Secrets of the Samurai Sword

Way of the Warrior

The samurai bible is an 18th-century book known as The Hagakure (Behind the Leaves). Scholars believe that a samurai-turned-Zen-monk named Yamamoto Tsunetomo dictated its contents to a disciple, who later compiled his teacher's sayings into 11 volumes. Here, savor words of wisdom from this honored tome, which enshrines the samurai's code of conduct—and has lessons for us today.


Know the Meaning of Bushido
Bushido [the samurai code of conduct], I have found out, lies in dying. When confronted with two alternatives, life and death, one is to choose death without hesitation. There is nothing particularly difficult; one has only to be resolved and push forward. … If one, through being prepared for death every morning and evening, expects death any moment, bushido will become his own, whereby he shall be able to serve the lord all his life through and through with not a blunder.

Think Not Yourself as Established
A man who thinks he is already established is unwise; a man content with fixed views won through considerable effort has already fallen into a trap. … Without a moment of self-content with what little one has found out, one should keep thinking his accomplished results as being still unsatisfactory and not good enough, exploring the right way to the attainment through one's whole life. Truth lies in no place but in this course of pursuit itself.

One's appearance bespeaks dignity corresponding to the depth of his character. One's concentrated effort, serene attitude, taciturn air, courteous disposition, thoroughly polite bearing, gritted teeth with a piercing look—each of these reveals dignity. Such outward appearance, in short, comes from constant attentiveness and seriousness.

Move Heaven and Earth
Nothing is impossible in this world. Firm determination, it is said, can move heaven and earth. Things appear far beyond one's power, because one cannot set his heart on any arduous project due to want of strong will. It is all up to one's mental attitude to be able to "move even heaven and earth without exerting one's strength."

Stifle a Yawn
Yawning in others' presence is not a proper thing to do. For an unexpected yawn, rub your forehead with an upward stroke of your hand, which is usually enough to stifle a yawn. When that does not work, keep the yawn from being noticed by others by licking tight-shut lips with your tongue tip, hiding the yawn with your sleeve, your hand, etc. … Yawns and sneezes, more often than not, make you look foolish.

Fear not the Rain
One must know the so-called "lesson of a downpour." A man, caught in a sudden rain en route, dashes along the road not to get wet or drenched. Once one takes it for granted that in rain he naturally gets wet, he can be in a tranquil frame of mind even when soaked to the skin. This lesson applies to everything.


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Samurai in traditional battle gear, c. 1860

Editor's note: Excerpted from The Hagakure: A Code to the Way of the Samurai, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (Hokuseido Press, 1980).

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