Ideals, Values & Man’s Nature
On Living By Whim
The Universal Principles of Craftsmanship & Art
The Principle of Integration
Nature To Be Commanded Must Be Obeyed
Cultivate Hemp Seeds
Hemp Seed Produce
Respect & Repay Your Teachers
“It wasn’t that he had forgotten the lesson Takuan had taught him: the truly brave man is one who loves life, cherishing it as a treasure that once forfeited can never be recovered. He well knew that to live was more than merely to survive. The problem was how to imbue his life with meaning, how to ensure that his life would cast a bright ray of light into the future, even if it became necessary to give up that life for a cause. If he succeeded in doing this, the length of his life—twenty years or seventy—made little difference. A lifetime was only an insignificant interval in the endless flow of time. To Musashi’s way of thinking, there was one way of life for ordinary people, another for the warrior. It was vitally important for him to live like a samurai and to die like one. There was no turning back from the path he had chosen. Even if he was hacked to pieces, the enemy could not obliterate the fact of his having responded fearlessly and honestly to the challenge.”
A code of values is a moral code. It is a set of ideas intended to guide your actions towards a particular ideal, e.g., fulfillment on earth (or another dimension), honour, enlightenment, bodily pleasures, etc. Some of these overlaps, some contradict the actual requirements for living on earth, but the point is this: each moral code attempts to achieve some end defined as the good and attempts to make your life meaningful. Yoshikawa has many characters each driven by some particular ideal: honour, Buddhist purification and enlightenment, fulfilment on earth, etc. While some of these ideals only lead one to achieve self-torture on earth, a life without ideals is convincingly shown to be filled with failure, shame and regret (and the accompanying resentment that needs to rationalize itself as a victim of others, rather than oneself). The emotionalist, whim-driven lives in the book are not simplistic: they do have moments of pleasure, but they’re not clean or deep pleasures.
Musashi provides the ultimate contrast to a life without an ideal: a life by design imbued with pride, ambition, serenity; or a life of circumstance filled with shame and regret and meaningless danger. How can you be proud of your life when there is no you who chose it?
It’s helpful to relate this to Aristotle’s view of man. He speaks of man’s nature and man’s second nature. His nature is that which is fundamental to him and which he cannot change, e.g., his need for shelter, food, health, sex and his higher needs like love, friendship, knowledge. His second nature is that part of himself that he has created incrementally by the kind of choices and actions he made over his life. The novel shows us the process by which a second nature takes hold and becomes almost impossible to reverse, if not permanent. There’s Musashi, a giant aiming at self-perfection through discipline and mastery of a craft; and there’s Matahachi who for “like dice… all was chance. When the wind blew, it would waft him along with it.”
“The concept of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” has one crucial flaw: we don’t die tomorrow.”
Musashi’s childhood friend, Matahachi, is someone who gives in to momentary desires and impulses. For Mathachi “like dice… all was chance. When the wind blew, it would waft him along with it.” We see the evolution of his character that results from this kind of approach to living.
In the words of Takuan Soho, monk and mentor to Musashi who once imprisoned him and was set to execute him: “Sorry, Takezō. It’s out of my hands. It’s the law of nature. You can’t do things over again. That’s life. Everything in it is for keeps. Everything! You can’t put your head back on after the enemy’s cut it off. That’s the way it is. Of course, I feel sorry for you, but I can’t undo that rope, because it wasn’t me who tied it. It was you.”
This is what you can do to yourself, too. Yes, change is possible, but your past choices and actions cannot be complete undone. When you act the wrong way, you incur a double cost: you lose the opportunity to reinforce the correct way and you repeat the bad way, i.e., you got better at being bad and now it’ll take twice as much effort to change for the better.
What we see in Mathachi’s evolution as a character is that giving in to impulse unthoughtfully, without an ideal, a long-range vision inevitably results in resentment, fear, and an inability to deal with life. And one cannot just suddenly reverse these results just as one cannot put one’s head back on when it’s cut off. It’s not the denial or a repressive control of desire or impulse that’s important, but habituating the kind of self-control that makes one able to overcome them when it’s needed to act according to one’s principles.
Matahachi is a man who gets caught deeper and deeper in the traps he himself has set and whose only way out is to rationalize it through resentment of other people which results in the denial of self-responsibility or who must very slowly, after many years, work at changing but still living with the damage that has been done thereby.
