Seventeenth Century Japan; Samurai, Poets, Swordsmen and Tea

The seventeenth century may have been the golden age of samurai.  Two men from that era stand out. One, Miyamato Musashi, wrote Go Rin No Sho, - The Book of Five Rings.  Musashi, who died in 1645, was one of the best, if not the greatest, Japanese swordsman.  From age 12 when he had his first fight to his death from heart failure at age 60 he was not only undefeated – defeated swordsmen died – but in his last 10 fights never unsheathed his sword; his opponents simply bowed and left.

The Book of Five Rings is a classic work on strategy and tactics, and uses the devise of setting various aspects of swordsmanship into five books named for the five elements. (Unlike the medieval west when the elements were four; earth, wind, fire and water, the elements were the same in the east with the addition of void.

This book is a must read for Japanese businessmen who regard business as war, but it is also read by military men and athletes.

At one point I engaged in a sport at which I became very good, but not quite the best.  My instructor finally told me that he had taught me everything he knew, and there was nothing left for me to learn about the mechanics of the game.  What kept me from winning was between my ears.  He assigned me meditation and the reading of Go Rin No Sho. 

The secret that I needed to learn was in the fifth book; "void".  After a swordsman has learned everything else he needs to go into a fight with “no mind”.  One has to surrender to the previous training.  The well trained brain will know what to do without conscious thought.  Conscious thought will get you killed.  I needed to think of nothing as I competed.  That, and the meditation did the job.

Miyamato Musashi lived in a cave where he wrote his book, and taught a school, Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu.  His life style was quite simple, but he was not a simple man.  Musashi was a master of the Tea Ceremony, and that was one of the things he was most proud of accomplishing.

For those of us in the West tea is a drink.  In Japan the Tea Ceremony was also called the Way of Tea.  There was a ritual in the preparation of the powdered green tea, and in the serving and drinking of the tea.  The ceremony was considered to be a bridge between people.

So, at one extreme, Musashi was a soldier for his master Samurai and his job was to kill his master’s opponents.  On the other extreme he sought to establish a path to common understanding.  This yin and yang made him a complete person.

Matsuo Basho was the son of a minor samurai who gave that up to become a poet.  That sort of career path seems strange today, but the sons of Lords have become painters and poets. 

Born the year before Musashi died, Basho studied Chinese poetry and initially wrote in a linked verse form , but eventually settled on the extremely terse form known as haiku.  Basho is now considered to be the best.  His early haiku are good, but in later years he studied Zen and his poetry that followed is considered to be his best work.

A haiku, written well, is deceptively simple.  It should at first glance be about something familiar that can be enjoyed on that level.  Good haiku has deeper meaning; something that pulls the reader emotionally into a greater understanding. 

The form of haiku uses a 5-7-5 syllable scheme of unrhymed verse.  Haiku translated from Japanese, of course, do not show that because the languages are completely different.

Here is the problem in translation.  This is, perhaps, Basho’s most famous poem.

“Furuike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto


- Basho


Note the syllable count comes out right, but this is what happens when it is translated literally:

Fu-ru (old) i-ke (pond) ya,

ka-wa-zu (frog) to-bi-ko-mu (jumping into)

mi-zu (water) no o-to (sound)

Here is the translation by Fumiko Saisho

The old pond-

a frog jumps in,

sound of water.

Elsewhere, “sound of water” is interpreted as simply “splash”.


Basho’s quotes about life and writing poetry are illuminating.  On writing: ““When composing a verse let there not be a hair's breadth separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy.”

― Bashō Matsuo


On life: Some of his haiku have been translated keeping the original thought.

“Many  solemn nights

Blond moon, we stand and marvel…

Sleeping our noons away”

Matsuo Basho


The above haiku speaks of Basho’s life philosophy whish he said in a number of ways.  Elsewhere he said that his journey was his home.

The admonition to not let a hair’s breadth get between your mind and what you write is akin to Musashi’s concept of “no mind”.  However, no mind would be deadly if training and practice had not been first ingrained in the apprentice, and I wonder if Basho’s first poems were written in such a state of what has been called “flow”.

Whatever the case, reading Basho’s poetry, even in translation, is a joy.

This is my favorite:


“A cicada shell;

it sang itself

utterly away.”

