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.

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

How I kicked asthma by simply breathing

Ki is universal energy, pronounced Qi in Chinese.

Our body can survive without eating for weeks, without drinking water for days, but if we cannot breathe our body will die in a few minutes.

I suffered with asthma throughout my childhood and couldn’t exercise at anything closed to high intensity without wheezing and reaching for my inhaler. I didn’t go anywhere without it. Every year it was getting worse too, and in my early thirties I found each winter a simple chest infection would become debilitating and I was prescribed steroids to get through it.

Koichi Tohei and Morihei Ueshiba "O'Sensei"

I had been training in Aikido though and for my shodan (first dan) grading I was required to write an academic essay on Aikido. I researched the lives of the founder of Aikido; Morihei Ueshiba “O’Sensei”, and the head of our style of Aikido Koichi Tohei.

I was startled to read that Tohei Sensei too had struggled with poor health during Aikido training with O’Sensei. Tohei had also studied Zen, Yogo and meditation and had learned a primitive form of whole body breathing where each breath, in and out would extend for up to one minute.

When war service interpreted his Aikido training he vowed to practice three hundred breaths each day for one year.

If he missed a day he would do double the next day to make them up

I did not set my own goals that high, not even halfway. I decided to practice thirty breaths a day.

My Sensei (Stoopman) had taught us about Ki Breathing, explaining that our lungs were like a stagnant lake; full of foul water that could not sustain life. But that if a little of the foulest water was replaced with fresh water each day then over time the lake would be returned to health.

Thirty breaths a day, how hard could that be? I thought.

It was hard. Whatever you’re thinking, it was harder than that. Ki breathing is not just sitting in seiza and drifting off, there was true physical pain. The first breath is slow but as they became longer my lungs screamed as I pushed my diaphragm to expel every milliliter  of air from my lungs, when every instinct in my being called for me to suck air in. And when filling my lungs, stretching them beyond their capacity, all I wanted to do was breath out again.

Progress wasn’t slow, it was non existent.

I kelp a register though and once missed ten days straight, that meant double effort for another ten days just too break even. I only let it slip that far once.  After several months it became my nightly or early morning habit but I still hadn’t noticed any progress.

That’s the thing about breathing, you don’t notice when you’re doing it right.

Over a year and a half later I returned from a business trip and found my inhaler on the ground under my bed. I had forgotten to even take it, let alone think to use it.

This was an empowering feeling, one you may only understand if you had also been reliant on a similar device for relief of symptoms or pain. I told everyone, including my skeptical doctor. She tested my lung capacity and it had increased, not to a healthy level but it was a improvement.  But my success distracted me and I let a few days slip past and then a few weeks and then at work one day I was ruffling through my desk draw looking for that damned inhaler.

What I’d been told many times but failed to understand was that it was a healthy process I should strive for, not a cure.

I’d stalled the cleansing process at the first sign of life and it had not taken long for the rot to set back in.

So I made Ki Breathing a part of my life, not looking to cure my asthma but to dilute its symptoms one breath, one day, at a time. Now many years later I haven’t had any asthma medication for more than ten years and have almost forgotten what it feels like to be short of breath or wheeze, even doing lactate threshold training (vomit training) on my bike at nearby Mt Coot-tha.

Now my lungs are like a healthy lake, full of fresh clean water, and even if I get a chest cold it is like a drop of foul water in the ocean (…lake) and is soon dissipated without a trace.

Enough testimonial, how do you do it!

