Samurai, both in Western popular culture and in the historical mythology of Japan, occupy powerful roles as sages, warriors, and protectors. Their lineage, which ended in the early modern era in Japan, is long and well-documented, and it splits at different times into different well-worn social and spiritual practices. Samurai warriors are both figures of war and figures of peace; they are both practitioners of violent warfare and of deep contemplative practices. Samurai lived to serve their lords, and they were in that sense images of perfect fealty, but they were also servants of philosophical and martial discipline, and in that sense, were fidelitous primarily to their own self-discipline. Samurai are figures of wonder for Westerners precisely because of these double roles, and they impress many of us (as historical figures) for their physical, intellectual, and spiritual dedication to things that are alien to most of our lives.
In the course of history, some groups of people leave such deep imprints on a culture that their impact is never fully lost. They effect such great and grand changes in a society that they are the objects of adoration not only in their own time, but in the generations that follow, and perhaps indefinitely. Samurai are one of those groups.
One of the things that is remarkable about Samurai is that they were both bonded to each other through centuries by shared commitments, while also existing as a heterogeneous group, with various figures at various times serving various ends (and doing so with sometimes quite different methods). In every sense, the unity of the Samurai, and much of their power, came from this internal difference, and their struggle to maintain relevant in the face of coming modernity may have been in part a matter of their not being able to satisfy all the different forces at work in their constitution.
The birth of the Bushi
Samurai are most often, in Japanese, referred to by the name “Bushi.” By around 1200, however, this term and the term “Samurai” were synonymous. The history of the Samurai, then, is quite long, and rooted in the feudal traditions of Japan (traditions which, unlike much of Europe, continue to affect the lives of the Japanese, even if so only in spirit).
Samurai were warriors, but they did not fight aimlessly. They also did not fight for themselves or for the gain of land. They were noblemen and officers of the feudal era in Medieval Japan — serving their lords and fighting for whatever causes their lords deemed. This is not like the commitment that, for instance, an American Army Ranger makes to the American government. That commitment—the contemporary commitment to a military—is rooted in individuality. The military person of the contemporary, post-feudal world fights because they are a part of what they are fighting for. It is in a sense for their gain—for the gain of their country, which they are nationalistically connected to.
But the commitment of a Samurai to his lord was different. He did not fight for himself, nor for the gain of his nation. He fought for his lord because that was what Samurai did. It was for no reason other than the honor of fighting for something more powerful than you, in a sense for no reason other than the commitment to fight itself. When a person is fighting for their country, they are fighting for their livelihood. When a person is fighting for nothing but honor, they are fighting for a spiritual and ethical commitment.
This is the birth of the Bushi—the commitment to spirituality that undergirds martial law. The way of the Bushi—called “bushido”—was the martial art of the Samurai, and it was more than mere physical training.
While Bushido is more or less a purely historical concept (and one that we do not know enough about to fully understand) it is hugely impactful. Modern martial arts such as Jui-Jitsu, Aikido, Iaido, and Kendo are all directly descended from Bushido. And like their predecessors, they are concerned with more than simply the means to injure one’s opponent.
Bushido was the way of the Samurai, and in that sense, is carried with it more than physical methods and practices. It was impacted greatly by Buddhist traditions, and instilled a spiritual and religious commitment in Samurai warriors. The Samurai were predominantly practitioners of Buddhism (and sometimes Chinese Confucianism), and Japanese Buddhism, or Zen Buddhism, formed a large part of their daily life.
Zen was, for the Samurai, more than a religious practice, it was a full way of life. It was so deeply ingrained into even their martial practices (a tradition that continues in contemporary martial arts such as Aikido) that some Samurai even found themselves unable to fight for having discovered the spiritual necessity of peace. This meant, for those Samurai, certain death on the battlefield, which according to myth was accepted and even welcomed.
In Zen, focused is placed not on the attainment of Nirvana or enlightenment, but on the simple activity of living in the immediate world. This world, and all of its imperfection, is accepted and enjoyed, and the aim is to cultivate a state of meditative peace that follows one around in everything they do. This may seem antithetical to such a martial-oriented tradition as Samurai fighting, but in fact they seemed to see it as part of the very same process. By committing themselves to their training, to their meditation, to their loyalty, and sometimes to the violence of Samurai battles, they were committing themselves to a spiritual awakening—discovering the ability to accept everything that crossed their paths by honing the ability to train and focus on that world. In this sense, any commitment at all is a spiritual commitment, regardless of how violent.
The wonder of Samurai warriors is undoubtable, and it will be the stuff of legend for generations more to come. From their martial practices to their spiritual journeys, they are in every sense timeless.