Tuesday, January 13, 2004

An Introduction

Bushido, "The Way of the Warrior", has come to be known as the samurai code, but it is more than that. The name given is not "the code" or "the law" of the warrior, but rather, "the Way." It is not merely a list of rules to which a warrior must subscribe in exchange for his title, but a set of principles that prepared a man or woman to fight without losing his humanity and to lead and command without losing touch with basic values. It is a description of a way of life, and a prescription to make a warrior-nobleman.

At the heart of bushido is the samurai's acceptance of death. "The way of the samurai is found in death," says the Hakagure, a 1716 explanation of bushido whose title means literally "Hidden in the Leaves." Once he is steeled to the fact of dying, he may then live his life without worrying about dying, and choose his actions based on principle, not fear. "If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead he gains freedom in The Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling."

The samurai's position of high rank and enormous respect within the society was not a license to behave any way he chose. Rather, it was the result of the extreme discipline and high standard by which he lived. Disciplining his entire life makes him capable of decisive action in the battle, and surely, that was the original goal of "the way." His Zen practice freed his mind from distraction and enabled him to pursue perfection in all things from haiku to seppuku. By reaching perfection in all he endeavored, including kendo - "the way of the sword" - he became an unbeatable warrior and an unstoppable force in society.

Inazo Nitobe, one of the first Japanese Quakers, wrote eloquently in English about bushido (and to his 1905 book BUSHIDO, THE SOUL OF JAPAN we are deeply indebted for much of the content of this section) referred to samurai as "knights" and likened bushido in some ways to the code of chivalry. In the same way that a few chivalric ideas have persisted as behavioral norms in Western society, he suggests that the principles that formed the samurai permeated all facets of Japanese civilization. This is hardly surprising, since the samurai controlled the government for at least 676 years, arguably longer. Japan's transformation from a country in complete isolation in the mid-19th century to a world power in the 20th century may owe something to the samurai bred abilities of discipline and focus. If bushido was the source of the samurai's approach to life, its ongoing influence is hard to deny.

This was copied from a wall scroll at the ongoing exhibit at The Podium about the new Tom Cruise movie "The Last Samurai." I've also copied a series of Samurai Codes which I will be posting in a couple of days. I find all this very interesting. Really. Not to mention their kimonos and armors make up for an extremely cool costume.

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