January 2021 Book Survey: Primary Japanese Samurai Philosophy Texts

My reading theme for January, 2021 was primary Japanese samurai and Zen texts. These are a few thoughts on the titles I read. There are many others, but these are the group I chose to start 2021.


Each month I have a theme for my martial arts reading. In December 2020, my theme was books by and about Miyamoto Musashi, including his Book of Five Rings. This month I decided to look at other books that are primary sources involving Japanese samurai and their philosophy. I added a couple Zen texts as well.

For this list, I drew upon citations in several books, such as Alexander Bennett's 2020 book Bushido Explained. Matthew Krueger's Walking with the Tengu podcast is one of the best sources for understanding what many of these texts mean. Here I want to list the books I read and a few thoughts.

For the first four books, I will present them in the estimated order of publication.

The Unfettered Mind by Takuan Sōhō (c. 1632)

The Unfettered Mind , Takuan Sōhō, c. 1632, translated by William Scott Wilson

I read the translation by William Scott Wilson, published by Shambhala in 1986 and 2002. You can learn more about the author here.

The author, Takuan Sōhō (1573-1645), "was a Zen monk, calligrapher, painter, poet, gardener, tea master, and, perhaps, inventor of the pickle that even today retains his name," according to Mr. Wilson. Takuan influenced his peers of the early 17th century in Japan through his writing and associations. He is frequently linked in fiction to Miyamoto Musashi, although there is no concrete evidence of a relationship.

The book is a collection of three essays or letters, drawn from an estimated 100 volumes of his works:

1. Fudōhishinmyōroku, or fudōchi shinmyōroku 不動智神妙録 , The Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom, written to Yagyū Munenori.

2. Reirōshū 玲瓏集 , The Clear Sound of Jewels, which "deals with the fundamental nature of the human being, with how a swordsman, daimyo—or any person, for that matter—can know the difference between what is right and what is mere selfishness, and can understand the basic question of knowing when and how to die."

3. Taiaki 太阿記 , Annals of the Sword Taia, "written perhaps to Munenori or possibly to Ono Tadaaki, head of the Ittō school of swordsmanship and also an official instructor to the shogun’s family and close retainers."

Mr. Wilson "based these translations on the texts given in Nihon no Zen Goroku, Vol. 13, which in turn uses those found in Takuan Oshō Zenshō published by the Takuan Oshō Zenshō Kankō Kai." They are not the only ones available. For example, Peter Haskell published two of the letters in his 2012 book Sword of Zen, as did Thomas Cleary in his 2005 book Soul of the Samurai.

Of the three essays, I liked the first the most. Takuan counsels to avoid the "stopping mind," writing to Yagyu:

"To speak in terms of your own martial art, when you first notice the sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by your opponent. This is what stopping means...

[T]he wheels of a cart go around because they are not rigidly in place. If they were to stick tight, they would not go around...

He does not put his mind in his adversary. The opponent is Emptiness. I am Emptiness. The hand that holds the sword, the sword itself, is Emptiness. Understand this, but do not let your mind be taken by Emptiness."

While this book has historical value, I did not appreciate it as much as some of the others I have read.

The Life-Giving Sword by Yagyu Munenori (c. 1632)

The Life-Giving Sword (Heihō Kadensho), Yagyu Munenori, c. 1632, translated by William Scott Wilson

I read the translation by William Scott Wilson, published by Shambhala in 2003 and 2012. You can read more about the author here.

Dr. Bennett's Bushido Explained offers the following insights:

"Yagyu Munenori (1571–1646) was an immensely influential martial artist active in the early Tokugawa period. Through his distinguished students in the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, Munenori helped shape how the Samurai redefined their role in peacetime. 

Munenori was the son of the renowned Warring States period swordsman Yagyu Muneyoshi, founder of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu school (stemming from the Kage-ryu tradition) and student of the legendary Kamiizumi Ise-no-Kami. 

In 1632, Muneyori completed the Heihō Kadensho, a comprehensive treatise on swordsmanship, which he wrote for the shogun Iemitsu. His dissertation was copied and distributed among his powerful disciples as a textbook for their study of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu swordsmanship and as a guide to how it could be applied to governance.

