Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, February 10, 2020

Zen, Samurai and Martial Arts

It is a common misconception in the popular understanding of martial arts that Zen, the practice of the Samurai and Martial Arts in general all are mixed up together. Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at the Asia Pacific Journal that makes the argument that this is not the case (or the exception rather than the rule.

The full article may be read here.


The relationship between the samurai and Zen Buddhism is often traced back to the thirteenth century, which saw both a rise of warrior power and the increased introduction of Zen teachings from China. The affinity of warriors for Zen is generally explained by their ability to identify with Zen teachings and incorporate them into their lives. As Winston L. King writes of Zen, “from the beginning of Zen’s ‘new’ presence, its meditation and discipline commended themselves to the samurai, of both high and low rank.”6 The modern Zen popularizer Suzuki Daisetsu (D.T. Suzuki; 1870-1966) was one of the best-known promoters of theoretical connections between Zen and Japan’s warrior class. In his best-selling Zen and Japanese Culture, Suzuki claimed that Zen was “intimately related from the beginning of its history to the life of the samurai…” and “…activate(d)…the fighting spirit of the Japanese warrior.”7 The martial arts are often portrayed as an important point of intersection between Zen and the samurai, epitomized through a number of popular works. The most influential text linking Zen and the martial arts is Eugen Herrigel’s (1884-1955) orientalist 1948 book Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschiessens (Zen in the Art of Archery).8 Herrigel’s contentions rested largely on a personal fascination with mysticism and Zen, combined with confusion arising from a serious language barrier between himself and his archery instructor, Awa Kenzō (1880-1939).9 Through the influence of these and other modern interpreters, the martial arts have come to be seen as a window through which Zen and the “samurai spirit” are accessible to millions of people around the world today.

This article will show, however, that the relationship between Zen, samurai, and the martial arts is neither as close, nor as ancient, as it is widely believed to be. In fact, the accepted connections between the three are largely products of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Japanese thinkers in an era of rapid change sought answers and legitimacy in ancient and noble tradition. To this end, this article first considers the historical evidence to question the supposed close connection between Zen and the samurai, as well as Zen and the martial arts. It then provides an overview of the development of bushido in the late Meiji period (1868-1912), which completely revised popular understandings of the samurai. The article then considers the activities of promoters of martial arts and Zen Buddhism in the development of bushido, as they sought to tie their causes to the burgeoning new ideology. Finally, this article looks at the ways in which the Zen-samurai connection became established in mainstream understandings of Japanese history and culture in the decades leading up to 1945, and how this view continued to be accepted largely without question in the postwar period.

Historical backgrounds

The popular view that Japanese warriors have long had an affinity for Zen is not entirely incorrect, as Zen institutions did have several powerful patrons in the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1336-1573) periods. On the other hand, recent scholarship indicates that Zen’s popularity among the elite was most often motivated by practical considerations rather than doctrine. Martin Colcutt argues that Zen teachings were too difficult for many lower-ranking warriors, “most of whom continued to find a less demanding, but equally satisfying, religious experience in the simpler Buddhist teachings of Shinran, Nichiren, or Ippen.”10 Colcutt further argues that even at its peak in the late fourteenth century, Zen could be called “the religion of the samurai” merely because most of its followers were warriors, but this did not mean that most warriors followed Zen, let alone reach a high level of practice.11 As other scholars have demonstrated, the vast majority of warriors followed other schools of Buddhism, including both established and new orders, with more accessible teachings.12

Among elite military families, patronage of Zen was based on political, economic, and cultural factors that were largely unrelated to doctrine. On the political front, Zen presented a non-threatening alternative to the powerful Shingon and Tendai Buddhist institutions that dominated Kyoto and were closely allied to the imperial court.13 Economically, trade with China was an important source of revenue for early medieval rulers, and Zen monks’ knowledge of Chinese language and culture, combined with their administrative abilities, made them a natural choice as ambassadors to the continent. As Zen institutions grew, the frequent sale of high temple offices became increasingly lucrative, eventually bringing even greater income than trade with the continent.14 With regard to the cultural importance of Zen to elites, Zen temples conducted diplomacy with Song (960-1279) and Yuan China (1271-1368), which were the primary sources of artistic and cultural innovations in this period, including tea ceremony, monochromatic painting, calligraphy, poetry, architecture, garden design, and printing.15

Political, economic, and cultural considerations were the primary factors behind the official promotion of Zen institutions by the Kamakura and Muromachi shogunates, although there were a few military and court leaders who attempted to delve more deeply into Zen practice. The shogun Hōjō Tokimune (1251-1284) is reported to have been a devoted student of Zen, studying under the Chinese monk Wuxue Zuyuan (1226–1286). An anecdote related by Colcutt provides a glimpse into the shogun’s practice, including some of the difficulties experienced by his teacher: “Discussions on Zen (zazen) were conducted through an interpreter. When the master wished to strike his disciple for incomprehension or to encourage greater efforts, the blows fell on the interpreter.”16 The major Zen temples consolidated their positions as wealthy and powerful administrative institutions, but as the medieval period went on, there was a serious decline in doctrinal content. By the late fifteenth century “little or no Zen of any variety was being taught in the Gozan [major Rinzai institutions].”17

