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The Way of the Warrior

By Paxton Sharpe


The samurai of medieval Japan were masters of warfare and developed many advanced martial arts styles that are still practiced to this day. However, the samurai were also a high ranking class of nobility who lived their lives by a code of conduct and ethics derived from religious philosophy, martial discipline, and loyalty to the lord of the estate. This Japanese code of chivalry was called Bushido, or “the way of the warrior,” and is known for its seven virtues: Justice, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Veracity, Honor, and Loyalty. While these virtues come from a time which may seem archaic and irrelevant, they can provide a great deal of insight and guidance for today's martial artist.

The first virtue of Justice, or Rectitude, was sought to instill the foundational idea of righteousness, doing what is right, or what one ought to do. This fundamental value can be found at the root of all systems of ethics, and the other six virtues follow logically. The second virtue of Courage is at the forefront of what is expected from a warrior. In Yamamoto Tsunetomo's 18th century guide for samurai, Hagakure, Tsunetomo writes, “Bushido is realized in the presence of death. In the case of having to choose between life and death you should choose death. There is no other reasoning. Move on with determination.” For the samurai, this was entering battle with no illusions of the very real possibility of death, accepting it from the very beginning. This may seem extreme today, but is absolutely necessary for any student of the martial arts to consider. In self-defense, the martial artist must be prepared to defend himself or herself by whatever means necessary, without hesitation, and with every intention of fighting to the death.

The third virtue of Benevolence draws a sharp contrast, but the samurai were also a noble class and held bureaucratic positions within society. Benevolence is a core value in the philosophies of Confucianism, Shintoism, and Buddhism, all of which were fundamental in forming the samurai ethos. As such, it was expected that the samurai would not abuse his power to exploit the weak, and no less is expected from the modern martial artist. For someone who is not in the military or law enforcement, this means that martial arts should be used strictly in cases of self-defense or the defense of others, and never in a state of offense. Benevolence also brings us to the fourth virtue of Politeness, or Respect. In a military aspect, senior ranks and those in command must be respected and obeyed. In the dojo, the teacher is given respect for his or her knowledge, experience, and guidance.

The fifth virtue of Veracity, or Honesty, can be defined as a “devotion to the truth.” A samurai saw no need for written contracts as his word held much higher value, and liars were often shown no quarter. Martial artists should look for truth in their training and ensure that what they are learning is practical, realistic, and effective. Likewise, they should be honest to others and especially themselves about their own abilities. The sixth virtue of Honor follows Honesty and is a key aspect of Bushido. It is well known that a samurai valued his honor so much that before being defeated or shamed he would perform the ritualistic suicide known as seppuku or hara-kiri. As modern martial artists we must examine this virtue closely, as pursuing a false sense of Honor can often lead to very bad decisions. In many cases the idea of “preserving honor” is really just preserving ego. Another way the modern martial artist can apply this is to judge the honor of his or her teacher. Does the instructor claim to know numerous martial arts and show off flashy moves, or seriously teach one system proficiently? Is the school one of hard work and learning or a marketing point to sign up more students?

Finally we come to the seventh virtue of Loyalty. Whereas the samurai were at all times loyal to their lord, the martial arts student should remain loyal to his or her chosen teacher and style. Any legitimate instructor will devote as much time as possible to teaching his or her students, and will have a plan for every step of their training. Those who jump from school to school hoping to “master” multiple martial arts are doing themselves no favors. As Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” There are many differences between the core philosophies of certain martial arts, such as what we call “hard” or “soft” arts. When we train, we are training our subconscious muscle memory to react to certain situations in very specific ways. In this sense, we must remain loyal to one system or style if we wish to be truly effective in self-defense.

These seven virtues of Justice, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Veracity, Honor, and Loyalty define the code of Bushido that the samurai lived and died by. To this day, many people are fascinated by Bushido and its guidelines for morality and warfare. The brief examples of each virtue presented here are just a glimpse into their depth, and I would invite any martial artist to contemplate them further and see how they may apply to his or her life.


(Submitted August 18th, 2012)

Budokai South Defensive Arts Institute
Minami Budo Ryu
Ju Jitsu / Aiki Jujitsu / Judo / Self Defense
Aiken, SC
Phone: (803) 341-3221
Email: newtobudokai@gmail.com

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