Heiho Kadensho is divided into the three sections: Shinrikyo (“shoe-offering bridge”), Setsunin-to (“death-dealing blade”), and Katsunin-ken (“life-giving sword”)."

The key to the "life-giving sword is the idea of" “Killing one man’s evil so that ten thousand may live.” Bennett continues: 

"In order to 'kill one man’s evil,' the warrior needs to excel in the art of war... It is heihō (combat strategy) to be aware of disorder when ruling the country in a time of peace... "

'It is a limited mind,' argued Munenori, 'that considers swordsmanship and military studies just as a means for killing.' 

Heiho Kadensho was the first significant treatise in Japan to link the training of body and mind in a martial art into a systematic holistic corpus for life and governance."

Mr. Wilson notes "While Takuan’s work emphasizes the Zen approach to swordsmanship and Musashi’s the practical, Munenori attempted to walk a fine line between the two extremes, and to present both a philosophical groundwork for practice and some of the actual practices themselves.

The philosophy or psychology of the work is based for the most part on The Mysterious Record of Unmoving Wisdom, which was written for Munenori by his friend and mentor Takuan. 

Munenori places a similar emphasis on keeping the mind free of attachments, or in his terms, the 'sicknesses' accrued by too much attention to technique or even to the idea of winning. His cure for such sicknesses was, paradoxically, even more of the same... Intense self-discipline and a deep understanding of the principles of Zen are the keys to becoming an 'accomplished' man of the Way."

One of my favorite excepts is the following:

"The Great Learning[8] is the gate for the beginning scholar. For the most part, when arriving at a house you first go in through the gate... Learning is the gate that approaches the Way... But Learning is the gate, not the house. Do not look at the gate and think, 'This is the house.' The house is within, reached only after passing through the gate."

Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (Jōchō), (1716)

Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunetomo (Jōchō), 1716, translated by Dr. Alexander Bennett

I read the translation by Alexander Bennett, published by Tuttle in 2014. Whenever possible I prefer Dr. Bennett's offerings, as they usually include a thorough introduction and notes. 

Dr. Bennett writes about this collection:

"The first two books of Hagakure are believed to have been dictated by Yamamoto [Tsunetomo] Jōchō (1659–1719), a middle-ranking retainer of Nabeshima Mitsushige (1632–1700), daimyo of the Hizen (Saga) province, to fellow clansman Tashiro Tsuramoto (1678–1748). 

Books 3 to 6 are about the Nabeshima lords and episodes that occurred in the Saga domain; Books 7 to 9 delve into the “meritorious feats” of Saga warriors; Book 10 is a critique of samurai from other provinces; and Book 11 provides supplementary information about miscellaneous events and various aspects of warrior culture.

Although Jōchō undoubtedly provided a fair proportion of the information contained in Book 3 onwards, given that some of the entries relate to people and happenings after his death, Tashiro Tsuramoto clearly pieced together much of the content from other sources. Thus, although the book is commonly attributed to Jōchō, it was ultimately Tsuramoto’s abiding efforts that brought it to fruition."

Although the book attribution shows Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Dr. Bennett explains the alternative name for the primary author:

"Tsunetomo is written with the kanji characters 常朝. When Tsunetomo took the tonsure [became a monk] following the death of his lord in 1700, he began using his Buddhist name, Jōchō, which uses the same kanji characters in their on reading. Discussions of Hagakure are divided as to which reading is used. As Hagakure was written after Jōchō became a monk, throughout my translation he is mostly referred to as Jōchō rather than Tsunetomo."

