Read an Excerpt
The Samurai Spirit
A person who has attained mastery of a martial art reveals it in his every action. – Samurai proverb
The Samurai's Three Sons
Hundreds of years ago, there lived in Japan a master samurai, Matsuta Bokuden. He was known as a brave and talented warrior. So skilled and quick was he that he once thwarted an attack from behind without even turning his head!
Alas, Bokuden, fine warrior and caring teacher, was growing old. The challenges of running his martial arts school, his dojo, were becoming burdensome. The time had come to pass on the leadership to someone younger.
Bokuden had three sons, each a powerful fighter and mighty samurai. He wondered which of his sons would be the best sensei, or teacher, for his school. When he spoke of his quandary, people laughed.
“There is no question,” they would tell him. “The oldest always takes over from the father. It is tradition.”
“Tradition is important,” Bokuden would reply. “But it should not be the only star that lights our way. We have to think each problem through.”
And questions did nag at him. Would his oldest son be the best sensei - just because he was the oldest? Was it fair for the students to have a sensei whose main qualification was just that - that he was the oldest? Would one of his other sons, perhaps more dedicated to the martial arts, resent being passed over by a brother for no other reason - just that he was the oldest?
All of Bokuden’s sons were excellent martial artists, it was true. But Bokuden knew that physical strength by itself does not give one mastery of the martial arts, or of any part of life. He wanted to look beyond fast hands or swift feet.
Bokuden was a man of action. He knew that thoughts without action are empty. He believed that his dojo deserved the best master, whether or not that man was the oldest. He had to put his beliefs to the test.
“Yamamoto, please come join me,” said Bokuden one day to his assistant, the highest ranking samurai in the dojo after the master himself. He had been with Bokuden as long as anyone could remember. Bokuden had been Yamamoto’s first teacher, and Yamamoto had been Bokuden’s first student. Although younger than Bokuden, he was not nearly as spry as the old master and had lost much of his strength and flexibility.
Yamamoto wished his master had not decided to retire, and he feared for the future of the dojo. He knew each potential successor had his own devoted followers among the student body. It would not be the first time that a dojo would be divided into factions when the master died or retired. If the eldest son did not carry the respect of the other samurai, many would leave to establish a new dojo. Yamamoto wished that Bokuden would at least delay such a possibility by staying on as sensei as long as he could still move.
“Each of my sons has different talent,” explained Bokuden. “I will devise a test to see who is best suited to be the next sensei. Let us see whose talents will serve him best.”
Yamamoto was relieved that Bokuden had a plan. It was true that each of the boys was very different. Bokuden’s youngest was extremely strong, with big muscles that he exercised each day. Some said they had seen him cutting down trees with a single swing of his sword. Bokuden’s middle son was not nearly as strong, but he was fast as a hawk. He could block a blow and retaliate in the wink of an eye. He could leap high into the air to avoid a sweeping strike with the sword. Often he would land behind his opponent with such speed that he seemed nothing but a blur in the air. Bokuden’s oldest son was neither as strong as the youngest nor as swift as the middle brother, but he had such concentrated focus it was unnerving. The students talked of sparring with him, of deciding which part of his body to attack, only to find that he had blocked their punch before they had even moved.
“Your sons are all fine martial artists,” said Yamamoto. “How will you test them?”
“Let’s place a pillow over the curtain at the entrance to the room. We’ll arrange it so that the slightest touch will make it fall on the head of anyone who enters.” Once Bokuden had arranged the test as he described it, he sent Yamamoto to call his youngest son.
Yamamoto found the boy flexing his massive biceps. “Come with me,” he said. “Your father wishes to see you.”
Youngest Son was quick to obey his father. He hurried after Yamamoto. When he reached the dojo, he swept aside the curtain to enter the room. Plop. The pillow landed with a soft thud on the back of his neck.
Youngest Son was enraged by the pillow attack. He drew his sword and cut the pillow into pieces before it could even reach the floor. The dojo filled with a cloud of feathers. Bokuden and Yamamoto sneezed as the youngest son waved his hands in front of him, trying to disperse the wall of feathers floating in front of his face.
