Bushido is a general term expressing the Japanese concept of: precise focus, radical simplification, unerring self-discipline, rigorous study, meticulous self-development, deep courage in confronting challenges, and profound dedication to ideals. If you’ve ever wondered why Japan shows up at the top of the world IQ rankings, there you go.
To wit: the broad conversational knowledge, refined grooming, and studied poise of classic geishas, playing elegant, haunting tunes on the koto. The meticulous serenity of the tea ceremony. Zen fountains consisting of one hollow piece of bamboo and one thin stream of water dropping, with subtle music, into a small pool of otherwise still water. A single cherry blossom branch in a slim porcelain vase. Gold flowers applied perfectly to astonishingly slick, black lacquered surfaces. A vivid image of nature via a telegraphic haiku:
On a withered branch/A crow is perched/Autumn evening.
The Japanese, smashingly artistic, consciously studious, and fearsomely productive, are a force to be reckoned with. And always have been. Perhaps, just as they, in the East, learn from us, perhaps we, in the West, can learn from them.
The following books give a sense of bushido, from the most basic habits and concepts to the most psychosocially sophisticated principles. The book reviews begin with a popular novelist, Haruki Murakami, unprepossessing troubadour of the everyday, and the reviews end with the splendid simplicity of Japanese design; in the middle are two works by Zen masters, and two works by classic samurai. The essay arrives, finally, at seven lessons from bushido, and concludes with a reflection on East and West.
You gotta love Haruki Murakami! Hey, he doesn’t care if what he writes doesn’t match your idea of a novel, and he doesn’t care if what he is doesn’t match your idea of a correct person. Haruki is who he is, and he writes what he wants. (Japan’s Visions of Cody!)
Hear the Wind Sing is an unapologetic sashay through the life of a young man who has absolutely no destination, and is quite comfortable being on the way there. If the great poet Basho’s literary milestone is The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Murakami’s is The Wide Road to the Shallow Nowhere.
The most amazing thing about Wind is how effortlessly Murakami transforms utterly ordinary tidbits of daily living into crisp, compelling, haunting literature. You think, “Hey, I didn’t do anything yesterday. I should write it up and become a famous author!” (Just try it, of course.)
Notwithstanding its entrancing virtues, this novel contains a very Japanese obsession with the quotidian and the trivial, to the exclusion of the emotional and the magnificent, which, eventually, is disquieting. As if the entire culture were bogged down in dry, pointless details, and as if the inhabitants floated through each day like random ghosts. And, indeed, there is a corresponding depressed, deadened quality to the description of a life so listlessly lived. Joie de vivre this is not. Even the title, Hear the Wind Sing, though poetic, carries an implication of intractable emptiness.
A clue as to the source of this conscientious ennui may be sitting in Zen Buddhism. Zen Masters of Japan (Richard McDaniel, Tuttle Publishing) is a pilgrimage through a long series of curious and somehow romantic stories, which form a history of Zen in Japan, starting with its development in China (where it is called Chan). Convincing tales dramatize miseries overcome, great persistence finally rewarded, and disasters cleverly avoided, as well as several unfortunate encounters with hara-kiri. The upshot generally is—hang in there, keep your focus, have faith, and everything will work out. Usually.
Masters is episodically illustrated with gray, patchy Japanese art, like something copied off tombstones, not remotely up to the tasteful, refined standard of, for example, the art in the Tokyo National Museum. Such blurred visuals contravene the riveting precision of Zen. (Tut-tut, Tuttle.)
As fascinating as Zen is as a definition of reality and a philosophy of life, it appears to be imbued with a quasi-military aspect which may have a dampening effect on humanistic theorizing derived from genuine joie de vivre. “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do or die”, as the saying goes. Social control is easier if the public isn’t searching for the warrants for the control—the upper level, ultimately humane justifications for the rules.
Zeroing in on the core of Zen concepts is the famous, and somewhat impenetrable, Dogen's Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries. Dogen is a towering figure in Zen, dating from almost a thousand years ago, akin to Augustine or Martin Luther in the West. Buddhism, and its stunning Japanese derivative, Zen, have attracted, over the years, a dizzying plethora of interpretations, so perhaps one more won’t hurt.
The situation here on Earth is this: human perception is pretty straightforward. An apple is round, and red (normally). Observation shows that other people find an apple good to eat. Logic says, “If it’s good for them, then it’s probably good for me.” Much of life, indeed, is composed of ordinary facts and intuitive logic. Thus do we wend our way through the world, with reasonable diligence and competence.
Now, this is the problem: emotions. It seems like emotions upset this sensible applecart every other time human beings turn around. So, what to do?
