All cultures present aspects that cannot but baffle the foreign observer. For example: nothing in the native tradition equips a Japanese to grasp the concept of the blood of the crucified son of the one God washing believers clean of sin.

The foreign observer of Japan may be no less baffled by the Japanese “way of the sword.”

Sword masters, like Zen masters — most swordsmen were Zen men, seeking, sometimes attaining, Zen enlightenment through swordsmanship — speak of “transcending life and death”; of “the sword of life” as opposed to the sword of death; of the sword killing not people but egoism, duality, illusion. The true swordsman, says Zen master Daisetsu T. Suzuki, “has no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy.”

With that somewhat cryptic pronouncement in mind, consider the following episode in the early life of the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645). It is told by William Scott Wilson in “The Lone Samurai.”

A 13-year-old child at the time, something of a delinquent, Miyamoto was on his way home from a calligraphy lesson when he noticed a placard. It had been posted by an itinerant swordsman. There were many at the time, roaming the land, engaging in matches with fellow swordsmen, honing skills, winning renown — ultimately, they hoped, to be taken on by a feudal lord as a domain instructor.

The placard was a challenge to a match. Young Musashi scribbled a note on the placard accepting the challenge. His uncle and guardian, when he heard, was horrified. He begged the swordsman, whose name was Arima Kihei, to forgive the childish prank. Kihei was willing, on condition of a formal apology. At the appointed time, the boy appeared — armed with a 6-foot staff. Instead of apologizing, he charged. The boy must have possessed enormous strength. Wilson sums up blandly: “He beat Kihei to death and returned home.”

It was his first of 60 bouts. He never lost and sometimes (not invariably) killed. Another casualty, years later, was the famous swordsman Sasaki Kojiro. Musashi used psychology against him, unsettling him by arriving late and matching his own calm against his opponent’s resentful impatience. We today might call it — and the surprise attack on Kihei no less — poor sportsmanship. It would be anachronistic. No such criticism emerged at the time. Musashi’s wooden sword “cracked down on (Kojiro’s) skull.”

Historian Beatrice Bodart-Bailey (in “The Dog Shogun”) cuts through what to her, plainly, is religious-sentimental claptrap: “The famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi elevated killing to a fine art, boasted that he had never lost a fight, and exhorted his followers to dedicate their lives to the practice of the sword. His famous ‘Book of Five Rings’ consists of detailed instructions on how to kill quickly and effectively.” Bodart-Bailey’s point is that early 17th-century Japan, its peace still raw and unsettled after centuries of civil war, had yet to rise above barbarism, which Musashi, as a leading exponent of the “way of the sword,” exemplifies better than anyone.

One culture’s barbarism is another’s highest value. A Zen priest named Takuan Soho (1573-1645), a friend to and influence on Musashi, wrote in a famous treatise on Zen and swordsmanship: “As a martial artist, I do not fight for gain or loss, am not concerned with strength or weakness, and neither advance a step nor retreat a step. The enemy does not see me. I do not see the enemy. Penetrating to a place where heaven and earth have not yet divided … I quickly and necessarily gain effect.” Attitude is all. A mind having transcended life and death neither kills nor dies. “For then,” says Suzuki, “destruction is turned against the evil spirit. The sword comes to be identified with the annihilation of things that lie in the way of peace, justice, progress and humanity. … It is now the embodiment of life and not of death.”

Baffling. Is this accessible at all, to a modern mind uninitiated into the higher mysteries of Zen? “Thou shalt not kill,” honored more in the breach than in the observance, is all the same a mainstay of Western civilization and of modern non-Western civilizations whose modernization was in effect Westernization. It has no equivalent in premodern Japan. The attitude toward death and, therefore, toward life, that evolved there may well seem to outsiders a glorification of death, a license to murder.

A central theme of Musashi’s “Book of Five Rings,” the book Bodart-Bailey dismisses with disgust, is the unity of all the arts. Art and religion are one, art is a higher form of life, swordsmanship is an art — therefore swordsmanship is a religious pursuit leading to a higher life.

Musashi himself was not only a master swordsman but a master painter, and to study his most famous painting, a monochrome India ink wash drawing titled “Shrike on a Withered Branch,” is to catch (however tenuously) something of what Takuan and Suzuki are talking about. Wilson puts it this way: “In the unblinking eye and the hooked beak of the shrike, one can sense the almost nonexistent border between life and death. … And yet, with a slight shift of the imagination, it is a perfect scene of nature, a bird on a branch. This is the perfect quality of Musashi’s Zen: Nothing is as it seems; nor is it otherwise.”

Most wandering swordsmen of Musashi’s day wandered only as long as they had to. They were in a sense looking for a steady job, preferably, as mentioned, as resident instructor on a feudal domain. Musashi was different. He never settled, never married. His wandering was lifelong. It was his “way.” The last chapter of “The Book of Five Rings” is titled “Emptiness.” Musashi writes: “Make the heart of truth your way. … Accordingly, you will make emptiness the way and see the way as emptiness” — “emptiness” not in the Western sense of bleakness but in the Zen sense of infinite potential.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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