The situation was similar in other Zen schools. These underwent a major dilution of doctrine through the increased displacement of Zen study by esoteric elements and formulaic approaches that made teachings more accessible.18

The doctrinal connection between the Zen schools and Japanese warriors before the seventeenth century was certainly superficial, and even after this time, there is little evidence of exceptional samurai interest in Zen doctrine. In contrast, a number of scholars argue that samurai engaged with Zen practice rather than doctrine, and the martial arts are often invoked as supposedly providing such a connection: “The ethos of modern martial arts is derived from the Japanese marriage of the samurai code to Zen in Kamakura times,” when the “samurai practiced martial arts as a path toward awakening.”19 Heinrich Dumoulin’s seminal History of Zen takes a typically vague approach, reflecting the lack of evidence linking Zen and the martial arts. On the one hand, Dumoulin speculates that “Long before the introduction of Zen meditation, Japanese infantry-archers were probably acquainted with Zen-like—or better, Yoga-like—practices such as breath control.”20 On the other hand, Dumoulin cites Herrigel’s problematic account as evidence for a Zen-archery connection, claiming that Herrigel’s instructor Awa Kenzō was “full of the spirit of Zen,” when Awa himself denied having any connection with Zen.21 At the same time, Dumoulin concedes that the evidence for a strong link between Zen and archery is circumstantial: “Like all aspects of Japan’s cultural life during the middle ages, the art of archery also came under the formative influence of Zen Buddhism.

Among the many famous master archers of that period, not a few had had Zen experience. They did not, however, form any kind of association.” Furthermore, “The different archery groups in Japan have maintained their independence from the Zen school.”22

While many promoters of the Zen-samurai connection focus on the Kamakura period, others situate the relationship much later in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868): “The application of Zen theory and practice to the training of martial skill and technique, and the investing of the warrior life with spiritual values, are really Tokugawa phenomena.”23 As evidence for this latter claim, modern Zen popularizers often cite the interest in swordsmanship displayed by a few Zen figures during the early seventeenth century. However, this does not mean that a significant number of Zen practitioners were also swordsmen, nor does it mean that a majority of the innumerable fencing schools had any Zen connections. As Cameron Hurst writes, “We have to be very careful with the idea of combining Zen and swordsmanship or asserting that ‘swordsmanship and Zen are one’ (kenzen ichinyo). There is no necessary connection between the two, and few warriors were active Zen practitioners.”24 Dumoulin also addresses this subject, writing that “During the Edo period, the art of swordsmanship—like the independently popular art of archery—was inspired just as much, if not more, by the prevalent teachings of Confucianism.” He continues: “it is clear that the military arts of archery and swordsmanship do not belong essentially to the world of Zen, despite certain close relationships.

Both arts maintained an independent identity of their own.”25 Dumoulin’s claims in this regard are based on the popularly accepted connections between Zen and the martial arts, rather than historical evidence.

The ideal of the Zen swordsman is epitomized by the writer Yoshikawa Eiji’s (1892-1962) influential, and largely fictional, portrayal of Miyamoto Musashi (1584?-1645) in his best-selling novels Miyamoto Musashi, first published between 1935 and 1939. Relatively little is known of the historical Musashi, and Yoshikawa fleshed out his narrative by adding many details and anecdotes.

One of these involved having Musashi study under the Rinzai Zen master Takuan Sōhō (1573-1645), although there is no evidence that the two men ever met.26 Here, Yoshikawa was inspired by modern promoters of the Zen-samurai connection, and especially the ideas of his close friend, the nationalist Yasuoka Masahiro (1898–1983).27 As Peter Haskel implies, Takuan would have to wait until the modern period to have his greatest influence, as his writings were first picked up by bushidō ideologists in the late imperial period and then revived by businessmen—the so-called “economic soldiers”—in the 1970s and 80s.28

With regard to the historical Takuan, while he had no discernible connection with Musashi, and was not a skilled swordsman himself, he did provide guidance to the fencing instructor Yagyū Munenori (1571-1646).29 In his writings to Yagyū, Takuan explained the advantages of Zen training to swordsmen, stating that the concepts of “no-mind” and “immovable wisdom” applied to all activities, including fencing, but this was only one of his interests.30 Takuan was not exclusively interested in martial matters, and his writings were certainly not only addressed to warriors. William Bodiford summarizes the influence of Takuan’s Record of Immovable Wisdom (Fudōchi shinmyōroku), which was finally published in 1779, as follows: “…Takuan’s instructions have been included in innumerable anthologies addressed not only to martial art devotees but to general audiences as well, and thus they have helped promote the popular perception that Zen is an intrinsic element of martial art training. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that success in the martial arts demands mental discipline, a topic about which Zen monks (among others) have much to say.”31

A similar situation can be seen in the case of Suzuki Shōsan (1579-1655), a samurai who experienced various battles before becoming a monk. Suzuki is often cited by later writers attempting to link Zen and the warrior class, especially as he wrote precepts specifically for samurai and had actual military experience. However, the image of Suzuki’s teachings as “warrior Zen” was created through careful selection of his writings, which span half a century and vary widely. Over his lifetime, Suzuki included elements of Daoism, Confucianism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Shinto in his teachings, and his attitude towards death did not always reflect the stoic detachment later attributed to samurai Zen.