Dogen’s solution, like Buddha’s, is to develop the ability to just let thoughts go. Therefore, if something upsetting occurs to you, you just let it go. If the upsetting thought is gone, it doesn’t bother you anymore; you don’t suffer from it anymore; you are liberated from it. Devoted students who experience composed ecstasy in relation to their liberation from normal concerns and anxieties can claim to have achieved satori.
Thereby, the downside, one might suggest, of immersion in this technique, meditation, is that it tends to shape people into being emotionally estranged from reality, including themselves. Obviously, this is a potential personal, and political, danger—emotions, unappreciated, neglected, and left uncultivated, are prone to sadly dying out, or to spiraling lethally out of control.
Naturally, a better approach is to register emotions, consider them, possibly discuss them, and then rationally decide what to do about them. That way, positive emotions, such as compassion, love, desire, and ambition, can be consciously elaborated and enjoyed, and negative emotions, such as arrogance, anger, or greed, can be consciously resolved and reduced.
(Then can life be lived—with profound pleasure, with creative, affectionate panache!)
All that having been said, the indisputable upside of the technique of rigorous, long-term meditation is that it teaches people to ignore irritating, circumstantial irrelevancies, to build a serene and cheerful mentality regardless of passing thoughts and transient conditions, and thereby to calmly concentrate with great power and purity. Concentration to this high degree provides a prodigious cultural advantage over any uppity competitors, such as Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Bolivians, Tierra del Fuegians, Moroccans, Mozambicans, Sri Lankans, Perthites, Darwinites, and just about anyone else. And concentration at such a high level is a foundation of bushido.
Miyamoto Musashi, who wrote A Book of Five Rings about five hundred years ago, was a samurai’s samurai. A successful warrior, his slim, sketchy treatise on strategy suggests that Musashi may have been one of those people better at doing than explaining. Nonetheless, Five Rings does deliver some bushido principles of enduring value.
Musashi Lessons: Study whatever you want to learn thoroughly; research it carefully. Practice whatever you want to do until doing it becomes second nature, instantaneous; and that means practice, every day. (That is, master necessary knowledge, then overlearn related skills, to the point of automaticity.) Adopt a mode of calm, understated determination, while maintaining a straight, poised posture; don’t be, or look, careless or weak. In any situation, observe carefully, and focus on how to accomplish your objective, not on the danger. Once you decide to act, act suddenly, with power, speed, and decisive precision. (Sumo wrestlers, anyone?) Never give in to threat or frustration; maintain a bold spirit.
Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure (The Art of the Samurai), from about 1700, is a compilation of bushido principles which aims to link philosophy and psychology with technique in a broad but practical way, frequently through stories. The 2008 edition, from London’s Duncan Baird, is clearly a labor of love, impressively displaying high Japanese artistic standards—silken, persimmon-and-gold colored cover, thick and glossy pages, numerous full color paintings and photographs. A publishing work of extraordinary, and fitting, elegance.
Hagakure is chock full of bushido wisdom, but it also displays an unnerving inclination towards death. It’s hard to know what that comes from. Until recently Japan was a feudal country, and it may be that the shogun was more interested in generating compliant subjects happy to die for the shogun, than in nurturing the public’s personalities. Yukio Mishima, and his novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, echo the same disturbing mentality. In any case, Hagakure presents at least two relevant, valuable bushido themes: competence in mind and behavior, and contribution to the community.
Competence: Always be training your mind; continue to improve yourself and your actions your whole life. Pay close attention to the present, yet anticipate and prepare for the future. Grasp the big picture, while tracking the smallest details. Consider the roots of events, the basic facts and causes, and penetrate to those; don’t be misled by impressive proclamations or sheer presentation. When you have a choice to make, consider opinions, then be decisive; don’t waffle. Once you set an objective, throw yourself completely into it. If problems crop up, correct them immediately; don’t let them fester. Strive for perfection, every time, every task. Be calm, but confident—an energetic spirit, no matter the difficulties.
Community: Always present a good appearance in public, with a dignified manner. Consider the benefit of others, even the poor, and those assailed by misfortune. It is the community which is admirable, and deserving of your respect. Be a helpful participant. Treat all people with courtesy. Don’t detract from others; promote their strengths, and their possibilities. Never gossip, or engage in idle, destructive speculation. No matter how limited or great your personal accomplishments, remain both self-respecting and modest.
(Here is a relevant story, perhaps a bit rearranged from recollection. Once upon a time, a large American automobile corporation operated a giant automobile plant, employing about five thousand people, in a major American city. But there were so many conflicts between management and labor, so many union grievances, that the plant could barely function. So, the plant was shut down, and thousands of employees were laid off. Soon after, a leading Japanese automobile corporation bought up the same plant, and rehired largely the same employees. Within a short period, the plant was humming, and making money. When social science researchers came in and asked the employees what the difference was between the previous management style and the current management style, the employees said, “These managers listen to us, and they pay attention to what we say!” It’s not too hard to see how that could happen if the bushido pro-community attitudes noted above were applied to group performance. Listen, and pay attention. Not really that exotic.)
