Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Oda Nobunaga's Great Moment

From the Asian point of view a sword fight is a mental battle as opposed to the western idea of it being a physical confrontation. The physical aspect of the fight is merely a playing out of a mental battle already fought. I remember watching a Japanese film once where two opposing samurai met on the road, each drawing his sword and assuming a stance ready to fight. They probed one another's eyes, searching for any weakness of the spirit, the true place of battle. But after finding nothing, the first samurai declared, "Let's call it a draw." The other agreed. Neither had moved from his initial stance but certainly warfare had transpired.

Rambo once proclaimed the mind to be the greatest weapon and nowhere was this more evident than in the sixteenth century Sengoku Jidai (warring states) era of Japan, my favorite time of Japanese history. The country was rulerless and hopelessly deadlocked between dozens and dozens of provinces vying for ultimate control. So who would win? Those who had the biggest army, or the greatest riches or the largest domain? No, it would be he of the greatest mind. And that mind belonged to Oda Nobunaga.

Oda, of the small and weak Owari province, faced a crisis point. An army of 25,000 was streamrolling its way to the Kyoto capitol and Oda's lands lay directly in its path. Already two of his outer castles had fallen and the most amount of men he could muster totaled a mere 2,500. All eyes of the clan were on Nobunaga as he considered his dilemma. But let us let Oda himself describe that time:

Yes, you know of the battle of Okehazama but do you know of The Moment? I'm not sure I can ever adequately describe that experience. It was as if the whole universe flowed through me, energizing me to the sky and connecting me to all things. Something beyond myself was happening. I was enabling history. The excitement, the fear, the sheer feeling of being alive. I fully expected to look down at my hands and see them glowing with power.

My head kept saying "No!" but it kept being washed away by these dreams of Destiny. Slowly, I started to stand and let them overtake me - my soul taking great satisfaction in that. Cries of "Yes!" grew louder and I trembled excitedly before this Leap of Faith. The fog dissipated and a vision crystallized in my mind: glorious victory. Perhaps to no man alive could I explain or defend my decision. To a man of the world it could only seem foolish to fight an army ten times your own. But to me - in that Moment - it could only be foolish not to.

Oda then famously recited and danced his way through the Atsumori song:

"A man's life of 50 years under the sky
"is nothing compared to
"the age of this world.
"Life is but a fleeting dream, an illusion --
"Is there anything that lasts forever?"

And finally, the speech he gave to his men after reaching his decision:

"Imagawa has 40,000 men marching toward this place? I don't believe that. He 'only' has 25,000 soldiers. Yes, that is still too many. So, Sado, you want me to surrender. What if we do surrender? Will you get contentment with losing your life that way? Or what if we hold on like Katsuie wants me to? What if we stay here in this castle, lock it up, and wait until the Imagawas lose appetite and stop the siege and go home? We will be able to prolong our lives for 5 or 10 days, and what we cannot defend will still be indefensible. We are at the bottom of the pit, you see. And our fate is interesting. Of course the misery is very great, too. But this is how I see it: this is a chance in a lifetime. I can't afford to miss this. Do you really want to spend your entire lives praying for longevity? We were born in order to die! Whoever is with me, come to the battlefield tomorrow morning. Whoever is not, just stay wherever you are and watch me win it!"

The rest, as they say, is history. After setting up a false camp to divert attention, Oda's scouts found the invading army's headquarters on the plains of Okehazama. The invaders were laughing at the ease of their conquest and enjoying a midday lunch until a thunderstorm broke out. Then, out of the rain, came the Oda warriors, their approach shielded by the sounds of the downpour. Soon the severed head of the invading clan leader was held in the grasp of an Oda warrior and the intruders dispersed back to where they came from. Nobunaga built on this victory to become the most powerful ruler in Japan, unifying over half the land, until he was assassinated by one of his own generals.

Kind of makes you think, huh?

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