Several years ago, I saw a film called Ghost Dog, that I thought I would hate, but ended up watching twice because I found it so intriguing. The film is about the eponymous Ghost Dog, who is an assassin who works for a Mafioso, and follows the Way of the Samurai. To the Mafioso, he's just a hired hitman, but the man saved Ghost Dog's life when he was young, and Ghost Dog decided as a result to regard the man as his 'lord' in the terms of the Samurai code. In his own way, the Mafia man is also following a strict and outdated code of conduct. As someone who hates violence and guns, I thought I'd hate the film, but it was so thoughtful in the way that it explored the motivation and rationale of the two men that I found it fascinating. Ghost Dog also read extensively from a book called Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, and the readings piqued my interest sufficiently to buy it. For one reason or another, I've only just got around to reading it.
It has been a fascinating read. Some of the sections are bizarre or even repellent to modern sensibilities (I lost count of the number of people who had their heads cut off or committed seppuku. Or both.) Some are difficult to understand because they involve arcane and obscure details of Samurai lore, but others are startlingly relevant to modern life.
From my reading of the book (which I may have totally misunderstood), the key duty for a Samurai seems to be service and duty to his lord, and avoidance of 'shame'. Shame, it seems, could come in many ways (some seemingly trivial), but to die with the stain of shame was the worst possible fate. Hence the practice of committing seppuku (disembowelling oneself) to redeem the shame you have brought on yourself. There is also a strong premium put on courage and bravery, and this is achieved by considering oneself already dead:
The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one's aim is to die a dog's death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one's aim. [...] If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way.
When I first read that, I felt that it was the complete opposite of my beliefs. I love life, and feel that it is more important than almost anything else (note that I don't just mean my life here). I felt that this was just a death cult, and the Samurai were throwing away something very precious, for seemingly no good reason. We have only one life (I believe) and to squander it seems wasteful and disrespectful, even if you don't believe in any god. Philip Pullman has made the same point much more eloquently. However, when I thought about it, the more metaphorical aspects of it had a certain kind of sense. We should never leave things undone or unfinished (for one thing, we never know when we might die), so being able to say that you would be content to die right now, because there is nothing you would regret, is probably a good thing. It's a more general case of the kind of thing you often hear from couples who have been married for more than 50 years when asked about the secret of their happiness: never let the sun go down on an argument.
There are a couple of other very nice passages that I found quite inspiring:
There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.
In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. Lord Takanobu said, "If discrimination is long, it will spoil. " Lord Naoshige said, "When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly. A warrior is a person who does things quickly." When your mind is going hither and thither, discrimination will never be brought to a conclusion. With an intense, fresh and undelaying spirit, one will make his judgments within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side.
Lastly, a passage that could have been written as advice to a young scientist (or any academic). I'm going to print this one out to be displayed above my desk.
It is not good to settle into a set of opinions. It is a mistake to put forth effort and obtain some understanding and then stop at that. At first putting forth great effort to be sure that you have grasped the basics, then practicing so that they may come to fruition is something that will never stop for your whole lifetime. Do not rely on following the degree of understanding that you have discovered, but simply think, "This is not enough." One should search throughout his whole life how best to follow the Way. And he should study, setting his mind to work without putting things off. Within this is the Way.