Zen Stories of the Samurai


The following review appears in:
JOURNAL OF ASIAN MARTIAL ARTS, Volume 15 Number 3, pages 93-94.

"Zen Stories of the Samurai is a collection of short parables from various sources, dealing with the Japanese military man of the feudal era. The book contains a forward by Lorraine DiAnne and both a preface and a forward by the author. The stories are organized into several chapters each headed by an illustration. Finally there are afterwords about the illustrations and the authors, a bibliography, and an index. The stories are presumably derived from the sources listed in the bibliography, but there are no notes to indicate which came from where.

In the preface, Dunnigan seems to be especially concerned about the translations and the language in general, but the resulting text proves enjoyable reading, uncluttered by complexities often found in academic translations.

In the introduction, Dunnigan tells the story of Bodhidharma coming from India to the Shaolin Temple in China, finding lazy monks, and inventing exercises which ultimately became martial arts. He then gives a brief account of Zen moving into Japan and the influence of other Buddhist sects on the martial arts. He also discusses the usefulness of Zen to the warrior in relationship to one’s attitude toward death and to the attainment of insight into the current moment.

The stories themselves are presented with only a brief comment at the beginning of each chapter. The stories are fables, fairy tales that have become part of martial arts culture. Most will be familiar to the well-read student, but some may be new. All, like Aesop’s fables, offer lessons to be learned.

First, there is the matter of the “Zen and samurai” concept. It has become popular in the last few years to state that the whole premise is incorrect, that the typical samurai was usually a follower of some other Buddhist sect than Zen, and so on. The author even makes reference to this concern in his introductory notes. These objections are somewhat academic, as there certainly is a “Zen and samurai” association, and has been for many years. No other justification is needed than the plethora of books in the west that start out “Zen and.…” Beyond that, there certainly was a connection between some specific samurai and Zen, and Zen has certainly been a part of the overall Japanese culture since it was introduced to the country. If one takes a look at the bibliography and reads the stories here, one also sees the association of samurai and Zen. If that connection wasn’t any more strong for all samurai than was being Christian (as opposed to believing in Mithras) for the common Roman soldier in the Christian Roman empire, that doesn’t negate the fact that Christian Roman soldiers did exist, and that we in the modern era write about and discuss them. In any case, this particular book is about the stories, not about the historical position of Zen in the lives of the everyday samurai, so we will leave this straw man in the field where we found him and get back to the collection.

Some of these stories, especially those telling of a Zen priest disarming or knocking out a samurai, may be easily misunderstood without additional explanation. The lesson then would seem to be that you should study Zen because it will help you be a successful fighter. Doubtless this is why some samurai did actually study, but is not a wholly accurate portrayal of this type of literature.

The problem with stories like these, and any story collection drawn from a variety of sources, is that each story or set of stories has a slightly different purpose and we’re not sure what it was in the original telling of the tale. Some stories are simple, meant as an introduction to a basic concept. Some are more complex and subtle, and some, like those mentioned above, may be pure propaganda meant only to attract students. Without knowing which story has which intent, it is easy to start looking for meaning where none is actually intended.

The stories are well-translated, easy to remember, and easy to re-tell. If you don’t get a lesson from each and every one right now, at least some will hit home. For the others, a couple months or years of practice may bring a flash. Read them and let them digest without too much worry about squeezing every last drop of understanding out of them.

The most instructive statement in the whole book was not a story at all. On page 124 of the postscript “about the illustrations,” Dunnigan writes: “With Zen painting, the concept of original and copy is immaterial. Each artist’s rendition is a completely personal statement that stands on its own.” With regard to practice, to the meaning of kata, to lineal transmission, and even to certain copyright issues that I’m thinking about today, this holds some insight for me. If it means not so much to you, perhaps that is because, like the stories themselves, you will get out of it what you bring to it."

Review by Kim Taylor, M.Sc. (University of Guelph)