The book's proper title is Hagakure Kikigaki (葉隠聞書), which Dr. Bennett translates literally as “dictations given hidden by leaves.” He offers the following regarding the meaning of the title:

"One theory cites a poem by the famous Buddhist bard Saigyō Hōshi (1118–1190) in the Sanka-shū. “Hagakure ni chiri-todomareru hana nomi zo, shinobishi hito ni au kokochi suru” (“Hidden away under leaves, a blossom still left over makes me yearn to chance upon my secret love this way.”)[13] 

Another hypothesis suggests that “hidden by leaves” was a reference to the secluded environment in which Tsuramoto interviewed Jōchō. Other scholars allude to the fact that Jōchō often makes reference to stalwart service from behind the scenes, or “service from the shadows,” with no desire for recognition. It has even been postulated that the fifth Nabeshima lord, Muneshige, visited Tsuramoto and conferred the title himself."

Dr. Bennett notes the most famous phrase in the book:

"Hagakure’s underlying theme of absolute loyalty to one’s lord to the extent that a warrior must be prepared to die in the course of duty, a notion symbolized by the legendary phrase, “The Way of the warrior is to be found in dying” (Bushidō to iu wa shinu koto to mitsuketari)."

Although the book was published in 1716, for most of its history it was a private book for the Nabeshima clan. Dr. Bennett says this on its wider publication:

"The first time Hagakure was published in print and became known outside the province of Saga was in March 1906. Elementary school teacher Nakamura Ikuichi compiled a selection of aphorisms and published them in book form. It was not until 1935 that the entire text was published in Kurihara Arano’s Hagakure Shinzui (“Essence of Hagakure”), followed by the carefully annotated Hagakure Kōchū (“Hagakure collation”) in 1940."

I personally found Dr. Bennett's introduction to be the best part of the book, because it helped me understand the culture and meaning of the text. Within the text, the overriding message seemed to be one of devotion to one's lord, and to charge ahead when necessary, accepting death. 

The oath that precedes the start of Book 1 is one of the best parts:

"I will never fall behind others in pursuing the Way of the warrior.
I will always be ready to serve my lord.
I will honor my parents.
I will serve compassionately for the benefit of others."

Dr. Bennett helps decode the meaning of this book in his notes, so I appreciated his insights. 

Budōshoshinshu by Daidōji Yūzan (c. 1725)

Budoshoshinshu, Daidōji Yūzan, c. 1725, translated by William Scott Wilson

I read the translation by William Scott Wilson, published by Shambhala in 2018. 

Mr. Wilson describes the author in these terms:

Daidoji Yūzan (1639–1730) was therefore born into the troubled world of the unemployed samurai. Yūzan went to Edo (now Tokyo) as a young man and studied military science from 1658 to 1672 at the school of Obata Kagenori and Hojo Ujinaga,[2] two of the greatest military tacticians of the period...

[He] observed the deteriorating condition and morale of younger samurai throughout the country; he began seriously to consider what it meant to be a member of the warrior class and the paradox of its existence during times of peace.

Before he died at age ninety-two, Yūzan wrote Budōshoshinshu, a collection of short discourses in which he contended with these problems. The book was a seminal work on bushidō, remaining a favorite well into the next period of Japanese history and even to the present day.

Budōshoshinshu was a text meant for the younger samurai, as the literal translation of the title, “collection for beginners in the way of the warrior,” suggests."

An older translation by Thomas Cleary bears the title Code of the Samurai: A Modern Translation of the Bushido Shoshinshu of Taira Shigesuke. Mr. Wilson explains where the family name Daidoji  originates:

"The Daidoji clan traces its lineage back to the twelfth-century Taira. The family name was adopted in 1471 when Ise Taro, older brother of the famous warlord Hojo Soun, took the name of Daidoji, a temple near his residence."

Mr. Wilson compares this and the previous book in his introduction:

Budōshoshinshu and Hagakure are the most influential treatises on samurai philosophy from the Edo period. The two books were written at about the same time, and both addressed the warrior’s role in times of peace. While Hagakure was mostly a secret book of the Nabeshima clan until the twentieth century, Budōshoshinshu was widely available almost from the start. 

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the author of Hagakure, was an obscure samurai-turned–Zen Buddhist priest and an avid student of poetry; his penchant for poetical style and themes can be observed throughout the book. 

By contrast, Daidoji Yūzan, the author of Budōshoshinshu, was descended from a long line of prominent warriors and was a well-known and sought-after teacher.