While some of his texts speak of eliminating the self and drawing energy from death, elsewhere Suzuki wrote of his own fears of death and argued against killing. “What I teach is Buddhism for cowards,” Suzuki wrote, later adding that “If it was up to me I’d say I practice just because I hate death….Everybody loves Buddhism. I know nothing about Buddhism. All I work at is not being subject to death…” Of his own abilities, Suzuki stated that “The only thing I have over others is the degree to which I detest death. That’s what’s made me practice with the warrior’s glare. Really, it’s because of my very cowardice that I’ve made it this far.”32 Suzuki’s precepts for samurai should further be seen in the context and goal of his best-known work, Right Action for All (Banmin tokuyō), which addressed all classes and sought to promote his own interpretation of Buddhism as the correct faith.33 Like Takuan, Suzuki desired to demonstrate that his teachings could be applied to all activities and classes, and warriors were merely one group that he felt could benefit from them.

A third Tokugawa-period Zen figure often cited by proponents of the Zen-samurai connection is Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), an influential figure in the Rinzai school.34 Hakuin believed that his teachings could be useful to all classes, and also discussed specific ways in which Zen practice could be of use to samurai. However, this should be seen in the context of his desire to spread Rinzai teachings, rather than as evidence of any exceptional interest in the samurai, who Hakuin described elsewhere as “useless.”35 Hakuin echoed the thoughts of many of his contemporaries when he wrote of the “timid, negligent, careless warriors of these degenerate days,” who had declined from a long-past ideal. “They scream pretentiously that they are endowed at birth with a substantial amount of strength and that there is no need to depend upon being rescued by another’s power, yet when an emergency arises they are the first to run and hide and to besmirch and debase the fame of their warrior ancestors.”36 Hakuin’s harsh criticisms of his samurai contemporaries have generally been left out of modern works seeking to place him in a “samurai Zen” tradition.

Relatively few Zen figures showed an interest in the martial arts, and their attitudes did not necessarily align with the interpretations put forth by modern promoters of “samurai Zen.” On the other hand, like samurai in general, martial arts practitioners in the Tokugawa period were largely ambivalent towards Zen.37 Although many fencing schools incorporated spiritual elements, these were typically an eclectic mix of Shinto, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and folk religion specific to the individual teacher.38 In his detailed case study of the Kashima-Shinryū school of martial arts, Karl Friday has argued that it was “compatible with almost any religious affiliation or lack thereof,” and various generations of masters drew upon a wide variety of different religious and philosophical traditions to construct their own spiritual frameworks.39 This applied to many different schools of martial arts in Japan. Alexander Bennett describes even early schools of swordsmanship as resembling “pseudo-religious cults,” a condition that became more established during the peace of the Tokugawa period.40 Spiritual elements, especially those borrowed from esoteric religious traditions, were important marketing tools for martial arts schools, as they promised prospective students access to unique and secret knowledge unavailable to outsiders. Later, around the turn of the twentieth century, promoters of Zen took advantage of this ambiguity, and portrayed Zen teachings as having been the dominant force in the typically opaque mixture of spiritual traditions that coursed through the martial arts schools of the Tokugawa period.

From the various perspectives of samurai, Zen figures, and martial artists in the Tokugawa period, the evidence does not support a clear and significant connection between Zen and the martial arts or any “way of the samurai.” Conversely, the texts most frequently cited as sources of bushido in modern Japan contradict many of the assertions made by promoters of Zen. Tokyo Imperial University philosophy professor Inoue Tetsujirō’s (1856-1944) 1905 collection of Tokugawa-era documents, The Bushido Library (Bushidō sōsho), established the core of the bushido canon until at least 1945, and his selection continues to have a strong influence on scholarship today. When Inoue was selecting texts for this collection, promoters of Zen were still in the early stages of engagement with bushido discourse. The texts chosen by Inoue were quite diverse in their interpretations of the duties and obligations of samurai, but were almost all in agreement in their rejection of Buddhism, reflecting the dominant sentiment among Tokugawa samurai.41 The Bushido Library includes writings by Kumazawa Banzan (1619-1691), Yamaga Sokō (1622-1685), Yamazaki Ansai (1619-1682), Muro Kyūsō (1658-1734), and Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1714), all of whom are frequently cited by modern bushido theorists.42


Richard Bejtlich said...

Thank you for posting this. I had no idea that there's an entire book making the case that Bushido is essentially a modern phenomenon!

Rick Matz said...

Thanks for visiting.