The back cover says that Musashi is the Gone With the Wind of Japan.

And it is hard to disagree with that. Musashi is at once a sweeping epic a la Gone With the Wind and a quest for spiritual discipline through the Way of the Sword (with the body count that you might expect). It’s a great book, and I suspect that anyone who read Shogun by James Clavell and wanted more might find more in this book.

Musashi is interesting because it occupies a rather unique cultural place. It is based on the real historical figure of Minamoto Musashi; the story arc and numerous characters are real. Thus it historical fiction at its finest. Written in instalments for a newspaper in the 1930s, Eiji Yoshikawa is essentially the grandfather of pretty much everything we know about samurais and feudal Japan.

Let me explain. Yoshikawa’s book essentially created the modern idea of the samurai as a figure of popular culture; I suspect he even did this to a certain extent in Japan itself. I was struck by how many aspects of this book have found their way into the samurai movies of the ’50s and ’60s; even the scene in Karate Kid where the one guy snatches flies with his chopsticks is taken directly from Musashi.

Without Musashi, you would not – I repeat – would not, have Star Wars (or rather, you would not have ‘the Force’). Even the idea in Pokemon universe of different ‘trainers’ and fighting styles derives its popularisation largely from the different styles of swordsmanship and sword masters in Musashi. My point is that Yoshikawa by writing this epic at the right moment in Japanese history brought to life and to popular consciousness the “wild west” of feudal Japan. Instead of the samurai simply being an ancient warrior caste – like the way we might think about, say, the ruling aristocracy of the Roman Empire – samurais emerge in this book, yes as cowboys and/or knights, but also as figures on deep personal spiritual journeys. Each samurai is a hero.

That being said there are parts to this book which for a Western reader, tend to clunk a little bit. The central romance is inexplicable by our cultural mores; it’s so pure and chaste as to be literally unbelievable. At best it is “mythic”. The humour also falls flat. Certain characters and certain scenes are clearly meant to be humorous or offer comedic relief; I was only painfully aware of this – it’s an a sort of slapstick humour mixed with a sort of comedy of manners.

But other than that, it’s great. The figure of Musashi is very well done and very well presented. His quest feels real. His actions are powerful and believable. Even better his ascetic quest – largely unfathomable by the other more mundane characters – essentially allows Yoshikawa to embark on a series of character development story arcs which is quite artfully done.

I am deeply impressed Yoshikawa’s ability to balance spiritual, deeply Bhuddist insight with a tale of swashbuckling; romance and drama with keen interpersonal feeling. Read this book, and then go look at how deep and broad its influence has been. You can literally pick out the lines from this book where the idea of ‘the Force’ is essentially inspired from (via the Japanese samurai flicks of the ’50s and ’60s).


29 thoughts on “Musashi

  1. “I am deeply impressed Yoshikawa’s ability to balance spiritual, deeply Bhuddist insight with a tale of——–.”

    Speaking of Buddhist insight, I have heard Buddhists saying that subject and object are one. I do not know what this means, do you?

  2. Well, I think I do in a technical sense, but perhaps not the full realisation that a Buddhist would aspire too. Here goes.

    A Buddhist would start by arguing that there is no true subject; there is no ‘inner self’ that we can identify; ultimately a sort of self-referential circle that has no true core. A similar chain of reasoning proceeds for the object; what is it? ‘Is it atoms? Is it what I see?’ It’s so changeable, impermanent and ultimately escapes understanding via faulty sense organs and social norms. Buddhist’s shake the containers of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ upside down and find that nothing comes out. Very David Hume.

    Here’s where it gets very interesting. To Asian thinking, a negative space does’t have the sour connotations that it has in Western language. So to say “all is Void” or “all is Change” isn’t a terrifying, stark absence; it’s a serene balance. Buddhism makes a threefold series of “dialectical” moves in discussing subject, object and cosmos. Subject and Object are denied; but not ‘destroyed’; the rejection of subject and object is ultimately a joyous affirmation. The reasoning is that my Humeist rejection of “reality” and subject and object still relies on a sort of logic of positive concepts or duality. Reality is effectively seen as ongoing transformation, subject and object are a sort of eddy or illusion in a ‘positive’ Nothingness. Subject and Object, Particular and Universal, Being and Nothingness are seen as two sides of the same coin which point toward a greater Whole.

