10 Amazing Life Lessons from a Book About Death
How the Way of the Warrior Can Be a Path to Fulfilling Your Life’s True Purpose
The Dojo I train in, is an old Japanese schoolhouse repurposed as a place of martial arts training. It has wooden slats for windows, old pictures of master practitioners hanging on the walls, shelves full of first place trophies and a garbage can full of 2nd and third place medals.
You can still see where there used to be an AC unit installed. It was long ago removed- violently ripped from the wall by someone’s body as he was thrown into it.
Dojo literally means “place of the way”. The Martial way, to be specific, and this dojo was one of the oldest in the US. Founded in 1908, it was home to many Judo and Jujitsu practitioners over the years, myself being one of them.
Finding My Breaking Point
The room smells of old wood, dirty laundry and damp tatami mats. Two bodies clash in what often looks like mortal combat.
Beads of sweat run down my face and fall to the mat. Everything moves in slow motion.
I grabbed my opponent’s Gi, the traditional uniform of the Jujitsu practitioner. I find my grips and feel the cloth fit perfectly in my hand. I don’t grab too tightly though, so as not to give away my intentions.
I quickly tighten my grips and try to sweep my opponent onto his back. I fail.
He reverses the position and gains the upper hand, deftly transitioning into reverse “jujigatame”, known as a “cross arm lock”.
It’s a move designed to break the arm at the elbow joint by forcing the arm to bend the way it was clearly not designed to bend: backwards.
Before I have time to “tap out” (cry Uncle), all his bodyweight is falling on my elbow. I hear a snap, my hand goes limp and intense pain shoots up my arm. I crumple on the mat, defeated.
The sparring match is over.
I sheepishly pop my elbow back into place. The nerves in my elbow are stretched from the hyperextension of my elbow joint. My hand doesn’t work for a good 20 minutes at least.
My opponent quickly apologizes, but we both know it’s not necessary. After all, this is the martial way. It’s combat, and something my ancestors invented thousands of years ago and have been practicing ever since.
These days most martial arts are turning into sports. They have rules, regulations, and scientific training methods designed to produce wins under pure sport conditions.
Many martial arts have arguably become watered down. They’ve become diluted with the transition into a more peaceful time.
Outside of self-defense, the savage conditions that necessitated the development of martial arts have faded away. To find the real essence of these arts you have to look back in history.
Born of War
Japan is well known to be the birthplace of many different martial arts and for good reason.
Japan’s history is a savage and violent one.
During the Feudal era, Japan was fractured by constant warfare. In the early 1100’s, a new ruling class of warrior’s emerged: the Samurai.
Japan had a cast system during this time. Much like the Spartans of ancient Greece, the samurai were a class who dedicated their lives completely to the art of war.
This violent era gave rise to much advancement in strategy, technology and philosophy. These advancements were a necessity if one’s clan was to survive the harsh conditions on the battlefield.
Huge leaps were made in sword-making techniques. Even today, the Japanese Katana (the sword used by the samurai) is viewed as one of, if not the most elegant sword designs in history.
Crafted by wrapping steel thousands of times over top of itself, it takes a highly skilled practitioner to make one.
There were many martial arts born of this period. Swords, archery, spears and more, all had specialized training. As warriors needed every advantage on the battlefield, empty hand combat techniques also made great strides.
Jujutsu, or “Jujitsu” (as it is commonly known in the West), which later evolved into Judo and Aikido, was born from the possibility of being disarmed on the battlefield.
After losing your sword, since your opponent most likely had 22 kilos of armor on, kicks and punches were not very effective. But breaking limbs and strangulation could still be very useful.
This “warfare renaissance” was not limited to martial arts alone. Many samurai were philosophers, painters, poets, sculptors and authors.
Being a warrior required such a multi-faceted mindset that many samurai inadvertently became polymaths.
The depth of thought that went into their philosophy is of particular interest as it allows us to peer into the mind of a professional warrior.
Bushido: Way of the Warrior
A samurai was a warrior whose devotion to his Lord and dedication to his craft was absolute. He often either faced death directly, or had time to contemplate death’s imminent arrival.
Life was fragile and at the same time both precious and worthless. Samurai were constantly taking lives, training to take lives, putting their lives on the line in battle, or performing Harakiri (ritual suicide by self-disembowelment).
The samurai didn’t have tours of duty or honorable discharges like today’s military. This was a singular devotion and a permanent way of life. An honorable discharge was often death on the battlefield or Harakiri.
This way of life became known as “Bushido”, the Way of the Warrior.
In following Bushido, the warrior recited 4 vows while in prayer:
1. Never lag behind in the practice of Bushido.
2. Always be loyal and devoted in the service to your Lord.
3. Do your duty to your parents.
4. Stir up your compassion for all sentient beings in order to devote yourself to the service of others.
After years of martial training, I became fascinated with its origins and the philosophies behind the arts. I was perhaps more interested in the history and philosophy than the actual combat aspects of training.
This ultimately led me to a book called the Hagakure (meaning “Hidden by the Leaves”. (Throughout this article I am referencing “Bushido: The Way of the Samurai”. A book closely based on the Hagakure and translated from it by Minoru Tanaka.)
Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote the original Hagakure as a spiritual guide for the samurai warriors of his day.
He was a favorite retainer of a powerful feudal lord. He focused much of his thought on war and what it meant to be a warrior.
Translated and released in many different versions, the Hagakure is often summed up as a book more about the “way of death” than a way of living. Or more accurately, for living as though one was already dead.
“The Way of the Samurai is found in death.” The way of the warrior is death.
Life Lessons Found in Death
The fascinating thing is, as much as it is a book about death, it is also very much a book about life.
There are few professions in the world that require such an utterly relentless pursuit of perfection as that of the warrior.
The warrior’s life depends on developing an ever-increasing level of skill and proficiency, physically, mentally and spiritually.
If any one of these elements is not up to par, the warrior has an excellent chance of losing their life, failing in their mission, or both.
The book not only gives us a glimpse into the mental models of the past, but also shows us that many of the philosophies and life lessons within, are still applicable in the present.
1. “Two Ways of Thinking”
“If you base your thinking upon your selfish desires, the working of your mind is reduced to the working of a malicious intellect.”
For the average person, most of their thought is based on “I”, or “me”. They are often just thinking in terms of the economic man.
The samurai’s life was service. He had to transcend this thinking on a daily basis and think of others before himself. The lives of others were constantly being put before his own.
If the samurai was to constantly think in terms of himself, he could not perform his duty. This is why the samurai, upon waking each day, would imagine himself as a dead body.
With no attachments to self, he could perform unimaginably difficult tasks.
Applying it to today’s world, there are billions of people playing the game of life, “not to lose” instead of playing to win. Worry and fear control their decisions. There is hesitation, a fear to commit, and in the end, lives go unlived.
It is not death we should fear, but rather, the inability to experience and fulfill our life’s true purpose. Everyone will one day face death; few will allow themselves to experience a life that truly transcends fear.
You have a larger purpose in life. You have a powerful reason “Why” you are on this earth, at this moment. It is your job to discover what that is, and live it.
2. “High Upon High”
“There are levels in the course of mastery throughout your life…Your life is something you build every day. You must convince yourself that you have surpassed yesterday. And tomorrow you must feel that you have surpassed today. In this way there is no end to your mastery.”
The samurai needed to keep improving themselves. Their lives and the lives of their clan depended on it.
The Japanese have a word, “Kaizen”, that means “continual improvement”. It can be applied to business, as in the case of Toyota Motor Corporation.
Toyota’s continuous improvement of its operations through the philosophy of Kaizen resulted in game changing innovation within the auto industry.
They went from a small Japanese car company that couldn’t make enough cars, to one of the largest and most profitable companies on the planet.
Kaizen can also be applied to individuals. Personal growth is something that many people desire, but have trouble achieving consistently.
The reason is because they view personal growth as a set of activities or something like a diet plan. Diet plans always fail because they don’t address the root of the problem: Lifestyle.
The martial way is a lifestyle. This ensures that personal development -personal Kaizen- is constant.
In your own quest for personal development and improvement, it is most effective to think of it like Kaizen. The improvement is “continuous”. It never stops. It is a lifestyle.
3. “Think Lightly on Serious Matters”
“Think of trifles in an earnest and thoughtful way.”
In swordplay, it is actually the feet that matter most.
It is your foundation from which to fight. The ground under your feet needs to be firm in order to strike.
Having a pre-planned strategy is also very important.
The famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi used to visualize and strategize his duels in advance, in great detail, so as to give him an edge in combat.
The same can be done in decision-making. Think about the serious matters in your life. These could be relationships, projects at work, and anything that takes a degree of planning and decision-making.
Think about these issues in advance and figure out what you would do at each decision-point. When you need to make a decision in the future, it’s already done for you.
This becomes more important when the stakes are high and the situation is fluid.
If you have to make a lot of decisions in a high stakes, dynamic environment, and you have not done any thinking or planning beforehand, you will end up putting out a lot of fires. You will have to think very hard at each decision-point.
This becomes even more important in a combat setting as you can imagine.
When Navy SEALs go into combat, most of the thinking and decision-making has been done beforehand. They can react at lightning speed without thinking very hard at all. It’s almost a reflex action.
This seems like common sense, but most people don’t do it. Pre-planning for complex problems before they happen, allows you to react quickly and appropriately without much thought in the moment.
This is how you build a firm foundation under your feet.
4. “Groundless Suffering”
“As for the way of death, if you previously learn how to die, you can die with ease of mind.”
If you have read the memoirs of Marcus Aurelius, called “Meditations”, he talks of a similar concept.
Many people have anxiety these days. Anxiety is basically a fear of the future. It’s a fear you have about something that hasn’t happened yet.
In some cases, this fear can become debilitating causing panic attacks and in many people, depression.
The actual seriousness of the situation doesn’t necessarily have much bearing on the level of anxiety for most people. It’s all relative.
One person may get severe anxiety about a mid-term exam. Someone else, might worry about losing their job and subsequently their home and family.
The samurai needed to find good ways of dealing with their fears about the future. After all, they had a high probability of experiencing death on the battlefield after being stabbed, beheaded or shot.
If they survived that, there was always the possibility of self-disembowelment via Harakiri.
If they managed to avoid all that, at best, they might be lucky enough to become a “Ronin”, or “Masterless Samurai” upon their Lord’s death, basically rendering them unemployed.
These things probably weighed as heavily on them as they would on us.
The samurai needed to see anxiety as truly unnecessary suffering. They needed to believe that it was absurd to worry about something in the present that has not happened yet.
Their mission and their service -their purpose, or, “Why”- was of the upmost importance.
They needed to believe and accept that the end for them was pre-ordained. The only thing to do was move forward. They were all “dead men walking”.
This is not to say that you should imagine yourself as dead per say, but it does hold some truth. Again it goes back to a focus on self.
Are you focusing on “I” and “Me”? Or are you focusing on accomplishing your true purpose in life? Are you focused on your “Why”?
We are all destined to die. We are all destined to fail at things. We will all endure difficult hardship. Imagine the worst. How bad is it really? How much is it in your control? How much can you influence the outcome?
Or is your time and energy better spent on your life’s most important mission?
5. “How to Excel Above Others”
“His work was perfect; yet the very fact that he asked others to look over his work meant that he already had surpassed them.”
As mentioned previously, the samurai were relentless in their pursuit of perfection.
They realized that people of ordinary ability live within the confines of their own narrow opinions about themselves.
Without being critiqued, without being challenged, there can be no growth and no improvement. It was critique, challenge and it’s subsequent improvements that kept you alive in combat.
I personally learned this early on in art school.
Making work in a vacuum will have you thinking your work is good. But in reality, when it comes to getting a job in art or design, it doesn’t matter what you think of your work. It matters what other’s think.
The students with the best work opened themselves up to the most criticism. They went out looking for it constantly.
In doing this, their success was pre-ordained. They had already surpassed their competition. They ended up with the highest quality work and the best jobs.
6. “How to Acquire Talented People”
“In order to rule the nation, you had best have able men…After all, you pray to God for things beyond human power and endeavor. It is within our power to get talented people to appear”.
