Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"For What Can I Fight?"

Atop Hakusan Mountain sits the lonely retreat of a monk. From here the monk feels the pulse of the land as a sailor feels the currents upon the seas. He can neither influence the tide nor the ship's direction, his is only to report from the crow's nest. But a communication breakdown has occurred in the island of Japan as she utterly disintegrates in the first half of the sixteenth century. It appears that the ceaseless struggles for power will leave the country in permanent chaos, vulnerable to invasion and to become a dreaded Chinese colony.

The curious samurai had traveled from the central Eastern provinces to seek the guidance of the monk whose notoriety had spread by those in the know. Masahide had made a similar pilgrimage in his youth only to be disappointed to find a man spouting mindless platitudes presented as wisdom. He thought he'd never trust another monk again. Yet here he was making this climb up the holy mountain. This time, he had to admit he felt something different even if it was just the eeriness of the mountain fog.

The physicality of the journey had been made all the more arduous by the conflict within. Masahide felt a headwind in every step, a hesitation in his stride. The constant questioning gave the feel of plunging forward through deep snow without snowshoes. Though having made even longer journeys in the past with ease this one left him exhausted and mentally broken. For a samurai, that is the worst possible state in which to be.

First sight of the hut removed his lingering doubts. Masahide did not know why that was but was experienced enough to accept his instincts. It's quite a step to claim oneself to be on a moral quest. "Who am I to do this? Am I not as foul as the next man? Am I not as full of worldly ambition?" For the first time he was to come face to face with those answers and this put more fear in him than any mortal enemy ever had. Something told him this was for bigger game.

Masahide received no reply to his tentative knock. Nothing about this is easy! He could turn back having never shown his face. Perhaps this was a sign to do so. You're only making a fool of yourself! Take this chance to run before it's too late. But he did not run. Instead, Masahide opened the door and peered inside to see a man sitting with legs folded before a fire. The man's focus could not be disturbed. Masahide felt no word he could bring forth would have any significance at that moment compared to the subject of the monk's concentration.


He was on his own to decide what to do. For a man seeking guidance that was the same as sitting naked on hot coals. Yet that is exactly what he did as he took a seat on the floor. As time passed and the closed eyes of the monk did not open, Masahide was forced to struggle with his demons. At times he was nearly driven from the hut in tortured agony from his inner arguments. He couldn't leave. He couldn't stay. He couldn't cry out for help. Time itself lost meaning.

Ironically enough, it was a platitude from the first monk that came back to him: "The finest wins come from surrender." That so infuriated Masahide at the time he stormed away at such an obviously ludicrous sentiment. But surrender he did, his questions washed away by an inner rain. It was the only possible way to remain in the silent hut. The battle of questions and answers would have to be forfeited.

"I'm glad you finally came," said the monk, knowing the moment of peace had arrived.

"You knew I was coming?"

"There are none so blind as those who see only with their eyes. You've been grappling with something for a long time. You debated if you should even make this pilgrimage. Your being is not whole, you have long lived in this state of conflict."

"All that is true."

"And now I must tell you I cannot give you the answers to your questions."

The samurai snorted in amazement. "You won't believe this but that's actually a relief. I feel more peaceful now than I have in ages. I feel free."

"That is because you were under the illusion I know something you do not. Part of you wanted to kill me for feeling you live at my mercy. Now you see there is nothing you can know that cannot be known."

"Were I to leave now with nothing more than that this journey will not have been wasted."

"We sit as one with nature. A few minutes ago you struggled with great effort to remain seated, but now no part of you wishes to rise from that spot. All eternity could pass first before you'd wish to leave."

"Again, that is true. The urge to remain here is overpowering and I do not seek to resist."

"That is the power of nature. We are Her servants to take such fruits as we wish. To fight Her is to starve."

"That seems so obvious now! I must ask to impose on your time, sensei. I know not for how long, but only as long as it takes for a leaf to fall from a branch."

"We shall wait together for that time and celebrate your departure as inevitable and in accordance with the universe."

The monk introduced the samurai to tea, a concoction of the gods. Masahide had heard good word spoken of tea but never had the chance to sample it before. While traveling there he wondered how any soul could live alone atop a mountain and not go mad. Now Masahide wondered how he'd ever force himself return to the "real world." Going from a state of disconnected to connected had brought order and balance to his world. He then started giving the answers he'd sought to seek.

"I'm sworn to my liege lord but I see no future for our clan. Stories across the land are of horror. The son kills the father. His brother then wants to kill him. We are a nation of infighters and that causes me great fear. The bakufu has delved into the same state of affairs. Our nation has no future on this path. Don't you see that too?"

