An excerpt from our upcoming book Wisdom in Buddhism
A story is told of a time in ancient Japan, of a powerful daimyo who was looking to replace his ageing and soon to retire, master-at-arms. Among the scores of warriors and staff which the daimyo employed within his household and upon his lands, he most trusted his heiosha, or bodyguard. When the daimyo was out on his tours of his precinct, he would always take his heiosha, whose role it was to guard the daimyo against any threat.
As a game, the daimyo occasionally altered the gait of his horse unexpectedly, but seemingly without missing a beat, the heiosha kept pace, never falling behind or getting ahead. The daimyo would swerve left or right, but always the heiosha was immediately reactive and never left the side of the daimyo. From time to time, when the daimyo was under threat by brigands or bandits, the heiosha was quick to his defence, making short work of the intruders, either killing them, disabling them or running them off before they could pose any threat to the daimyo.
In the household, it was clear to the daimyo that his heiosha was respected and somewhat feared. When others warriors of the daimyo’s employ were summoned to offer opinion of the heiosha, they spoke of his knowledge, his skills as an artist, his fearsome abilities as a warrior and his clear mind. This impressed the daimyo and he come to see his heiosha as a solid candidate to replace his soon to retire master-at-arms.
Still, doubts lingered about the man. Were his skills as a warrior and his fidelity to the daimyo beyond reproach? Did the man have the inner sense of direction and strength that he could not only act as prescribed by the bushido code, but could he teach and was his wisdom profound?
One day, as the daimyo was out walking along the river bank with his heiosha, he asked the man, “In your opinion, what makes a man truly a master of the sword?”
To this the heiosha replied, “His fudoshin.”
“How would you define that?” asked the daimyo as they crossed a small wooden bridge, without rails, made slippery by the rain which fell earlier in the day.
“A state of high alert with unswerving attention to the surroundings. An attention to the world that will not allow the warrior to be surprised or taken aback. The ability to teach and lead others. In possession of a clear, focused mind with full concentration on his surroundings and the movement of the man which he has sworn to protect.”
Hardly had these words left the lips of the heiosha when his master gave him a mighty shove to the side. For a moment, the heiosha was able to keep his balance, with windmilling arms and kicks into the air, but in a second or two, amid the rustling of silk, he fell from the bridge, into the shallow, brackish water, to finally settle, on his feet, amid the lotus flowers.
“Is that your fudoshin?” yelled the daimyo over his shoulder as he finished crossing the bridge.
A few field workers had witnessed this event, and so word quickly got around the castle that the heiosha had failed the test of his master. The other warriors spoke behind his back, gave him a ribbing when he was near, but never showed serious signs of disrespect, for his skills were still formidable and his reputation, while a little tarnished, was not completely broken. Still, it seemed unlikely now that the heiosha would be named to replace the master-at-arms.
In a few days, the daimyo summoned all his warriors to a large meeting. He was to announce the man who was now to replace the master-at-arms. There were many among the assembled warriors who were good candidates and they were each confident that their daimyo would pick them.
Many honours were spoken and given to the departing master-at-arms. Long poems were recited that spoke of his accomplishments and his skills over 30 years serving the daimyo. Words of kindness and respect were given by those who served under him. Gifts were given and gratefully received. Finally, the time came to name his replacement.
The daimyo called for silence. All the shuffling feet ceased their movement. All nervous coughs ceased. All murmuring ended. The room fell silent. The daimyo waited a moment while he made eye contact with dozens of warriors in the room until finally he made his announcement.
“The replacement for the long-serving master-at-arms will be my heiosha.” At first there was mumbling and talk among the warriors, dubious looks and signs of derision, but the daimyo once again called for silence.
“The evening after the bridge incident, as I undressed to retire for the evening, I found, secreted in the left sleeve of the kimono I wore that day, a kozuka or covering for a blade. I recognized it as the one I had given as a gift to my heiosha some years ago. I immediately saw that in the one or two seconds before he fell into the water, he had unsheathed his weapon and secured that kozuka within the sleeve of my kimono. In that instant he let me know that he was not so much taken by surprise as I had originally thought. He preferred to fail, rather than let his master lose face in front of the field workers. His loyalty and wisdom have been proven.”
Retold with inspiration of Samurai Wisdom Stories; Tales from the Golden Age of Bushido, by Pascal Fauliot.