Sunday, July 02, 2006

Story of a Wise Samurai

A samurai warrior once was charged with avenging a noble's death at the hands of a rival warlord. He trained for four years, studied the warlord's habits, and planned his attack. When the day came, he stealthily approached the warlord when he was alone, and cornered him. The samurai held his katana aloft, poised to strike the final blow, when the warlord, utterly defeated, spit in the face of the samurai. The samurai sheathed his sword and walked away, rather than kill the warlord out of anger.

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Don Iannone said...

Ah yes, and a lesson to us all. Thanks Mike. So much Eastern wisdom here. I appreciate what I learn here at UM.

Mandolina Dora said...

am i supposed to regret that this mercenary did not kill because now his motive was tainted/less pure? the lesson being that we should not let emotion govern our final acts, but proceed, as planned, only when calm and reason are not diverted? or is this eastern irony?

if the rival warlord had bowed his head "graciously" in defeat, instead of spit in the samurai's face, would samurai have proceeded? and been justified?

i'm sorry but the lesson is lost to me--a way too western girl-- utilizing images of the bloody politics of feudal japan

Mike said...

Hi Don: Thank you!

Hi Y: All stories are told from and for the culture in which they originated. So to understand this one, let me give you a brief intro to the culture at that time. When Buddhism came from India to China to Japan, like all religions that traverse cultures, it was adapted. The Japanese fighting class recognized the benefits of concentration, as developed by Buddhist practices, and aspects of its philosophy to their role in Japanese society. Therefore, in adapting it to their culture, they took the meditation practices as adapted by China and molded them to their use in warfare. Clearly, they left a few things out of their adaptation, such as the first Buddhist precept of "Do not kill." :)

So, in relation to Japanese culture at the time, this story presented the ideal of Japanese ethics and spiritual development. It was ok for the warrior to kill to avenge a death—killing was his role in society—but his motivation had to be pure, could not be tainted by anger. Therefore, by not killing the warlord, that showed the warrior's discipline and mindfulness in recognizing the presence of anger in fueling his actions, and being able to stop the action before it occurred. That is what I admire about the samurai in this story.

So if the warlord has bowed his head graciously in defeat, the samurai would have proceeded, and would have been justified (according to his culture) in doing so. In my view (and in the view of all non-feudal Buddhism), killing in and of itself is wrong, so from that perspective, he would not have been justified. But taken in the context of the culture at that time, the lesson of the mindfulness of the samurai, even during combat, is admirable.

Mandolina Dora said...

i do thank you for the historical perspective Mike.

but no matter how poetic the image--or how nobly and beautifully Kurosawa depicts them even--i keep thinking of the "ends" and not the "means." and do the means really matter in the end? i suppose this has as much to do with my own reconciling of "necessary" military force and world politics/social behaviour...

so buddha also helps to build a better soldier...or rather is used to elevate warfare to an art form...sun tzu, right?

i just find it cruel and ironic--and this is not a criticism of eastern religion or aesthetics, i mean "warfare" and military/combat terminology as well as vengeful blood and guts are rampant throughout the Bible as well...and i guess, that's the point. this is our nature...and brings us full circle to your mantra above "This world—just as it is with all its horror, all its darkness, all its brutality—is the golden lotus world of perfection."

thanks again Mike for taking the time

Mike said...

"i keep thinking of the 'ends' and not the 'means.' and do the means really matter in the end?"

Well, I guess in my view, there is something that we can learn from every person. I do not, of course, condone killing for any reason. But given the prevalent culture at his time, I can understand his actions (although not completely, I admit, because I cannot comprehend the mindset of a culture in which killing in retort is justified). But I can admire the positive qualities that he showed, despite his cultural role.

"so buddha also helps to build a better soldier...or rather is used to elevate warfare to an art form...sun tzu, right?"

Well, not really. Buddhist practices are effective at developing focus and concentration, things highly coveted in warfare (or sports or any physical or mental activity really). So they were easily able to take the practices and apply them, receiving the physical benefits thereof, but leaving behind the peaceful passivist philosophy of no harm. So, in that sense, these warriors were NOT practicing Buddhism. But they were utilizing Buddhist techniques for their own benefit.

Also, actually, Sun Tzu never thought of warfare as an art form. You're right that he was a brilliant general in China, but he always advocated that the best way to win a war was to win it without striking a single blow. He was against bloodshed, if it could be avoided. Also, note that Sun Tzu was Chinese, whose culture differs from that of Japan. Comparing Chinese Ch'an with Japanese Zen is interesting. Check out a mythological analysis of Buddhism by Joseph Campbell for more details on this. These are audio lectures (but that won't be available for much longer, so grab them quick if you want them) that can be a bit inaccurate on some specific spiritual details—for instance a proper understanding of emptiness—but from a mythological/Jungian psychological perspective are solid.

Mandolina Dora said...

well thanks for the clarification Mike

deepsat said...

nice story with so much depth!! thanks mike for the insight. its so true - killing & revenge is not the soln. compared to these buddhist teachings, its sad to see where the world is headed - the concept of revenge and violence is all over the place!!

Cecilia said...

Mike, you're obviously deeply knowledgeable on this. I do admire you for it. Thank you for this information. Again, I learned something new today from you.

Mike said...

Y: My pleasure. I really enjoy these dialogues with you. Thanks for actively questioning!

Deepsat & Cecilia: Thank you for the comments!