"Our nation is on fire. But if a man were to look at only that he'd be lost. He could outwardly fight and win as commanded only to lose to the struggle within. You ask how can you serve your liege lord when so bedeviled."

"Exactly! It had not been clear before but that's exactly it. I do not wish to betray my lord but the confusion inside prevents my full service. I fear to think beyond that."

"But you already have. You foresee the end of your clan as stronger, more stable clans sense your weakness. With no central authority left to intercede you fear your life a fool's errand."

"It's true. Yet I have never said those words out loud."

"Those who dare listen can hear them well enough."

"Yes, I sense that too. I am not the most cunning in the clan despite my high position. I am most worried."

"And there are certainly those who would profit from your worry. They will use your doubts against you even at the expense of the clan. They seek only to ascend even if in the end it means the downfall of everyone."

"You understand everything so well! If only I could take you back with me to advise."

"I've only spoken what you've already surmised but refused to admit."

"Yes. I suppose so. But like you said, the land is on fire. I don't see the end game. A victory today is washed away tomorrow. For what can I fight?"

"More tea?"

"Hai, arigato gozaimasu."

The taste of the tea was exquisite. To taste this every day for the rest of his life would be certain victory, indeed. A victory!? Is he showing me a victory within that cannot be taken away? How true it is! And I also feel that continual victory however small leads to something more, to a real future. Am I dreaming?

"You are not dreaming. Fire can purify as well as destroy. Those who seek to harness the fire's power will be consumed by it. Many clans will be wiped clean from the face of the earth. Those who surrender to the higher cause will survive the fire - but only those. What you see as destruction is the beginning of the end of disorder and chaos. Yes, it will get worse before it gets better but in the end we will be one nation under one sword. And remember this also: in this world this is not the last of fire nor hopeless times such as these. Not every age is an age for song."

"I feel the hope! Maybe not in my lifetime, but I feel it. There's always a point to serving the greater good. I feel so ashamed for having given up. I hope you can forgive me, sensei." Masahide bowed deeply in supplication.

"I am not your Savior. The words you came to seek were already inside you."

"Ah, so ka." Masahide smiled. "May we blame it on the tea then, sensei?"

The monk returned the smile. "As you wish."


Hirate Masahide returned to the Oda clan in that year of 1542 where he helped command forces in the victorious battle of Azukizaka over the Imagawa. After his visit to the holy mount his reputation as an honest and earnest soul only increased. The very vital skills of negotiation and alliance in those turbulent times proved useful to the survival of the small but noted Oda clan. Six years later in the second battle of Azukizaka, the Oda clan was defeated by the Imagawa clan whose growth of its power base seemingly could not be stopped. But Masahide did not lose heart.

When Oda Nobuhide the clan leader died, his son Nobunaga took over. Nobunaga was singular in his approach and behavior, he having no room to entertain conventional norms. His vision he alone could see and his outwardly erratic behavior took its toll on Masahide. Masahide's faith was tested by this young upstart who battled with his brother for control of the clan. Perhaps the monk had been wrong. Perhaps the fire would consume the nation, after all.

To feel his life served no purpose - to have the rug of belief ripped out from underneath him - suffocated Masahide's soul. He simply could not live if he didn't feel he was serving the greater good. Loyal to the end, he hoped to salvage Nobunaga's errant ways with an act of seppuku, showing his despair for the future of the clan. He had no way of knowing Nobunaga's act was one of deception to keep his enemies off balance while he gathered strength.

Nevertheless, Nobunaga was touched by his highly respected retainer's suicide of remonstration. While already sensing the need to serve the greater good of unification, Masahide's act affirmed this belief beyond all doubt, Nobunaga carrying this in his heart until the day he died, his retainer's voice a pillar of inner strength (just as the monk's had been to Masahide). A temple was constructed to honor Masahide and his integrity, a reminder of a value the clan must hold dear if to attain ultimate victory.

Nobunaga went on to unify Japan as no one else before in history, destroying the Imagawa clan who numbered ten times his own. He knew his success was in surrendering to the guiding winds of destiny. As other clans floundered in pettiness, Oda rose to the top of the heap. The Way Of Tea also took over the country in the latter half of the 16th century as tea became more available. Its use as a tool for mediation both on personal and political levels gained momentum until becoming a national institution.

The name of the monk is lost to history but his stewardship is noted in the heavens. Unseen and un-noted, those who held fast to the underpinnings of truth provided the crucial bridge out of chaos to prevent Japan from being thrown to the wayside as happened to so many nations in world history. There will come a time when the monk's name is known again when final accounting is done as the undercurrents of love irrepressibly and forever surface.

No comments: