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Wisdom from Early Japan




Fate is in Heaven, the armor is on the breast, success is with the legs. Go to the battlefield firmly confident of victory, and you will come home with no wounds whatever. Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death. When you leave the house determined not to see it again you will come home safely; when you have any thought of returning you will not return. You may not be in the wrong to think that the world is always subject to change, but the warrior must not entertain this way of thinking, for his fate is always determined.

Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578)1

When Lord [Ryûzôji] Takanobu was at the Battle of Bungo, a messenger came from the enemy camp bearing sake and food. Takanobu wanted to partake of this quickly, but the men at his side stopped him, saying, "Presents from the enemy are likely to be poisoned. This is not something that a general should eat."
Takanobu heard them out and then said, "Even if it is poisoned, how much of an effect would that have on things? Call the messenger here!" He then broke open the barrel right in front of the messenger, drank three large cups of sake, offered the messenger one too, gave him a reply, and sent him back to his camp.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo2

The warrior doesn't care if he's called a beast or a dog; the main thing is winning.
Asakura Norikage (Soteki) (1474-1552) 3


The European Prespective

The Japanese are in general of a melancholy disposition and humor. Moved by this natural inclination they thus take much delight and pleasure in lonely and nostalgic spots, woods with shady groves, cliffs and rocky places, solitary birds, torrents of fresh water flowing down from rocks, and in every kind of solitary thing that is imbued with nature and free from all artificiality. All this fills their souls with the same inclination and melancholy, as well as a certain nostalgic feeling with the results therefrom.

João Rodriques (1561-1633)4

The Japanese have a high opinion of themselves because they think no other nation can compare with them as regards weapons and valour, and so they look down on all foreigners. They greatly prize and value their arms, and prefer to have good weapons, decorated with gold and silver, more than anything else in the world... Never in my life have I met people who rely so much on their arms.

St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552)5

Their way of writing is very different from ours because they write from the top of the page down to the bottom. I asked Paul [Anjiro] why they did not write in our way and he asked me why we did not write in their way? He explained that as the head of a man is at the top and his feet are at the bottom, so too a man should write from top to bottom.

St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552)6



We learn about the sayings and deeds of the men of old in order to entrust ourselves to entrust ourselves to their wisdom and prevent selfishness. When we throw off our own bias, follow the sayings of the ancients, and confer with other people, matters should go well and without mishap. Lord [Nabeshima] Katsushige borrowed from the wisdom of Lord Naoshige. This is mentioned in the Ohanashikikigaki. We should be grateful for his concern.
Moreover, there was a certain man who engaged a number of his younger brothers as retainers, and whenever he visited Edo or the Kamigata area, he would have them accompany him. As he consulted with them everyday on both private and public matters, it is said that he was without mishap.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo7

…all samurai ought certainly apply themselves to [the study of military science]. But a bad use can be made of this study to puff oneself up and disparage one's colleagues by a lot of high-flown but incorrect arguments that only mislead the young and spoil their spirit. For this kind gives forth a wordy discourse that may appear to be correct and proper enough, but actually he is striving for effect and thinking only of his own advantage, so the result is the deterioration of his character and the loss of the real samurai spirit. This is a fault arising from a superficial study of the subject, so those who begin it should never be satisfied to go only halfway but persevere until they understand all the secrets and only then return to their former simplicity and live a quiet life.
There is an old saying that bean sauce that smells of bean sauce is no good and so it is with the military pedants.

Daidoji Yuzan8

Learning is to a man as the leaves and branches are to a tree, and it can be said that he should not be without it. Learning is not only reading books, however, but is rather something that we study to integrate with our own way of life.
One who is born into the house of a warrior, regardless of his rank or class, first aquaints himself with a man of military feats and achievements in loyalty, and, in listening to just one of his dictums each day, will in a month know 30 precepts. Needless to say, if in a year he learns 300 precepts, at the end of that time he will be much the better.
Thus, a man can divide his mind into three parts: he should throw out those thoughts that are evil, take up those ideas that are good, and become intimate with his own wisdom… I would honor and call wise the man who penetrates this principle, though he lacks the knowledge of a single Chinese character. As for those who are learned in other matters, I would avoid them regardless of how deep their knowledge might be. That is how shallow and untalented this monk is.

Takeda Shingen (1521-1573)9

When a man in the beginning of his life is ignorant of everything, he has no scruples, finds no obstacles, no inhibitions. But after a while he starts to learn, and becomes timid, cautious, and begins to feel something choking in his mind, which prevents him from going ahead as he used to before he had any learning. Learning is needed, but the point is not to become its slave. You must be its master, so that you can use it when you want it.

Yagyu Munemori (1571-1646) (as interpreted by D. T. Suzuki)10



Marriage is the union symbolizing the yin and yang, and it cannot be entered into lightly. The thirty-eighth hexagram k'uei [in the I ching (Book of Changes)], says "Marriage is not be contracted to create disturbance. Let the longing of male and female for each other be satisfied. If disturbance is to take hold, then the proper time will slip by." The "Peach young" poem of the Book of Odes says "When men and women observe what is correct, and marry at the proper time, there will be no unattached women in the land."
To form a factional alliance [of houses] through marriage is the root of treason.

