The Mystical and Religious Worlds of the Samurai

Samurai I: Ascension

by A. R. Basov

  • And the teachers appeared.
    With their hearts cold and hard as iron.
    Without human predilections.
    They came and went as flashes illuming the Way.
    —A.B.


    The religious views of the samurai evolved over many years from various creeds in Japanese society. Legends and tales tell us that many samurai believed in mystical forces. For example, they didn’t consider their opponents dangerous, but rather the evil spirits, called magatsuhi, which supported them. The Heike Monogatari describes what Taira Kiyomori thought of the spirits of his many victims:
    “So in order to placate both the living and the departed spirits, first of all Sanuki-no-in was given back his former title of Sutoku Tenno, and Uji-no-Akusafu was raised posthumously in rank and office, being made Dajo-daijin of the upper first rank. Shonaiki Korekata was appointed Imperial Envoy to proclaim these things. Now the tomb of Uji-no-Akusafu was at Gosan-mai in Hannyano in the village of Kawakami in the district of Sou-no-kami in Yamato, and as in the autumn of Hogen it had been dug up and the body thrown out on the roadside, since then the grass had overgrown it more every year. How joyful must his departed spirit have been when the Imperial Envoy arrived and read his message.
    Then the deposed Crown Prince Sagara was given the title of Sudo Tenno and thus Princess Igami was restored to the rank of Empress. All this was done to appease their angry spirits; from ancient times angry spirits have been considered very terrible. The madness of Rei-zei-in and the deposition of the Retired Emperor Kwazan were said to be owing to the angry spirit of Motokata-no-Mimbu-no-Kyo: there was also the matter of the eye disease of the Retired Emperor Sanjo…”
    The samurai strongly believed that in the instant immediately after death a very strong-willed man was capable of performing superhuman deeds and could even influence events by concentrating all his energy in one moment, like in the story of the famous Tametomo Minamoto. Having run into a terrible gale, he knew his ship was sinking so he prepared to perform harakiri. But right then, Tametomo’s wife jumped into the sea to help him from the other world and the gale subsided.

    young samurai art buddha zen
    Praying Samurai (Buddhism) art by Tatiana Basova | Purchase print or painting
    | All Artwork

    <...>
    A mystical melody sounded in the souls of the samurai. It was a sense of contact with the arcane, a connection to the world of the obscure. The bushi thought that in a duel between equal rivals, the winner will be the one who is protected by the spirits of the ancestors. Therefore, a fight was seen not only as combat among samurai but also among the spirits standing behind them. Mysticism was popular among risk-takers throughout the world, and while the samurai believed in magic, omens, predestination, and wore talismans and amulets, they did not make them trust their swords any less.
    March ahead without fear, even if all demons of hell are waiting for you!
    The unworthiest thing is to be cowed, to allow fear to paralyze your will.
    Like all Japanese people, the samurai visited Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Many samurai were religious and spent long periods cloistered away from the vanities of the world. In one tradition, loyal retainers became monks after their lord died so that they could pray for his soul. The samurai believed that such support would affect their revered master’s karma. This was the case with Yamamoto Tsunetomo, author of Hagakure, who secluded himself in a forest for the last twenty years of his life because his lord had banned him from committing harakiri after his death.
    Like the high-rise pagodas at their temples, the samurai directed their thoughts heavenward. For example, Yositsune Minamoto passed away while reciting the Lotus Sutra because he believed the teaching of Honen (1113-1212), Patriarch of the Jodo Shu sect, which said that whoever dies with this prayer on his lips and Buddha in his heart will be carried after death into the land of Buddha Amida, pure and beautiful as a lotus flower... Read further in Samurai: Ascension

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    This is an abstract from the chapter "The Sword" from Samurai I: Ascension

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