“My son,” began Bokuden. He sneezed again. “Must you always overpower everything, even a pillow?”
“If that pillow had been an attacker,” he said to his father, “I would have cut him into a thousand pieces.”
“If that pillow had been an attacker,” his father responded, “you would already have been dead. Block first. Then attack. All the strength in the world is useless if your opponent gets in the first strike. You must work harder to anticipate danger if you are to defend yourself.”
Knowing he had displeased his father, Youngest Son stormed from the room. “He does not understand,” said Bokuden, saddened by the realization.
The old master found another pillow and arranged it over the entryway while Yamamoto swept up the feathers. When the room was clean, he sent Yamamoto to call his middle son, saying, “Let us hope he can do better.”
A few minutes later, a slim young man slid through the entryway. With a soft whoosh the pillow fell, but Middle Son was quick. He caught it deftly in his hands. Then he turned toward his father and smiled. “Good morning,” he said. “How are you, Father?”
“Very well,” Bokuden answered, relieved that Middle Son had shown himself to be both agile and composed. Bokuden felt that the family’s honor had been at least partly re-established.
Then it was the turn of his eldest son. The moment Eldest Son arrived at the entranceway, he noticed the pillow resting on the curtain rod. He took it down, walked under the curtain rod, plumped the pillow, and put it back in its original position.
“Good morning, Sensei,” he said as he bowed to his father.
“Eldest Son, how did you see the pillow?” asked Bokuden.
“I saw it because it was there. You taught me that a samurai is always aware of his surroundings, whether it is a sunset or an attacker hidden in a dark alley. When we are training in the dojo, you always tell us that the mind of a martial artist must be ever alert. So I saw the pillow. I hope you don’t mind that I took it down before it fell. I thought you must have put it there for a reason.”
“Eldest Son, you are an excellent samurai and well qualified to be sensei.” With that, Bokuden passed to his first son his own ceremonial sword. “You will be the new sensei, not simply because you are the eldest, but because you understand what it means to be a great samurai.”
The Sword of Beauty and The Sword of Death
An elderly samurai was walking alone down the dark empty streets of Nara, the capital city of the island of Okinawa. He had just visited a friend who lived in the poorer, run-down section of town. As he walked, he gazed intently at the full moon. It’s odd, he thought, how people fear the full moon and the dark legends that surround it. He remembered the words of his late sensei: “The light of the moon flows everywhere. Be like the moon that shines its light on every lake and river without discrimination. Thus should our minds be. We must develop tsuki-no-kokoro (a mind like the moon), which shines its light and beauty everywhere.”
As he walked down the narrow street, he heard footsteps behind him. It was the sound of someone trying not to make a sound. It was the sound of a large man, moving fast. The old samurai tightened his back and stomach muscles, but he did not change his pace. Suddenly, he felt a whoosh through the air. He dodged to the right and caught the man’s fist in his armpit. Still he did not slow his steps. Instead, he dragged his attacker, now pulled off-balance, through the street with him, twisting the attacker’s wrist as he walked. All this without even turning around.
The attacker squirmed from pain and begged to be released. The old man turned his head to look into the eyes of his attacker. He recognized the man from a demonstration of martial arts they had both engaged in. He was part of a new dojo that had recently opened.
“I will be happy to release you - once you tell me why you attacked me.”
“My sensei encouraged me to do so in order to prove that your dojo is not as good as ours.”
“I see,” the older man mused. “That way you can get all the students. But you should not go around playing tricks like that on old men.” So saying, he did as he promised and released the younger man.
The would-be assailant glared at the older samurai but didn’t dare attack again. After all, even with the advantages of surprise and the cover of darkness on his side, he hadn’t managed to succeed in his first attack.
“You are clearly very strong,” the old samurai said. “I imagine you thought you were quiet, too.”
“But I was!” the young man protested.
“Yet I heard you. Do you know why? An alert mind defeats stealth and muscle every time. You will be a much better person for being aware of every detail. Learn to carry the sword that creates beauty, not the sword that sows death.”
The old samurai calmly resumed his walk home, turning his eyes once again to the beauty of the moon and his memories of his old master.
From the Trade Paperback edition.