The Buke Shohatto (article 8)11


The Martial Arts

The field of martial arts is particularly rife with flamboyant swordsmanship, with commercial popularization and profiteering on the part of both those who teach the science and those who study it. The result of this must be, as someone said, that 'amateuristic martial arts are a source of serious wounds."

Miyamoto Musashi (1584?-1645) 12

A man who has thoroughly mastered the art does not use the sword, and the opponent kills himself; when a man uses the sword, he makes it serve to give life to others. When killing is the order, it kills; when giving life is the order, it gives life. While killing there is no thought of killing, while giving life there is no thought of giving life; for in the killing or in the giving life, no Self is asserted. The man does not see 'this' or 'that'; he makes no discrimination and yet knows well what is what. He walks on water as if it were earth; he walks on the earth as if it were water. One who has attained this freedom cannot be interfered with by anybody on earth. He stands absolutely by himself.

Takuan 13



The one who does good deeds and expects to be appreciated, does something better then committing a bad deed. However, he does so for his own benefit and not for others. A truly righteous man does good deeds without letting his beneficiary know of his deeds. He does good deeds freely and does not expect that in the future someone will recognize his deeds. A monk must have resolve far greater then this. In treating all sentient beings, he must not discriminate between those who are close to him and those who are scarcely known to him.

Dôgen (1200-1253)14

…right and wrong are nothing but good and evil, for though I would not deny there is a slight difference between the terms, yet to act rightly and do good is difficult and is regarded as tiresome, whereas to act wrongly and do evil is easy and amusing, so that naturally most incline to the wrong or evil and tend to dislike the good and right. But to be thus unstable and make no distinction between right and wrong is contrary to reason, so that anyone who understands this distinction and yet does what is wrong is no proper samurai, but a raw and untaught person. And the cause of it is small capacity for self-control. Though this may not sound so bad, if we examine into its origin we find it arises from cowardice. That is why I maintain that it is essential for a samurai to refrain from wrong and cleave to what is right.

Daidoji Yuzan15

Offering prayers is for your own sake. Simply keep your mind straight and plaint, honest and law-abiding. Be respectful for those who are above you, and be compassionate to those who are below you. Accept things as they are: what you have as what you have, what you don't as what you don't. Doing so seems to accord with the Buddha and Shinto deities. Even if you don't pray, by keeping this in mind you will enjoy various deities' protection. Even if you pray, though, if your mind is crooked, you'll be abandoned by Heaven's Way. So be careful.
Hôjô Sôun (Sôunji Dono Nijuchichi Kajo article 5) 16



There is a way of bringing up the child of a samurai. From the time of infancy one should encourage bravery and avoid trivially frightening or teasing the child. If a person is affected by cowardice as a child, it remains a lifetime scar. It is a mistake for parents to thoughtlessly make their children dread lightening, or to have them not go into dark places, or to tell them frightening things in order to stop them from crying.
Furthermore, a child will become timid if he is scolded severely.
Yamamoto Tsunetomo17



Do not excessively covet swords and daggers made by famous masters. Even if you can own a sword or dagger worth 10,000 pieces, it can be overcome by 100 spears each worth 100 pieces. Therefore, use the 10,000 pieces to procure 100 spears, and arm 100 men with them. You can in this manner defend yourself in time of war.

Asakura Toshikage (1428-1481) (Toshikage Jushichikajo article 4)18

You can't manage the Empire properly without economy, for if those at the top are extravagant, taxes mount up and the lower orders are embarrassed, not to speak of the effect it has on military finances. But a lot of people can't understand the meaning of the word thrift, and think it means only omitting to do what you ought to do.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616)19



Zen has no secrets other than seriously thinking about life and death.

Takeda Shingen (1521-1573) 20

All my life I taught Zen to the people -
Nine and seventy years.
Who he sees not things as they are
Will never know Zen.

Enni Ben'en (1201-1280)21


1. Suzuki Zen and Japanese Culture pg. 188
2. Yamamoto Hagakure pg. 93
3. Elison Artists, Warlords, and Commoners pg. 57
4. Cooper They Came to Japan pg. 47
5. Ibid. pg. 41
6. ibid. pg. 180
7. Yamamoto Hagakure pg. 19
8. Daidoji The Code of the Samurai pg. 42-43
9. Cook Samurai pg. 81
10. Suzuki Zen and Japanese Culture pg. 152
11. Lu Sources of Japanese History pg. 202
12. Musashi The Book of Five Rings pg. 8
13. Suzuki Zen and Japanese Culture pg. 166-167
14. Lu Sources of Japanese History pg. 134
15. Daidoji The Code of the Samurai pg. 30
16. Sato Legends of the Samurai pg. 250
17. Yamamoto Hagakure pg. 39-40
18. Lu Sources of Japanese History pg. 172
19. Sadler The Maker of Modern Japan pg. 361
20. Suzuki Zen and Japanese Culture pg. 78
21. Hoffmann Japanese Death Poems pg. 96