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.


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