Why the Samurai Warriors Practiced Zen, Part 2


What did masters of meditation in ancient Japan have to teach students of the sword? Plenty! Learn the historical connection between Zen and the samurai in this scholarly piece.

Before you dig into this post, would you like to read Part 1? If so, go here now.

Regardless of specifics, from the time of the first Kamakura shogun, Zen Buddhism had found its foothold in ancient Japan, and its impact was imminent. One key point that Winston L. King brought up (see Bibliography) was that Zen monks did not enter into politics to advance in the imperial court. He gave three rather lengthy reasons for this lack of political striving:

Zen, by nature, was anti-institutional; its timing was such that it was not introduced during a warring period; and its monks already held top advisory positions in the shogun's councils, so there was no need for further political striving. (31)

As stated above, the move to Kamakura put Zen monks in a position of close confidence with the military leaders of the day. Even though this relationship had humble beginnings and was probably mostly secular in nature (record keeping, political advising, etc.), it grew quickly as the employers of those monks realized there was more to be gained from Zen's religious aspects than just sutra study and recitation.

The warrior class was quick to see the potential for “special spiritual and psychological strength from Zen, which contributed to the strength of character, firmness of will and imperviousness to suffering on which they prided themselves." (Reischauer 1989, 53)

With similar prized characteristics as a goal of sorts, Zen meditation and martial arts training naturally complemented each other. The spiritual path of Zen was one that the samurai found most appealing. Truth, in the Zen tradition, was to be found within the deepest core of one's visceral being, not in the intellect. This put the truth well within the range of the samurai's awareness and emotional compatibility. (King 1993, 163)

Zen offered the samurai what no amount of physical training or knowledge of military strategy could. The purpose of Zen meditation was to open this martial training to the subconscious, instinctive forces of his being that governed action without thought. (King 1993, 166) The techniques of swordsmanship were not inherently flawed, but the factor that was most open to imperfections was the mind of the practitioner. Zen offered what is called mushin, or no-mind.

Taisen Deshimaru likened mushin to “the body thinking." (1991, 78) In D.T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture, it is described thus: “[It is] going beyond the dualism of all forms of life and death, good and evil, being and non-being. … Hereby he becomes a kind of automation, so to speak, as far as his own consciousness is concerned." (94)

Takuan Soho wrote about mushin in three letters to Yagyu Munenori, head of the Yagyu Shinkage school of swordsmanship. (King 1993, 167) A passage reads as follows:

“Mugaku meant that in wielding the sword, in the infinitesimal time it takes lightning to strike, there is neither mind nor thought. For the striking, there is no mind. For myself, who is about to be struck, there is no mind. The attacker is emptiness. His sword is emptiness. I, who am about to be struck, am emptiness. … Completely forget about the mind and you will do all things well." (37)

To understand this is to understand the heart of Zen. Some might call this having a satori (realization of a profound truth). Zen, having in its nature a focus on the non-rational mind, is difficult to explain by merely defining theses. The best way to understand Zen thought is by illustration. One of the best illustrations of how one might benefit from Zen training comes from Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture:

“He who deliberates and moves his brush intent on making a picture, misses to a still greater extent the art of painting. Draw bamboo for 10 years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboo when you are drawing. In possession of an infallible technique, the individual places himself at the mercy of inspiration.

“To become a bamboo and to forget that you are one with it while drawing it — this is the Zen of the bamboo, this is the moving with the rhythmic movement of the spirit which resides in the bamboo as well as in the artist himself. What is now required of him is to have a firm hold on the spirit and yet not to be conscious of the fact." (31)

This passage entails the entire essence of Zen and the martial arts. Through zazen, or seated meditation, one comes to know mushin. With the prerequisite of swordsmanship training, the practitioner then must forget that he has this library of knowledge and act instinctually through the fine filter of his “forgotten" techniques. “Forgetting learning, relinquishing mind, harmonizing without any self-conscious knowledge thereof, is the ultimate consummation of the way." (Munenori 1993, 69)

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If a cup containing water is knocked over, the water splashes out in random directions without conscious thought. This is similar to the natural instincts one has in a deadly situation. For the water, the cup being knocked over is the threat, and where the water splashes is the reaction.