Professor Patricia Graham is a researcher and professional appraiser who specializes in Asian art. Her Japanese Design: Art, Aesthetics, and Culture is a thorough, conceptually clear, lavishly illustrated review of Japanese design. It’s akin to a stroll with a head museum docent through a very large collection of Asian artifacts, including buildings and gardens.
The standard-bearer of the Japanese aesthetic is wabi-sabi—an appreciation of the old, the weathered, the unpretentious. A wooden bucket, perfectly aged, showing subtle shifts of natural color. A handful of dry yellow reeds in a dark, weathered pot. Flat, rough stones scattered across a garden, by apparent happenstance, yet perfectly spaced for wandering through a paradise full of trees, bushes, flowers, rocks, subtle fountains and small ponds, all seemingly arranged accidentally. Artless art. One of the pillars of Japanese culture is love of nature, and another pillar is respect for maturity and wisdom—wabi-sabi visually represents those cultural pillars.
More transportable, perhaps, to the glass canyons of Hong Kong and Wall Street, are the concepts of mushin (often referred to as ma), which means emptiness (space), and shibui, which means understated elegance.
Architectural space may not appear to be a world class design concept, but it is. The key to that, possibly, is that people do not live in the walls of buildings, but in the space between the walls, thus humanity may be subtly but profoundly attuned to the alignment and flow of architectural space. Almost any visitor to a Frank Lloyd Wright building is struck by the power and beauty of the arrangement of the space—elegant, inviting, haunting, almost spiritual. The interior of his radically simplified, imposing Guggenheim Museum in New York is a huge . . . space. Wright was inspired by Japanese design.
The impact of space, emptiness (mushin), is easy to overlook, and may be hard to understand, due to the perceptual complexities of figure-ground relationships. A modest figure gains drama by being placed in a large empty space, or against a plain background, like a single actor standing alone on a great stage in a single spotlight, or a small gold figure displayed on a large black surface. The large space, or background, implies importance and power, and a single, understated figure therein acquires, effortlessly, an aura of riveting dominance.
Shibui is a more general design concept, communicated in the West as less is more, and keep it simple. Consider the simplicity of the logo of Infiniti automobiles, as well as the iconic minimalism of the Japanese torii gate, the smooth curves of Mount Fuji, the bold red disk on the Japanese flag, and the casual-but-perfect, black Zen calligraphy half-circle, the ensō. In the West, a similar style of crisp, arresting austerity can be seen in the black and white films of Ingmar Bergman, and in the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, both classics in their own realm.
Japanese shrines and temples are testaments to conscious control of space and materials aimed at the conscious control of human outlook and character. All this implies an understanding that design influences attitude and personality development, thus, design has an impact on culture and society.
The power of severe restriction of complication (shibui) is hard to bring to our consciousness. This is because we find it so natural, even compelling, to add flashy geegaws and flapdoodles to anything we design. It typically feels like the geegaws and flapdoodles pump up the power of the design. But they don’t. They drag it down. They suggest an inability to discipline the self. But a shibui design radiates the opposite—focused attention guiding targeted behavior.
Bushido as a Higher Philosophy
Part of the West’s confusion in grappling with the concept of bushido is the presumption that bushido is necessarily linked to combat. It’s not.
Bushido is meta to combat; bushido is a higher philosophy which can be applied to any goal, in any field—academia, or commerce, or engineering, or architecture, or even flower-arranging, not to speak of motorcycles, cars, cameras, and audiovisual equipment. The results can be brilliant.
Wonder Woman herself can be considered an embodiment of bushido! Brave and determined, idealistic and helpful, energetic and engaged, showing focused effort with excellent follow through, and somewhat modest yet (let’s face it)—well turned out. She stands up for the oppressed, but her main business is not combat, it’s healing; in her day job, Diana Prince is a nurse.
Summation: Seven Bushido Qualities
Here are seven principles, drawn in a general way from the bushido playbook, echoing the classic Kurosawa movie Seven Samurai, which may be transposable to the West. They are applicable to individuals and families as well as to organizations and societies. However (wait for it!), a premise of bushido philosophy is that these principles do not comprise a quick fix. Patience and long-term dedication are the watchwords.
PRECISE FOCUS: In the hurly-burly and roly-poly of everyday living it is tempting to try to deal with everything at once. It’s not obvious that choosing a single priority target for attention is, in the long run, far more efficient. And it’s not easy to focus on a single target, which is a little tiresome and boring. Sensible meditation practice, endorsed culture-wide, probably helps teach people to cheerfully track a single target from beginning to end over a long period of time. Thus do we have Toyota automobiles and Canon cameras. They work, and they sell, and there’s a reason.
