During the period of civil war in Japan a samuraiís life, as well as the value he had in the eyes of his Lord, were closely tied to his swordsmanship. During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), when Buddhism was rapidly gaining ground in Japan, schools of sword fighting developed in which rigorous physical training was combined with philosophies borrowed from Zen Buddhism. These schools were called kenjutsu and are these days known under the general term kendō, or the way of the sword.

Buddhism teaches that the distinction between life and death is just an illusion, and this belief enabled the samurai to enter battle without fear of death. As with all Zen practices, kendō aims at a mental attitude that enables one to face life with a free mind to solve problems as they arise in a natural way. For a samurai in battle, this meant conquering his opponent and killing him if necessary. How to reconcile this with the Buddhist doctrine that one should not take life, needs a little more explanations on Zen thought. The sword itself, or the sword in the hands of a mere technician, that is, one who knows how to use a sword but does not adhere to its philosophies, will kill. But in the hands of a Zen follower the sword is considered an instrument of peace. It is the enemy who makes himself a victim by rising up in violence. The best thing for a samurai is to be victorious without fighting. The art of sword fighting is used primarily to advance the study of the Way. And the sword has one great advantage over book reading as a means of studying: one false move will give your opponent a chance to beat you, so you have to be on the alert all the time!

Two concepts from Zen, featuring prominently in kendō, are mushin (no-mind) or munen (no-thought) and fudōshin (unmoving-mind). Daisetsu Suzuki in his Zen and Japanese Culture (PUP 1959) explains mushin thus: “When mushin is realised, the mind knows no obstructions, no inhibitions, and is emancipated from the thoughts of life and death, gain and loss, victory and defeat.” The idea is that reliance on technical skills alone will not bring victory, as the chances of meeting an opponent with greater skill is too high. With mushin you can transcend technique and conquer a more skilful opponent. Mushin can also be explained by saying we have to become one with what we are doing and not worry about how good it is, or how it is seen by others.

Fudōshin is a state of mental readiness where oneís mind is not affixed to any one thing. It is a mind like the reflection of the moon on the water: moving effortlessly under constantly changing conditions. During a fight, a swordsman must not fix his mind on his own posture, on what his opponent is doing, on his sword or on the best tactics to win. His mind must move effortlessly to where it is needed. Since the mind is not affixed to one particular thing, it is attentive and receptive to anything that may happen. If you are in a state of fudōshin you will not be surprised, as your mind is without delay where the unexpected happens.

The Samurai Sword

The slightly bend sword of at least two shaku (60cm) long, usually referred to as katana (a Portuguese loanword) but more correctly called nihontō, has always been the weapon of Japanís samurai class. According to legend, the first samurai sword was made in Yamato province by the sword smith Amakuni around the year 700. The earliest found swords today can be traced back to sword smith Yasutsuna from Hōki and date from about 900. The most famous sword smiths appear in Japanese history between the years 900 and 1450. Even the best swords in European history, those of Damascus or Toledo steel, could not compare to the workmanship and quality of steel which went into the manufacture of the samurai sword.

David van Ooijen

For much on this page I was inspired by this excellent book by the Japanese writer Daisetsu Suzuki, first published in 1938 under the name of Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, but rewritten in 1958 as Zen and Japanese Culture (Princeton Univeristy Press 1959), also availble from Tuttle, 1988.

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