For nearly 700 years in feudal Japan approximately ten percent of the population lived as samurai ‘retainers’, a warrior class that lived in service to their respective provincial lords. The Samurai lived their lives by a code known as Bushido, which was based on a combination of Zen and Confucian principles and emphasised loyalty to one’s master, respectful ethical behaviour and self-discipline. Elements of Bushido emphasise compassion, benevolence and other higher qualities held by the Samurai that are worth emulating. So what can we learn from these ancient warriors that might help us with our personal evolution in the modern world?
Finding a role model
Whether you are a warrior, an artist or a business person, the first samurai skill worth adopting is the ability to ‘construct’ a true master to learn from, even if a living example of a true master doesn’t exist or isn’t accessible in the modern day.
According to Master lttei… one should look at many people and choose from each person his best point only. For example, one person for politeness, one for bravery, one for the proper way of speaking, one for correct conduct and one for steadiness of mind… If one perceives a person’s good points, he will have a model teacher for anything.
– Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure
The Masterless Master
Miyamoto Musashi is without a doubt the most respected samurai warrior to have ever lived. Widely known as the masterless master, Musashi is likely to have achieved this level of high esteem through this very principal of assembling the best elements from less-than-perfect role models. Musashi was undefeated after sixty duels from the age of 16 to around age 60, when he retired to a cave and wrote what is widely considered the most important text of the samurai era: The Book of Five Rings.
From one thing, know ten thousand things
One of Miyamoto Musashi’s most well-known concepts is: ‘from one thing, know ten thousand things’. In essence, this implies that by learning to become a master at one skill, we learn the very process of mastery itself; knowledge which can then be transferred to other skills.
Neuroscience is starting to verify this concept when delving into the role of motor neurons and the transferability of learned skills. Learn to do something with one part of the body, like the right hand, and you will learn the same skill more quickly on the left hand, because the skill can be transferred to other control centres in the brain. More broadly, we also see this evidence of this when people find it much easier attaining their second, third or fourth university degree, or learning third and fourth languages more easily after having gone through the challenge of learning a second.
What we call mastery was merely discipline
In the present day we have the idea, according to Josh Kaufman, that we can become functionally ‘good enough’ at any given skill after about 20 hours of practice. To go from being pretty good at something to achieving mastery, the learning curve gets a lot steeper. According to Malcolm Gladwell we can become a master at anything if we put in 10,000 hours of practice. This equates to 1000 days of practicing 10 hours per day. Musashi, however, said otherwise:
Practicing a thousand days is said to be discipline, practicing ten thousand days is said to be refining.
What Musashi refers to as ‘refining’ equates to roughly 100,000 hours in comparison (if a person were to train for 10 hours per day). A samurai would actually hone their skills continuously for all of his waking hours and sleep in readiness to defend an attack at any moment.
The pressure of life-and-death stakes
Why do we remember so clearly not to put our hand on a hot stovetop? It’s because we’ve evolved to remember when something is painful. Our brain creates more myelin coating around those neural pathways that we consider important, and pain is our body’s way of saying it’s really important not to do that painful thing again. A thicker myelin coating causes that neural pathway to become more permanent. It’s important on a survival level to avoid pain so our brain and nervous system prioritises this and we build strong, well-insulated neural pathways so that we remember how to avoid more pain in the future. There is perhaps nothing more important than avoiding our own death. Perhaps this a key to getting our brain to create the strongest neural pathways of all.
It’s hard to find a better example of self-discipline throughout human history than that of the samurai or ‘bushi warrior’. They used the threat of imminent death to sharpen their senses and their resolve; paradoxically, they were also constantly readying themselves to give their life for their lord at any moment.
There is a saying of the elders that goes, ‘Step from under the eaves and you’re a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting.” This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.
– Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure
For the samurai, this wasn’t a conceptual exercise. Buddhist monks may meditate on facing a horrific death for the purpose of learning to remain at peace in the face of such a challenge, but the samurai were facing actual death on a regular basis.
This kind of confrontation, which rewarded a moment’s relaxation with instant death, required awesome patience and concentration, a kind of discipline that can only be acquired after years of training under the guidance of a master. In time this code of ethics with its stress on patience, frugality and constant self-improvement, permeated all levels of Japanese society. It became part of the social ethos of Japan.
