My take on ‘Hagakure: Book of the Samurai’


The Hagakure


Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. 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. 

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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 still get the same soaking.

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Background Information

After the unification of Japan in 1590 and the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1600, the samurai (warriors) remained at the top of the social scale but had fewer and fewer chances to prove themselves in battle. Opportunities to combat decreased, and samurai were employed in peacetime government positions, attention was given to the values that defined their class. One of the most important was the loyalty samurai owed to the lord they served.

The word samurai itself comes from a verb that means “to serve.”

The lord or other high-ranking members of a clan often wrote out codes of behavior for the clan retainers. Among them, a work called Hagakure, or “hidden leaves,” has come to be seen as the one which best describes Bushidô, the “way of the samurai.”

This was written down in the early eighteenth century by a young samurai named Tashirô Tsuramoto, who was recording the wisdom he had learned over seven years of talks with an older, retired samurai of the Nabeshima clan named Yamamoto Tsunetomo.

His ideas were expressed in conversations with his young disciple and so the resulting book is not a systematic code of rules. But some ideas are repeated often enough to be seen as essential to his thought.

The selections below are grouped by theme.

 

Death:

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. 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 thin dangerous 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 ones 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.

 

Living in the present:

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. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment. Everyone lets the present moment slip by, then looks for it as though he thought it were somewhere else. No one seems to notice this fact. But grasping this firmly, one must pile experience upon experience. And once one has come to this understanding he will be a different person from that point on, though he may not always bear it in mind.

When one understands this settling into single-mindedness well, his affairs will thin out. Loyalty is also contained within this single-mindedness.

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 (ritual suicide) at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.

There is a saying of the elders that goes, “Step from under the eaves and you’re a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting.” This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.

A good retainer: Nakano Jin’emon constantly said, “A person who serves when treated kindly by the master is not a retainer. But one who serves when the master is being heartless and unreasonable is a retainer. You should understand this principle well.”

When Hotta Kaga no kami Masamori was a page to the shôgun, he was so headstrong that the shôgun wished to test what was at the bottom of his heart. To do this, the shôgun heated a pair of tongs and placed them in the hearth. Masamori’s custom was to go to the other side of the hearth, take the tongs, and greet the master. This time, when he unsuspectingly picked up the tongs, his hands were immediately burned. As he did obeisance in his usual manner, however, the shôgun quickly got up and took the tongs from him.

A man is a good retainer to the extent that he earnestly places importance in his master. This is the highest sort of retainer. If one is born into a prominent family that goes back for generations, it is sufficient to deeply consider the matter of obligation to one’s ancestors, to lay down one’s body and mind, and to earnestly esteem ones master.

It is further good fortune if, more than this, one had wisdom and talent and can use them appropriately. But even a person who is good for nothing and exceedingly clumsy will be a reliable retainer if only he has the determination to think earnestly of his master. Having only wisdom and talent is the lowest tier of usefulness.

A general said, “For soldiers other than officers, if they would test their armour, they should test only the front. Furthermore, while ornamentation on armour is unnecessary, one should be very careful about the appearance of his helmet. It is something that accompanies his head to the enemy’s camp.”

 

Speaking:

At times of great trouble or disaster, one word will suffice. At times of happiness, too, one word will be enough. And when meeting or talking with others, one word will do. One should think well and then speak. This is clear and firm, and one should learn it with no doubts. It is a matter of pouring forth one’s whole effort and having the correct attitude previously. This is very difficult to explain but is something that everyone should work on in his heart. If a person has not learned this in his heart, it is not likely that he will understand it.

The essentials of speaking are in not speaking at all. If you think that you can finish something without speaking, finish it without saying a single word. If there is something that cannot be accomplished without speaking, one should speak with few words, in a way that will accord well with reason.

To open ones mouth indiscriminately brings shame, and there are many times when people will turn their backs on such a person.

These are the teachings of Yamamoto Jin’emon in eleven quotes:

  1. Single-mindedness is all-powerful. 
  2. Tether even a roasted chicken. 
  3. Continue to spur a running horse. 
  4. A man who will criticize you openly carries no connivance. 
  5. A man exists for a generation, but his name lasts to the end of time. 
  6. Money is a thing that will be there when asked for. A good man is not so easily found. 
  7. Walk with a real man one hundred years and he’ll tell you at least seven lies. 
  8. To ask when you already know is politeness. To ask when you don’t know is the rule. 
  9. Wrap your intentions in needles of pine. 
  10. One should not open his mouth wide or yawn in front of another. Do this behind your fan or sleeve. 
  11. A straw hat or helmet should be worn tilted toward the front.

These selections are all taken from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo.

Some Teachings of Yamamoto Jin’emon with pictures: 

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Single-Mindedness is All Powerful.

 

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Tether even a roasted chicken.

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Continue to spur a running horse.

 

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A man who will criticize you openly carries no connivance.

 

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A man exists for a generation, but his name lasts to the end of time.

 

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Money is a thing that will be there when asked for. A good man is not so easily found.

 

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Walk with a real man one hundred yards and he’ll tell you at least seven lies.

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It is a principle of the art of war that one should simply lay down his life and strike. If one’s opponent also does the same, it is an even match. Defeating one’s opponent is then a matter of faith and destiny.


About the Hagakure

Yamamoto Tsunetomo was a samurai in the early 1700s. Forbidden by law from committing tsuifuku (suicide of a retainer after his master’s death), he retired to a monestary. Though he never fought in any battles, he nonetheless felt that the samurai of his time had become soft. A younger samurai that visited Yamamoto over the years wrote down his words in the Hagakure. Hagakure relates the essence of the Samurai code through anecdotes and collected wisdom rather than as set scriptures. There is enough here to feed the interest and imagination. Some of the short accounts within this book are like whole novels in themselves with the emotive contents hinted it. It has been translated many times, including a translation by the great Japanese author Mishima Yukio. 

Here is an online link to a PDF file of the Book 🙂 Enjoy 

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Mohammed Abbasi

 

 

 

 

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