Monday, October 20, 2008

Sources of Bushido: Inazo Nitobe's Book Bushido: Samurai Ethics and the Soul of Japan

This work, written for a Western audience, was one of the first instances of any book on Japanese culture that found its way into the American literary world. Broken up into user-friendly sections with titles such as “Justice;” “The Duty of Loyalty;” “The Institutions of Suicide and Redress;” “Courage, The Spirit of Daring and Bearing;” and “Benevolence, The Feeling of Distress” it served as an introduction to not only the Samurai mindset existing in Japan, which is exaggerated for effect, but it was also one of the first discussions on the religions of Japan, of which one of the major one’s focused on was naturally Zen Buddhism, an “ethic” that is quite at odds with Bushido. However, Zen and Bushido do seem to share something of a bond in their development and also in the traditions that shape the two if not outright molding each other. With that said, Inazo’s study is rather interesting and easy to digest for the Western reader, though its claim of bushido being “the Soul of Japan” is far from the truth at his time of writing, though leading up to WWII it did find itself more prevalent, deployed as a system of control since it stresses absolute loyalty to one’s master, a complete submission to fate, and the deeply rooted sense of familial/clan honor.

One account depicted by Inazo that I found remarkable in its similarity to a technique found in the peaceful and pacifistic Zen was with samurai in training and Zen bodhisattvas’ practice of endurance in waiting outside of the training ground which he defends against claims of being a seemingly “ultra-Spartan system” (22) since they are ways of testing one’s commitment to their cause. We have all, presumably, heard of this practice before in one form or another—in the Sex and the City episode “Great Sexpectations,” the title of which makes me want to go and spill the groceries for some many different reasons, had Charlotte waiting outside of a synagogue trying to convince a rabbi she was legit in her interest of converting to Judaism and in the 1999 film Fight Club[i] when Tyler Durbin makes members of Fight Club wanting to partake in Project Mayhem stand for a three-day period on his front doorstep while he shouts discouragingly at the would be member of the tribe[ii]—but I never associated with the samurai, I assumed it a strictly Zen phenomenon until reading this book.

While this little anecdote I found believable, some of the other Zen/samurai connections made by Inazo were something of a stretch. This is especially so when Inazo writes about the compassion of the warrior, which sort of strikes me as an oxymoron since he goes into such painstaking detail about how the samurai is one of action. Action here translates into killing. So when he says “benevolence to the weak, the down-trodden or the vanquished, was ever extolled as peculiarly becoming to a samurai,” (28) you sort of have to do a double take and wonder if he is talking about the same class of people that we equate with Kill Bill. While I do think there probably is some truth to this, samurai’s couldn’t go around killing people willy-nilly after all, I think that probably had more to do with social norms rather than compassion per se. This claim is most ludicrous when detailing the tea ceremony, a Zen staple, in any other than what it represented for the samurai—a means of control.

Inazo writes, “the tea ceremony presents certain definite ways of manipulating a bowl, a spoon, a napkin, etc,” (34). I can’t help but think one of those things he yadda-yaddas is in fact the human being participating here. I do not limit this to tea ceremony or Zen or bushido, that goes for any system that seeks to control its subjects rather than actually “enlighten” them. Inazo could have been writing of Christian dogma, or any dogma for that matter, when he writes “the spiritual significance of social decorum…is out of all proportion to what their appearance warrants us in believing.” Be it Buddhism, samurai ethics, Christianity, Islam, whatever, when you place “spiritual significance” on “social decorum,” your religions motives have the wrong idea in mind, especially considering pretty much all of the religions I can think of started out, at least in part, as a way of challenging, not enforcing the status quo. “Social decorum,” to stay in line, to be a part of the state’s mechanism for suppressing true freedom, those are the attributes being highlighted here. But it gets weirder:

That calmness of mind, that serenity of temper, that composure and quietness of demeanour which are the first essentials of Cha-no-yu (chanoyu), are without doubt the first conditions of right thinking and right feeling… The utmost refinement of taste is the object aimed at; whereas anything like display is banished with religious horror. The very fact that it was invented by a contemplative recluse, in a time when wars and the rumours of wars were incessant, is well calculated to show that this institution was more than a pastime. Before entering the quiet precincts of the tea-room, the company assembling to partake of the ceremony laid aside, together with their swords, the ferocity of battle-field or the cares of government, there to find peace and friendship. Cha-no-yu (chanoyu) is more than a ceremony—it is a fine art; it is poetry, with articulate gestures for rhythms: it is a modus operandi of soul discipline. (36)

This explicit reference to the 8-Fold Noble Path, naming two of the spokes in the dharma wheel, “right thinking” and “right feeling,” either looks to mislead the Western public about the relationship between these two systems or greatly misunderstands these two concepts. I don’t believe that if you could somehow talk to Bodhidharma (sp?) and ask him if it was maybe like ok to disembowel someone with a razor sharp samurai sword and still practice “right action.” No, that would be ludicrous. It is no different to dwell on doing it or not doing it either since neither one is what you would call a healthy type of thought filled with compassion, not to mention it is seeing this dualistically and is also a form of attachment which are also Buddhist principles that it breaks. But these are ignored. While there may be more connections and the two could, one could argue, be more closely tied than first appears to be, to throw around one or two elements from a doctrine without thoroughly explaining it as a way to like show how they can be reconciled is basically bullshit.