~ Basho

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Comment by Foolish Monkey on January 13, 2018 at 1:55pm

I am very drawn to bushido and zen, although I do not practice.  creation is about bushido and zen because creation is about letting go and allowing your body to be possessed and it's never easy.  what comes isn't what you expect or even what you want.  it's a truth - it's beyond me or you or anyone.  it IS.  you have to wait for it.

I used to skate competitively and I was considered good.  splitting the line - as figures was fondly referred to - was - in many ways - the same as creating.  letting my skills happen without getting in the way, not nerves, not what someone else was doing - I didn't even look at others.  I just did what I was there to do. 

that's what I do now in the studio. I don't know what a painting needs to be until it finally tells me ENOUGH.  I've killed paintings trying to make them.  I've found once I let go and let it happen, it does.  funny...I started a painting a couple of months back - "take me to the river".  I didn't know what it was going to be or why or why I kept hearing a specific version of a song while I was painting or even what the hell the start of it was.  it was a silly start and I kind of liked the weirdness of it but I don't normally paint "weird".    I didn't come to the truth of it until one day last week I did.   

when I write poetry m initial thoughts are always the purest.  I will rewrite and revise to clarify but the original thought is always the heart of a poem.  

Rodney I love creation, although it has little to do with me aside from the fact that I do it.  it's very satisfying to be a channel, which is pretty much what I consider myself.  

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 13, 2018 at 2:05pm

Foolish Monkey, I know of what you speak.  When I was competing - after I looked to the East - I would finish and remember nothing of what had happened for the past several hours.  I was completely in the thrall of the process, thinking nothing conscious.

I do ceramics, and it is the same way when I'm in my studio.  I love it.  Time doesn't stand still; it ceases to exist.

Lately, I've gotten fascinated with trying to write poetry.  It is so different from prose, and the idea comes in a rush.  The execution at this point a little slower.

Comment by Foolish Monkey on January 13, 2018 at 2:47pm

With poetry and painting, for me it's always a phrase, a song, a...something - something waiting I have to wait to scratch out.  you know what I'm talking about - passages - like water flowing.

  I think with any creating what gets in the way is personal criticism - the deep longing, the ego, wanting to be what someone else is or was, thinking this is what __whatever it is__ is.  but it's only what we're allowed to conjure up....and even then, only if we step out of the way and let it come forth.  like ectoplasm. 

Comment by Safe Bet's Amy on January 13, 2018 at 5:17pm

You were/are a kendoka?  How cool is THAT!

I've been a student of Kendo since my mid teens when my first Sensei let me practice in exchange for cleaning his dojo and setting up chairs.  I say practice, but the ass made me sit and QUIETLY watch for the first two months.  That about killed me!  LOL

I didn't find out until MUCH later that he was the second highest ranking kendoka in the US at the time.  I learned SO much from that man and I still miss his grumpy, old ass!

I still do my katas a couple times a week just to keep in practice (I've gotten lazy though and rarely workout in full bogu anymore).

Anyways, here's a Kendo haiku I've always liked:

like a lightning strike
shinai cuts through the spring breeze
now my mind is clear

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 13, 2018 at 5:39pm

You know there is a big Japanese influence in ceramics. I like most all of the influences. It is deceptively free and open to wabisabi.

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 13, 2018 at 5:53pm

My fave. Impractical and ruled by serendipity.

Comment by koshersalaami on January 13, 2018 at 7:03pm

The closest I come to that kind of creation is musical improvisation. I did that a lot when I played rock and roll e every week. It was completely in the moment. I rarely remembered what I did afterward. 

Sometimes you get in the zone. There's an old post of Phyllis on Open that I have copied somewhere that featured a whole conversation in limericks. I don't think I knew that was possible. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 13, 2018 at 7:12pm

I would love to see that if you can find it.  Limericks, to be so lowly regarded, seem to appeal to everyone.  I still remember two that I read in a kid's book when I was in grade school.

Comment by cheshyre on January 13, 2018 at 7:18pm

Hope you keep up the pursuit. Bruce Lee, John Lennon - all the great artists talk about letting go.

I myself prefer the sixteenth Sengoku era of Japanese history. After that, when the samurai stopped fighting, they were glamorized in order to still feel justified. Masaki Kobayashi's Hara Kiri is an awesome example at exposing the underbelly of the Tokugawa era, though.

Another year is gone;
and I still wear straw hat
and straw sandal

Comment by koshersalaami on January 13, 2018 at 9:09pm


I can find it, but the thread is too long to fit in a PM. 

I have to break it up. 


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