Bushido: examining codes of conduct

“Consider yourself as a dead body, thus becoming one with the way…”

This is one of the tenets of the Bushido code, a code of conduct that guided the warrior class of Japan for centuries. This concept of the “ideal warrior” can be found as far back as 797 AD. Like the Greeks, the Japanese held that the fully realized man was a warrior-poet type, combining physical prowess with artistry and sound moral behavior. Honor codes are still used today in gangs. They are also used in many professional organizations as manifestos, company vision statements or in human resources documents on work place behavior.

A good samurai was admonished to choose death over life and consider himself a walking dead man. “If you keep your spirit correct, from morning to night… accustomed to the idea of death, and consider yourself as a dead body, thus becoming one with the way…” There are some merits in this line of thinking: it bespeaks mindfulness towards the fragility of life, and the benefits of maintaining one’s awareness. However, this was also the era of lords and retainers; the antiquated idea of “abandoning body and soul for the sake of their lord” meant life was cheap sometimes. There are numerous stories from the era relating how samurai willingly threw their lives down for their masters, or committed suicide for mistakes or social slights we now deem far less dramatic. Sometimes, it came from a greatly exaggerated sense of loyalty – in itself a wonderful thing – but of course the object of loyalty must be deserving.

The idea that we must accept our mortality is a profound one. We become more acutely aware that we have a limited amount of time here in this form, within the current framework that we identify as our selves and our lives. The consequences of our decisions become more meaningful, particularly in one basic overarching area: how do we wish to expend our time? This makes time – and life – more precious, and it means we must do what we can to act as if it is so. There is also much we don’t have control over; when it is our time to go, we will go, and acceptance will make it easier. Being confronted with our mortality can sharpen our senses and appreciation of every day experience. Nature, relationships, and activities that we enjoy take on a new meaning.

With any archaic wisdom, context is critical. Images of outdated social norms that gave women fewer rights than men, or put a much higher price on the life of a lord over the serfs can be discarded. The kernels that remain can be carried forward. For example, the Hagakure discusses how anyone, of any talent level or natural ability, can develop themselves through some basic moral constructs. “When your thinking rises above concern for your own welfare, wisdom that is independent of thought appears. Get beyond love and grief, exist for the good of man.”