How can a westerner come to understand Seppuku?

If there is one part of Japanese culture that alludes most westerners it is ritual suicide by disembowelment known as seppuku, or “Hara-kiri” as it is better known outside Japan.

Seppuku became an integral part of Bushido (The way of the Warrior) and was used in several ways:

  • Capital punishment for disgraced samurai rather than be executed (this was not an option for other classes)
  • To avoid falling into enemy hands, and possible torture and revealing military secrets
  • To follow your Lord into the next world
  • In protest of a lord’s decision

Seppuku is poorly understood and is often used to support an argument that the Japanese people hold human life in little regard, when in actual fact it is more truly a proof of the opposite.

The act of seppuku is common in historical literature and drama, the most famous in my experience is the story of Forty-seven Rōnin.

The Forty-seven Rōnin also know as the Genroku Akō incident (元禄赤穂事件) occurred at the start of the 18th century and is the story of group of samurai who are forced to become rōnin(masterless warriors) when their daimyo (feudal lord),  Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, is ordered to commit seppuku after being tricked into insulting a court official.

These rōnin plotted for over two years to avenge Asano’s honour.

Even early in my martial arts training I was exposed to mentions of these”Forty-seven Rōnin” but it wasn’t until I read the novel The Tokaido Road by Lucia St. Clair Robson that I learned more than that these rōnin were the epitome of bushido.

It was while reading this novel that I had a satori moment where I feel I came understand seppuku.

St. Clair Robson’s novel tells the fictional account of Lord Asano’s daughter who, also vows to avenge her father’s honour, and travels The Tōkaidō Road disguised as a high-ranking courtesan to reach Oishi, the leader of these Forty-seven Rōnin.  From her point of view he and the other rōnin have done nothing to avenge their Lord for two years.

Spoiler Alert

In the end the story matches the historical facts and the Forty-seven Rōnin succeed in killing the court official who betrayed their lord and then surrender to the will of the Shogun. The shogun deliberates; will they be executed, forced to commit seppuku, or set free?

As a typical westerner I read an appreciated the story of revenge and truly expected them to be rewarded for the honour of this act and be set free. This story, and history, had a different ending and it appears that the happy ending eventuated but was not the one I expected; The Forty-seven Rōnin, were granted “the right” to commit seppuku, thus returning the honour of both their Lord Asano and their own families.

I had a double take and read this again, while my mind raced and was forever changed.

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What would Takuan Soho tell Mark Cavendish?

A letter by Takuan Soho(1573-1645) to Mark Cavendish, pro tour cyclist, winner 15 Tour de France stages

Although you see the rider that moves to pass you, if your mind is not detained by him and you meet the rhythm of the advancing bike; if you do not think of blocking your opponent and no thoughts or judgements remain; if the instant you see the moving bike your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the lead from him; the line that he was going to use will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the line that defeats your opponent.

Adapted from the letter by Takuan SohoThe Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom” to Yagyu Munenori, head of the Yagyu Shinkage school of swordsmanship.

Where does Nationalism end and Xenophobia begin?

"Fight racism!" - Campaign against Racism and Xenophobia - 1997

Theorists are divided on whether nationalism is a result of our evolutionary tendency to live in communities or tribes, or it is a more recent behaviour caused by the way modern society is structured. Either way ethnicity tends to incorporate itself in some manner, whereby you may live in the nation from a geographically extent but are excluded from “nationhood” as a result of ethnic, cultural, religious reasons.

Then there is xenophobia. Dictionary.com defines this as:

“an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.”

This human trait manifests itself in sport too. Sometimes this is acceptable for example a cross town rivalry between teams, or old nation “friendly” competitions between nations such as cricket’s “Ashes” battles between England and Australia. In these though there is a at least a small commonality; either a shared heritage or at least a common love of a particular sport.

Why do we need to have “our” team though?

The Brisbane Lions win their first premiership in 2001

A couple of years back I wrote a short, sharp post “The rising sun as an analogy for nationalism” to highlight its absurdity:

The notion of a rising sun is a misnomer. The sun itself does not rise or set. If I am on the east coast of Australia and see the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean, it is the same sun a person in the United States would see at midday. The difference between my “rising sun” and that observed by my American cousins depends solely on the location on the surface of the planet on which we stand. To an observer out in space, looking at our pale blue planet, the concept of a rising sun is absurd; it is rooted in our past when we believed we were the centre of the universe.