RADICAL SIMPLIFICATION: In a similar vein, complexity and confusion, across the board, can be distracting, and tend to interfere with efficiency and quality. “Clear the decks!” is a related Western expression conveying the idea that eliminating irrelevancies assists effective output.
Unnecessary complication is often something of a bad habit. A little extra gizmo of some possible value, a scrap of paper that may be of significance someday, put those aside for later use . . . pretty soon, there’s a pile of junk where there used to be a workspace (and, always, the only really important thing is on the bottom of the pile, somewhere).
A better habit—the bushido habit—is to routinely clean, polish, straighten, clear out, put away, organize, update, replace if damaged, and—prepare for action. Overall, simple, well-maintained systems are associated with increased reliability, efficiency, and quality. “It’s so clean, you could do surgery in there” is a Western expression extolling spotless, perfect order. (For a little motivational pick-me-up, check Marie Kondo’s book on decluttering. She’s a samurai of clean!)
UNERRING SELF-DISCIPLINE: “Self-discipline” has in recent years acquired an air of demented self-punishment, as if lawyers, doctors, airline pilots, and Olympic athletes don’t have to be self-disciplined. But without self-discipline, there’s chaos!
It’s not so strange a notion. Set a specific objective, specify the steps necessary to achieve the objective, and follow the steps to completion, despite tempting distractions. This is, of course, not easy to do. But practice, over many years, especially starting in childhood, begins to make it more natural and comfortable. Then, when the rewards associated with self-discipline start rolling in (say, for a medical degree, or for a new automobile factory), this admirable character trait becomes gratifying indeed.
RIGOROUS STUDY: “Rigor” is another one of those classic terms which has come to be associated with someone like, say, Jack the Ripper, or Atilla the Hun. But is medical training not rigorous? Are computers not rigorous in the way they solve problems? Is it not crucial to apply rigor in investigating a murder case?
Rigor could be defined as an inclusion of everything essential, and an exclusion of everything inessential. Musashi’s Book of Five Rings repeatedly emphasizes the value of thoroughly researching and studying issues of importance. His is a very professional approach—recommending confident mastery of critical knowledge and skills, without deviation.
METICULOUS SELF-DEVELOPMENT: When we look out at the world, we see the world. We don’t see us. But a penetrating bushido insight is that everything we do flows from our capabilities as individuals. Therefore, continuously refining our abilities (kaizen) is an essential part of functioning at the highest level. Repetition is the key. Drill. Practice until you’re really good. Then get better.
And, hey—a vague impression of “edification”, or “growth”, won’t carry you very far down the bushido road! Self-development needs to be meticulously linked to the performance desired, so that there is a clear tracking between present status, and target status, and all the learning steps in between. (Wouldn’t do to take a bunch of cool-sounding classes, and then get bested on a midnight stroll by the first ninja you run into!)
DEEP COURAGE IN CONFRONTING CHALLENGES: Fear is our friend. Sort of. Fear is a distant early warning of injury and pain, and powerfully motivating. It propels us out of trouble. But, as everyone knows, it can also be a tremendously tragic inhibitor of our dreams.
Consequently, apply the principle of drill to facing fear, and blend that with the calmness you develop in a moderate, reasonable meditation program. Do it again and again until you can recognize a danger, while not being inhibited by fear. As you repeatedly face fears with clear eyes, and learn to deal rationally with risk, your confidence deepens until it becomes an unspoken part of your character. Then you can approach important challenges as you choose, without having fear dictate to you, or interfere with either your situation analyses or your competent self-management.
PROFOUND DEDICATION TO IDEALS: Bushido beliefs, habits, and capabilities have a sizzling glamour all their own, which can disguise this fundamental fact—the powerful bushido qualities flow from respect for ideals. The ambitious ideals are what give direction and meaning to bushido personalities, activities, and relationships. Some of the chief ideals are: loyalty, practiced artistry, excellence in performance, and consistent, gracious composure.
Joie de vivre has not become, arguably, a common Japanese expression. There never has been, arguably, a Japanese icon with the warmth and passion of Sophia Loren. And there never has been, arguably, a great Japanese humanist, on the order of Erasmus, Shakespeare, Gandhi, or Mother Teresa. Maybe it’s time.
In parallel fashion, there never has been, arguably, a serious attempt in the West to model, develop, apply, and pass on to succeeding generations the fantastically elegant Japanese principles of design, confident concentration, and organizational precision, operating within a larger framework of social dedication. That is, there never has been a serious attempt in the West to explore, test, codify, and teach the principles of bushido. Maybe it’s time.
Then, perhaps, shall East meet West.