“At that moment it seemed to Matahachi that the world was a vast, turbulent sea on which there was nothing to cling to. Aside from Kyoto, his experience encompassed only his village life and one battle. As he puzzled over his situation, a sudden thought sent him scurrying like a puppy back through the kitchen door.”
“Not too late,” he’d assured himself. “I’m only twenty-two. I can do whatever I want, if I try!” While anyone might experience this sentiment, in Matahachi’s case it meant shutting his eyes, leaping over an abyss of five years, and hiring himself out as a day laborer at Fushimi.”
“I’ll show them all!” he was thinking now, despite his queasiness. “No reason I can’t make a name for myself. I can do anything Takezō can do! I can do even more, and I will. Then I’ll have my revenge, despite Okō. Ten years is all I need.”
“After he was gone, Matahachi started wondering whether it had been right of him to offer the old priest money from the dead samurai’s pouch. Soon he’d solved his dilemma by telling himself there couldn’t be any harm in just borrowing some, provided it wasn’t a lot. “If I deliver these things to the dead man’s home, the way he wanted me to,” he thought, “I’ll have to have money for expenses, and what choice do I have but to take it out of the cash I have here?” This easy rationalization was so comforting that from that day on he began using the money little by little.”
“We could have fun, Akemi. We could do the things we want to do. Why live if you can’t do that? We’re young. We’ve got to learn to be bold and clever. Neither of us will get anywhere acting like weaklings. The more you try to be good and honest and conscientious, the harder fate kicks you in the teeth and laughs at you. You end up crying your heart out, and where does that get you?”
“Let’s sit down,” said Musashi, crossing his legs and dropping to the grass. He felt a twinge of exasperation. Why did Matahachi persist in considering himself inferior? And why did he attribute his troubles to others? “You blame everything on Okō,” he said firmly, “but is that any way for a full-grown man to talk? Nobody can create a worthwhile life for you but you yourself.”
The Universal Principles of Craftsmanship & Art
“For some time before the domestic battle erupted, he had been standing just outside it, watching the potters with childlike fascination. The two men inside were unaware of his presence. Eyes riveted on their work, they seemed to have entered into the clay, become a part of it. Their concentration was complete.”
“These days he often felt deep admiration for other people’s work. He found he respected technique, art, even the ability to do a simple task well, particularly if it was a skill he himself had not mastered.”
“His eyes shone as he examined it; he felt an excitement he had never experienced before. As he studied the bottom of the vessel and the traces of the potter’s spatula, he realized that the lines had the same keenness as Sekishūsai’s slicing of the peony stem. This unpretentious bowl, too, had been made by a genius. It revealed the touch of the spirit, the mysterious insight.”
One striking traits of Musashi is his adoration of art and craftsmanship. He is fascinated by and appreciates the skills of all artisans. In moments of pride, he sometimes even chastises himself and reminds himself of how much he has still to learn after seeing a craftsman (who may be even considered of ‘lower’ rank than him in Japanese society) engaged in the creative act. Interestingly, this was the real Musashi: he not only went undefeated in 61 duels but engaged in painting, calligraphy, writing, building houses, etc. What Musashi looks for are the universal principles behind the creation and achievement of anything beautiful, which he can then apply to his own specialization, swordsmanship.
“If two armies were facing each other in battle, it would be unthinkable under the rules of the Art of War for either to make use of one flank while allowing the other to stand idle. Was there not a principle here that the lone swordsman could not afford to ignore? Ever since Ichijōji, it had seemed to Musashi that to use both hands and both swords was the normal, human way. Only custom, followed unquestioningly over the centuries, had made it seem abnormal. He felt he had arrived at an undeniable truth: custom had made the unnatural appear natural, and vice versa.”
“The two-sword style had to be of this nature—conscious but at the same time as automatic as a reflex, completely free of the restrictions inherent in conscious action. Musashi had been trying for some time to unite in a valid principle what he knew instinctively with what he had learned by intellectual means. Now he was close to formulating it in words, and it would make him famous throughout the country for generations to come.”
“Musashi marveled at the man’s secret technique, and as he marveled, it suddenly struck him that here was the principle of the two swords. The chain was a single length, the ball functioned as the right sword, the sickle as the left.”
