A brief insight to the influence of Zen on Bushido and what it meant for the lives of the Samurai in 12 Century Japan and its legacy for modern day Budo.
And I am lucky enough to be able to turn to an original 1913 print of Bushido – The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe – stamped by the author – an inspiring read and, of course, a respected source of reference.
Bu-shi-do literally means Military-Knight-Ways – the ‘ways which fighting nobles should observe in their daily life as well as in their vocation’ – the ‘noblesse oblige’ of the warrior class.
It was described in retrospect, as a way of chivalry and it became an unwritten code of conduct for the Samurai – the Knights of Japan, who became the professional class of warriors, based on centuries of experience in a formal feudal system. It became a great honour to become a samurai family, and to be a part of one gave its members’ great privileges and responsibilities, which required a common standard of behaviour.
Bushido began to emerge after a new sect of Buddhism emanating from the cultural influence of China called Ch’an meaning meditation, arrived in Japan in 1191. Zen is the Japanese vriant of Chan Buddhism, a Mahayana school that strongly emphasizes concentration-meditation and which later became known as Zen Buddhism.
Lafcadio Hearn describes Zen as “something that represents human effort to reach through meditation, zones of thought beyond the range of verbal expressions”. And as I have referred to in a previous article containing a description of Zen (if one was possible) – “Zen is the practice of self-searching through meditation to realise one’s true nature, with disregard of formalism, with insistence on self-discipline and simplicity of living…..you serve humanity humbly, fulfilling your presence in this world with loving-kindness and observing your passing as a petal falling from a flower.”
Now you simply couldn’t live a life like that without a pretty rigid, if unwritten, code of conduct, that was universally accepted by all the aristocracy of Japanese society at the time, which was reinforced, at times brutally, by the Samurai and their families, by virtue of setting an example on how to conduct their daily lives, in an era where lives were often very short indeed.
What Buddhism may have lacked in any way, Shinto – the indigenous religion of Japan – provided succour in its simplicity.
Shinto doctrines helped to pacify the samurai, who were often viewed as arrogant, with loyalty to the Emperor and later, the Shogun, ancestral reverence and absolute duty, being the three primary forces used to leverage such influence.
Shinto shrines often just have a plain mirror hanging or placed to form the main part of its structure, the presence of which is said to typify the human heart, “which, when perfectly placid and clear, reflect the very image if the Deity”. What is seen is an image of oneself, which is meant to lead one to a moral introspection of our moral nature.
Bushido meant patriotism and loyalty – love of country and loyalty to the sovereign.
It also meant Gi-ri or Right Reason, or what became universally accepted as Duty. It was Gi-ri to parents, superiors, to country and interestingly, to inferiors as well.
Of all the virtues that were inculcated in Bushido – and there were many such as – Justice – Courage – Politeness – Truthfulness – and Honour, for example, it was Benevolence or Mercy that was most appealing to the ordinary senses of most observers.
Bushi no Nasake – the tenderness of the warrior – where mercy was influenced by other virtues, particularly Justice, was the power of acting for the good or detriment of ordinary people.
Mencius, another sage that influenced early Bushido, along with Confucius, said “the feeling of distress is the root of benevolence, therefore a benevolent man is ever mindful of those who are suffering and in distress”.
I began with Nitobe and I will end with him – “What Japan was, she owed to the Samurai. They were not only the flower, but its root as well”.
And it is their Bushido – the manner in which they conducted themselves in every area of Japanese society, that prevails to this day in Japanese Budo.