To Hum a Strain in the Face of Death

free_image_samurai-41200_1280“A truly brave man is ever serene; he is never taken by surprise; nothing ruffles the equanimity of his spirit. In the heat of battle he remains cool; in the midst of catastrophes he keeps level his mind. Earthquakes do not shake him, he laughs at storms. We admire him as truly great, who, in the menacing presence of danger or death, retains his self-possession; who, for instance, can compose a poem under impending peril, or hum a strain in the face of death.”

~ Inazo Nitobe, Bushido, The Soul of Japan

Bushido is the code of the samurai, the rules a noble warrior should live by. Literally translated, it is “the way of the warrior.”

In my upcoming novel, which I’ve yet to reveal the title of, there is possibly one person who could fit the bill of the above quote, who could conceivably compose a poem while facing death. He is brave, beyond doubt. He is a very capable warrior and has seen his share of battle, though you might not guess it right off. He’s a leader, certainly, and passes his knowledge to those deserving. He possibly represents this element of bushido better than anyone else in the story. Although, there may be an unlikely contender.

The problem with this calm, collected and courageous cavalier is that he just might also be a murderer.

And that certainly goes against the principles of bushido.

Sure, samurai killed people all the time. But it was supposed to only have been done in the name of honorable causes.

Some samurai seemed to confuse honor with ego, however, as pointed out in a possibly spurious story that Nitobe recalls in Bushido, The Soul of Japan. It tells of “a well-meaning citizen” who informs a samurai that there is a flea jumping on his back. For this favor, the citizen was promptly cut in two. Fleas are lowly parasites that feed on animals. To be associated with such a beast was an “unpardonable insult.”

But a truly noble samurai would be calm in the face of such a trivial insult, and even in the face of a horrible one. A true samurai would practice magnanimity, patience and forgiveness.

Mencius, a Chinese philosopher who was second only to Confucius in samurai popularity, said, “Though you denude yourself and insult me, what is that to me? You cannot defile my soul by your outrage.”

The number of men of that caliber in any time or place, samurai or not, were probably few.

Perhaps those numbers increased a bit after samurai began to incorporate flower arrangement and tea ceremonies into their training, in the mid-14th century. The calming affect of these rituals certainly was meant to even out any unchecked egos. In that way, they became artist-warriors.

They philosophized, practiced calligraphy and wrote poems.

As for the best of these artist-warriors, when the enemy charged them on the battlefield, when a family name was shamed by the affronts of a worthy rival, when demons stalked them in the haunted forests below Mount Fuji, they could face them with a calm heart and a song on their lips.

The character in question from my book is Miyahara. Is he is of the noblest stock of ancient samurai blood or just a blood-thirsty killer with no regard for human life?

The truth will be revealed.

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2 thoughts on “To Hum a Strain in the Face of Death

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  1. I think men of such superhuman composure were the exception rather than the rule, if they existed at all in other than a romanticized notion of perfection. I rather think this take on bravery is closer to the truth:

    “Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
    ‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.”
    ― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great quote from a fantastic book! And I agree, but I also don’t think the two ideas are mutually exclusive. It’s possible to be scared as hell but to not show it outwardly, to face your fears in spite of it all, to sing a song in the face of danger even though you want nothing more than to run like hell in the opposite direction. It’s a mastering of your fears, not an absence of them. I think that’s the essence of real bravery.

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