  1. Position yourself in the correct seiza posture; or on a chair with mind and body unified leaning slightly forward over your centre; knees about two fists apart. Place both hands lightly on the thighs with fingers naturally pointing downward. Straighten the sacrum and relax the whole body while bringing the mind down to the one point or hara. This is the neutral position. Concentrate and imagine your mind at your centre. Allow your muscles to naturally relax but not collapse.
  2. When you have inhaled all that you comfortably can, you are ready to begin… Close your eyes gently, mouth slightly open and start to exhale calmly, as if saying ‘ah’ without using your voice. Maintain the same sitting posture while exhaling. Imagine breathing out completely emptying your body, right down to the toes. When the breathe has naturally expired, incline the head and body slightly forward visualising your breathe still travelling out. Exhalation should be about 15-20 seconds at first, tilting the body, visualising your continued breath for about 5-8 seconds. The exhalation process should be from the chest first, then the abdomen, the inhalation process is the reverse, breathe into the abdomen first then into the chest.
  3. Inhaling – keeping the same posture as the finished exhalation position, close mouth and being to inhale calmly through the nose with a smooth, relaxed sound. Imagine filling your body with clean air gradually from the toes through the legs, abdomen, and chest for about 15 seconds. When the chest is naturally full (without raising your shoulders) return the upper body to the original position for a duration of about 5 seconds, the whole time visualising your breath still entering your body. Your head should return back to the neutral position calmly. Note: Do not over-stretch the chest or lean back too far when returning to the original position.

Start with shorter breaths and lengthen them a little with each breath. When they are longer don’t be alarmed to hear the crackle of flem as you expel the last bit of air from the deepest reaches of your lungs, savor this as it is clearing parts of your lungs that have not felt fresh air possibly since your birth.

"Mind and Body Are One", calligraphy by Koichi Tohei Sensei

Tohei Sensie passed away last May at the age of 91. Here is a link to the official website for his Ki Society Aikido.

Note: The Ki calligraphy at the top of this post was painted by Shodo master Kojima Sensei at a demonstration he gave at an Aikido Seminar in Brisbane Australia in 2005.

“K” is for Ki Breathing

Does Rabinovich live here?

I found this little beauty while researching satire:

A KGB Officer goes twice to a man’s door asking if Rabinovich  lives there. Each time the man tells him NO;

A postcard of the Russian Revolutions of 1917

The third time, the KGB Officer arrives with a photo, which he holds up, saying, “This is Rabinovich  and it is a picture of you; why did you tell me you didn’t live here?”

To which Rabinovich replies, “This, you call living?”

“J” is for Joke

…a long bow I know but I wanted something lighter today.

I found it in a footnote from “Humor, hostility and the psycho-dynamics of satire” by Susan Isabel Stein. Literature and Psychology 2000. Vol.46, Issue 4, while researching for the post Satire it just isn’t funny

What is Immovable Wisdom?

As with many terms used in Zen and the martial arts, Immovable wisdom is often misinterpreted to have a mind that does not move, when it is almost the exact opposite; it does not stop, or is not stopped. This state is sometimes described in Japanese as Fudoshin, Immovable Mind, and many physical tests for it have been developed for Aikido (and other disciplines) examinations.

Fudoshin - Wallpapers on the web

Early in their study students will misinterpret this “test” and will become hard like wood or stone…and fail. Instead they must learn not to allow their mind to be moved, or caught, by the examiner. The mind must become like still water; not “caught” by the hook as it passes through.

…the mind that does not stop at all is called Immovable Wisdom. – Takuan Soho

Takuan Soho, in a letter to the Samurai Yagyū Munenori, wrote of  “Immovable Wisdom” and how a person near enlightenment was capable of controlling a thousand arms, their mind not stopping at any particular one. He goes on to say that …one who understands this is no different from the Kannon with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.

…the ordinary man simply believes that it is blessed because of its 1000 arms. The man of half-baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have 1000 eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander. But if one understands a little better, they will have a respectful belief based on principle and will not need the simple faith of the ordinary man, or the slander of the other, and they will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing manifests its principle well.

he goes on…

All religions are like this… The ordinary man thinks only on the surface, the man who attacks… is even worse. This religion, that religion, there are various kinds but at their deepest points they are settled in the one conclusion.

“I” is for Immovable Wisdom