Zen’s Influence on the Art of the Sword

Themes

Zen’s Influence on the Art of the Sword
Zen has long had a great influence upon Japanese culture. Many aspects
of this culture are touched upon by Zen including art, literature, and specific
ceremonies such as the one concerning tea. During the Kamakura period of Japan,
another area of culture began to be affected by Zen; the martial arts of the
samurai class.

Somewhere along the line, the samurai realized the ease with which the
monks of Zen Buddhism dealt with issues such as mortality and then began to seek
these methods of discipline for themselves for the purposes of becoming less
concerned with their physical well-being. However, as D.T. Suzuki noted, it was
not mere recklessness, but self-abandonment, which is known in Buddhism as a
state of egolessness. This is the ideal which the samurai warrior sought; a
state of being wherein life and death were meaningless and all that he had to
concern himself with was his duty to his master, or if he was ronin (rogue
samurai without a master), with his duty to his own code of honor.

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In order for the Zen master to pass on this state of mind to the eager
to learn samurai, the master had to equate the state of mushin (empty mind and
egolessness) with something familiar to the warrior. And what is more familiar
to a warrior than his weapon, most often a sword such as a tachi (long-blade),
katana, or iaito? From the first time that a samurai blade is picked up by its
owner until the day the owner dies, it is his goal to so completely master the
blade and make it as much a part of him as his own hand that there is seemingly
no effort in using it. As stated by Takuan, a Zen master from the Tokugawa
period, you must follow the movement of the sword in the hands of the enemy,
leaving your mind free to make its own counter-movement without your interfering
deliberation. Herein lies the simplicity of Zen teaching in respect to all
things, both exceptional and common; think not, merely do.