A few weeks ago, I had the chance to visit the Japan Foundation which has a new exhibit called the Road of Light and Hope: National Treasures of Todo-Ji temple, Nara by photographer, Miro Ito. Not going to lie, it was their epic posters that got me interested but it’s really amazing to see how even in a pamphlet how large this temple was. And it got me interested in what made this city of Nara so special?
Nara, I’d find out from the exhibit, had become a cultural hub in the 8th century C.E. in Japan. Eventually it would become the capital of the country, in an era called the Nara period (710 – 794 C.E.).
Nara prospered, being connected to one of the most incredible network of trade routes in history: The Silk Road.
The temples of Nara were made during an era when Buddhism had become a state religion in Japan under Emperor Shomu from around 710 – 784 C.E..
This culminated in building of The Great Buddha Hall. This rise in Buddhist influence was in part due to the influx of There had of Korean and Chinese immigration during the era of the legendary Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 C.E.) of China.
This linkage connected Japan to the great empires of Asia and even Europe, through the Silk Road trading routes. This included:
- The Franks under Charlemagne,
- The Byzantium Empire,
- Umayyad Empire,
- Abbasid-Seljuk Empire,
- and of course the Tang dynasty under Emperor Xuanzong (685-762 C.E.)
Its speculated that this network between the Far East and Europe had an influence on the architecture of the City of Nara and its gargantuan Buddhist temples. The artifacts collected at the Todai-ji Temple (one of the landmark sites in Nara) are representative of that cross-cultural influence via the Silk Road.
These include: Ceramics from Islamic-Western Asia origins, Byzantine glass beads, as well as close similarities in architecture between Nara and central Asian sites from immigration along the Silk Road.
Cultural Diffusion in Modern Times
Now, coming back to the present, it’s crazy to know that we are in an era where you can literally connect with people through social media, diffuse culture from region to region, and decipher what is trending in a specific geographical area.
You and I have access to what in the past, required artisan guilds, trade routes, months and years of travel, and even war to accomplish: cultural cross-communication.
And with that power, comes an incredible understanding of balancing both learning physicality and also jumping into understanding different world views. Now, Nara became a hub of cultural diffusion from trade and reaping prosperity.
However, there were also individuals who broke up misconceptions in the way of life of Japanese culture itself, through adopting different worldviews in their own way.
Musashi Shapes Culture
Part of sharing this Japanese-cultural-experience is showing something that we hope to embody: Being intellectual and physical, or building empathy while also maximizing our physical genetics.
In this way, along with talking about the city of Nara, we have to also talk about the legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi (1584 – 1645 C.E.).
Musashi, as we mentioned in previous articles was an amazing swordsman. Interestingly, he was also a ronin (without lord) for most of his life. He honed the craft of swordsmanship by breaking from his style of combat and learning from others.
That is both in the arts and skill of combat. David Kirk, author of Child of Vengeance creates a gripping dialogue of Musashi’s views in this epic historical fiction novel on the great swordsman:
“Why can’t I be both? Asked Bennosuke [Musashi]
“Both of what?” asked Dorinbo.
“A samurai and a scholar.”
“One defeats the other. Why do you think the samurai consider it a punishment to shave your head and take a monk’s vows?”
“I don’t know, but…. why can’t a samurai use his strength to seek enlightenment?”
“Because it’s like trying to examine darkness with a flaming torch —- one destroys the other. To think on things needs a great calmness. To fight, something else entirely.”
“I disagree. There’s a moment between day and night that is equal, isn’t there? Right before dawn. Why can’t a man be that?”
“Because that’s not the way men are, Bennosuke. It’s sad but true, “said Dorinbo, sighing once more.
“No, you’re wrong. That is the kind of man I will become.”
- Conversation from Child of Vengeance by David Kirk between Musashi Miyamoto and his uncle
Musashi would travel Japan as a ronin (without being in the service of a lord) and acquire knowledge of different combat techniques. These would include both sword fighting as well as other weapons (spear, lance, archery, etc). He would read and write, even paint some memorable ink-paintings in his time.
However, his legacy was in his master strategy book: The Book of the Five Rings or Go Rin No Sho which was a master strategy book for any warrior. In fact, the concepts of the book have been handed down into the world of business (and even in the pursuit of art) and the like (just like The Art of War by Sun Tzu).
You could take the same perspective with training and learning history. Going out and learning new things by both acquiring history knowledge along with different means of doing fitness.
Learn weightlifting, Pilates, the Cossack dance, or gymnastics. Or learn about the Haitian revolution, understanding why stuff is going on in other countries, be active, be aware. It would be great experience in learning to take on the opinions of different perspectives, learning how they came to their understanding, and forming our own conclusions from that.
You could ask, “is it better to learn a new form or to be a master of the classic form?” You could say that Musashi’s life showed a criticism of both these choices. In his life, he acquired knowledge of ALL forms and incorporated them into his swordsmanship. In fact, he was known to fight any kind of challenger of any weapon, forming his own version of the sword fighting style of Kenjutsu.
Travelling through Japan, he would spend time in the city of Nara at one point learning both lance-based combat as well as deeper knowledge in Buddhism, whose presence had been heavily solidified during the Nara Period.
What was so interesting is that he still used his own tools. He fought with swords throughout his life but would often utilize his weapon in the manner of different styles (whether it be archery, bow staffs, lances, etc). It was noted that he was known to throw his swords at his opponents (using it as a spear). In that way, you could say he retained himself while learning new methodologies from different disciplines.
In analogy, you could also say this is like the weightlifter that learns hip openers from dancers. Or the barbell-enthusiast who loads his barbell on one end, emulating the great, Indian Gada practitioners for a different shoulder stimulus. Let’s not forget, he also built mastery in the arts including sculpting, writing, and painting (disciplines originally associated with monks and in sharp contrast to the samurai-life that Musashi was descendant from).
I think there’s real merit in adopting this journey of Musashi (travelling, learning, and growing); being exposed to great arts and great might.
The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi By William Scott Wilson
A Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
Silk Road and Japan Facts and Details