— Counter-Currents —

Zen, the Samurai Ethos, & Death

[1]2,446 words

Translated by Guillaume Durocher

Translator’s Note:

This text is drawn from Dominique Venner, Un samouraï d’Occident: Le Bréviaire des insoumis (Paris: Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, 2013), 101-15.. I have previously reviewed this work at The Occidental Observer [2].

In the Japan of past times, the samurai to-be was subjected from his earliest years to a very strict education aiming to teach him perfect self-control. His schooling included intense martial arts training, according to the principles of Zen, this particular branch of Buddhism which has fascinated so many European observers. The latter have applied to the Japanese martial arts esoteric interpretations which have often misled them into ridiculous impasses, decorated with mysterious and empty words: breath, enlightenment, harmony, sublime truth . . .

There is in fact little mystery in the practice of Zen. Rather, there are methods which are fairly similar to those of professions which exclude reasoning, to the benefit of a training in gestures and the acquisition of reflexes. To train a Japanese cook, one first makes him wash the dishes for a month. Then he is admitted to the next level: skinning vegetables. Then will come the moment to boil the water. Finally, he will be able to throw the rice or some other foodstuff in this water. This is still only the beginning. Years will have already passed, without any preceding explanation, in a total submission to the master, repeating gestures until these attain the perfection of reflexes. Whatever be the flattering artifices which surround it, Zen does not proceed any differently.

The word Zen derives from the Sanskrit Dhyana, which means meditation. Its teaching apparently came to China from India around the year 600 and was introduced to Japan in the twelfth century, a period which coincides with establishment of the Nipponese version of feudalism. To speak of meditation is inappropriate. This word suggests thought. Yet there is not thought but the rejection of thought in the practice of Zen, to create a reflexive state through the endless repetition of the same gestures and sentences, a practice that we also find in most religions, with their repetitive invocations and prayers. One does not think. On the contrary! One empties one’s mind. One puts it to rest, which has beneficial effects. One empties oneself while endlessly repeating the same prayers or mantras: “Blessed be the name of Buddha [or God[1] [3]].”

Zen is neither a system of ideas, nor a philosophy, nor a religion. It is devoid of dogmas and beliefs, even if it entails practice in places of “meditation” and [spiritual] “exercise.” Its disciples propose the method of the koan[2] [4] which so disconcerts the Western mind by rejecting the role of reason. The oldest Zen poem begins as follows: “The conflicts between the just and the unjust, between truth and untruth, are maladies of the mind.” This no doubt surprises any rationalist mind used to theoretical jousting. But in avoiding academic debates that have no answer, this claim does not seem to be without sense.

The Feeling of Nature’s Superiority

When a very learned European visitor asked a Zen master a question, he responded by serving him some tea and continued until the cup was full and overflowing. “Master, don’t you see that the cup is overflowing?” protested the visitor. To which the master gently replied: “How can I teach you when your mind is like this cup. You have come with a mind too stuffed with things. Not to learn, but to criticize, to discuss. So I can’t teach you anything.” Such an assertion can only disconcert a Western mind which has been trained to question. And yet it is revealing on Zen’s non-thought and its educational method.

That is why, for the samurai, Zen and weapons’ training are so intertwined that we can no longer distinguish what pertains to one or to the other. Zen temples have a meditation room, the same dojo which is used by masters to teach their martial art. And these masters can be Zen monks, a monastic type very different from Christian monks.

At the root of it all, in Zen there is an overwhelming feeling that beauty, balance, order, and harmony reach their perfection in Nature. Notwithstanding some minor differences, this feeling was also present in European Antiquity. If we compare humans to the beings of Nature – plants, animals, birds, fish – we often appear disabled. Nothing is more beautiful and inexplicable than the sprouting forth of a flower in spring. The most graceful young girl can scarcely compete with young does slipping through the woods in an aerial dance. The quickest warrior is slow compared to a lion or a leopard.

Zen’s explanation: humans are hobbled by reason. Far from being a superiority, for Zen, reason is an obstacle which we must liberate ourselves from. Thought gets between the actor and the act. This reason which Westerners place above all else, appears as a rudimentary and crude stage of perception and action. To act with the leopard’s lightning-fast ease, we need to escape thought and acquire perfect automatic reflexes.

