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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #27 (July 4, 2006), page 15.

Inside the mind of a samurai

Soul of the Samurai:
Modern Translations of Three Classic Works of Zen and Bushido

Translated by Thomas Cleary

Tuttle Publishing, 2005

Hardcover, 156 pages, $14.95

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Contrary to some stereotypes, Japanese samurai were far more than just swordsmen — they followed a strict code of behavior, attitude, and philosophy called Bushido, or "way of the warrior." Drawing largely from Zen Buddhism, Bushido dictated that samurai exhibit loyalty, honor, benevolence, courage, and other virtues, as well as their well-known mastery of martial arts. Thomas Cleary, a translator of over seventy works of Asian philosophy and religion, brings his skills to bear on three core Bushido texts in Soul of the Samurai, shedding light on many of these virtues and revealing the philosophical basis of Bushido and Japanese martial arts.

A deceptively slim volume, Soul of the Samurai covers three important works: Martial Arts: The Book of Family Traditions, by Yagyu Munenori; The Inscrutable Subtlety of Immovable Wisdom; and Tai-A Ki: Notes on the Peerless Sword, both by Takuan Soho, Munenori’s Zen teacher. Like many books of philosophy, these works are tightly compressed distillations of more complex concepts, with meaning on several levels. Presented as martial arts instructions, the lessons have clear parallels in political philosophy, war strategy, and the mental state of Zen Buddhism. Cleary aids in the unraveling of these ideas with his own commentaries explaining historical context and references to other Asian philosophies.

Martial Arts, the longest of the three texts, is divided into three sections: The Killing Sword, The Life-Giving Sword, and No Sword. These section titles make reference to a Zen quotation about swordfighting, while describing a martial arts progression from learning how to fight, then learning when to fight, and then how to win without fighting at all. Soho’s works Immovable Wisdom and Peerless Sword also relate Zen Buddhist philosophies to lessons in swordfighting and politics, although Soho focuses more on the explication of canonic Zen texts.

The central concept to both authors is the Zen ideal of the "empty mind," meaning that action is most effective when it isn’t preceded by thought. Acquired knowledge must be understood and incorporated to such an extent that one doesn’t need to think to do it — hence, the term "empty mind." In battle, a samurai must strike again and again without thinking about what he’s doing, as thought will delay his reaction and lead to defeat. Modern scientists speak of this idea as instinct, or the so-called "blink" reflex, which suggests that one’s first, instantaneous impression is often the most accurate. Sports coaches also stress the importance of action over thought, telling players they’re thinking too much, or repeating drills to produce automatic, "thoughtless" reactions on the field.

Munenori and Soho both explain specific swordfighting strategies, although they acknowledge that these stratagems must be learned in person and not on paper. Equally important are the applications of their ideas to politics and troop tactics in battle, a nod to the Taoist roots of both Buddhism and Japanese martial arts; Taoist philosophy equates control over one’s body with control over groups of people, both military and political. Munenori and Soho’s philosophical discussions are also a reaction against neo-Confucianism, popular among former Zen scholars in their time. Immovable Wisdom even finishes with a direct address from Soho to Munenori, debating the political implications of his ideas.

Ultimately, these books were intended as martial arts handbooks, but not as step-by-step manuals. Munenori and Soho wanted their pupils to interact physically and intellectually with their teachers, part of the reason for the brevity for the texts. Cleary’s thoughtful explications serve as this teacher, providing intellectual fodder for readers to understand more, although he sometimes repeats information provided earlier and other times offers a Zen text almost as difficult to parse as the original text. As Zen masters often use misdirection, confusion, and apparent nonsense to explicate philosophy, this is wholly appropriate, if occasionally disorienting.

None of the texts is a breezy read, but they are not intended to be, coming as they do from a culture that values concision and a society in which mass-production of long texts was difficult. Modern martial arts enthusiasts will profit from learning about the ideological underpinnings of their samurai predecessors, but there is also important historical, philosophical, and even scientific information presented in Cleary’s latest addition to his formidable collection of important translations, making this a must-read for anyone involved in any of these pursuits.

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