Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

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Author of this essay:

Shi Ming Zhen
(April 28, 2006)

PART 6: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
by Ming Zhen Shakya

Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog is the story of a modern Samurai warrior who serves his daimyo master according to principles stated in the Hagakure.

The film reminds us immediately of Lao Tzu’s verse in which he says that clay may make the vessel but what is important is the empty space the clay encloses.

In Ghost Dog, what we don’t see, or see only fleetingly, is the important part of the story. This vital empty space is contained within two events: the first of which occurred eight years before the film begins and the second which occurred four years before the film begins. In a brief flashback, we see the first critical moment: thugs have beaten and kicked a man who lies prone and bloody in an alleyway. One of them is about to shoot him, when a passerby, a mafioso named Louie Bonicelli, sees the assault and, heroically responding to the human impulse to help the underdog, fearlessly draws his weapon, confronts the thug, and kills him before he can kill the helpless man.

No man can feel lower than a man who’s lying on the ground being kicked like a dog. For him there are only three possibilities: he can perish in his shame; he can continue in that same ignoble state; or he can be reborn in a new identity. Evidently, the man resurrects himself as a samurai warrior with only the ghost of his former dog state remaining. But we do not see the transformation. We know nothing about his existence until four years after the attack, the time it has apparently taken him to prepare himself for service. It is then that he contacts Bonicelli, acknowledges the debt he owes him, and pledges a lifetime of unconditional service as repayment. Having committed himself to do whatever his master asks, he becomes a hit-man. He would have gone to the bakery every morning for cannoli if that had been the order.

The film doesn’t say that prior to the attack Ghost Dog was a man without honor; skill; religion, codified principles, or a leader whose commands he could serve unreservedly. We know only that when he does emerge after his four year absence, he is a crack, ambidextrous shot; a dutiful and efficient murderer, and a devout Buddhist. He lives a spartan existence in a rooftop shack beside a coop for carrier pigeons - the means of communication he uses to contact his master.

He prays before a Buddhist altar, wears beads, and does a sword routine, more as an action meditation than as preparation for battle, for in fact he does not ever use a blade. He identifies himself with two ko-mon crests, both are trefoils, one of encircled birds - possibly doves, the symbol of the Holy Spirit - embroidered on his jacket, and the other, a gold pendant of encircled radial legs. He reads the Hagakure as though it were scripture.

He collects his wages annually, during a holiday that in Japan is traditionally reserved for the mourning of the dead - the autumn equinox.

Jarmusch lessens the violent aspect of Ghost Dog’s duties by invoking the Bugsy Siegel gangster ethic: "We only kill each other." The presumption here is that the deceased deserved their fate.

The mythological implications of Ghost Dog are strengthened by fictitious elements in the setting. Jarmusch filmed in Jersey City, New Jersey - but the license plates bear the mottos of unknown states and the telephone area code (433) that appears on signs is of a number not in use in the U.S. We’re not in Kansas, anymore...

Although many TVs are on during the film, only cartoons are shown. The cartoons presage the action... or vice versa, making an interior witty commentary : in a cartoon, Betty Boop waves a banner at a flock of circling birds and Ghost Dog, on his rooftop, waves a banner at a flock of circling birds; Ghost Dog watches a woodpecker; and in a cartoon a ghost laughs at Woody Woodpecker; a cartoon dog-character shoots a gun up a water pipe and Ghost Dog shoots a gun up a water pipe; and so on.

Whether Jarmusch has placed the Hagakure at the service of his plot or whether he has put his plot at the service of the Hagakure is of no consequence. The film is what it is, and it is intriguing. Forest Whitaker is perfect in the role.

Ghost Dog quotes 15 selections (plus two lines from a 16th) taken from the 300 or so verses translated by William Scott Wilson in his Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai.

To refer to them, we’ll number them in accordance with the chapter and verse in Wilson’s work. (Wilson divided his work into chapters but he did not number each entry within the chapter - so this must be done by the reader). For example, Ghost Dog’s first reading is taken from two verses: 1:2 (Chapter 1, verse 2): "The Way of the Samurai is found in death." The recitation then jumps to 11:31 (Chapter 11, verse 31). "Meditation on inevitable death...." and ends by returning to 1:2 for the line, "This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai."

It is a somber recitation. What it is not is one of those "Meditations on the transiency of life" or a resigned acceptance of death’s inevitability. In the orient there are many "charnal house" type exercises in which the meditator is supposed to grasp life’s transitory nature by sitting on a corpse or some such drivel. If being in the company of mangled or diseased corpses were the key to comprehending the mysteries of life, morgue attendants, cops, and funeral directors would be philosophers. They are not. Such thoughts are of no value to a warrior.

Recitation 1 (1:2) The Way of the Samurai is found in death. (11:31) Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuka [ritual suicide] at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. (1:2) This is the substance of The Way of the Samurai."

The penultimate line restates Hsu Yun’s great advice: "Cultivate the poise of a dead man." The samurai should be incapable of being emotionally aroused, particularly by lust, greed, pride, jealousy or anger.