The addition of martial arts training is likened to having a funnel in hand while the cup is being knocked over. One hopes that with adequate readiness, he will be able to catch the water in the air and direct it in the proper way with the power of the funnel. The addition of the cultivation of mushin is likened to taping the funnel around the mouth of the cup, thus relieving the funnel of the need for conscious thought. The power of the funnel is given the same fluidity and rhythm as the situation itself.

Without thought, the situation arises. Without thought, a reaction takes place. Without thought, the final destination is obtained.

The emphasis on “moving with the rhythmic movement of the spirit" is essential when one raises the following question: How can a philosophy of Buddhist origin can be so closely associated with the military class? The training of Zen meditation, zazen, is said to return the mind to its original state, that of being in harmony with the cosmic order of things.

Speaking of this in terms of God and consciousness, Deshimaru wrote: “It is satori consciousness. The self has dropped away and dissolved. It is the consciousness of God. It is God." (1991, 66)

For Westerners, this idea might cause problems. Our thought has always been of God as a transcendent figure. But in actuality, this is where Western thought has the most difficulty in religious philosophy: explaining how a transcendent God can be a key figure to humanity. Zen finds “god" right here and now. As Zen masters like to say, “The present moment is pregnant with god."

In this way, the actions of the samurai go beyond simple right and wrong. They are as bound to common morality as the wind, which may help pollination or spread wildfires.

In the above-mentioned example of the cup of water, it would seem improper to ask, “Was the movement of the funnel good or bad (moral or immoral)?" It was neither good nor bad. It had no real reaction of its own. It only flowed with the movement of the situation. One cannot say that the actions of the cup were distinct from the situation, thereby requiring a moral judgment. Such is the mind of the samurai trained in Zen. A situation is neither moral nor immoral. The samurai, through the cultivation of mushin, acts without intent. Thus, the samurai's mind is not distinct from the situation and is not subject to moral judgment.

The nature of the samurai becomes the nature of everything. The weapon of the samurai, the katana, becomes transformed along with the person. In the hands of an unworthy warrior, the sword is subject to being an implement of destruction. In the hands of a samurai, the sword becomes subject to the will of heaven. When drawn, it is as the wind which blows with no regard for intent. Yet when the sword is in its scabbard by the side of the samurai, it is most precise in its cut.

There is a Zen saying that the katana is at one time the “sword of life" and the “sword of death." The focus of the blade is turned inward on whoever possesses it. It is a symbol by which the samurai is reminded to cut down his own imperfection and attachment to the impermanent world. It thereby gives true life to the one who wears it and death to the people or ideas that stand in the way of the will of heaven. The sword is part of the samurai. The samurai obeys the way. Therefore, the sword of life and the sword of death coexist.

When we think of the Japanese warrior, we must remember the ideals of the Zen tradition if we wish understand the path of this unique historical fixture. As discussed above, the development of Zen in Japan coincided with the development of the samurai. Zen refined the characteristics that made the samurai a distinguished warrior. Zen reached into the depths of the Japanese warrior and created a person of such concentrated awareness, piety and determination that future generations will forever be fascinated and inspired.

Andrew Abele is a freelance writer based in Metairie, Louisiana. He has studied shotokan karate for more than two decades.

Read Part 1 of this post here.


Allyn, John. 1998. The 47 Ronin Story. Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company.

Bodhidharma. (translated by) Pine, Red. 1987. The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma. New York: North Point Press.

Deshimaru, Taisen. 1991. Questions to a Zen Master. New York: Penguin Books.

Deshimaru, Taisen. 1991. The Zen Way to the Martial Arts. New York: Arkana Books.

Deshimaru, Taisen. 1996. Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru. Arizona: Hohm Press.

King, Winston L. 1993. Zen and the Way of the Sword. New York: Oxford University Press.

Munenori, Yagyu. (translated by) Clearly, Thomas. 1993. Family Traditions on the Art of War. Massachusetts: Shambhala.

Musashi, Miyamoto. (translated by) Cleary, Thomas. 1993. The Book of Five Rings. Massachusetts: Shambhala.

Nitobe, Inazo. 1969. Bushido: The Soul of Japan. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.

Reischauer, Edwin O.; Craig, Albert M. 1989. Japan: Tradition and Transformation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Soho, Takuan. 1986. The Unfettered Mind. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Suzuki, Daisetz T. 1959. Zen and Japanese Culture. New York: MJF Books.

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