    That is roughly my understanding; this is by no means authoritative. My interpretation is based on reading Masao Abe’s Zen and Western Thought. Thanks for your question!

    • In a fundamental way, Buddhism rejects (maybe ‘passes by’ is a better term) rational and formal thought. The idea of Non-existence already implies existence; the framework itself suggests that it is merely a stopgap for something that is essentially indescribable. Non-duality – as I understand it – means an affirmation of what Is in its cosmic fullness; this is necessarily a ‘experience’ of intuition or blinding insight. Concept itself must fail to describe this.

      What do you think?

  3. That’s a tough one. I’m not Buddhist. But I have a deep respect for the both the ‘means’ and the ‘ends’ of Buddhism. I think what appeals to me is that in their deepest philosophical points, they have escaped the reassuring problems of Western philosophy. They acknowledge the ‘negative’ or Nothingness that we encounter (I think here of Hume and Nietzsche) and take it a step further by a move that strikes me as profound and powerful (extremes cancel each other out in a move that affirms Reality). This might be considered an escape from hard reality to a realm of ethics or anti-intellectualism, but in many ways I think this is an example of Socrates’ first rule of philosophy “Know Thyself” at its finest.

    While Buddhism lacks the ‘instrumental’ power of the Cartesian/Newtonian world view it also avoids the pitfalls and blindspots as well. Ultimately, I think we as individuals and as a global society could use a lot more Buddhism. Buddhism, ultimately is more concerned with Means rather than Ends; or realises that Ends are necessarily illusory. Means are the only Ends.

    Thank you for your incisive questions.

  4. Thanks. This sort of dialog can be mind opening and conscious expanding.

    “They acknowledge the ‘negative’ or Nothingness that we encounter ”
    I do not seem to remember encountering Nothingness. Any example or explanation?

    • You’re right. I am glad you pointed that out. Nothingness is not the right word. I meant to indicate the tendency in Western philosophy to lead to a rather arid nihilism. This can be be in the materialistic form: “there is a real world out there, but this real world indicates nothing (no absolute truths or ethical imperatives) beyond it”. Or in the more idealist mode: “because this world of phenomenon is so transitory and is merely a projection; we do not live in direct contact with an ultimate reality”. Numerous Western philosophers have compared philosophy to ‘death’. Leo Strauss, for one, indicates that the search for truth is incompatible with society. Nietzsche’s particular brand of nihilism has had far reaching effects, indeed, I think he represents a watershed point; a closing of the traditional arc of Western philosophy that started with Plato.

      Would you agree?

    • I do not think it ‘improves’ on Western idealist philosophy; it ‘encompasses’ it by a negation of both the phenomenal world (object) and the more idealist conception of Mind (subject). This double negation “cancels out” and becomes an affirmation of both in a larger whole which is felt to be beyond intellectual systems. This larger whole is bigger than any duality; the subject is affirmed as the subject and the object is affirmed as the object, but not in an absolute sense.

    • And what is affirmed in an absolute sense? Again, this is my understanding of what Buddhism does and I really should emphasise that I am a very much a neophyte. This, at best, is my interpretation.

      This is where it really breaks down from our perspective of western philosophy. What is ‘affirmed’ is an-everything-and-nothing that supersedes the duality of everything-and-nothing. A mountain It’s quite literally indescribable and not “graspable” by intellectual systems or formula. This is why so many Buddhists, especially in Zen (grounded as it is in Non-Thinking), insist on a sort of sudden insight or enlightenment that takes places on a super-emotional plane: this is deep in the realm of intuition, not intellect. Let me quote: Chinese Zen master Ch’ing yuan Wei-hsin said :
      “Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, ‘Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.’
      After I got an insight into the truth of Zen, through the instruction of a good master, I said, ‘Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.’ But now, having attained the abode of final rest, I say, ‘Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.'” And now to block quote directly from “Zen and Western Thought” which is commentary on the above quote:

      “….for the third stage (Mountains are really mountains, water are really waters) not a static end to be reached progressively from the lower stages, but the dynamic whole which includes the lower stages, both affirmative and negative. It is more than the third and final stage. It is the standpoint from which the notion of process and even the notion of ‘stage’ as well as their implication of temporal sequence, are overcome. ‘Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters’ is realised in a thoroughly non-coneptual way in the absolute present which is beyond and yet embraces past, present, and future. The dynamic whole which includes all three stages is realised precisely in this absolute present…In Zen, the total reality of mountains and waters (and with them everything and everyone in the universe) is actualised through the double negation of the temporal sequence implied in the idea of ‘stage’. It is through the negation of non-temporatility implied in the ‘second stage’ as well as through the negation of the temporality implied in the ‘first stage’ that the absolute present is completely disclosed.”