Musashi starts to discover, but does not immediately fully comprehend, the use of two swords simultaneously in battle. By observing different weapons (including the ball and sickle) and battles, he starts to piece together, articulate, and make full use of the principle behind fighting with two swords, i.e., how it is done and when it is applied. He is alert, reflective and frequently relating what he observes, which is sometimes revealed in emotional hints, to what he knows consciously. It is by this method that he discovers his famous two-sword method.
The take-away is that when observe yourself or someone else thinking, acting or feeling a certain way and it strikes you in some way similar to something else that you’ve observed, mentally take note because you may be close to discovering a useful generalization or principle, i.e., a general truth applicable within a particular context, that unites the particular observation with the generalization or principle and illuminates the situation by empowering you to bring all your other knowledge and experience to bear on the situation.
Musashi’s mind is always on alert, making observations, taking note of his feelings (his ‘instincts’) and then eventually integrating them with a valid principle (which he calls that which he has learned by intellectual means). This is how the (real) Musashi discovered his infamous two-sword technique which proved highly effective at that time.
Musashi’s integrative observations are not just limited to weapons:
“Musashi could hear their voices, but the words were not clear. As far as he was concerned, he’d already won; he already understood how Gonnosuke used his staff. What he found upsetting was their bitterness and their desire for revenge. If Gonnosuke lost again, they would be that much more resentful. From his experience with the House of Yoshioka, he knew the folly of fighting bouts that led to even greater hostility. And then there was the man’s mother, in whom Musashi saw a second Osugi, a woman who loved her son blindly and would bear an eternal grudge against anyone who harmed him.”
In this passage you see him observe certain philosophic principles operating in people. He is already being pursued by one vengeful grandmother, Osugi, who is trying to restore her family honour to the perceived injustice he has committed against her son (and thus her family name). And he is seeing another potential Osugi who is the mother of Gonnosuke whom he has just defeated. This kind of thinking is what allows him to transmute all of his experiences with other people into an ability to better gauge their characters and potential behaviour.
“Although his sons, Seijūrō and Denshichirō, had received training as rigorous as their father’s, they had fallen heir to his considerable wealth and fame, and that, in the opinion of some, was the cause of their weakness.”
“Seijūrō was customarily addressed as “Young Master,” but he had not really attained the level of skill that would attract a large following. Students came to the school because under Kempō the Yoshioka style of fighting had become so famous that just gaining entrance meant being recognized by society as a skilled warrior.”
“But in truth, the school’s position at the top level in the world of swordsmanship was a matter of appearances only. The world outside these great white walls had changed more than most of the people inside realized. For years they had boasted, loafed, and played around, and time had, as it will, passed them by. Today their eyes had been opened by their disgraceful loss to an unknown country swordsman.”
“from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” and “Success is not owned, it’s rented – and that rent is due every day.”
Seijūrō and Denshichirō, sons of Kempō Yoshioka, are born into the wealth and reputation earned by their father. Neither son shares the father’s ambition or fire for fighting. They have not taken over from their father with the aim of building on and improving his work. The school slowly becomes a hollowed-out hulk coasting on the power of its original founder, but the change in its reputation lags the change in its character.
Be on the lookout for Yoshioka Schools of today. They can be entire countries, companies, universities, etc.
Nature To Be Commanded Must Be Obeyed
At first Musashi fails to cultivate the inhospitable fields because he forcefully superimposes ideas that are not applicable in his specific context. He discovers his mistake and eventually cultivates the land:
Now, a year and a half later, he found himself on Hōtengahara, a plain in Shimōsa Province, east of Edo, little changed since the rebellious Taira no Masakado and his troops had rampaged through the area in the tenth century. The plain was a dismal place still, sparsely settled and growing nothing of value, only weeds, a few trees and some scrubby bamboo and rushes.
Civilization, Musashi was thinking, does not flourish until men have learned to exercise control over the forces of nature. He wondered why the people here in the center of the Kanto Plain were so powerless, why they allowed themselves to be oppressed by nature. As the sun rose, Musashi caught glimpses of small animals and birds reveling in the riches that man had not yet learned to harvest. Or so it seemed.
