The samurai general stood alone at the head of his troops, arrayed on the field of battle. The land was still. The breeze was soft. The birds sang as if life would go on forever. The hour had come. On this day he would lead the Satsuma forces in rebellion against the Japanese Imperial army.
The Japanese Emperor Meiji had been restored to power in 1868, ending 700 years of military rule. The new Imperial government was consolidating power and modernizing the Japanese nation. In 1609 the samurai military government had granted the Satsuma clan dominion over Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands. Now in 1877, the new Imperial government of Japan decided to take it back. The reason for the rebellion was much deeper.
The Imperial government was eradicating the samurai class and the feudal order, seeing it as antiquated and weak: an obstacle to constructing the industrial power that would determine the fate of the nation.
Standing on this hill, the Satsuma General Saigo was at the height of his power. He was a master of the arts of the sword and of strategy, a poet, a cultivated man.
It was April. Hundreds of his men, mounted, in full armor, waited for his command to attack.
Cherry blossoms covered the trees all around them. With every breeze, clouds of blossoms filled the air. He watched them fly, swirl, drift and fall.
He said to his friend, “You could spend your entire life searching for the perfect one and never waste a moment.” He had lived his life in the ceaseless pursuit of perfection.
Later that day, in battle, a sword pierced his body. His blood streamed to the earth. His life ebbed away. He spoke one last time to his friend, who knelt beside him. The blizzard of blossoms swirled around them, for a moment obscuring the land and sky, concealing the dead and dying men around them on the field of battle.
The dying samurai looked at the cherry blossoms, as if he had never seen them before. He said, “All perfect!”
What had changed? The quality of the falling cherry blossoms had not changed, from the beginning of the battle to the end of it. But the man’s mind had changed. He understood something in the moments before his death that he had missed all his life. He glimpsed for the first time the possibility that right here, right now, all we see, all we are, all there is, is perfect. There is nothing extra, nothing lacking. Nothing but this moment, perfect as it is.
The movie the Last Samurai depicts the sudden insight – satori – of a valorous warrior as he dies in battle. It is a moving scene. The audience admires him, feels his bittersweet joy in his release and sadness at his death.
They join him in last moments of his life, in his detachment from personal concerns and narrow view. The audience joins him in a sudden opening up to the world.
This is a poetic depiction. The willingness to place your life at risk in a great cause is noble. It is not the same as dying from a stab wound. The valorization of death in battle, especially when accompanied by deep insight, was a familiar motif in the literature of the Japanese samurai class in the times when their fighting skills were not much needed in battle.
This genre, including a book known as the Hagakure, was revived in the early years of the 20th century. These books romanticized the death of the warrior.
Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the author of the Hagakure, wrote “When confronted with two alternatives, life and death, choose death without hesitation.”
That was a literary work. The author was a theorist. He was not a warrior, or a trainer, or a leader.
Warriors cannot cling to safety, or be careless with their lives. None of us can, warrior or not. The literary and cultural valorization of death in battle as good in itself, as a spiritually valuable goal, has caused a lot of trouble.
The scene in the Last Samurai is moving and beautiful. We get a glimpse of truths that are hidden in the fallen leaves of our lives: that liberating truth is present but we miss it; that sudden transformative insight results from a lifetime of persistent effort; that it comes at a moment when we let go of our narrow view.
We do not need to be at the moment of death to achieve this.
Note: Story references The Last Samurai, Edward Zwick, director, John Logan, writer; other sources include Mark Ravina and George Kerr. An article on this subject by Jeff Brooks was published on fightingarts.com.
Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, translations from sources including Thomas Cleary, Yukio Mishima, William Scott Wilson
Copyright © 2019 Jeffrey M. Brooks and Mountain Karate, LLC
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