– Commentary in The Book Of Five Rings (1982, Bantam)
The importance of the present moment
Attaining undistracted awareness of the present moment, and remaining in that state somewhat indefinitely, was a common goal of the bushi warrior. The possibility of death at any moment was used as a fuel for cultivating this single-pointed awareness.
There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing left to pursue.
– Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure
Through a process of trial and error (with error, in this case, equating to death), the samurai came to understand that there is a time-delay between the senses experiencing something and the mind registering the experience. They discovered that the masters of their art were the ones who put their thinking mind aside.
If you want to see, see right at once. When you begin to think, you miss the point.
– Zen Master Dōgō
The process of training involves the mind training the body with so much repetition that the body learns the skill. Then when the skill is needed, the body will respond without needing the mind to engage. This means there is no time delay.
A retainer [samurai] is a man who remains consistently undistracted, twenty-four hours a day, whether he is in the presence of his master or in public. If one is careless during his rest period the public will see him as being only careless.
– Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure
While we in our modern lives may not face the possibility of death at any moment, we can recognise that the act of learning to be the most centred and aware version of ourselves during daily practice is only the beginning. Learning to extend this ability to bring forth the best, most awake version of ourselves into the periods of time between doing our daily practice may be a better long-term goal to strive for, so that we eventually remain at this level of presence at all times.
Perceive that which cannot be seen
On a number of occasions in The Book of Five Rings, Musashi mentions taking the martial lifestyle to advanced levels of spirituality. In fact, his path of ‘Heihō’ means ‘path to enlightenment’. For instance, one of the nine concepts to live by in Musashi’s version of the bushido code is: perceive that which cannot be seen.
This relates to the fact that in Japanese culture in general (and particularly for a warrior in a life-or-death situation) one must be able to show their tatemae, or surface level intention, and hide their honne or true inner intention. Perceiving that which cannot be seen, at least in-part, is about cultivating intuition in order to ascertain an adversary’s true intention; despite it being hidden. This is the difference between ken, ‘observation of the movements of surface phenomena’ and kan, ‘profound examination of the essence of things’.
…if you are deeply committed to the eventual mastery of this path, if you practice day and night polishing your skills through and through, then you… can attain such freedom and such power to perform miracles. You will attain supernatural powers. This is the secret of Heihō.
– Miyamoto Musashi
The Book of Emptiness
The Book of Five Rings actually consists of five books: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire and the Book of Emptiness, which unlike the other four, distils its wisdom into only two pages.
The meaning of kú is emptiness; that which cannot be known is kú.
This is similar to the concept at the beginning of the Tao Te Ching: as soon as one tries to talk about the tao it is no longer tao. Likewise, in Judaism all texts refer to ‘god’ as ‘g–d’ in an attempt to make sure that no one ever mistakes the signpost for that which the sign is pointing at. So it is a paradox that Musashi recognises in suggesting that emptiness cannot be known, but then following on from the last quote with a seemingly contradictory line:
By knowing form one knows emptiness. This in short is kú.
A word describing the emptiness or the oneness can never encapsulate the vastness of what it describes. To me personally, kú is describing what Taoists refer to as the ‘wu chi’; the underlying oneness that our physical reality of separation and duality exists within. The Book Of Emptiness points to us coming to experience the ‘oneness’ or ‘emptiness’ through our experience of physical reality. The commentary in the Book Of Five Rings (1982, Bantam) shares:
[Musashi] is suggesting there is a higher order of experience than the one you are on now. The emptiness is really a fullness, the realm of all possibilities.
In my opinion, this speaks to the common ground between ancient concepts such as the wu chi of the Taoists; the atman–brahman state of the Hindu tradition; and the quantum possibilities that have not yet collapsed into one solidified reality in the quantum realm.
Honour and Bushido
Above all else, the bushi warriors of Ancient Japan held themselves to a standard of being unquestionably honourable. In the Hagakure there is a tale of a samurai who is asked to testify in court. When asked for proof that what he was saying was true, he firmly stated if his word was not believed then he would immediately commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in front of the court. He was willing to give his life in a moment’s notice as security against the validity of his word; he was samurai. His word was not questioned further. For me this story exemplifies that the core of samurai culture was about being honourable. There is a duty to be in service not only to their Lord, but to the wellbeing of the people and the good of all.