To lay all my biases on the table, I’ll start by saying that I’m a big fan of samurais. Since I was very young I remember going crazy over animes about them, playing with swords and pretending I was one. Of course it was only after several years that I started reading about them in detail and going into what it really meant to be a samurai. This is probably the single class of warriors I respect the most and their views resonate very strongly with me.
Why is that, though?
There are several aspects that set the samurai apart from other classes of warriors. Several “small things” they did differently than others and ultimately led to them lasting (in different positions in society) roughly from the late 8th until the 19th century, but if asked to summarize it in one word, my choice would be “discipline,” and I’d be hard pressed to find someone who disagrees with that choice.
If there ever was a class of warriors that followed primarily a philosophical and spiritual path to self-mastery and fought only out of necessity, while always keeping their principles in the front of their minds, it’s arguably the samurai. I won’t be going into detail regarding their history because ultimately it’s not what this series is about, but I will be outlining how they lived their lives and why we should learn from them.
Bushido is the Japanese term for the way of the warrior. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this word, saying that the word first originated in the premodern period and hence can’t represent the culture of the samurais.
Whatever the reasons for this word to have come to fruition, it doesn’t change the fact that it stands for what we should strive toward.
But just what is it, then?
“It is said the warrior’s is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way. Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.”
—Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
Bushido is, in its essence, nothing more than knowledge. Knowledge of when to attack, of when to hold back, of when to say something or to remain silent. Knowledge of diplomacy and of good form in holding a sword. Ultimately, it’s knowing and accepting that we most certainly will die when the time comes, and that it’s often not up to us to decide when this time will arrive. It’s behaving our best at all times, knowing that a dishonorable death would be unacceptable.
The way of the warrior is not a way riddled with battles all around. Even though it can often not seem so, a great deal of being a good warrior involves knowing when to use diplomacy. A warrior shouldn’t be a mindless killer charging into battle because he figures he’ll die sooner or later. He should remain calm and composed even in the face of a big threat, knowing when to back down and when to let his words do the work.
On top of that there is the more obvious connotation of writing and reading. A warrior should know how to write and write well, strive for mastery and increased understanding in and out of the battlefield. Read and increase his mental capacities. Appreciate the arts and do his duty in creating them as well.
The only way to be a samurai is to be awake and aware every second, to value each small thing we come across.
“Life in every breath. In every cup of tea.”
That isn’t much different from what people call mindfulness. Being present, appreciating the moment.
There’s much more to mindfulness than those hippy 21st century trends would have you believe. Mindfulness, in its essence, is self control and concentration. It’s knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing that. Mindfulness is nothing more and nothing less than self knowledge. It’s both a topic I’ve touched on in the past and will keep touching on in the future.
Attaining mindfulness in our every breath should be the ultimate goal of everyone walking this Earth. Much like the samurais strived to see depth and recognize the importance of a simple cup of tea, so should we see this same importance in every part of our lives. Even in the parts that at first glance might “not really matter,” like whether or not we iron our clothes before going out (“t-shirts look fine after about one hour”), shave when the stubble is barely noticeable or even the infamous dilemma of skipping or not skipping leg day. If we’re giving each of those things our undivided thought and effort, those questions wouldn’t even cross our minds. We would do them and see “life” in each of them.
As Yamamoto says in Hagakure, “Although it seems that taking special care of one’s appearance is similar to showiness, it is nothing akin to elegance. Even if you are aware that you may be struck down today and are firmly resolved to an inevitable death, if you are slain with an unseemly appearance, you will show your lack of previous resolve, will be despised by your enemy, and will appear unclean.”
I don’t think anyone plans on appearing unclean.
It is said that the first thought the samurais would have upon waking up was “today is a good day to die.” To them, dying dishonorably was shameful and they saw death as being at arm’s reach. The practice of Sepukku is a form of ritual suicide that originated then. They would rather die by their own hands with honor than to be taken by the enemy or to come back from a battle after being defeated.
By accepting death, seeing it as a part of life and even going as far as to honor it, we don’t become morbid. We live honorably. By recognizing that death at arm’s reach we will live with honor at every waking second
A word that has become taboo is a word we should be talking about. Most people shiver at the thought of death, some claim that everyone who thinks or talks about it is suicidal, while they themselves avoid the big elephant in the room and go by their lives being afraid of recognizing the only thing that we can all be sure will befall us at one point.
Accepting death isn’t suicide, it’s the healthiest choice we can make if willing to live like warriors. In “Hagakure,” Yamamoto makes a case for living as though our bodies were already dead. What he means by that phrasing is a simple matter of living regardless of what will come later. He means we should accept death as a mere necessity of life and not be too attached to it. We know it will come, and that knowledge alone is enough to drive us to live more intensely.
Try to take a moment of your day and imagine your funeral. How many people are there? How do they look? What are they talking about? What do they have to say about you?
Most people leave such a “meditation” feeling eery. We’re often not happy to see what people would probably be saying about us if we were to die at this very moment. Now try imagining the scene again, but feel free to make a few changes, what would you like them to say? How do you want to be remembered? How do you want them to react?
Accept that this time might come sooner than you expect, and dedicate yourself entirely to living so that you’re remembered as you want to be.
And when the time comes? The movie “The Last Samurai” ends with the Japanese emperor asking Nathan (Tom Cruise) to tell him how Katsumoto (the samurai leader) died on the battle. Nathan’s answer? “I will tell you how he lived.”
What can the samurais teach us?
At its core, the teaching we can gather from the samurais is that of mindfulness and acceptance of death. They can teach us how to lead our lives and battles, as well as the way to go when our time comes.
In the way of the samurai we find a constant search for self mastery and self discipline. We find an appreciation for all things and, perhaps most important of all, we find love. It’s only by truly loving life, each and every aspect of it, that we can embrace death with open arms. It’s only through a life of love that we can dedicate ourselves tirelessly to all pursuits, be they physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual.
And it’s only by loving life that we can be unafraid to draw our swords in the face of a threat, after exhausting our possibilities of proper talk.
Hopefully we’ll never have to draw our swords in the face of an enemy trying to take our lives away from us, but we can always draw them when our flaws try to make the best of us. It’s only by loving our lives that we can be unafraid to cut our flaws in half.
Other posts in this series: