Summer Reading – Hagakure – Book of the Samurai

Summer is a great time to relax and “get out of your own head” – and there is no better way to do this than to get into the head of someone completely unlike yourself. Hagakure is a book about the thoughts of a samurai written in the early 1700’s. That was a time of relative peace in Japan and the samurai were challenged by having no significant battles to fight. For a warrior trained in bushido (the way of the samurai) as being the “Way of Dying”, living in peace time is a bit of a letdown.

After his master died, the bushido code demanded that the samurai commit ritual suicide – however this practice had been recently outlawed by the Shogun, so instead our hero retired to go live in the hills as a hermit in a pique. The author was his friend (for want of a better word) who interviewed him and wrote down his sayings. The book is his attempt to explain through simple stories how to maintain the mindset of a fierce warrior, ready to die at a moment’s notice for his master, in a time where that discipline simply isn’t needed.

It’s a very easy read – the stories and saying are each a few paragraphs long and the book is slim enough to fit into your pocket. It’s great to pull it out when waiting in line, or makes the ideal bathroom book because you can pick it up and put it down inside of 4 minutes and still profit from the time. The stories themselves range from the eminently practical to the sublime. It’s like a book of Zen koans from an alternate dimension where the Buddha was a sociopathic killer.

The bushido is an exceedingly harsh code – stories abound of harsh penalties for, among other things, getting into a bar fight but failing to fight to the death (crucifixion), separating combatants in a bar before they could kill each other (banishment), drinking too loudly and telling everyone you are going to kill them (ritual suicide), along with failing to die in battle (go fight another battle to try again) etc. A representative quote is “if you are slain in battle, you should be resolved to have your corpse facing the enemy.” The frustration of the author to have NOT died in battle comes through in every page. He’s desperate for an excuse to die well but lives in an age when his honour cannot be satisfied.

As you read your other summer beach material about samurai and other fighters, its easy to be thrilled by the action. This book has no action but you will come away from it understanding why they think as they do. There are a lot of business books that try to convince you to “be like a samurai” in the sense that there is an emphasis on total dedication to the task and a bias towards action – but that’s a very superficial take on the whole samurai schtick. It’s sometimes presented in the west as a kind of “you only live once” approach to life (as one wag put it: #YOLO = “carpe diem” for poor people) – but that’s missing the point. Samurai don’t live – they die. They are just trying to make sure its a good death – whether it was a meaningful or accomplished one is beside the point.

You can read the thoughts of great men to glean what you can from them; but there is always the temptation to treat their ideas like a grand buffet – select the noble as worthy of emulation and rejecting the unsavory bits as being outdated or ridiculous. It is folly to do this: rather, these books are a record of a complete philosophy of life and it is critical to realize that at some point in time, a real human being honestly considered that all those pieces to fit together as a unified, consistent whole – unlike heads from bodies, the noble and ridiculous parts cannot be separated. It is better to marvel that an intelligent person truly embraced all these things and to understand how inaccessible those thoughts are to us – no matter what you do, you could not be them. Summer is a great time to relax and “get out of your own head” – and there is no better way to do this than to get into the head of an 18th century samurai. Four (ninja) stars.