The Bushido consisted of seven virtues. These virtues were the heart and soul of the Samurai. It was not just the way they lived their lives, it was who they were. To truly understand the Samurai, you must understand the Bushido. Although it was an unspoken code and certainly never canonized like the Bible, Bushido reached such popularity that certain elements were turned into law by during the Edo period(1603-1868). Training in the seven virtues of Bushido can make a great and positive impact on your life.
Bushido came to America in the early 1900’s via a book entitled Bushido: The Soul of Japan, or Bushido: The Spirit of the Samurai written by Nitobe Inazo, a Japanese scholar, agricultural economist, author, diplomat, and politician. The book is often criticized by scholars today for romanticizing about a chivalrous age that never existed (some Samurai were very corrupt; they were political figures and landowners with the ability to raise taxes and abused their power). The book however, is grounded in fact as most Samurai were adamant followers of Bushido. The question is “What exactly is Bushido, and how can it be applied to my modern, non-violent life?” You do not need to practice Kendo or any other martial art for that matter to follow Bushido. No one needs to be a warrior ready to sacrifice their life for their Shogun. We do however need to be fearless and ready to sacrifice our lives (metaphorically speaking) for a higher purpose. That purpose is different for each individual. Through meditation and self evaluation/discovery, we will be able to discover who we are and what that purpose is. Bushido is the pathway that will lead us to that discovery.
Morality or, “Rectitude” as it is often translated, is the ability to decide and act in a way that is in accordance with accepted moral standards. The kanji “Gi” has two parts: the upper part represents a sheep, which was the symbol of beauty in ancient China and the lower part is the character for I, with a strong slanting stroke on the left which represents a halberd. The character could be explained as understanding (sheep) after conflict (halberd). Gi is to do the right thing. Inazo defined morality in two ways, the power of unwavering decision upon a certain course of conduct and metaphorically as the bone that gives firmness and stature. He wrote, “Morality is one’s power to decide upon a course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering; to die when to die is right, to strike when to strike is right.’ Morality is the bone that gives firmness and stature. Without bones the head cannot rest on top of the spine, nor hands move nor feet stand. So without morality neither talent nor learning can make the human frame into a samurai.”
Courage is commonly defined as the quality of mind or spirit which enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, adversity, etc. without fear. It is often used as a synonym for bravery; however, to those who are more philosophically inclined, courage and bravery are two noticeably distinct nouns. Bravery is the ability to confront danger, pain, or attempts of intimidation without fear. It is strength of character that allows a person to always be seemingly bigger than the crisis at hand. Courage differs in that it is the ability to choose a course of action knowing that it will cause pain or difficulty despite the eminent and unavoidable presence of fear. More than a quality it is a state of mind and spirit driven by a cause that makes the struggle worthwhile. The essence of courage is not the feeling of being certainly capable of overcoming what one is faced with, but rather is the willful choice to fight regardless of the consequences. Courage is only useful when aligned with correct morals. Inazo wrote, “It is true courage to live when it is right to live, and to die only when it is right to die.” The kanji “Yuu” means courageous. It is commonly written as “Yuuki” which is two separate kanji. “Ki” means energy, so together they mean courageous energy.
Benevolence is the desire to do good to others. Samurai had both the legal and physical power to kill. They were required to keep their powers in check with benevolence and mercy. Inazo wrote, “Indeed valor and honor alike required that we should own as enemies in war only such as prove worthy of being friends in peace. When valor attains this height, it becomes akin to benevolence.” It was only those Samurai who could act with valor to the extent that they could befriend their enemies in times of peace that could capture the true essence of benevolence. The kanji “Jin” has two parts. On the left side is the character for human, and on the right there are two horizontal strokes which represent the number two. Jin is one of the fundamental virtues of Confucianism, which could be defined as to treat one another with tenderness or to love each other, making it much like the “golden rule.” Jin is the benevolence that unites each human being together.
“Rei” is translated to politeness or respect. The Japanese are a very polite and respectful people. This system was based in Confucianism but the Samurai adopted and maintained this system. In society rei governs your actions towards others very much relating it to jin. This kanji is a modern abbreviated form, which does not reveal much of the ancient character. The ancient symbol shows a sacrificing vessel that evokes the rites and ceremonies conducted for worshipping and offerings. The character actually means rite or ceremony but in a broader sense it means respect. On this subject Inazo wrote, “By constant exercise in correct manners, one brings all the parts and faculties of his body into perfect order and into such harmony with itself and its environment as to express the mastery of spirit over flesh.”
The Samurai prided themselves on honesty, so much so they didn’t see the need for written contracts as that would be doubting the truthfulness of their word. There are stories of Samurai being put to death for lying. Inazo wrote, “’Bushi no ichi-gon’ – the word of the Samurai, was sufficient guaranty for the truthfulness of an assertion. His word carried such weight with it that promises were generally made and fulfilled without a written pledge, which would have been deemed quite beneath his dignity.” The kanji “makoto” is comprised of two parts. At the left is the character for speak, a mouth that produces words. At the right is the character “sei,” which means to accomplish or succeed. Makoto means truth in word and action, to follow truly the law of the universe.
Samurai lived and died by their honor. We have all heard the stories of harajiri or seppuku(suicide by slicing open your own stomach) as the final way the Samurai preserved lost honor. An excerpt from Bushido: The Soul of Japan; “The sense of honor, implying a vivid consciousness of personal dignity and worth, could not fail to characterize the samurai, born and bred to value the duties and privileges of their profession. The honor is a pre-natal influence, being closely bound up with strong family consciousness. Also the honor was prized as the summum bonum of earthly existence. Fame, and not wealth or knowledge, was the goal toward which samurai had to strive. To shun shame or win a name, samurai boys would submit to any privations and undergo severest ordeals of bodily or mental suffering.” “Meiyo” has two kaji. The first “mei” means reputation, with the symbol of mouth below. The second kanji “yo” means to praise or to admire, which has the component of to say. “Meiyo” is to enjoy a good reputation, honor.
Loyalty is a concept that is fairly nonexistent today. However, there are people who have some sense of loyalty either to their job and stay at one company their entire lives, or to certain people either peers of family. During Samurai times loyalty was thought of as being more valuable than life itself. Inazo wrote, “Life itself was thought cheap if honor and fame could be attained therewith: hence, whenever a cause presented itself which was considered dearer than life, with utmost serenity and celerity was life laid down. Of the causes in comparison with which no life was too dear to sacrifice, was the duty of Loyalty.” “Chuugi” is comprised of two characters. The first one “chuu” means to be sincere or loyal. This character expresses very well the true meaning of loyalty. We see a heart and on top of it the symbol for middle. “Chuu” could be understood as no conflict in the heart, faithful to what is felt in the heart. The second kanji “gi” means right action or duty. Therefore, “chuugi” is to act faithfully, or to be loyal.
Imagine a world where everyone based all their decisions in morality. Of course some may have a jaded sense of morality, but if they used benevolence and respect as their guiding principles than this would not be the case. No one virtue stands alone. They are all interwoven with one another. Courage is useless if it is not used for a moral reason. Morality must be based in benevolence and respect. Respect and politeness stem from honesty and loyalty to one another. One cannot have honor without doing honorable deeds. We must consciously practice all the virtues of Bushido and embrace them into our hearts until such time they become our very soul and are second nature.