From the photographs of the late 19th century, Kurosawa masterpieces like “Seven Samurai”, classic manga like “Lone Wolf and Cub”, to videogames like the wildly popular “Ghost of Tsushima”, stoic samurai warriors have captured the public imagination for as long as we have known about Japan.
Their razor-sharp swords, distinctive armour, and mysterious codes of conduct even influenced iconic Hollywood movies like Star Wars. But how much do we really know about the samurai and their way of life, and what lessons can we learn from this ancient warrior class?
“The Way of the Horse and Bow”
The samurai appeared as a hereditary military class in the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Serving the Shogun, they were entrusted with the security of estates across Japan. Samurai were expected to be model warriors and citizens and set an example for the common people to live up to.
As a professional warrior class the samurai were well armed, and the sword played a key part in their daily life. The two swords thrust into their belts were undeniable symbols of their social status. But for a significant portion of Japanese history, archery was considered the most vital martial skill for the samurai, and the way of the warrior was even referred to as kyuba-no-michi "the way of the horse and bow".
Ogasawara-ryu is a school of etiquette, archery, and horsemanship founded during the Kamakura period and still practiced today. For the samurai, learning the way of the bow began with first mastering the body and mind through the practice of simple movements such as sitting, standing, walking, and bowing.
“The martial way begins and ends with courtesy.”
As adults we tend to think we already know how to walk but looking around on any busy street you can see all kinds of gait, many of which are inefficient. Posture with slouched shoulders, head jutted forward, and toes splayed outwards does nothing to display confidence. The samurai learned simple lessons such as standing straight with their ears above their shoulders, walking with feet straight, sitting as if slowly sinking in water, and standing as if smoke rising from a fire.
Paying constant attention to the body and eliminating unnecessary movement led to good posture and movements that were efficient, effective, and graceful. For the pragmatic samurai understanding the reasons behind each movement was also very important, and samurai culture lacks any overly showy or fancy movements.
This mindful thinking about the body and the environment around fitted very well with a new kind of Buddhism that was brought to Japan during the Kamakura period. It also confronted an issue that the samurai faced daily as professional warriors – death.
Zen and the Samurai Mind
Samurai society was heavily influenced by Confucian thought which provided a rigid social hierarchy to follow. Respect for parents and ancestors, one’s lord and domain, and an acceptance of the role laid out for you by heaven were key tenets for the warrior class. The mental state of the samurai however was essentially defined by Buddhism.
Buddhism came to Japan around the 6th century, but it wasn’t until the Kamakura period that Zen was introduced. With a strong emphasis on dhyāna, the meditative training of awareness and equanimity, Zen suited the mentality of the samurai well. The shedding of attachment and realization that existence is essentially empty also reconciled the constant problem of death.
“It is the very mind itself that leads the mind astray - of the mind, do not be mindless”
In the Soto school of Buddhism, a practice called shikantaza “just sitting” gives some insight into the benefits the samurai may have felt from practicing Zen. Sitting cross-legged on a cushion, posture erect, eyes cast downwards, the practitioner simply follows their breath in and out, allowing thoughts to pass by like clouds blown across the sky.
By avoiding attachment to thoughts, it is possible to observe the workings of the mind, and with practice eventually to control these thoughts as they arise. With no attachment or cognition, it is possible to simply react to situations as they unfold. The metaphor of the moon reflected perfectly on clear water is often used to describe this heightened but unagitated state of mind.
“The muddy creek does not reflect the light of the moon.”
This is not to say that all samurai practiced meditation, and the role of Zen in the martial arts has been overplayed. Some samurai found use for the older esoteric sects of Buddhism such as Shingon and Tendai, using the mudra and Sanskrit seed syllables called bonji as protective magical charms.
Katori Shinto-ryu, one of the oldest schools of Japanese martial arts, incorporates the esoteric Buddhist practice of kuji – nine magical signs which with practice can be quickly made with the practitioner’s hands. Instead of requiring hours of meditation the samurai could fast track themselves to the required mental state much as modern sports players do by performing a small gesture or ritual before making a set play.
Despite calling on the various kami and Buddhist deities for assistance, the samurai were highly practical with an understanding that their own actions alone would determine their fate. Miyamoto Musashi, one of Japan’s most famous swordsmen made this clear in his treatise Dokkodo.
“Respect the gods and buddhas, but do not rely on them.”
The samurai found a way to consolidate the esoteric and psychological teachings of Buddhism into their daily practice as warriors. With a lack of scientific explanation, metaphors from Buddhism were used to explain the states of mind the samurai might find himself in when confronted with an enemy or involved in a battle. This was nowhere more sharply realized than in the way of the sword.
“The Way of the Sword”
Towards the end of the Sengoku period (1467-1615) samurai society began to place more importance on the sword as their weapon of choice, and as the peacetime of the Edo period (1603-1868) began, hundreds of schools of swordsmanship appeared around the country.
These martial arts largely derived from a few progenitor schools founded in the mid to late Sengoku period by experienced samurai who had experienced transcendental experiences at religious sites like shrines and temples. Legends of long nosed demons called tengu instructing warriors on secret techniques, swallows being slashed in two mid-flight, and other fantastical stories pervaded adding a layer of mystery and the supernatural.
These schools broke into subbranches over time and proliferated all over the country. Masterless samurai called ronin sometimes brought their martial skills to the attention of a powerful lord to try and secure employment. Other samurai were invited by the lord to teach their skills in a particular domain. Yet others came up with their own innovations founding their own schools.