“What a fool I’ve been,” he exclaimed aloud. “I tried to make the water flow where I thought it should and force the dirt to stay where I thought it ought to be. But it didn’t work. How could it? Water’s water, dirt’s dirt. I can’t change their nature. What I’ve got to do is learn to be a servant to the water and a protector of the land.” In his own way, he had submitted to the attitude of the peasants. On that day he became nature’s manservant. He ceased trying to impose his will on nature and let nature lead the way, while at the same time seeking out possibilities beyond the grasp of other inhabitants of the plain. The snow came again, and another thaw; the muddy water oozed slowly over the plain. But Musashi had had time to work out his new approach, and his field remained intact. “The same rules must apply to governing people,” he said to himself. In his notebook, he wrote: “Do not attempt to oppose the way of the universe. But first make sure you know the way of the universe.”
Empowering oneself to live well requires knowledge about the nature of the things one is dealing with. There are certain materials that are given and then one must set out to rearrange those materials into something new. One does that rearranging by perceiving applications of principles (or discovering them), e.g., the principles of land cultivation applied to a specific geography. To apply a principle to a specific instance and avoid the superimposition of a frozen abstraction requires active-minded observation.
How Ushinosuke cultivated his skill:
“You told me you hadn’t had lessons,” said Hyōgo. “But when I forced you to the edge of the room, you jumped over my shoulder. Not many students, even with three or four years of training, could execute that ploy.”
“I never studied with anyone, though.” “It’s nothing to hide. You must have had a teacher, and a good one. Who was he?” The boy thought for a moment, then said, “Oh, I remember how I learned that.” “Who taught you?” “It wasn’t a human being.” “A goblin maybe?” “No, a hemp seed.” “What?” “How could you learn from a hemp seed?” “Well, way up in the mountains there are some of those fighters—you know, the ones who seem to disappear right in front of your eyes. I watched them train a couple of times.” “You mean the ninja, don’t you? It must have been the Iga group you saw. But what does that have to do with a hemp seed?” “Well, after hemp’s planted in the spring, it doesn’t take long before a little sprout comes up.” “Yes?” “You jump over it. Every day you practice jumping back and forth. When it gets warmer, the sprout grows fast—nothing else grows as fast—so you have to jump higher every day. If you don’t practice every day, it’s not long before the hemp is so high you can’t jump over it.”
The principle is that progress happens too slowly to notice if judged on a daily basis. When seeking to improve some aspect of your life, think of the hemp seed. Aim to inch yourself closer to a better tomorrow every day and remember that you won’t necessarily notice yourself improving.
It’s often tempting to think that with enough willpower and a few brilliant actions one can transform oneself into something or cultivate skill in a chosen field. But this novel shows, in so many different forms, that this is not true and that powerful, lasting change is only achieved by a slow, incremental process of improvements.
“There are many overnight tragedies, but few overnight miracles.”
“There was no turning back from the path he had chosen. Even if he was hacked to pieces, the enemy could not obliterate the fact of his having responded fearlessly and honestly to the challenge.”
Musashi is so committed to mastering the sword and turning himself into his ideal warrior that he continuously pushes himself on to greater and more dangerous challenges. He says “If a man dwells only on the dangers ahead, he cannot advance a single step, let alone make his way through life successfully.” To him this kind of advancement is what gives life meaning and so to focus only on the dangers, which are real, is to drop the full context of what one is trying to achieve, i.e., to ignore the benefits.
Musashi learns from some challenges more than from others, but the principle is the same: one of incremental improvement throughout his life. He doesn’t just show up and do things in the standard way, but keeps finding ways to put himself into new situations where he struggles.
What is that this approach produces? Pride, self-esteem, a character that is earned, a powerful ‘aura.’
His childhood friend after reuniting with Musashi after many years observes:
“He’d been able to brush off stories he’d heard about Musashi with comparative ease; confronting him in the flesh like this drove home the contrast between them. In Musashi’s overpowering presence, Matahachi had trouble remembering they had once been the best of friends. Even the man’s dignity was somehow oppressive.”
In a fight against wandering samurai:
For most of the time, Musashi wasn’t really conscious of what he was doing. He was in a sort of trance, a murderous dream in which body and soul were concentrated in his three-foot sword. Unconsciously, his whole life experience—the knowledge his father had beaten into him, what he had learned at Sekigahara, the theories he had heard at the various schools of swordsmanship, the lessons taught him by the mountains and the trees—everything came into play in the rapid movements of his body. He became a disembodied whirlwind mowing down the herd of rōnin, who by their stunned bewilderment left themselves wide open to his sword.
