It has been argued by moral philosophers that violence does not beget virtue. If that were true, then how you justify the punishment of criminals? Does not the use of force, or even the threat of force, handle or dissuade individuals from aggressively hurting other innocent people and infringing upon their liberties? Regardless, I think it is fair to say that virtue can only exist amongst humans when individuals within a community choose to become responsible enough to punish any evildoers themselves, as the early American colonists did.
Right from the start, former samurai Yamamato defines the foundation of Bushido:
“I have found the essence of Bushido: to die! In other words, when you have a choice between life and death, then always choose death: this is all you must remember. It is neither troublesome nor difficult. You have only to go on with a clenched stomach. Any other ideas are unnecessary and futile.”
While I can certainly imagine a likely rebuttal (from some atheistic humanist, more likely than not) to this would be that this is evocative of death cults like Christianity, I would like to remind everyone that institutionalized religion (as opposed to real spirituality) only arose because of the emotive manipulation about the endemic human fear of inevitable death. Actual spiritual guidance tends to be rooted in the morals and ethics as they are (and should be) practiced during this lifetime, on this earth (for afterwards, this “test” known as life is done with, and whatever judgement or transition that might happen to you will either occur or not, as it is completely outside the realm of your control). What I believe Yamamoto was trying to get across here is a kind of antinatalist perspective that will either increase the odds of your survival (ironically), or at the very least, give you a certain peace of mind as you slip away from this world, for when your time comes.
A common theme I noticed throughout this work was Yamamoto’s preoccupation with keeping up appearances. He placed a very high value upon what samurais thought about each other. Yawning, drunkenness, and even sneezing were seen as undesirable. Encouraging others to spill the beans, as it were, all the while keeping your own counsel, were traits he thought should be encouraged amongst the samurai.
What should not be forgotten is the aristocratic snobbery the samurai were so well known for, and Yamamoto encouraged this pretty strongly. Geishas were regarded as tools who lacked self-knowledge, and were only fit for the samurai’s amusement. It is far beneath the samurai to engage in arts and crafts:
“It might only be said of the samurais of other clans that the arts and crafts will help the body. As far as samurais of our clan are concerned, arts and crafts destroy the body. Those who are skilled in even a single art (gei) are to be termed as geisha, not samurai. You must be regarded by others as samurai and not geisha. It is not until you have realized that arts and crafts of any kind are harmful to samurai that you can make the most of the skills and abilities you thereby acquire. You must keep this fact in mind.”
Similarly, scholars (or anyone with an education, for that matter) are considered the scum of the earth, and thus not much better than geishas, if at all:
“The calculating samurais must inevitably turn into cowards. Their calculation deals with whether they can gain profit or suffer loss. They cannot stop constantly referring to the idea of loss and gain. They think of death as loss and life as gain. No wonder they dislike death. That is why they become cowards. And the men of learning hide their cowardice behind the screen of their intellect and oratory eloquence. People tend to misjudge them.”
At the risk of sounding macho, I will half-agree with Yamamoto on this one, in that there is a certain temptation for men to cower from the field of action, using their “intellect and oratory eloquence” to do so (Carnival of Distractions, anyone?). Yet, Yamamoto’s disgust with geishas and scholars contrasts strongly with his condoning of male homosexuality. Perhaps it was because the form of it was monogamous and only between samurai (thus preserving aristocratic privilege and avoiding the denigration of acting promiscuously as a prostitute, presumably). In any case, Edayoshi, one of the students (lovers?) of the samurai homosexual pioneer Ryotetsu Hoshino, described why the love between young samurais is something to like and yet simultaneously to dislike:
“The secret of this art is to throw away your life for your partner; otherwise your relation will be shameful. But if you do throw away your life for your partner, then there is no life anymore to devote to your Lord himself. That’s why I answered in such a manner.”
So it would seem that homosexual samurais were essentially an unsolvable paradox, but perhaps that was the point of the whole thing (yet geishas and scholars are still bad, cowardly people). Make of this as you will.
I think the best, most useful aspect of Bushido is not its ridiculous social rituals or its crazy obsession with saving face, but how it can prepare individuals for their inevitable deaths. Yamamoto advises samurai that:
“The realization of certain death ought to be renewed every morning. Every morning you must prepare yourself for every kind of death. With composure of mind, think of yourself as shattered by bows, guns, spears, swords; as carried away by great billows of water; as running into a great fire; as struck by thunder and lightning; as shaken by severe earthquake; as diving from a cliff; as a disease-filled corpse; as an accidental death corpse…[t]his is not mere precaution but the experiencing of death in advance…[t]his is the essence of Bushido. In order to master this essence, you must die anew, every morning and every night. If you continually preserve the state of death in everyday life, you will understand the essence of Bushido.”
I would like to give a word of caution here. If you do decide to follow Yamamoto’s advice and make a daily reflection on death, don’t do what I did and do it without first a firm foundation of how meditation itself works. As an alternative to Yamamoto’s advice, I recommend practicing death meditation, which accomplishes something similar, in that it is geared towards preparing you for your own eventual death (absent, of course, the gory imagery that Yamamoto suggested).
Tsunetomo Yamamoto’s Bushido: The Way of the Samurai is a fascinating look into the mind of the samurai of medieval Japan. Although I do maintain a strong distaste for their caste hierarchy, I can still appreciate the warrior concept that (as a good friend of mine described it to me) in preparation for battle, it is best to consider yourself as already dead; that way, you can focus on killing the enemy, which ironically will increase the odds of your own survival than if you had instead focused on “staying alive” exclusively. Incidentally, this seems to work as a psychological method of increasing a man’s courage, so it’s very beneficial for American citizen-soldiers to learn and apply this as part of their overall training regime.