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?


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