The writing of Tsunetomo, who entered the priesthood after retiring as a samurai, was clearly influenced by Zen Buddhism. Although Tsunetomo dwells as much on death as on the warrior’s duty, the connotation is that death of the ego is what allows the warrior to live and serve selflessly. 

Daidoji Yūzan was a Confucian scholar, and although Budōshoshinshu begins with a meditation on death, it is imbued with classic Confucian philosophy, centered on living one’s life with sincerity and loyalty. The concept of living selflessly is the common thread that winds through both men’s writings.

Many scholars consider Hagakure to be the most radical and romantic of samurai texts, while Budōshoshinshu, owing to its heavy Confucian influence, is more measured and practical...

Hand-copied manuscripts of Budōshoshinshu seem to have circulated to a number of clans not long after Daidoji Yūzan’s death in 1730. 

It was first edited and published in woodblock print in 1834 by the Matsushiro clan. In 1943, Furukawa Tesshi published a new edition, based on a different manuscript, which is generally agreed to hew closer to Daidoji’s original."

Budōshoshinshu is probably my favorite of the texts in this survey. I found it easy to read, and the explorations of certain passages in Matthew Krueger's podcast are illuminating.

To give a flavor for the text, consider these excerpts:

"The man who would be a warrior regards it his most basic objective to keep death in mind always, day and night, from the time he picks up his chopsticks to enjoy his morning meal on New Year’s Day to the evening of the last day of the year...

When a warrior constantly keeps death in mind, both loyalty and filial piety are realized, and myriad evils and disasters are avoided; he is without illness or mishap and lives out a long life...

Beyond these, there are the many arts of archery, iaido [drawing the sword and cutting in one movement] and judo; and it is important that young warriors exert themselves day and night to learn these arts well."

Note that I am not convinced the original text uses the term judo. It would be worth revisiting the original text to see the Japanese.

The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma by Red Pine, 1989

The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, Red Pine, 1989 

Probably no figure in the martial arts world is more mischaracterized than Bodhidharma. I figured that if I was reading a lot about Zen then it would be helpful to see if Bodhidharma had any works attributed to him. This title, by Red Pine (the pen name for Bill Porter, 1943-), features four essays attributed to Bodhidharma:

Outline of Practice
Bloodstream Sermon
Wake-up Sermon
Breakthrough Sermon

Mr. Pine says the following about the attribution:

"Most scholars agree that the Outline of Practice is one such record [by Bodhidharma], but opinion is divided concerning the other three sermons translated here. All three have long been attributed to Bodhidharma, but in recent years a number of scholars have suggested that these sermons are the work of later disciples. Yanagida, for example, attributes the Bloodstream Sermon to a member of the Oxhead Zen School, which flourished in the seventh and eighth centuries, and he thinks that the Wake-up Sermon was an eighth-century work of the Northern Zen School and the Breakthrough Sermon was by Shen-hsiu, the seventh-century patriarch of the Northern Zen School.

Unfortunately, evidence that would conclusively prove or disprove the traditional attribution is lacking... [W]ith the discovery of thousands of T’ang dynasty Buddhist manuscripts earlier this [20th] century  in China’s Tunhuang Caves, we now have seventh- and eighth-century copies. Clearly these sermons were compiled at a very early date by monks who traced their ancestry to Bodhidharma. If it wasn’t Hui-k‘o or one of his disciples, perhaps it was T’an-lin who wrote them down."

This site has a lot of information and writings associated with Bodhidharma.

Concerning the author himself, Mr. Pine notes:

"I know at least one Buddhist scholar who doubts that Bodhidharma ever existed. But at the risk of writing about a man who never lived, I’ve sketched a likely biography, based on the earliest records and a few of my own surmises, to provide a backdrop for the sermons attributed to him.

Bodhidharma was born around the year 440 in Kanchi, the capital of the Southern Indian kingdom of Pallava. He was a Brahman by birth and the third son of King Simhavarman. When he was young, he was converted to Buddhism, and later he received instruction in the Dharma from Prajnatara, whom his father had invited from the ancient Buddhist heartland of Magadha. 