Nationalism is like this; it only exists when we allow our perception to be limited by our location. If we let go of this outdated notion, our minds can break free from their terrestrial bonds, allowing us to focus on solving the real issues of our time.

It turns out that both nationalism and xenophobia are key themes of the novel I’m writing so I’m trying to come to terms with the subtle differences.

I’d love to hear what you think about them?

“X” is for xenophobia

Carl Sagan, and the Baloney Detection Kit

When asked to cite the most influential person to the way I perceive the universe I have no hesitation to say that it is Carl Sagan.

The first time I heard about Carl Sagan was in a Physics Lecture in year twelve at school. Our teacher had recorded the opening episode of Cosmos and from not too far into it my world view expanded and I’ve never looked at things the same way again. The original Cosmos television series from the 1980s is where Sagan entered most of our lives but for many it was through his academic works or the leading role he played in the American space program.

NASA gave Sagan three weeks to design a message to be engraved on two twenty three centimetre wide aluminium plaques attached to the Pioneer Deep Space Probes.

As well as his work in the scientific community Sagan also wrote fiction – I’ve found most of the best scientific minds also have a highly developed imagination.

He wrote the book Contact,  and in 1997  was made into a Hollywood movie staring Jodie Foster. At the end of this book (spoiler alert) the main character is labeled as a fraud and even begins to doubt her memory. She goes on to search for deeper meanings eventually in the last passage discovers the pattern of a perfect circle encrypted in the decimal places for the mathematical constant Pi. The gist of this revelation being that the shape of a circle, and if so, the universe was designed and did not simply spring into existence.

Initially I found this an odd inclusion for probably the world’s most famous atheist. But later reading his work The Demon Haunted World this is the sort of evidence that would pass all of the tests in his well publicised Baloney Detection Kit.

Sagan is a famous skeptic and this Baloney Detection Kit  provides a set of tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

Baloney Detection Kit

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
  • Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” — Carl E. Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

Another of his books that is worth seeking out is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It was published on the tenth anniversary of his death and is based on his famous Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.

The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources. – Carl Sagan

“S” is for Carl Sagan

What is the One Point, hara, or lower dantien?

The one point (also hara or lower dantien) is often explained as the centre of gravity and this is a good start, or “in the ball park” as a Japanese Sensei of mine once joked. But this is only the stepping off point.

For each of us the One Point is the centre of the universe.

The universe is of infinite size and therefore every point in it is also at its centre. Imagine the universe shrinking around you until it is compressed to a single point as inconceivably small as the universe is inconceivably large. This is the One Point, and we can learn to control and use it.

I have found that the One Point becomes the centre of my mind and can be moved about to stabilize myself mentally or physically.

In the West there is a saying “to keep yourself grounded” and this too is a good place to begin, as it too incorporates control of both your physical body and your mind. 

To keep one point is the first of the four basic principles of Aikido (Ki no fudo ho). If we achieve one of these principals, we also achieve the others but if we try to achieve more than one we will not achieve any.

It is as easy to recognise when someone has one point; they are relaxed, happy, centred, balanced, “grounded” and they move without breaking this form, they strike the ball sweetly, throw faster, run effortlessly and always have a light floating feeling. The opposite is also true when we lose one point; our form is bad we bounce around and look to be trying too hard.

If your find you have lost one point, shrink the universe by half and by half until it forms at your centre, and let your mind move there where it too is the centre of the universe.

“O” is for the One Point

No-Form, No thought, No Mind

When we study a new art form we are given forms of movement and told to repeat them endlessly. Our teachers are vigilant and correct our form when we stray but a hair’s breadth.

In Search of Simplicity

As we advance we are given ever more complicated forms to practice, yet we see our teachers break their own rules, seeming to do exactly what we are berated for.

I see shades of Form and No-Form argument in the following passage from Takuan Soho.

The mind that becomes fixed and stops in one place does not function freely. Similarly, the wheels of a cart go around because they are not held rigidly in place. If they were to stick tight, they would not go around. The mind is also something that does not function if it becomes attached to a single situation. – Takuan Soho

One must know the correct form intimately, from the subtle angle of a finger to the large movements of the torso, before we can perceive where to lesson our grip on that form.

You cannot throw the pieces of a cart in a pile and expect to use it as a cart. It must follow the form…but not too rigidly or it becomes a model of a cart—not the real thing itself.

It is the same when we practice any art form, we copy the masters endlessly, searching for those subtitles that belay their importance, hidden many times by large flourishing strokes of the brush or pen.

In the martial arts the form alone is not effective in actual combat.

When one has reached maturity in the art, one will have a formless form. It is like ice dissolving in water. When one has no form, one can be all forms; when one has no style, he can fit in with any style. – Bruce Lee

In a passage from his novel “Musashi“, Eiji Yoshikawa wrote:

Yoshino told Musashi he was rigid and would lose any battle in that state. She cut open her lute to show him how it could produce such varying sounds with only four strings.

It had a central wooden piece that was held in place but not firmly.

“If the cross piece were as taut and unbending as you are, one stroke of the pick would break a string, perhaps even the sounding  board itself.”


Takuan Soho’s writing is infused with wit and multiple levels of meaning. In the following passage he discusses the ‘Mind of No-Mind’ motif.

The mind that thinks about removing what is within it will by the very act be occupied. If one will not think about it, the mind will remove these thoughts by itself and of itself become No-Mind.

If one always approaches the mind in this way, at a later date it will suddenly come to this condition by itself. If one tries to achieve this suddenly, it will never get there.

An old poem says:

To think, “I will not think”—
This, too, is something in one’s thoughts.
Simply do not think
About not thinking at all.

You have got to love that!

“N” is for No-Form, No-Thought, No-Mind

Learning…the teacher must learn the most

Today’s post is a cacophony of snip-its and quotes about learning and teaching.

From “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson

It is always the teacher who must learn the most, Bistami thought, or else nothing real has happened in the exchange.  Pg. 130

The word of God came down to man as rain to soil, and the result was mud, not clear water. (Bistami) Pg. 128

US edition coverFrom “Musashi” by Eiji Yoshikawa

At times like this, the world, which he once thought so full of stupid people, seemed frighteningly large. Pg. 472

After this experience, he realised how premature his judgement had been and how importent and useful randomly acquired bits of knowledge could subsequently be.Pg. 362

– I must have subconsciously picked this lesson up from a previous reading, or another source, as it is one of the items of advice I included in a conference presentation in 2002: “Listen to everything, try and understand everything, see everything. Time is only wasted if you do not listen. One day this knowledge will be useful in ways you do not expect.”

From “The Lone Samurai – the life of Myamoto Musashi” by William Scott Wilson

…the principles of swordsmanship must be understood as though the student himself had discovered them. This was a major departure from other sword styles of Musashi’s time.

From “The Martians” by Kim Stanley Robinson

Imbition is the tendency of granular rock to imbibe a fluid under the force of capillary attraction, in the absence of any pressure. Sax became convinced that this was a quality of mind as well. He would say of someone, “She has great imbition.” and people would say “Ambition?” and he would reply, “No imbition.” And because of his stroke people would assume he was just having speech trouble again. Pg. 337

From Quotes:

If you’re more relaxed I think your brain functions more effectively. Tibetans, generally speaking, are quite jovial. In my family we were always laughing. – Dalai Lama

Minds are like parachutes; they work best when open. – Lord Thomas Dewar

You must sit in a chair for a very long time, with your mouth open, before roast duck flies in. Chinese Proverb

If you are standing on the shoulders of giants, modesty is not only pointless, it is disrespectful.

Don’t limit a child to your own learning for they were born in another time. – Rabbinical saying

Teching in a martial art is a great place to learn the art of teaching (and learning), “there is nowhere to hide on the mat”, but the princples can be applied to any situation be it a business meeting, talking with your children, or writing a story/magizine article.

I have found that when most people teach or talk it is a one directional act. People immediately put up walls in their minds, even if they know the information is something they need to understand; it is primeval. You have to set up the environment so that they decide to draw the information in, then as a teacher you don’t force it on to them or spoon feed them, you just put the knowledge out there to be imbibed by their now open minds.

“L” is for Learning