Feudal Lords in Japan had a difficult job. They governed in an era that would endure constant warfare for perhaps their entire lives.
They needed to surround themselves with the best people they could find- the best warriors, strategists and retainers, but how?
“Irrespective of any matter, things gather around him who loves them…if you love people, the result will be the same. Make a point of loving and respecting.”
This not only applies to people but also to endeavors. It is very similar to the theory of the “Law of Attraction”, where thinking about things can make them appear in your life.
To some people, this concept is a little too, “far out”, until you remember that thoughts precede actions.
To achieve success we all need to surround ourselves with talent. We need to find people who can help us reach our goals.
We attract them by thinking of them first and helping them with what they need. We attract them by doing the things they want to do themselves. Our passion attracts others with similar passion.
With this concept you build the army you need to better manage teams, run companies and even rule nations.
7. “Persuasion Tactics”
“If you meet an aggressive and argumentative person, be flexible; without being too unbending, you have to talk him down while making use of higher reason. And make sure there is no grudge on his part.”
Samurai were not just masters of utilizing force. They had to be keen in the supple arts as well.
Jujutsu, the unarmed method of combat used by the samurai, means “Gentle Art”.
It’s not that breaking arms and choking people unconscious is “gentle” but the application of force is very flexible. Judo is similar. Judo means “the Gentle Way”. You are to a large degree using your opponent’s force against them.
The same can be said of the art of persuasion and communication for the samurai. The judging of character is swift and strategy was based on their observations.
Instead of forcing your opinion and choosing just one track of communication, you can be adaptable.
You would adapt your methods of communication and persuasion based on the individual you’re dealing with, in order to be most effective.
8. “At the Conference”
“If you confer only with people in your own circle (relatives and friends), their opinions will naturally favor you, rendering them useless.”
When planning strategy, it was imperative for the samurai to get the opinions of disinterested outsiders as they could see things more objectively. This objective feedback strengthened the samurai’s strategy and increased the odds of victory.
The same could be applied to modern concerns. If you surround yourself with “Yes” men, or friends that will not give you honest feedback, your planning, work and results will suffer.
If the samurai army filled its ranks with Yes men, all of them would be slaughtered.
If companies fill their ranks with Yes men, they will eventually be killed off (put out of business) by their competition.
Don’t just seek out feedback. Make sure it’s coming from the right people.
9. “You Cannot Tell Your Own Ability”
“Those people who see very little think they are awakened to their own merits and demerits.”
People tend to place predefined limits on what they can and cannot do.
They will have an experience and immediately judge their own abilities. Usually it is most common to judge one’s own ability as being limited in some way.
This translates into self-imposed limitations on their lives. Their true potential is never fully realized.
The reality is, people don’t know their own limitations very well. They don’t know what they are truly capable of because they never allow themselves to be tested.
Don’t install pre-defined limitations on your life or your abilities. They are almost always false.
10. “Handling Difficulties”
“If the water rises, the ship rises too.”
The samurai were dealing with immensely difficult problems on a daily basis. Things like years long castle sieges, combat involving thousands of infantry units, a wide variety of weapons, and all seasons of weather. Most of these difficulties were designed to kill them.
They had to know that their abilities would rise to the occasion.
The same is true for the difficulties you may be facing in both your professional and personal life.
Even though the problems you face can seem insurmountable at times, you must have faith in your abilities. Even if you were facing death, what is the alternative?
You will adapt. You will figure it out. The more difficult the problem, the more your abilities and drive will rise up to meet the challenge, but first, you must believe in this process.
Within the Hagakure and Bushido, we see that, for the samurai, the “Way” was Bushido. It was a life of training, and in the process transcending death to live a life of both courage and spiritual tranquility.
This training allowed them to face anything life threw at them and to experience and fulfill their life’s true purpose, something few people allow themselves to do.
For me, the dojo was more than just a place to train; it was a whole bunch of life lessons experienced all in one place. The martial way was a “Way” to train and a way to live.
The blood, sweat and tears were simply a microcosm of what it would take to realize a life that was true to myself.
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