I could spend all day and write a whole book on the samurai and how their ancient principles are applicable to modern day life inside and outside the dojo. So in order to keep this article brief, here is a selection of recommended readings that are "must reads" if you are so inclined:
- Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai
- The Book of Five Rings
- The Art of War
- The Unfettered Mind
- The Code of the Samurai
- The Life-Giving Sword
I have these books in my collection and highly recommend you take some time to read them all. No doubt you have at least heard of many of them and or read them yourself.
The samurai were the warrior class of Japan from the 9th to the 19th century. Samurai had extensive skills in the use of the bow and arrow, the sword and their bare hands as mortal weapons. The concept I would like to discuss more is the that of "Bushido" or "Way of the Warrior". Wikipedia defines it as:
Bushidō (武士道), meaning "Way of the Warrior", is a Japanese word which is used to describe a uniquely Japanese code of conduct and a way of the samurai life, loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry. It originates from the samurai moral code and stresses frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery, and honor unto death. Born of two main influences, the violent existence of the samurai was tempered by the wisdom and serenity of Japanese Shinto and Buddhism. In Bushidō: The Soul of Japan (1899), notable author on the samurai Nitobe Inazō wrote: "...Bushidō, then, is the code of moral principles which the samurai were required or instructed to observe... More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten... It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career." The book goes onto describe the 8 virtues of the samurai:
- 1. Rectitude or justice
- 2. Courage
- 3. Benevolence or mercy
- 4. Politeness
- 5. Honesty and sincerity
- 6. Honor
- 7. Loyalty
- 8. Character and self control
Therefore Bushido is not unlike the chivalry and codes of the European knights and was greatly influenced by Buddhism, Zen, Confucianism, and Shintoism. Buddhism influenced them to not fear death as they would be reincarnated. Zen taught them to perfect oneself and achieve mastery. Confucianism taught them a moral code on how to interact with others and Shintoism the notion of duty or loyalty.
These men were fierce warriors with a high degree of integrity. They did not fear death and would engage in any battle no matter the odds out of a deeply ingrained sense of loyalty and right and wrong. They lived modest lives and placed the emphasis on honor over material possessions. In short, they were true men of valor and courage.
They also lived their lives with the duality of violence and benevolence. Many samurai were great artists, poets and writers as well as being lethal weapons ready to die at any moment for their lord. In knowing they could die any day they knew how to appreciate life and see beauty in the moment. My former sensei in Canada Kancho Okuyama embodied this to perfection. Here was this short yet extremely powerful man who could destroy anyone he wanted yet he was the kindest, humble, jovial and most sincere man you could ever meet. In fact, he loved to paint and had all of his personal artwork and calligraphy decorating the dojo. Our sensei Norman Smith at Way of Life Shotokan embodies these same values.
Shotokan Karate has surrounded me with many people of great character like this and I know I am a better person because of these associations karate has provided me.
All Japanese martial arts are rooted in this tradition and code as it is very much a part of the Japanese martial culture. If you read the Karate-do Kyohan or the 20 Guiding Principles of Karate by Master Gichin Funakoshi you will see the strong parallels. Same thing for books by Juro Kano (founder of modern Judo) and Morihea Ueshiba (founder of Aikido) and the list goes on.
Whether we train kihon (basics), kata (forms) or kumite (sparring) we must all keep these values in mind with the proper context for our modern world. Obviously no one will be fighting to the death in the dojo. However we must train as if it were our last fight, with the same warrior spirit in every move we make no matter how many times you have done it before. This is especially true when performing kata. Think of each movement as a life or death battle against an imaginary opponent. Kata is not a dance like ballet nor, a pointless series of movements to perform, nor to be done just for the heck if it or to get your next belt level. It prepares you for a real event should you ever have to defend yourself outside the dojo and moreover, if done with a warrior spirit, it connects you at a deeper level to the samurai and other karateka who came before you.
The principles of "Bushido" are equally applicable to modern society outside the dojo. I was reminded of this while watching the news last week about the debt ceiling crisis in Washington D.C. If our elected officials followed the doctrine of justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, honesty, honor, loyalty, character and self control...we would not be in the sad state we are in today. Let's not stop at Washington either, the whole world could benefit from these principles right now.
So please take some time to read more about the samurai and the "Bushido" code. It will improve not only your karate training, but hopefully your character as well.
Since 1988, Way Of Life Shotokan Karate has been committed to teaching traditional karate and values for a modern world. Under the leadership of Norman Smith Sensei, Way Of Life Shotokan Karate instructs hundreds of students at our various locations from beginner to advanced levels of all ages that come from across the New York City metro area. Our unique way of combining martial arts training, etiquette and philosophy with the modern concepts of fitness, self-defense and competition is unparalleled. We ensure your training is vigorous, while maintaining a safe and fun learning environment that encourages students to reach their fullest potential.
Way Of Life Shotokan Karate Do martial arts school is now offically open at 501 East Boston Post Road, Mamaroneck NY, 10543 serving the local Westchester County communities of New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Harrison, Rye, Port Chester, Mount Vernon, Scarsdale, White Plains and Yonkers as well as the Bronx and NYC metro area.