Each school had its own techniques and philosophy, and the majority were operated much like secret societies requiring the signing of a secret oath called kishomon to join. The oath often made promises related to avoiding slandering one’s teacher, fighting other schools, and revealing secrets learned, accompanied by a clause outlining the Buddhist and Shinto deities that would offer punishment if the vow were broken. The document was sealed with blood to show the seriousness of the student.
As with etiquette and archery, the samurai intended to make movements that were efficient, effective, and graceful. As a result, traditional Japanese swordsmanship is rarely flashy and uses only the bare minimum of movement. Twirling swords, high kicks, and exaggerated poses have no place in true Japanese swordsmanship.
Practice of the sword was intended more than anything to cultivate the mind. Through intense practice and extreme concentration, the samurai hoped to attain the state of munen-muso, free from attachment, preconception, and able to respond instantly.
“Polish and sharpen your beloved sword, secure it firmly into its scabbard, say nor do nothing rude or offensive, always have correct manners, and never draw your sword.”
The martial arts of the samurai were a system of education for a warrior class, intended to create better human beings and model citizens. As a result, all traditional schools frowned on wanton killing, and in the many writings left behind by the samurai one thread remains clear – that sword are not to be brandished in anger.
To be a cultured gentleman and a model to the other merchants and peasant classes, strength alone was not enough. It was for this reason that the samurai were also encouraged to put effort into learning the cultural arts – the way of the brush.
“The Way of the Brush”
Samurai of the early Edo period had lived through bloody conflicts of the Sengoku period and had to adjust to the new peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Alongside the martial arts practice of calligraphy, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, poetry, incense appreciation, noh theatre and many other arts flourished, and to be seen as a cultured gentleman it was necessary to have knowledge of bunbu ryodo, both the sword and the brush.
“As a samurai, I must strengthen my character; as a human being I must perfect my spirit.”
The martial and cultural arts place importance on the learning of kata, prearranged forms that impart not only the basic movements of the school, but also the mental state with which they are supposed to be performed.
Learning the cultural arts was much the same as the martial arts and required the samurai to progress through the stages of shu, ha, ri - literally to obey, detach, and leave. At first the student must simply copy the teacher without question. Traditional Japanese teaching methods mainly consisted of mitori geiko (learning by watching), with hardly any explanation offered.
Once the basics have been learned the student experiments by applying the techniques, learning what his physicality allows and how to ingrain the essence of the school into his being. Finally, the student departs from the model of the teacher completely having absorbed the teachings fully. This brings the student back full circle once more concentrating on the basics – the most fundamentally important part of any art, never forgetting shoshin-no-shin, the mind of the beginner.
The cultural and martial arts were two wheels of a cart for the samurai, and it was inconceivable to practice only one without cultivating the other. The symbiotic relationship between the two not only developed individuals of great character and resolve, but also warriors with practical skills that could contribute not only to the defence of, but also the development of society.
The Samurai and Death
“The way of the samurai is death.”
So spoke Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a retainer of the Saga domain in the late Edo period. Disgruntled with what he saw as the softening of the warrior class since the end of the Sengoku period, he narrated a series of aphorisms to a young disciple who compiled them into a work called “Hagakure”.
The samurai were certainly well acquainted with their own mortality, whether through fighting in actual wars as in the Sengoku period, or simply by being at the mercy of their lord – who could simply order them to end their life by slicing open their own stomach in the seppuku ritual.
This is not to say that samurai should be ready to die easily or throw their lives away, but rather come to terms with mortality and the fact that death could come at any time. Living in this way freed the samurai to act with volition, live a life of meaning, and if the time came have no fear in the face of the inevitable.
To cultivate this mindset required dedication and continuous effort, and the martial, cultural, and spiritual practices of the samurai, if practiced with sincerity, could lead to such an elevated state of mind. This mentality has much in common with the western stoic school of thought, and far from being merely fatalistic, the mindset it produces is one of clarity, rational decision, and action unfettered by the distractions of the untrained mind.
The Samurai Mind Today
Japan closed its borders to the outside world for more than 200 years during the Edo period, creating a unique environment for the culture of the samurai to grow with little outside influence. The martial and cultural arts and the spiritual practices of the samurai have survived until today, and dedicated students and teachers are keeping the traditions of old Japan alive for future generations.
There are close to 100 schools of archery, swordsmanship, spear, jujutsu, and other martial arts such as the sickle and chain weapon kusarigama, or shuriken still being practiced in Japan today. These are joined by kendo, judo, kyudo, and the other so called gendai budo, arts which were created after the abolition of the samurai class following the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
Tea ceremony, flower arranging, incense appreciation, and many other traditional arts are also still practiced widely, each giving deep insights into the way of the samurai, and allowing us to directly experience their movements and mindset better than any history book ever could.
These are living traditions passed down through the generations over hundreds of years like the flow of a river. While the banks might become narrower in places, sometimes deep or shallow, occasionally parted by rocks, the essence of the mind that practices them is the same even though the times they are practiced in have changed.
For those of us today living in a busy modern society, studying the samurai mind can give us insights into our posture, attention, focus, and concentration, as well as fostering the determination needed to carry out our goals to the fullest.
In the mid-1500s, lord Tadayoshi of the Shimadzu clan left a treatise for his samurai on the ideal daily behaviour of a warrior. His opening words offer the following caution.
“Listening to or repeating the wisdom of old is useless without action.”
We need to act, not just mull over the words of the samurai of old. What better place to do this than in Japan itself, learning from the traditions that the samurai themselves created and studied.
Written by Alex Bradshaw