This past week, I re-read The Unfettered Mind written by Takuan Sōhō. Because of my interest in both martial arts and Zen Buddhism, I had read it many years ago, but like many books I re-read later in life, I find that my understanding of it now is deeper than it was when I was in my early twenties.
After studying Buddhism more deeply over the past 5 years, I now find myself better able to understand what Takuan Sōhō was trying to convey to master swordsman and instructor Yagyū Munenori.
The second part of The Unfettered Mind is entitled "The Clear Sound of Jewels" and has an interesting exposition on the relative value of life and right-mindedness. Appropriately, Takuan Zenji begins with life.
"There is nothing dearer to us than life. Whether a man be rich or poor, if he does not live out a long life, he will not accomplish his true purpose. Even if one had to throw away thousands in wealth and valuables to do so, life is something he should buy.
It is said that life is of small account compared with right-mindedness. In truth, it is right-mindedness that is most esteemed.
Nothing is more precious than life. Yet, at the moment when we throw away this valued life and stand on right-mindedness, there is nothing more highly esteemed than right-mindedness.
Looking carefully at the world, we can see that there are many people who throw away their lives lightly. But do you suppose one person in a thousand would die for right-mindedness? It would seem that among the humble servant class, contrary to what you might expect, there are many who would. Yet it would be difficult for people who think themselves wise to do the same."
As many Zen masters do, he subverts conventional beliefs and assumptions. In this case, he points out that it is the humble who are more likely to die a good death of right-mindedness, not the proud and mighty ones who think themselves wise because they lack the humble self-awareness of the servant class.
He also points out that at the moment when we choose to die, we inevitably decide what is more valuable than life. We can die for light, insubstantial reasons. Many people do. But we can also die for right-mindedness, and this is a weighty reason to die.
"As I was saying such things half to myself while passing a long spring day, a certain man came up and said something like this:
'While wealth truly pleases our hearts, having life is the greatest wealth of all. So when it comes to the moment of reckoning, a man will throw away his wealth to keep his life intact. But when you think that a man will not hesitate to throw away the life he so values for the sake of right-mindedness, the value of right-mindedness is greater than life itself. Desire, life, right-mindedness--among these three, isn't the latter what man values most?'
At that time, I replied something along these lines.
'Desire, life, and right-mindedness--to say that right-mindedness is the most valued among these three is only natural. But to say that all men without exception value right-mindedness the most among these three misses the mark. There is no man who simply values desire and life but keeps right-mindedness in his thoughts.'"
Here we see that Takuan Zenji is exploring the arguments for various positions on right-mindedness and how common it is to die for right-mindedness. His interlocutor correctly claims that it is right-mindedness that is most valuable, but goes on to suggest that men in general value it most of all.
This is where our Zen master parts ways with him; a Zen priest knows too well from a life of self-denial that even among those who know that right-mindedness is greater than the desire for wealth or life, it is rare that anyone consistently puts this knowledge into practice in his mind.
"Then another man said, 'Wealth is a jewel of life. Without life, wealth is useless, so life alone is valuable. However, it is said that there are many who lightly throw away their lives for right-mindedness.'
I asked, 'Is any man able to take his life lightly for the sake of right-mindedness?'
He responded, 'There are many people in this world who cannot abide being insulted and who will quickly, along with their foes of the moment, throw away their lives in a fight. This is having right-mindedness foremost in mind and taking one's life lightly. It is dying for right-mindedness rather than for wealth or life.
Those who were cut down in the face of battle--their number can hardly be known. All were men who died for right-mindedness. With this in mind, it can be said that all men value right-mindedness over desire and life.'
I said, "Dying because someone is vexed at being insulted resembles right-mindedness, but it is not that at all. This is forgetting oneself in the anger of the moment. It is not right-mindedness in the least. Its proper name is anger and nothing else. Before a person has even been insulted, he has already departed from right-mindedness. And for this reason, he suffers insult. If one's right-mindedness is correct when when he is associating with others, he will not be insulted by them. Being insulted by others, one should realize that he had lost his own right-mindedness prior to the offense.'"
The next interlocutor makes the claim that many people die for right-mindedness, but for the wrong reasons. Takuan Zenji understandably asks how anyone could possibly die for the wrong reasons while being right-minded.
He goes on to explain that dying because one has been dishonored or insulted is by definition something other than right-mindedness. There is nothing right-minded about giving in to anger. When we are angry, our minds are filled with selfishness (in the form of a need to attack what is pricking our ego) and have no room for the loving-kindness that comes from right-mindedness. Right-mindedness is not some grand selfishness that leads to unthinking rage.
"Right-mindedness is a matter of extreme importance. Its substance is none other than the Principle of Heaven, which gives life to all things. When this is acquired by the human body, it is called one's nature. Its other names are virtue, the Way, human-heartedness, probity and propriety. While the name changes according to the situation, and though its function is different, in substance it is only one thing.
When this is written as human-heartedness and the situation involves human intercourse, its function is benevolence.
When it is written as right-mindedness and the situation involves social station and integrity, its function is in making no mistakes in clarity of judgment.
Even in dying, if one has not hit upon the principle therein, he has no right-mindedness, albeit some think that if a person just dies, he had this quality."
He rightly observes that we tend to lionize those who die without really knowing their intentions at the time of their death. We rarely know when someone's death was truly a selfless act of benevolence or when they had the clarity of mind to judge correctly that it would be right to die.
More interestingly, Takuan Zenji tells us that this selfless benevolence, this sacrifice of one's life for the right reasons, is the very substance out of which all life grows. He tells us that when we partake in it, we become virtuous, we follow the Way, and we become compassionate and respectful. So how do we partake in this Principle of Heaven?
"Right-mindedness is considered to be the substance devoid of perversity that is the core of the human mind; and in using the straightness in that core of the mind as a plumbline, everything produced will exhibit right-mindedness.
Disregarding this core and dying because of desire is not a right-minded death. As for those people we mentioned who die for right-mindedness, can there be even one in thousand who would truly do do?
In regard to this, from the time one has been taken into a daimyo's service, of the clothes on his back, the sword he wears at his side, his footgear, his palanquin, his horse and all of his materiel, there is no single item that is not due to the favor of his lord. Family, wife, child, and his own retainers--all of them and their relations--not one can be said not to receive the lord's favor. Having these favors well impressed on his mind, a man will face his lord's opponents on the battlefield and cast away his one life. This is dying for right-mindedness.
This is not for the sake of one's name. Nor for gaining fame, a stipend and a fief. Receiving a favor and returning a favor--the sincerity of the core of the mind consists solely of this."
Here he points out to Yagyū Munenori that as a warrior in the service of a daimyo, almost everything he has is a gift from his lord. And when we are given such an immense set of gifts, we naturally feel grateful and seek to reciprocate the great gifts we have been given.
The radical act of giving one's self in the service of one who has given you much is the right-minded death. It is not the death that follows from being enthralled by rage and brought on by egotistical insecurities. It is not the death of a social climber seeking to advance himself and his descendants in fame and wealth and power.
It is, in short, not a selfish death. To die for right-mindedness is to die because one is, in that moment of sacrifice, truly selfless. Such a death, which is a gift freely given to one's lord who has given so generously to you, is the selfless death.
Note: The above is an image of the book cover of the translation of The Unfettered Mind that I used for this post.