of Jizo, known in Japan primarily as the protector of children.

            “There are thousands of images of Jizo,” he asked the head monk. “Which one is the very first one?”

            The monk twisted the samurai’s nose.

            Koresada was awakened.

            My question is, what did the samurai realize when his nose was tweaked?

Tuesday, March 05, 2013


This talk constitutes the second part of my previous talk on the contradictions between Zen as a peaceful, harmonious way of life and the killing philosophy of samurai swordsmen. Most of the events occurred in feudal Japan, during a period that lasted from the late 1100s to the mid-1800s.

            A Tendai Buddhist priest named Myoan Eisai lived from 1141 to 1215. When he was 27 years old he went to the Rinzai School at Mount Tianta in China where he was introduced to Chan (Zen, in Japanese). The new knowledge made such an impact on him that in 1187 he returned to China and became a disciple of Rinzai master Xuan Huaichang.

            Back in Japan Eisai built the country’s first Zen temple in Kamakura and founded Kennin-ji in Kyoto. His most notable disciple was Eihei Dogan, the founder of Japan’s Soto school.

            As an aside, Eisai is remembered also for his introduction of tea drinking. He believed that the powdered green tea called matcha was not only tasty and healthy but helped to keep a meditator wide awake. In Japan matcha was first used at Zen monasteries, and eventually it was adopted by the upper class aristocrats.

That leads to an ancient Zen saying:

Drink tea and nourish life.
With the first sip... joy.
With the second... satisfaction.
With the third, peace.
With the fourth, a toasted bagel.

            By 1300 Zen had become accepted by Japan’s rulers. Owing to its emphasis on meditation and discipline, it also became a magnet for hired swordsmen known as samurai.

            A personal note. The last time I was in Japan, some thirteen years ago, I observed a ritualistic Shinto wedding. It made me wonder about the interwoven practices of Buddhism, Shinto, and Christianity in the country. When I asked a friend about this apparent inconsistency I was told that a Japanese is born Buddhist, marries Shinto, and is buried Christian.

            That seems a tidy way of addressing the intellectual differences.

            Quoting Zen scholar Heinrich Dumoulin, “. . . it became a proverb in the Kamakura era that ‘Tendai is for the imperial court, Shingon for the nobility, Zen for the warrior class . . .”

            Japan may have been influenced by Zen, but it’s no secret that the country’s rulers fought one another over a wide range of issues. This meant that in turn, samurai fought against samurai as much as Union soldiers fought against Confederate soldiers in America’s Civil War.

            Interestingly, after the struggles within their nation settled down, many samurai retired to monasteries to make up for their killing of fellow men.

            In the book Zen and the Way of the Sword the author (Winston L. King) points out that the Japanese sense of family loyalty and tradition was looked on as a sacred inheritance. This added to karmic predestination, or fate, that an individual—even a Buddhist samurai—is meant to understand his destiny, even if it means destroying life.

            Around 1336 the prime rulers of Japan were the Ashikaga shogunate (also called the Muromachi Rule).

            Shogunate is a Japanese word that referred to a military rank of the highest degree, such as the modern term generalissimo. Shoguns were answerable only to the Emperor. As King mentions, the shogun warrior class called the tune.

            That word bushi, or bushido, is literally the way of the warrior. It originated from the samurai moral code that stressed frugality, loyalty, and honor unto death.

            With a few exceptions, the bushi were men of the sword as well as of learning. The word bushi was eventually replaced by the word samurai, which implied a professional combatant. The sword was the fighter’s basic weapon, the guardian of his honor as a warrior.

The Tale of the Heike is an epic account of the struggle between two clans for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century. It described a typical samurai as follows.

            “Ashikaga no Tadatsuna wore a lattice-patterned orange brocade battle robe and over it armor laced with red leather. From the crown of the helmet curved two long ox horns . . . . In the sash around his waist was a gold-studded sword, and in the quiver on his back were arrows black and white spotted hawk feathers. He gripped a bow bound thickly with lacquered rattan.”

            Armor notwithstanding, King notes that such dazzling equipment had its downside in that it made the possessor a conspicuous target for his enemies. One also wonders about all that gear. How did a fully outfitted samurai move about, much less fight?

            Another aside. Amazon Books offers a volume with the snappy title of Samurai Secrets of the Slot Machine. I glanced at a couple of pages, and that was enough to turn my interest and my stomach. The book has absolutely nothing to do with either samurai or Zen. It’s mostly about how to deal with the annoyances of squandering one’s money.

            So what was it about Zen that appealed to the Japanese warrior mind?

Zen was uncomplicated. It did not require any acts of faith, as were common in Amida’s Pure Land. It did not involve any ritualism, as in Shinto. There was no dependence on words and letters, no authoritative writings to interpret. Zen pointed directly to the essence of man and the sense of awakened awareness.

I mentioned that many samurai were educated. Many other swordsmen were untaught, which meant their minds were not to be messed around with rules and regulations and scriptural quotes. They dealt in right now, the moment between life and death. Their actions were instinctive, intuitive.

In battle, pausing to think about matters was the kiss of death.

To quote King: “This character of Zen then put it well within the range of samurai awareness and emotional compatibility . . . . . it was not mere theory. . . . . It tended to free one to ‘gut feeling’ of what the immediate situation called for, . . . .”

Calming the mind through meditation was an integral part of samurai training, and some samurai were presented with koans.

The British authority on Japanese culture, Trevor Leggett, mentions one koan given to a samurai named Ryozan. It asked what he would do if, when going into the bath naked, a hundred enemies surrounded him.

“Let me win without surrendering and without fighting,” was Ryozan’s response.

It seems that a koan helped to break down any fixed ideas in the mind of the samurai, and caused him to realize his own immediate capacities. In that, he was able to act spontaneously.

A koan did not necessarily create a better swordsman. However, it could lead him into the behavior of instinctive action.

An anonymous Zen poet wrote a few short lines about Zen combat.

Some think striking is to strike,
But striking is not to strike, nor is killing to kill.
He who strikes and he who is struck—
They are both no more than a dream which has no reality.

D.T. Suzuki mentioned that swordsmanship is like a boat gliding down the rapids. A mind of no-hesitation, no-interruption, no-mediacy is highly valued.

To close, here are three lines from D.T. Suzuki that may help to resolve the dichotomy between Zen and swordsmanship. Feel free to carry their image home.

Victory is for the one,
Even before the combat,
Who has no thought of himself.