      There are a lot of objections to this. Is this merely an escape from rational thought itself into pure emotion/intuition? A sort of Cosmic ducking the question? Or: “Don’t seek the truth, just drop your opinions”? I have mixed feelings to say the least. On one hand, to abandon the search for Truth seems ‘defeatist.’ It’s like bad sportsmanship, or worse; a sort of madness. But it’s also hard for me to feel that there is something to this: “the standpoint actualised through double negation…non-conceptual absolute present…the standpoint where even the notion of process is overcome.” Yes, I find this to be powerful and tantalising. It makes a crazy kind of sense; even though I am loath to abandon “concept” itself.

    • In my understanding, there is very little ‘formal’ Buddhist logic. There is the example in Zen Buddhism of the “Koan,” a sort of philosophical nonsensical riddle that must be grasped, often illogically, through a leap of intuition. Do I understand Buddhist logic? No, probably not.

  5. Thanks for your patience in answering my questions. I think in Buddhist logic Nagarjuna is supposed to be the most prominent man. I have tried to make sense of what he is supposed to be saying but could not.

    You wrote, “On one hand, to abandon the search for Truth seems ‘defeatist.’ It’s like bad sportsmanship, or worse; a sort of madness. But it’s also hard for me to feel that there is something to this: “the standpoint actualised through double negation…non-conceptual absolute present…the standpoint where even the notion of process is overcome.” Yes, I find this to be powerful and tantalising. It makes a crazy kind of sense; even though I am loath to abandon “concept” itself.”

    I also think that there is something to it which the Western science has missed but from that it does not follow that what Buddhism is saying is true. It is like if some folk medicine or ancient medical systems from other cultures may know something which modern Western science does not know, then to accept those systems and follow them.

    Again if some belief system is powerful and tantalizing, that does not mean that it is true or even that it should be accepted and followed. Untruth and delusions are also very powerful and inspire millions of people. See the history of mankind.

    In what you wrote above, to use the word “Truth” instead of “truth” already seems to me to be embracing irrationality.

    What do you think?

  6. I did not see the article you mention.

    About limits of human knowledge, seems to me that if there are limits to canine or feline knowledge then there is no reason to think that the same does not apply to human knowledge. What do you think?

    In our discussion so far, I do agree with you that there is something very valuable in Buddhist and Eastern philosophy. What is that? Can you point that out?

    • It is easy to say, of course there are practical and absolute limits to human knowledge right off the bat (comparing, like you do, too canine intelligence). Human cognition, as amazing as it is, does seem to be fatally flawed; a Gestalt trick. My hesitation here is historical and social: human reason, for most of Western history has been identified with a Divine reason. I suspect that the underlying metaphysical assumptions behind science assumes that, ultimately, the Universe is knowable and ‘solvable’ by human intelligence. If we retreat from the idea that our intelligence can understand the Universe, there is a huge series of social consequences that must follow from that. Will science eventually unlock every mystery? I still think that is possible. It is the moral/ethical and social side of the human equation which worries me more.

      Is there a distinction between subject and object? Ultimately I would have to answer that there is not: for the materialist reason that I am deeply skeptical of the idealist notion of Mind or say the Hegalian Spirit. Human cognition must fail the ontological leap to Mind. I might be shooting myself in the foot here, but the chink in the materialist armour is the quantum mechanics experiments which show that the observer influences the outcome of the experiment. This I cannot explain; but wether this points to ‘something special’ about human cognition I cannot say. In practical terms, the concept of subject and object has been tremendously powerful.

