Way of the Samurai
The development of the samurai in ninth-century Japan occurred when the centralized aristocratic government lost power to the local landowners who employed their own armed forces. The heads of these armed forces were known as the "bushi" or "samurai", and were for the most part descended from the old clans (ujis). The samurai gave their society moral values and acted as sentinels of peace. The warriors followed their own code of ethical behavior known as bushido, which remained orally transmitted for generations. The following text was written in the seventeenth century by a samurai who had become a Zen Buddhist monk.
The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either /or, there is only the quick choice of death. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one's aim. We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a dangerous thin line. To die without gaining one's aim is a dog's death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. 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.... Being a retainer is nothing other than being a supporter of one's lord, entrusting matters of good and evil to him, and renouncing self-interest. If there are but two or three men of this type, the fief will be secure. Loyalty is said to be important in the pledge between lord and retainer. Though it may seem unobtainable, it is right before your eyes. If you once set yourself to it, you will become a superb retainer at that very moment.... The person without previous resolution to the inevitable death makes certain that his death will be in bad form. But if one is resolved to death beforehand, in what way can he be despicable? One should be especially diligent in this concern. If one were to say a word what the condition of being a samurai is, its basis lies first in seriously devoting one's body and soul to his master. And if one is asked what to do beyond this, it would be to fit oneself inwardly with intelligence, humanity, and courage. The combining of these three virtues may seem unobtainable to the ordinary person, but it is easy. Intelligence is nothing more than discussing things with others. Limitless wisdom comes from this. Humanity is something done for the sake of others, simply comparing oneself with them and putting them in the fore. Courage is gritting one's teeth; it is simply doing that and pushing ahead, paying no attention to the circumstances. Anything that seems above these three is not necessary to be known. As for outward aspects, there are personal appearance, one's way of speaking and calligraphy. And as all of these are daily matters, they improve by constant practice.
Basically, one should perceive their nature to be one of quite strength. If one has accomplished all these things, then he should have a knowledge of our area's history and customs. After that he may study the various arts as recreation. If you think it over, being a retainer is simple. And these days, if you observe people who are even a bit useful, you will see that they have accomplished these three outward aspects.
Source: Tsuentomo Yamamoto, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, trans. William S. Wilson (NY: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1979) 17-18, 20-21, 33-34, 66-67.
Copyright © 1998-2006 Phillip Riley
Last Updated Sat Aug 11, 2007