“Never fix your mind on the point of the sword, the movement, the eyes of your opponent, or the target,” say the master swordsmen. The rule is to see without seeing, to perceive without fixing one’s attention, to sense in advance, and not merely react to, an attack. “All art consists in training oneself to the point that one’s opponent becomes transparent, that the intention to attack is perceived before the attack . . .” To take a trivial and reductionist example, it is somewhat similar to what skilled car drivers or ski virtuosos achieve . . . Martial arts however by no means limit themselves to the learning of reflexes. As is shown by the example of kendo, there is also a strong religious component.

Kendo as Religious Ritual

Young men for the most part, the practitioners of kendo sit, upright and silent, helmets and gloves before them. The sun flashes in brief glimmers on their masks. Two opponents rise, their bodies wrapped in armor, faces masked. In hand, they hold a shinai made of hard wood. They bow in a deep salutation before the gods of the sanctuary.

Before the lightning-fast violence of the attack, kendo – Japanese fencing – is silence, meditation,[3] [5] concentration. It is a liturgy. The Western spectator witnesses a dense and impenetrable mystery.

There is a world separating the fencing practiced in Europe by a minority and kendo, which has millions of practitioners in Japan. One is a sport of quality, the other is a martial art, which is much more. The first appeals to muscle strength, flexibility, and practical intelligence. The other mobilizes the entire being, body and soul. A fencing attack is a sporting spectacle. A session of kendo is a religious ritual.

This difference is all the more striking given that Japan is a model of modernity. Why has the sword lost all symbolic content in Europe and why does it remain charged with spirituality in the Far East? Why is there this moral inferiority of Europe relative to Japan? Yet the sword’s role was also elevated in Europe’s distant past. The attachment of medieval knights for their sword was certainly no less than that of the samurai for theirs. It was however of another nature. The knights did not embrace, like the samurai, a total morality, a “way” (do) as the Japanese say.

Even as it aspired to its own ethic, the European noblesse d’épée[4] [6] benefited from neither the freedom nor the mental toolkit which would have allowed them to conceptualize their own morality. They then never had their own Bushido.

In the West, as soon as Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century, everything changed. The privilege of moral discourse and knowledge escaped the men of the sword, a development not without its conflicts. The historian Zoé Oldenbourg has emphasized this tension in her book Les Croisades: “The constant hostility between clerics and knights which persisted throughout the Middle Ages shows the degree to which the military aristocracy of Western countries was ill-suited to this religion, despite the fact it had been theirs for centuries.”[5] [7] . . .

Bushido and the Hagakure

In the seventeenth century, the beginning of the Edo period [named after the Japanese capital’s location, Edo, the former name of Tokyo], the Tokugawa shoguns had imposed within the Nipponese empire a civil peace which had eliminated the ceaseless wars between daimyo.[6] [8] This pacification made the maintenance of large samurai armies useless. Those who were made jobless were reduced to the state of déclassé ronin. It is during this critical period that Yamaga Soko formulated Bushido or “the way of the warrior.” Rather than a “code,” Bushido is a set of principles. A code implies fixed rules, whereas a do, a “way,” is an ethos for daily life, a school of behavior.

Bushido is in intimate accord with Japan’s three spiritual sources: Shinto, Zen Buddhism, and Confucianism. It draws from Shinto’s immanence, a pantheist religion free from any idea of a hereafter, which combined the worship of ancestors with that of nature. Bushido inspires itself from it, while also cultivating the Buddhist virtue of detachment and selflessness.[7] [9] But this is a Nipponized Buddhism, shed of non-violence, reformed by the Zen wisdom that teaches self-mastery through the practice of a “way,” incidentally in this case that of various martial arts. Finally, the third source, Confucianism, is a wisdom relating to social life. In addition to manners, it teaches that each must assume his duties according to his position in the hierarchy.

During many long years of training, the samurai to-be is transformed. He frees himself from the fear of death, the ultimate secret of the art of the sword. “The way of the warrior is to be found in dying,” writes Yamamoto Jōchō in the Hagakure, a treatise on bushi principles for daily life[8] [10] written in the seventeenth century. “If you must choose between life or death, simply settle for death. It is not an especially difficult choice; just go forth and meet it confidently. To declare that dying without aiming for the right purpose is nothing more than a ‘dog’s death’ is the timid and shallow way of Kamigata[9] [11] warriors. . . . Human beings have a preference for life. As such, it is a natural tendency to apply logic to justify one’s proclivity to stay alive. If you miss the mark and live to tell the tale, then you are a coward.” Yamamoto insists: “Rehearse your death every morning and night.”[10] [12] Thus we can escape the anxiety of living and the fear of dying.

