Wisdom of Life

Yamamoto Tsunetomo: On the Wisdom and Meaning of Life — The Way of the Samurai

There is nothing we should be quite so grateful
for as the last line of the poem that goes,
“When your own heart asks.”

I do not know how to defeat others.
All I know is the path to defeat myself.

Singlemindedness is all-powerful.

“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. There will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment. People forget this important truth, and keep seeking other things to accomplish. Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exert yourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought.

Sincerity does not only complete the self; it is the means by which all things are completed. As the self is completed, there is human-heartedness; as things are completed, there is wisdom. This is the virtue of one’s character, and the Way of joining the internal and external. Thus, when we use this, everything is correct. Feeling deeply the difference between oneself and others, bearing ill will, and falling out with people—these things come from a heart that lacks compassion. If one wraps up everything with a heart of compasion, there will be no coming into conflict with people.

I do not know how to defeat others. All I know is the path to defeat myself. Today one must be better than yesterday, and tomorrow better than today. The pursuit of perfection is a lifelong quest that has no end. Purity is something that cannot be attained except by piling effort upon effort.

Nothing is impossible in this world. Firm determination, it is said, can move heaven and earth. Things appear far beyond one’s power, because one cannot set his heart on any arduous project due to want of strong will. It is spiritless to think that you cannot attain to that which you have seen and heard the masters attain. The masters are men. You are also a man. If you think that you will be inferior in doing something, you will be on that road very soon. Although this may be a most difficult thing, if one will do it, it can be done. There is nothing that one should suppose cannot be done. If one is but secure at the foundation, he will not be pained by departure from minor details or affairs that are contrary to expectation. But in the end, the details of a matter are important. The right and wrong of one’s way of doing things are found in trivial matters. Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Master Ittei commented, “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously”.

This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai: 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. If a warrior is not unattached to life and death, he will be of no use whatsoever. The saying that “All abilities come from one mind” sounds as though it has to do with sentient matters, but it is in fact a matter of being unattached to life and death. With such non-attachment one can accomplish any feat.

Depending on one’s point of view, Hagakure represents a mystical beauty intrinsic to the Japanese aesthetic experience, and a stoic but profound appreciation of the meaning of life and death. The spirit of Hagakure can best be summed up by the four simple oaths: I will never fall behind others in pursuing the Way of the warrior. I will always be ready to serve my lord. I will honor my parents. I will serve compassionately for the benefit of others. To summarize the essence of samuraihood, first and foremost the warrior must be devoted body and soul to his lord. In addition, he must internalize the virtues of wisdom (chi), compassion (jin), and courage (yū).

To think that being righteous is the best one can do and to do one’s utmost to be righteous will, on the contrary, bring many mistakes. The Way is in a higher place than righteousness. This is very difficult to discover, but it is the highest wisdom. When seen from this standpoint, things like righteousness are rather shallow. If one does not understand this on his own, it cannot be known.

In china there was once a man who liked pictures of dragons, and his clothing and furnishings were all designed accordingly. His deep affections for dragons was brought to the attention of the dragon god, and one day a real dragon appeared before his window. It is said that he died of fright. he was probably a man who always spoke big words but acted differently when facing the real thing.

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

To give a person an opinion one must first judge well whether that person is of the disposition to receive it or not. When someone is giving you his opinion, you should receive it with deep gratitude even though it is worthless. If you don’t, he will not tell you the things that he has seen and heard about you again. It is best to both give and receive opinions in a friendly way.

With regards to the way of death, if you are prepared to die at any time, you will be able to meet your release from life with equanimity. As calamities are usually not as bad as anticipated beforehand, it is foolhardy to feel anxiety about tribulations not yet endured. Just accept that the worst possible fate for a man in service is to become a rōnin, or death by seppuku. Then nothing will faze you.

Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. If a man does not investigate into the matter of Bushidō daily, it will be difficult for him to die a brave and manly death. Thus it is essential to engrave this business of the warrior into one’s mind well. One should put forth great effort in matters of learning. One should read books concerning military matters, and direct his attention exclusively to the virtues of loyalty and filial piety. Having been born into the house of a warrior, one’s intentions should be to grasp the long and the short swords and to die.

Bushido is realized in the presence of death. This means choosing death whenever there is a choice between life and death. There is no other reasoning. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams. Rehearse your death every morning and night. Only when you constantly live as though already a corpse (jōjū shinimi) will you be able to find freedom in the martial Way, and fulfill your duties without fault throughout your life.

Whether people be of high or low birth, rich or poor, old or young, enlightened or confused, they are all alike in that they will one day die.

In the highest level a man has the look of knowing nothing.

Knowing the Way is to know your own faults. Discovering your imperfections with endless introspection and to remedy them by spending your life training body and mind, that is the Way.

***

~Yamamoto Tsunetomo, also read Yamamoto Jōchō, was a samurai of the Saga Domain in Hizen Province under his lord Nabeshima Mitsushige.


Excerpts from Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

©Excellence Reporter 2020

Categories: Wisdom of Life

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