For the short duration of the battle, one of the priests counted the number of times he inhaled and exhaled. It was all over before he had taken his twentieth breath.
Musashi was drenched with the blood of his victims. The few remaining rōnin were also covered with gore. The earth, the grass, even the air was bloody. One of their number let out a scream, and the surviving rōnin scattered in all directions.”
In a duel:
“His technique is better than mine,” Musashi thought candidly. He had had the same feeling of inferiority at Koyagyū Castle, when he had been encircled by the four leading swordsmen of the Yagyū School. It was always this way when he faced swordsmen of the orthodox schools, for his own technique was without form or reason, nothing more, really, than a do-or-die method. Staring at Denshichirō, he saw that the style Yoshioka Kempō had created and spent his life developing had both simplicity and complexity, was well ordered and systematic, and was not to be overcome by brute strength or spirit alone. If he had been an ordinary man, he might have been sucked into a whirlpool of confusion and succumbed. Yet he remained steady, shaking off his sense of inadequacy as if it were no more than snow on his sleeve. His ability to control this new exhilaration was the result of having already survived several brushes with death. His spirit was fully awake now, as though a veil had been removed from before his eyes.”
In all these excerpts we see someone performing super-human feats, but we are constantly being reminded that these feats appear super-human but are the sum of his entire life: his choices, his actions, and his experiences. They were all earned and the process of earning them is slow.
“This is for you, Sekishūsai! You bastard!” With every pull and tug, he execrated the giants he respected, those supermen who had brought him here and whom he must and would conquer. “One for you, Nikkan! and you, Takuan!” He was climbing over the heads of his idols, trampling over them, showing them who was best. He and the mountain were now one, but the mountain, as if astonished to have this creature clawing into it, snarled and spit out regular avalanches of gravel and sand. Musashi’s breath stopped as though someone had clapped his hands over his face. As he clung to the rock, the wind gusted, threatening to blow him away, rock and all.”
“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”—Linji Yixuan
“One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.”—Nietzsche
An active-minded student should pay attention to method. He can then use the acquired method to climb higher “over the heads of his idols.” The more ambition he has, the higher he should climb and be like a creature clawing himself into a mountain. He should even climb to heights that astonish the mountain itself such that it snarls at him and regularly spits out “avalanches of gravel and sand” and threatens to “blow him away, rock and all.”
“Even now,” he lamented, “I’m not free of my sense of dependence. I keep telling myself I must stand on my own two feet and fend for myself. Then I suddenly fall back on someone else. It’s shallow! It’s stupid! “I know what I should do!” he thought. “I should make a resolution and write it down.” He undid his shugyōsha’s pack and took out a notebook made of pieces of paper folded in quarters and tied together with coiled paper strips. He used this to jot down thoughts that occurred to him during his wanderings, along with Zen expressions, notes on geography, admonitions to himself and, occasionally, crude sketches of interesting things he saw. Opening the notebook in front of him, he took up his brush and stared at the white sheet of paper. Musashi wrote: “I will have no regrets about anything.”
While he often wrote down resolutions, he found that merely writing them did little good. He had to repeat them to himself every morning and every evening, as one would sacred scripture. Consequently, he always tried to choose words that were easy to remember and recite, like poems.
He mumbled the words to himself but still found them unsatisfactory. He changed them again: “I will do nothing that I will regret.” Satisfied with this third effort, he put his brush down. Although the three sentences had been written with the same intent, the first two could conceivably mean he would have no regrets whether he acted rightly or wrongly, whereas the third emphasized his determination to act in such a way as to make self-reproach unnecessary.”
To have chosen long-range, ambitious values is the prerequisite, but then there’s also the task of keeping them alive through the vicissitudes of daily life. Part of that task includes independently condensing the hard-earned knowledge that you have into pithy, powerful statements which you then recite and meditate on.
Think of it like maintaining the scaffolding for a building that you want to erecting. It’s the presence of that scaffolding that reminds you that the building is incomplete and that certain materials are still required to complete it.