It was Prajnatara who also told Bodhidharma to go to China. Since the traditional overland route was blocked by the Huns, and since Pallava had commercial ties throughout Southeast Asia, Bodhidharma left by ship from the nearby port of Mahaballipuram. After skirting the Indian coast and the Malay Peninsula for three years, he finally arrived in Southern China around 475...

[I]n 496, the emperor ordered the construction of Shaolin Temple on Mount Sung, in Honan Province southeast of Loyang. The temple, which still exists (although largely as a tourist attraction), was built for another meditation master from India, not for Bodhidharma. 

But while zen masters have come and gone at the temple for the past 1,500 years, Bodhidharma is the only monk anyone but a Buddhist historian associates with Shaolin. It was here, on Mount Sung’s western Shaoshih Peak, that Bodhidharma is said to have spent nine years in meditation, facing the rock wall of a cave about a mile from the temple. 

Shaolin later became famous for training monks in kung-fu, and Bodhidharma is honored as the founder of this art as well. Coming from India, he undoubtedly instructed his disciples in some form of yoga, but no early records mention him teaching any exercise or martial art."

As far as the text itself, I liked the first letter. The rest did not resonate with me.

Samurai Zen: The Warrior Koans by Trevor Leggett, 1985 and 2003

Samurai Zen: The Warrior Koans, Trevor Leggett, 1985 and 2003

I am not going to say a lot about this book. It attracted me because it featured three topics of interest in the title: Samurai, Zen, and koans. (A koan is "a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.")

Unfortunately, right from the start it was confusing. You can see that in the Kindle preview. The introduction lost me immediately. The text is a "collection of 100 odd koans[,] here presented in translation [and] put together in 1545, under the name Shonan-katto-roku, from records in the Kamakura temples dating back to the foundation of Kenchoji in 1253 when pure Zen first came to Japan."

Once you get past the inscrutable introductory material to the koans, you encounter material like this:

"Shonenbo gave one cry of Namu-Amidabutsu, and the fire went out without burning even the edge of the robe – so it is related...

Kagemitsu said: ‘He faces the Great Teacher directly.’ The teacher covered his face with his fan and said: ‘How is it now?’ (Imai’s note: When the teacher is dead) Kagemitsu hesitated. The teacher snapped the fan shut and hit him on the fore-head with it. Kagemitsu had a realization, made a salutation and left...

The attendant said again, ‘Of the thousand forms of Jizo, the very first Jizo is the Buddha-lord who is always using those thousand forms.’ The warrior said, ‘Who is this Buddha-lord?’ The attendant suddenly caught him and twisted his nose. The samurai immediately had a realization...

A man comes and asks you to give a sermon to a baby less than a month old. How do you make the sermon? Say!

‘I hear that the retreat has been named Source of Heaven. But is there any source from which comes heaven itself ?’ ‘There is, there is,’ said the priest; ‘does Your Grace wish to see it?’ The nobleman said, ‘Then I ask you to show me.’ The priest caught hold of him, and picking up a block of wood, hit him on the crown of the head with it twice. The nobleman had a realization from the blow, and said, ‘By your grace this old knight could go beyond the thirty-three heavens and reach their source.’

The cherry tree on the right side of the lotus lake suddenly came into flower, and under it was a beautiful girl, who filled a bowl with wine and offered it to him. The master shook his whole body and gave a tremendous Katzu! shout, on which there was a great earthquake, and the old badger fell dead."

I basically laughed every time I encounter the admonition to "say!" and every time a monk solved the problem at hand with a Katzu! shout.


My goal with posts like these are two-fold. First, I want to document my limited exposure to what may or may not be key texts in martial arts history. Second, I want to share these notes with you, so that you can hopefully benefit from my journey, in some small way. 

During this reading project I encountered other titles that are related. I did not have time to read them this round, or in some cases they were not available. For example, Dr. Bennett mentioned a book titled Kōyō Gunkan, which is a Takeda family history. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be an English translation.

I have books in my queue through the end of 2022, and I plan to continue making surveys such as these on a monthly basis.

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