Tengus, Musashi and Joshu

What are the pinnacles of a martial artist’s path? Endless willpower (the embodiment of faith), natural, animal-like movement and an awareness of one’s place in the universe. Alternatives include trouble with the law, a bohemian lifestyle or a macho complex…

But does this come at a price? A martial artist keeps the peace by intimidating the opposition to a point of no return, by forcing potentially dangerous or malicious people to hide or change. This is admirable, but a martial path is often lonely. It is difficult to befriend people genuinely if one does not perceive themselves as equal. By becoming tough, deadly and virtuous, one is robbed of basic human weaknesses and empathies. Fortunately, a virtuous person is beyond conscious value judgments of character!

An ascetic path would say that basic pleasures and empathies are human weaknesses that cause suffering and the disorder of society. This is true, but at the same time, many people are driven to practice martial arts for very human reasons: for their jobs, to protect their families, for ego boosts (to be tough), or from seeing too many Naruto episodes.

Sometimes, people who take these factors as inspiration are driven to achieve very high levels in the martial arts. But I would not be surprised if the highest levels were achieved by people like Musashi, who had much disdain for society’s records and rules. Part of having a job or a family also involves conforming to society and adjusting to its rules. Here one can argue that this is either a further martial development, or a hindrance to one’s martial development. In other words, Musashi was something of a tengu.

Does a martial artist become so secure in his/her ability to kill or destroy that they care so little about other people to the point of no longer noticing their presence? Is this different from realizing how easy it is to kill or destory people or things to the extent that the existence of such things makes them emanate extraordinary substance and value in the martial artist’s eyes?

It’s like what Leonard Cohen said about his Zen teacher, 100-year-old Joshu Sasaki: “He became someone who really cared about—or deeply didn’t care about who I was. Therefore, who I was began to wither. And the less I was of who I was, the better I felt.”

We don’t know Musashi the man, we don’t know ourselves, but we can certainly understand that people like him, living in seclusion from society, perfecting methods of killing (and some slick painting), with nothing in the world to protect except his deep passion to know the essence of combat, are not normally functioning members of humanity. There’s no human glory in that life, which is one obsessed with violence and so far beyond driven to understand things that it eclipses a normal life. Not saying Musashi had a choice necessarily–he seems like he got dealt an interesting hand to play out in life–but it’s something to consider. Sometimes desire for this stuff can be too strong.

Do you lean towards being a tengu or some noble humanist? Sometimes you’re too far in either direction to change in one lifetime.

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