Sources returnpage

The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War

Category: Books sutras and myths

The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War was written in 1632 by Yagyu Munenori, a warrior, mentor of the shogun and the head of the Japanese Secret Service.  Superficially this does not look very promising, but it is not what it seems.

Yagyu's work contains a comparatively large amount of material drawn from Zen Buddhist sources, and does a good job, in a relatively small number of pages, of drawing out the similarities between Zen and the martial arts.   Although Yagyu himself makes it clear that the correspondence between Zen and martial arts is imperfect and incomplete, he nevertheless does a very good job of summarising some key points, even though he rather modestly says that he himself has not actually mastered Zen.

In this respect, Munenori does seem to have been rather an exceptional samurai for his time.  The samurai in general, at the time this was written, were not particularly known for being ‘successfully imbued with Buddhist enlightenment or even with a Buddhist philosophy’, although a great deal of effort was being expended by Zen masters into changing this.  Ever since the samurai had taken power in Japan, centuries before Yagyu was born, Buddhists had been trying to ‘civilize and educate the warriors’.  And in Yagyu we have an example of a warrior who had clearly been greatly influenced.

As a book it has the advantage of being written from the perspective not of a Master, but of a converted layman and it is often the newly converted who are better able to explain things, as the idea is fresh and the difficulties of understanding they had still raw in their minds.

Translator's Introduction - Thomas Cleary

The life of Yagyu Munenori (1571-1646) contrasts sharply with that of Miyamoto Musashi, even though both men were professional warriors of the same age. Yagyu received training in martial arts from his father and became the teacher of Tokugawa Hidetada in 1601 when he was barely thirty years old. The Tokugawa Tent Government was established two years later, and Hidetada became the second Shogun in 1605.
Yagyu Munenori was now the official shogunke heiho shihan, or Martial Arts Teacher to the Family of the shoguns.  Yagyu subsequently distinguished himself in battle in the still unsettled early years of the new Tent Government. In one famous incident when the Shogun was unexpectedly ambushed, Yagyu personally cut down seven of the attackers with his “killing sword."
More and more of the barons and their brothers and sons were now seeking entry into the “New Shadow" school of Yagyu, now a famous warrior and master swordsman.
In spite of his distinguished military career, Yagyu writes of himself that he did not realize the deeper meanings of martial arts until he was already past fifty years old. Miyamoto Musashi, made a similar remark... Like Musashi, Yagyu also wrote his book on martial arts late in life, after much reflection on his experiences.
The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War was completed in 1632, the same year that Yagyu Munenori was appointed head of the Secret service.  Under the Tokugawa Tent Government, the role of the secret Service was to oversee the direct vassals of the Tokugawa Family, police the castle at Edo, oversee the performance of lower-level government officers, watch over official ceremonies, attend the Shogun, and participate in the high court. Yagyu’s writing thus reflects a far more developed social and political consciousness than Musashi's.
The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War consists of three main scrolls, entitled "The Killing Sword”, "The Life-Giving Sword” and "No Sword." These are Zen Buddhist terms adapted to both wartime and peacetime principles of the samurai. The killing sword represents the use of force to quell disorder and eliminate violence. The life-giving sword represents the preparedness to perceive impending problems and forestall them. "No sword" represents the capacity to make full use of the resources of the environment.

 

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.