In this light, Inazo’s declaration that “what Christianity has done in Europe toward rousing compassion in the midst of belligerent horrors, love of music and letters has done in Japan. The cultivation of tender feelings breeds considerate regard for the sufferings of others. Modesty and complaisance, actuated by respect for others' feelings, are at the root of politeness,” (31) becomes chilling as our view changes and we see the control units placed upon us in the name of Christ.

To be fair, he does try to throw in some more 8-FNP stuff in there, for example, he explains that one practicing Gi-ri (Right Reason) and doing what that part of the psyche tells the samurai to do, one “does not rush to deeds of virtue, recourse must be had to man’s intellect and his reason must be quickened to convince him of the necessity of acting right,” (18). As a nice little touch, he adds, “the same is true of any other moral obligation.” This is another example of abomination on Inazo’s part since he takes the 8-FNP, which is designed to cease suffering for all sentient beings, and specifically tries to justify why it is ok to go out of your way to cause suffering in sentient beings. You can’t rectify this really without some fancy maneuvering I don’t think, but we don’t even get that. Inazo banks on us not knowing shit about Buddhism and when he was writing I am sure this was the case. But now Zen is hot. Richard Gear is Buddhist. Our Western theologians and spiritualists are even influenced by the Zen world view. Thus for readers with any background or basic knowledge of Buddhism, his arguments are going to seem pretty unconvincing as for the Zen nobility of the samurai class.

This ties in with the fact that both bushido and Zen also share a weariness of book-learning, which are considered intellect inferior to ethics and emotions, in these versions of extreme transcendentalism which consider their practices not an end but a means. In the “Era of Warring States” that found both systems coming into prominence, time was defined by confusion and people looked to these belief structures as ways of making sense of the state of being and to provide some order in the chaos of a life of uncertainty made exceedingly dangerous with the hostile environment. Bushido then originated as a type of code with the point of providing safe conduct in a feudal society (see page 15). He explains in a way that is typical of the “Sudden Enlightenment” school of Zen, that “samurai was essentially a man of action. Science was without the pale of his activity,” (57). Yet here, when he could make his case for the two being directly related, he totally down plays the connect saying “[the samurai] took advantage of it in so far as it concerned his profession of arms. Religion and theology were relegated to the priests; he concerned himself with them in so far as they helped to nourish courage.” Thus trying to legitimate bushido as an ethical system, I don’t know why he would even say this since it undercuts the point he is really trying to make, unless that is he trying to say that bushido is the only ethical system when you break it down, which I think he is getting at, but even this idea is one appropriated from Zen.

Loyalty to the truth, you would think, would have some bearing here since he goes on and on about it all over the place. But what we get is a highly romanticized version of the samurai consciousness in early 20th century Japan. The idea of a “national consciousness,” based on Shinto beliefs, was one of extreme obedience to the imperial family. This system also found much of its support in such Zen influences as the Chinese thinkers Confucius and Mencius, both of whom stressed loyalty to the state. This basically became a part of the “soul of Japan” at about the time that Inazo was writing his book. Before then, loyalty was paid by the samurai, in some but by no means in all cases, to his retainer but it was a system not shared by all of Japan as he would lead you to believe. That was a product of Japanese nationalism which was fueled by propaganda that emphasized the bushido code of ethics, much like this book does.

All in all, the book is pretty interesting even if it is completely full of shit. There are also some ESL issues in Inazo’s writing and he doesn’t exactly cite his sources very well. I don’t really think this book worth your time unless you find bushido an interesting topic but be warned this is a terrible source if you are writing a research paper.

[i] Granted, I should have seen this as being more of a violent practice than the one undertaken in Zen, but at the time I saw these men as being modern day, secular ascetics who were above worldly things that someone could place a price tag on. I still do, actually, but now I have come to learn that they are meant to be more of the blindly loyal followers of their master more representative of the samurai class than with Zen monks who are encouraged to hold onto nothing, even the teachings/sayings of their noble masters. FYI, I also saw the Jedi of Star Wars as being more like Zen monks rather than the samurai they were clearly supposed to be because of their Buddhist principles that I later learned were the principles I write about above that were the ones adopted by the samurai class from Zen. But, the introduction of “metachlorians” negates any real choice of entering into a sacred brotherhood that shouldn’t be about birthright and garbage like those worldly things which also ruined the whole Star Wars saga for me to be perfectly honest.
[ii] See Reading in-between the lines: An analysis of Fight Club for an analysis of this scene, among others, though not what you would call "academic," the "analysis" touches on the Zen aspect saying “This is how the Buddhist temples have tested applicants going back for bah-zillion years…You tell the applicant to go away, and if his resolve is so strong that he waits at the entrance without food or shelter or encouragement for three days, then and only then can he enter and begin training.” For an interesting take on Fight Club as a whole through a Zen perspective, see Charlie Reed’s essay in Journal of Religion and Film, which I have linked, titled Fight Club: An Exploration of Buddhism as well as Steve Olson’s Discovering Zen take on the remarkable film and how it ties in to Zen.

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