Given the proliferation of social media in the martial arts community, one sees all sorts of posts nowadays related to Japanese budo and the “warrior spirit.”
aave iowry claims the phrase “warrior spirit” has taken on a meaning that’s out of sync with what it referred to during the age of the samuraiK fn a nutshell: It had nothing to do with being a peaceful warriorK
here are blogs devoted to the way of the peaceful warrior and the depiction of enlightened samurai following a path of peace. One even has a pair of sparrows resting quietly on the hilt of a katana. It seems the internet is overflowing with inspirational aphorisms and insights about overcoming conflict.
Sometimes this can make it sound as though the samurai were New Age “pathseekers” on a quest for inner harmony and cosmic consciousness. It’s lovely to think so. And it’s flattering to imagine ourselves as inheritors of a tradition of seeking a noble, spiritual truth, of pursuing the path of self-perfection, of dedicating ourselves to becoming pure. It’s like Gandalf meets Mr. Miyagi. We can almost convince ourselves that the instrument that was on the samurai’s hip was a magic talisman, meant to cut through discord and bind the universe in a big, beautiful knot of love.
1DC 8C F0BN½C It was a sword. The Japanese katana was designed to, among other things, cut in a way that slashed flesh and muscle but also opened gaping wounds that could not heal. Even a shallow cut could become infected and cause a slow, horribly painful death.
That is the awful reality of the way of the warrior in feudal Japan — and the reality of all warriors. Yes, you can argue that the killing was done in the name of good. Perhaps so. That didn’t make the suffering of those who died — and those who did the killing — any less difficult to endure. Or any less difficult for those who had no choice but to accept it.
8 A424NC;H B0F a social media post that featured a quote from Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi (1584-1645) is, for many, an example of the ultimate
samurai warrior, an iconoclast, a philosopher and all-around romantic figure, undefeated in battle (even if there is that inconvenient fact that in the only real battle in which he participated, he was forced to limp off the field after scrambling up a slope and having a rock dislodge and hit his leg).
“The ultimate aim of martial arts is not having to use them,” was the quote on the post. It has a nice sound. It is, however, lifted from a text Musashi wrote and taken somewhat out of context. Musashi was writing about the various strategies to be employed against enemies. In the original Japanese, the quote conveys a different thought than the peaceand-love sentiments it has in English. It makes the point that one can be sufficiently intimidating in posture and attitude that an opponent is frightened, disturbed, thrown off his game and therefore more easily slaughtered or beaten before physical contact is even commenced.
Musashi wasn’t talking about harmony with the universe. He was laying out a strategy for overcoming an enemy, for consolidating or expanding the power of one’s lord.
That is a key element in understanding the samurai. “Samurai” means “to serve.” The samurai were servants. Martial servants, as well as, given their level of education compared to the populace, servants who ran the bureaucracies of the fiefs. Their job was not to cultivate inner or world peace, but to make their clans and their lords more powerful. Japanese feudalism was often cruel; it could be stifling and coercive. The way of the warrior, at least in that age, meant that your life belonged to your lord and that your own feelings, dreams and plans were always second to that.
WHEN I THINK of Musashi, I often reflect on Mikinosuke, one of his adopted sons. Musashi came across Mikinosuke when the boy was working at a stable. He saw some quality in the boy that he liked. Mikinosuke at first declined Musashi’s offer of adoption; he had parents who depended on his earnings. Musashi arranged payment, however, and Mikinosuke became a protégé. In time, Mikinosuke became a samurai in the employ of Honda Tadatoki in what’s now Hyogo prefecture. (Scenes from the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice were filmed at Honda’s castle.)
Honda died in 1626 of tuberculosis. On hearing of his death, Musashi is supposed to have said, “Mikinosuke will soon be visiting me.” He was correct. Musashi’s adopted son appeared; the two shared a dinner, with lots of sake. At the end of the evening, Mikinosuke raised a glass to his father and said, “Let’s drink to my farewell.”
Musashi understood. He had understood what was going to happen as soon as he’d heard of Honda’s death. Although it was not as common as once it had been, many samurai still, on the death of their lord, committed junshi, ritual suicide meant to demonstrate loyalty. Within a few days, word came that Mikinosuke had killed himself.
TO US, such behavior seems bizarre. We have no context for it — which is my point. It’s very difficult for us to understand the world of the samurai. It’s easy to romanticize the way of the warrior, to glorify the bravery and stoicism and gallantry of what many regard as the Japanese version of European knights and all their wonderful chivalry.
This episode from the life of Miyamoto Musashi, however, shows what the way of the warrior was often about. It was about a man watching his son walk away, knowing that he would never see him again. This is what the samurai faced again and again during this era.
Are you sure you want to follow the real, historical way of the warrior? If so, you’d better be ready to put yourself in the place of Musashi, standing at the gate and watching as his son disappeared forever in the distance.