If you've ever thought it odd that fearsome samurai warriors were governed by the gentle teachings of Zen, you need to read this post. Prepare to be enlightened!
People today may find it unusual to think of religious philosophy as the backbone of military training, yet that’s just what we find when we examine the military class of early Japan. Westerners are often confused by the term “religious philosophy” because in the West, those two subjects are distinct schools of thought. Until recently in Japan, however, there was no separation: They were connected in the sense that religion was philosophy acted out as a way of living. One of the more popular Eastern religions, Zen, concentrates on living life to the utmost in the here and now, as opposed to focusing on the afterlife. If Zen practitioners live in this very moment, all the rest — whatever else that may entail — will fall into place naturally. That includes the main concern of the samurai warriors: proper action in the midst of deadly combat. Two major turning points affected the development of the samurai. The first was the Gempei War (1180-1185), which led to the rise of the official warrior class. The roots of this war began in the Heian period (794-1185), when the prominent imperial family names were the be-all and end-all of social status, as well as the key to the imperial court. The Fujiwara lineage was becoming too complicated and far-reaching for it to retain its prestigious air. Thus, “excess members of the imperial line were cut off from it and given the family names of Minamoto (also known as Genji) or Taira (also called Heiki).” (Reischauer 1989, 40) These families then migrated to other areas of Japan and used their imperial heritage to form a new aristocracy over the descendants of the old provincial uji (small counties that were unified by the worship of the same god, usually an ancestor). (Reischauer 1989, 40) Ready to start learning the way of the samurai? Order a copy of Samurai Swordmanship Volume 1: Basic Sword Program by Masayuki Shimabukuro, Carl E. Long and Black Belt magazine. On sale now on Amazon! As these families established that new form of provincial aristocracy, the hunger for court positions remained as strong as ever. Beginning in the late 11th century and continuing until 1185, the clans of Minamoto and Taira fought desperately to gain a foothold in the imperial line. Soon enough, a major battle ensued — and nearly wiped out the Minamoto clan except for two sons of a general named Yoshitomo: Yoritomo and Yoshitsune. Reischauer wrote, “Yoritomo extended his control over the Kanto area, and his younger brother Yoshitsune then seized the capital area for him and pursued the Taira down the Inland Sea to its western end, where he finally annihilated them in 1185 at Dan-no-ura in a naval battle.” (1989, 43) That conflict became known as the Gempei War. In recognition of the Minamoto clan, in 1192 the emperor declared Yoritomo to be the realm’s shogun, thus beginning the reign of the warrior class. (King 1993, 44) That happened one year after the return of Eisai, founder of Japan’s first definitive Zen sect.
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BodhidharmaZen began in India. Around 440 to 520, a priest named Bodhidharma taught that one could attain nirvana through meditation, not just through rigorous study of the sutra (scriptures). After learning the dharma (Buddhist teachings on law and duty), Bodhidharma was told to travel to China to teach this method. (Bodhidharma 1987, x) That happened because India had grown accustomed to keeping scriptures in a sacred light. Being the birthplace of the Buddhist tripitika (three baskets of teachings) and the home of Hinduism (which has as its defining factor the acknowledgment of the authority of the Vedic scriptures), there didn’t seem to be much room in India for Bodhidharma’s lack of reverence for the scriptures. Although meditation wasn’t new to India, the texts that pointed to those meditation practices were still held in the highest regard. Bodhidharma added more emphasis to meditation and took it away from the scriptures — as can be seen in his Bloodstream Sermon: “The true way is sublime. It can’t be expressed in language. Of what use are scriptures? The ultimate truth is beyond words. Doctrines are words. They’re all cradles of rebirth.” (Bodhidharma 1987, 29)
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