The morning mist rose slowly and softly over the fields and the hills, as the sound of the gong called all of us to assemble for class. Being late, of course, was never an option for novices. It would be dishonoring the Master to be late to listen to him and to learn the Bushido. Without learning and training, we would bring dishonor on our families, but even more importantly on our respective Lords, who had chosen us to go to the Master for our training, to become bushi, a true warrior, hagakure, the samurai.
As we took our places and waited for the Master's arrival, there was an air of apprehension, a certain nervousness that moved through all of us. There had been talk that the day's lesson would be the most important one so far, and we were told that we were nearly ready for our armaments and our testing. None of us, myself especially, really felt that we were ready, inside, for the true test. We still felt much like little boys, and I questioned my own ability to follow discipline. Still, as we had been taught, uncertainty was the mother of death and defeat, and a samurai could never allow uncertainty to creep silently into his tent. To do so was the ultimate act of dishonor, begging for the release of death.
We all stood, as a required sign of respect, as the Master entered the room, and then immediately bowed low, as a similar sign of obedience. The air was still, but thick with the nervousness that we all felt under His gaze. We did not know how old He was, but He was clearly very old. Even so, He showed, time and again, such skill, such swiftness in demonstrations against far younger hanshi, that his prowess on the battlefield could never be in doubt. One hundred men could fall to his sword in minutes.
"Now, I ask all of you novices this question: among all those who you will face in battle, who is the most dangerous enemy? Who is the foe that you must use all your skill against to defeat, to maintain your honor, and to bring honor to your Lord? Who is," the Master said, "the one whom you must fight the hardest, using everything that you have learned?"
The silence, and the sweat of students put on the spot, grew immeasurably in that moment. No one stirred, all staring at the Master, as He stood over us, his eyes piercing each one of us. "None of you has an answer," the Master sternly intoned, "and yet you all are to become hanshi? How can this be so? How will you fight if you do not know your enemies, each and every one? If your enemies are found in the trees, you must know each tree. If your enemies lie among the snakes in the grasses, you must know each and every blade, each tiny leaf."
The Master's eyes began to search the faces of each one of us, one by one. As He looked at a student, a great struggle ensued in the student's body to avoid outright trembling, a sign of weakness that was not tolerated. To show strength at all times, this was at the heart of our training, the core of the Bushido. He searched the faces of each novice, sometimes moving up and down a row, other times randomly selecting one and jumping around the group. As I watched Him looking at a novice on the other side of the room, He suddenly spun in place, turning in my direction, and pointed His finger directly at me.
"You, Asakura, stand now," he commanded.
I sprang to my feet, lucky to keep my balance amid my nervousness. I summoned all of my concentration, all of my strength, to avoid the trembling that I felt deep inside.
"Yes, Master," I replied, head bowed.
"Tell me, Asakura, what is the answer to my question?"
Inside I was a frozen rabbit, unable to move, barely able to breathe, and still amazed that I was not only standing motionless, but that my trembling had not come to the surface. Outside, I knew that I had to appear confident, certain, unflinching in the correctness of my answer. As soon as I could decide what my answer was to be, though I had little time to think. Delay in answering a question from the Master was also a sign of disrespect, as every novice was expected to constantly consider and anticipate questions in the classroom.
"Yes, Master. A greatly skilled warrior, one with much training, and possessed of great honor, one who is skillful with both the bow and the sword, and one who can use his hands like weapons. That is the most dangerous enemy, Master," I said with all of the confidence that I could muster.
"WRONG!" the Master thundered, and for a split-second, I thought that I was going to faint, or at least fall over into a heap from the force of His voice. Somehow, I managed to remain standing, with my head still bowed, wondering what would happen next.
"Listen closely, Asakura, and all of you: training, and honor, and skill, and physical might are all formidable tools that each samurai possesses, and no man should be foolish enough to scoff at them," the Master said solemnly, "but they all can fall before one enemy: the man who has arrived at the same place as the samurai -- the same yo -- where he has nothing left to lose. He does not occupy that space as the samurai does, because of the need to live honorably, but rather because he believes that all has been taken from him, that life has lost meaning to him. He is like the cornered rat: his bite sudden, severe, and he will not release until he is killed. He expects to die, and though unlike the samurai, he does not welcome it, and wishes it were not his fate, he is without fear, without uncertainty, and is prepared to die. That, my students, is the most dangerous enemy."
Luckily for me, it would be some considerable time before I had to face such a foe. But when that time did eventually come, the words of the Master still echoed in my ears: "All has been taken from him, that life has lost meaning to him."
May 27, 2009. Copyright © 2009, Ricky A. Pursley. All rights reserved.