A Zen Tale as retold by Kurt Griffith
This is a tale of Old Japan, when the Shogun and great Lords, the Daimyō, ruled over the Land with with loyal retainers, the Samurai. The Samurai were fearsome and dedicated warriors, who chose a life of the sword with renowned discipline, and followed the principles of Zen and the Hagakure: Book of the Samurai, the Warrior’s Code. But not all of these warriors were created equal. Under their yakutas and behind their swords, were still, at the end of the day, human beings.
In this tale, in the countryside near Edo, the capital, two samurai approach each other on a bridge over a river. It is a perfectly ordinary day, other than the two samurai are from rival clans, with a long bitter history of feuds and warfare.
As they approach, the first Samurai identifies that the other is from a rival clan, and without hesitation, immediately rushes in, drawing his katana in a lightning swift strike and cuts him down. As he flicks away blood, he looks down at his fallen enemy and muses, “A shame, but it was either him or me.”
On perhaps another day, the samurai again approach. And again, the first samurai realizes the approaching warrior is from another clan. He strikes a pose mid-bridge, and loudly proclaims his name, clan and lord. The other returns the half-greeting, half-challenge. But the first samurai is not done. He boasts of his prowess as a swordsman, questions the bravery and manhood of the other samurai, and those of his clan. And to put a fine polish on it — suggests that his Daimyō does improper things with farm animals — and commoners. This is too much for the rival samurai, he goes for his sword. But the sharp-eyed first samurai was waiting for just such a response, and before his opponent can complete his draw, he has already drawn his sword a split second before and cuts him down. He looks down at the fallen retainer, and comments, “A shame, but he had it coming.”
Perhaps on a different day, the two samurai approach each other on the bridge and nearing the midway point, both stop, attentive and tense. They wait, hands poised near the tsuka of their razor-sharp katanas. Time slows in the tense stare-down — the sun inches across the blue sky, a breeze blows across the river, from somewhere comes the haunting notes of a samisen, and the ominous low whistle of a fue.
It it too much for the second samurai and he breaks, draws, and charges forward with a deafening kiai. The first samurai draws a scant moment after and goes into motion as well. As they pass each other, he deflects the incoming deadly stroke, then turning his blade, answers with a lethal cut of his own. The retainer of his lord’s rival falls, his blood dripping into the river, leaving poetic crimson streaks in the flowing water. Sheathing his katana, he proclaims, “Yosh. That was a good death. With honor.”
But on yet a different day, our hero is older, wiser, grayer, been to a few Kabuki plays and is not in such a hurry to prove himself. stepping onto the bridge, the two samurai approach each other. But the first samurai is casual, unconcerned. He slows his stride, calmly observant, waiting to see what might happen. The second warrior recognizes the first as an enemy, impulsively draws his sword and charges. The experienced retainer calmly sidesteps, evades the cut, and catching the rival samurai as he passes, turns and deftly throws him into the river. He quietly mutters, “Young people these days. So excitable.” He dusts himself off, and crosses the bridge and goes about his day.
He never drew his sword.
So what was the point of the story? Nominally in Zen teachings, the story is told and left to the student to find the wisdom encoded within the telling, to be deciphered by reflection and meditation. But most of you are probably Americans, and not within the martial environment of the dojo, so you need a bit more.
In the first instance, the samurai sees and enemy and instantly attacks. He wins, but the ethics of the encounter are deeply questionable. Unless the two feudal Lords were in an active state of war, the per-emptive attack is not justified.
In the second encounter, the rival samurai is provoked into attacking, giving the first warrior an excuse to cut him down. This is only marginally superior to the first scenario, as the first samurai has essentially created the deadly confrontation. This disturbingly resembles far too much of what passes for foreign policy among many nations, including our own.
By the third encounter we have reached a level of legitimate self-defense. The second samurai did indeed draw first and the first samurai defended himself with lethal force. But we still have a life taken, the dead have little need for their honor. But the first samurai can make an honest claim it was a fair fight. But shall we observe that neither of these proud samurai backed down or chose to pass each other without incident.
In the fourth instance, the samurai is older, wizened, and weary of bloodshed. So he chose a non-lethal approach, even in the face of a deadly attack. But to accomplish that particular martial feat, required a very highly developed attitude of calmness and superlative technical skill. Or in other words, maximum chill and skill. That does not come to us naturally. We have to cultivate the attitude, and train to acquire the skill.
Be the Fourth Samurai.
Some have complained that the rival samurai’s ego is dented, and he’ll be back, seeing revenge for his bruised honor. This is of course an argument to the impracticality of showing mercy to a determined enemy. Well, maybe you need to toss that guy in the river again. Maybe a bunch of times, till he cools the heck down. Then maybe you can go get some sushi and sake, or at least have a conversation.
I might envision an epilogue of sorts. This was not part of the original teaching.
…Some weeks later, the old samurai is crossing the bridge to find the rival samurai waiting, yet again, at the center of the gentle arch. He lets out a long slightly exasperated sigh, wondering how many times he needs to toss him in the river before he gives up… But to his surprise, the younger samurai pulls his sheathed katana from his obi, and drops it to the well worn wooden deck. “Please don’t throw me in the river any more.” Then drops into seiza and bows deeply and formally to the older samurai, his forehead to the weathered wood.
Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s the long way. But it preserves both sides. This is the radical compassion that Zen demands. And anyone with an ordinary amount of perception, imagination, and empathy should be able to see its value and application.
If not, that’s fine. Maybe you’re not ready. it’s still a pretty good story.
This retelling was inspired by my training and studies in Japanese History and Martial Arts over the years and my affinity for the principles and lessons of Zen.
Two books provided considerable specific inspiration —
This is Kendo: The Art of Japanese Fencing
by Junzo Sasamori & Gordon Warner,
Tuttle Publishing, Boston, 1964
Secrets of the Samurai: The Martial Arts of Feudal Japan
by Oscar Ratti & Adele Westbrook,
Tuttle Publishing, North Clarendon, VT, 1973