The selection offers a solution to a warrior’s natural fears of pain and death. Fear slows reaction time, indeed, sufficient fear can freeze reaction time altogether, resulting in that stunned paralysis we often call the "deer in the headlights" response. Obviously, controlling fear, suppressing or eliminating it, is much to a warrior’s advantage. The more a warrior is cognizant of the calamities that may befall him, and the more he rehearses his role in the event, the more he acclimates himself to the possibility. And then when he goes into action and the calamity does not occur, the event loses much of its fearful character - and as the fear lessens, his efficiency increases. This daily recitation does not make the samurai passively accept these possibilities. On the contrary, by listing the disasters, a positive emphasis is placed upon being prepared to meet them.

Modern survival manuals can provide explanations for the physiology of fear - the sympathetic nervous system, the amygdala’s function, etc. But this information was not available to the samurai. He would know only that a man who swims does not fear "being carried away by surging waves" in the same panic-seized way that a man who cannot swim fears it. A man who learns how to maintain his balance on unstable surfaces, such as a sailor with "sea legs," does not stumble and fall as an untrained landlubber would. As a mountain goat is not afraid of cliffs, a man who hikes and rock-climbs becomes more nimble and surefooted and thus acquires confidence as he overcomes his natural fears. He appreciates the danger of lightning and doesn’t stand under a tree in a thunderstorm. He keeps his armor in perfect condition - the better to defend against arrows, spears, bullets, and swords. He is fastidious in his personal hygiene and attentive to his diet and sleep requirements and in so doing becomes less vulnerable to disease.

With training, the techniques of meditation can be adjusted to produce a "hypnotized" anesthetic effect. We know also that under hypnosis or in any self-induced trance, a person can not only become oblivious to pain, but he can speed the healing process. Hypnotic suggestibility is part of the acupuncture regimen as well as a means to control bleeding in, for example, dental extractions on hemophiliacs. (The stigmata are the reverse of this effect.) With sufficient willpower and a knowledge of focussed concentration, these pain management techniques are not difficult to acquire.

Yukio Mishima in his The Way of the Samurai comments, "Hagakure insists that to ponder death daily is to concentrate daily on life. When we do our work thinking that we may die today, we cannot help feeling that our job suddenly becomes radiant with life and meaning." His comment emphasizes the positive aspect of what otherwise seems morbid and pessimistic. And it is to be remembered that although he was a writer - not a warrior - he wrote eloquently on the very day that he planned and executed his own death.

The willingness to die for principal or principles is part of every soldier’s heroic willingness to sacrifice himself. We expect that the Secret Service agents who are assigned to protect the President will "take a bullet for him" in the event of attack. They know this in advance of every assignment - as does every soldier who goes into combat. And all of them know that constant training and vigilance are their best protection and means of survival. Ghost Dog places himself at the secret service of his Daimyo; he has pledged to do as he is commanded; and he must, at all costs, protect him with his own life. It follows that he cannot harm him.

And if, in a final showdown, a samurai could not avoid death by any means, he could rely upon his knowledge of Zen Buddhist theology which differs completely from older versions of Buddhist truth. The Zen concept of illusionary "life and death" is often poetically described as a simple journey of shifting forms, as the Great Ocean evaporates, forming clouds that rain down upon the earth as individual living beings which pass through a conscious existence until each eventually returns to Oceanic bliss. Mishima writes, "... we [Japanese] were unable to assimilate Buddhist philosophy with its stultifying concept of sin and karma, according to which one is born and reborn throughout eternity. Death for Jocho has the strange, clear, fresh brightness of blue sky between the clouds."

Although the practice of committing ritual suicide at the death of his master was not a common practice and occurred only during a fifty year period of history, if required to commit hara kiri, a samurai could do so as a willing martyr to his way of life and as an act of loyalty to the heroic individual to whom he literally owed his life.

A loyalty of such depth, once pledged, could not easily be siphoned off and distributed. Further, given the inter-family intrigues and wholesale punishments, surviving one leader and then pledging loyalty to another, who may or may not have been on good terms with the deceased daimyo, did not hold much in the way of confidence and trust.

Recitation 2, (1:73) contains most of the original verse. The omitted line - inserted here in brackets - helps to clarify the meaning.

"It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything else that is called a Way. [Therefore, it is inconsistent to hear something of the Way of Confucius or the Way of the Buddha, and say that this is the Way of the Samurai.] If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own."

This recitation states the practical advice not to apply other standards of behavior to the Path to which one has committed oneself. Although the Code of the Samurai may take what it requires from any other Code, it is not obliged to accept that Code in its entirety and it cannot be judged by that other code. The Samurai’s own Way is his own unique Path which he must follow consistently; and he cannot follow it properly if he is constrained by extraneous rules or conflicted by contradictory values or directions. In Biblical terms, "A servant cannot serve two masters."

Ghost Dog serves one master and he serves him without reservation. Of course we realize that "we only kill each other" is hardly an excuse for what he does - but our larger view must encompass his initial beating. The society in which he lives - that mythical place - is a dog-eat-dog world. It is, as Mishima noted, "Jocho’s dream." In this world, Ghost Dog is able to balance the crime of committing a dozen contract murders by living a monk’s gentle and austere life. In this world, he lives and must be judged by his adherence to the Samurai’s code.

In that mythical "dream" world, Ghost Dog performs admirably.

Editor’s note: The remainder of the Recitations will be discussed in subsequent essays.

Humming Bird

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