Tuesday, August 26, 2003


by Yamamoto Tsunetomo
(Book of the Samurai)

NEILL says:

Hagakure is a strange book; a patchwork of recollection and philosophy, anecdotes and prescriptive morality. It was put together over a seven-year period at the turn of the eighteenth century by ex-Samurai turned Buddhist monk Yamamoto Tsunetomo, and is essentially an examination of and a guide to the Way of the Samurai. This is a system of thought that is similar in some respects to Zen Buddhism, although there is considerably less emphasis on the contemplation of abstruse metaphysical puzzles, and considerably more emphasis on the finer points of cutting peoples heads off. It can be boiled down to a set of principles that stress immediacy, resolve, fealty and compassion. And cutting peoples heads off. It is a very difficult philosophy to try and think oneself inside of, given that in at least two important respects it is diametrically set against fundamental principles of modern western thought. Firstly there is the Samurai's absolute subjugation of self before master, a kind of all- encompassing fanatical servitude that can seem more than a little strange from our latter-day perspective of humanistic individualism. Secondly there is the unnervingly frank attitude towards death. Samurai are encouraged to confront the fact of their own mortality to quite a pathological degree, to act in all things 'as one already dead'. Our own culture expends an equally frenzied energy on avoiding precisely such issues, meaning that the Samurai mindset is a little hard to approach; many of the tales in Hagakure evidence attitudes and behaviours that could easily be misconstrued as either inspirational heroism or sickening callousness. It is a belief system in which life is less important than principle, and this is always going to cause a certain amount of uneasiness in the modern reader.

It’s not all morals, death and honour, though. The book is also packed full of all kinds of handy hints and practical tips, a sort of 'Good Samurai Housekeeping'. These range from the usefulness of powdered rouge in covering up a hangover, to the ability of badger-skin underpants to deter lice, to a step-by-step discussion of the best way to remove the skin from the face of a decapitated enemy. (In case you're interested, and how could you not be: cut it lengthways, urinate on it, and trample on it with straw sandals. That sucker'll come clean off. And I quote: "This is information to be treasured.")

Hagakure is utterly fascinating, packed full of incident and detail and genuine wisdom, and it is perhaps a shame that its insights are nowadays disseminated through our culture in the bastardised form of countless bushido-inspired self-improvement tomes on management and finance: 'The Way of the Samurai in the Boardroom', that sort of thing. I am reliably informed that such tomes are something of a mini-industry these days, something I find a little incongruous given that the book’s fundamental message is so explicitly anti-materialistic. Then again, we live in a world where 'Jesus, CEO' is a global bestseller, so I don't suppose I should be surprised by this sort of thing any more.


Buy on Amazon: Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

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