It is not by chance that the symbol of the samurai is the cherry blossom which falls before it wilts. “Like a ray of morning sun, the cherry blossom’s petal takes leave, so a dauntless man must be able to detach himself from existence, silently and with an unshaken heart.”[11] [13]

Words & Deeds

This detachment is never more brilliant than in the Japanese rite of voluntary death through disembowelment, seppuku. According to the Chinese anatomical science adopted by the Japanese, the part of the belly below the navel (hara) is indeed the center of life.

Seppuku was not only a way for the bushi to avoid dishonor. It was also an extreme way of showing their genuineness through a heroic and gratuitous act. They had learned to despise those who talked instead of doing. “They thought that a single act says much more than the longest of speeches, because speech may lie.” They believed in the absolute sincerity of the supreme act. They thought that one cannot lie in the face of death.

In his essay entitled Voluntary Death in Japan, Maurice Pinguet compares the spirit of the Japanese noblesse d’épée and that of the European aristocracy in its autumn years, between the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries. One does not emerge from reading this unshaken: “All the while recognizing the same principles of honor and service as the samurai, the (French) nobility of the sword did not succeed in asserting its values, because after the failure of the Fronde,[12] [14] a bourgeois version of Christian charity triumphed. The nobility would console itself by mocking Pharisianism,[13] [15] by laughing at courtly hypocrites and their credulous victims.”[14] [16] That was what La Rochefoucauld[15] [17] and the old rebellious nobility did, taking refuge in Jansenism.[16] [18] “In Japan, the martial ethos succeeded because it emphasized self-abnegation . . . He who defends his honor with his life cannot be suspected of falsehood. He acts, that is enough . . . That was the institution of seppuku which protected the martial ethic from any utilitarian subordination, which ensured its sovereignty over life . . . Voluntary death certified by its supreme sanction the entire system of martial obligations.”[17] [19]

At the end of the Second World War, voluntary death in Japan received a peerless consecration when the sacrifice of young kamikazes was demanded. This word means “divine wind,” in memory of the miraculous typhoon which dispersed a fleet of invading Mongols in 1281. A special aerial attack force was established in the hope that suicide-attacks against American ships could ward off the inevitable. The first attack occurred on 25 October 1944. In all, 2198 pilots sacrificed themselves: 24 American ships were sunk, 288 were damaged. Despite this, the enemy’s naval power was not seriously threatened. For his final flight, every kamikaze took a traditional sword with him, held closely against himself. A useless death? Perhaps. But certainly not an absurd one. Only a passive death is meaningless.[18] [20] Willed, it has the meaning one gives it, even when it has no practical utility.

The European soul is not insensitive to this rhetoric. It vibrates by a secret chord. It is not by chance if the ritual suicide of the writer Mishima, on 25 November 1970, made such waves in France and Europe where, in past times, we had also cultivated detachment in the face of death.


[1] [21] Venner’s insertion.

[2] [22] A kind of Zen riddle.

[3] [23] “[R]ecueillement,” literally, a gathering and recentering of oneself.

[4] [24] Nobles of the sword or warrior aristocracy.

[5] [25] Zoé Oldenbourg, Les Croisades (Gallimard, 1965, republished in 2009 in the collection “Folio histoire” by the same publisher.).

[6] [26] Great lords.

[7] [27] “[O]ubli de soi,” literally “self-forgetting.”

[8] [28] “[S]avoir-vivre,” usually translated as “manners.”

[9] [29] Referring to the region including the highly-cultured cities of Kyoto and Osaka, considered by Yamamoto to be grotesquely effeminate.

[10] [30] English translations taken from Yamamoto Tsunemoto (trans. Alexander Bennett), Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai (Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 2014), 1.1.

[11] [31] Eugen Herrigel, Le Zen dans l’art chevalresque du tir à l’arc (Paris: Dervy, 1970).

[12] [32] A major revolt against monarchic power (1648-1653).

[13] [33] i.e. religiously-inspired self-righteousness and sanctimony.

[14] [34] “[E]n riant des tartufes et de leurs dupes.”

[15] [35] An aristocratic author of maxims and memoirs.

[16] [36] A form of dissident Catholicism.

[17] [37] Maurice Pinguet, La Mort volontaire au Japon (Gallimard, 1984).

[18] [38] “Seule une mort subie n’a pas de sens.”