      What I find valuable about Buddhism is that it substitutes the instrumental power of Western philosophy for a much more ‘balanced’ view of humanity, the individual and the Universe which I think would create a much more sane and healthy society. For example, Bhutan’s stated goal of increasing “National Happiness,” where most western governments are essentially focused on the rather fixation of Gross National Product. On a more philosophical level, Buddhism creates an important counter frame-work which shows quite a few blind spots in our own thinking and ways forward.

      The questions you are asked me have generated much food for thought. Thank you.

  7. Well, for me a subject denotes the Cartesian ‘Mind’. A subject must perceive and must be self-aware. It implies intelligence largely divorced from matter. It has metaphysical implications as well: God becomes the ultimate subject.
    Object implies pure matter: a table, a rock. It denotes dumb simple existence and matter in general.

    • Haha, well, Yes and No. They are quite distinctly different, but ontologically speaking, remain of the same substance, or to use something less Greek: matter. I think what bothers me in your question above is use of the word “one.” My mind and your shirt are not one, and while the human brain and a shirt are extremely different, nothing about my brain can be “Mind.” Human consciousness is amazing, but I tend to see it as a Gestalt manifestation, not as a something metaphysically special. In a concrete sense, subject and object has worked brilliantly since Descartes, and that is a pretty serious pedigree, but there are limits to how far the concept can go.

  8. You write, “I think what bothers me in your question above is use of the word “one.” My mind and your shirt are not one”
    Earlier you wrote, “Is there a distinction between subject and object? Ultimately I would have to answer that there is not”.
    So, is the subject and the object one or not?
    What sayeth thee my friend?

  9. haha, well I guess I am being hoisted by my own petard here aren’t I?

    I think a distinction should be made between subject and object. But this distinction cannot be carried into a metaphysical or ontological sense. I dislike the term “one” because it implies no distinction can be made; it implies a sort of mystical union between my mind and your shirt. I think that my mind and your shift exist on the same ontological level (and you probably agree on at least that subject). My statement that “there is no distinction between subject and object,” while embarrassing, does not preclude the point that Buddhism assumes a stance where that statement is true.

    On a deeper note: it’s the rigid duality of subject and object which are the problem. Your thoughts?

  10. I think:- Your mind and your object is one. Or to say in different words, a subject and it’s object are one simply because the object is in the subject and nowhere else.
    I am not sure that I have put it in right words though, I may be able to improve the formulation latter. If you understand Kant’s transcendental idealism, then you can understand this.

    Do you understand the following?

    “Ontological and epistemological perspectivism:- There has been an ongoing tension between a conception of perspective as a “subjective take” on a reality that is presumed to be always already “there,” and an ontological perspectivism, which highlights the view that reality is the very relation to/perspective on otherwise undifferentiated surroundings.”

    So, epistemic perspectivism is a “subjective take” on a reality that is presumed to be always already “there,”

    and ontological perspectivism is the view that reality is the very relation to/perspective
    on otherwise undifferentiated surroundings.”

    • That is a very interesting point, which I’ll admit I had not thought of. If we take the view of ontological perspectivism, how does the relationship between subject and object play out?

  11. I will expand on the concept of ontological perspectivism:-

    Ontological perspectivism is the view that reality is the very relation to or perspective
    on otherwise undifferentiated surroundings.

    1. Here reality means what is the result of the perception or cognition of the subject, i.e. tables, chairs, mountains and stars etc.

    2. When a subject perceives or experiences noumenon, he does not experience what is actually there but only that part or aspect of noumenon which his cognitive faculties can grasp.

    A thought experiment: There is a white paper on which no. 7423 is written. 7 is written in blue, 4 in yellow, 2 in red and 3 in green. Now imagine a subject who can only see what is written in red. So this subject when asked to tell what no. is written on the paper, will reply 2. Now if we consider no.7423 as what is really there (noumenon), and no. 2 as what is perceived or experienced by this subject (phenomenon), then would you say that the subject is having the actual experience of noumenon? Is cognizing 7423 as 2 an actual *experience* of 7423?

    “Phenomenal reality” is a misleading word for the false understanding of the subject, and this false understanding is part of the subject and is in the subject and can not be another separate reality outside of the subject . Your understanding is part of you and is not outside of you.
    So all what we are perceiving or experiencing is a distorted, false and misleading representation of noumenon presented to us by our limited faculties of cognition.

    Do you understand this?

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