Hagakure: The Way of the Warrior is Forgiveness

The relationship between real fighting and full-contact martial arts competitions is like that of the dog and the hot dog. Although they are composed of similar elements—striking and grappling in the former, meat in the latter—one should not be confused for the other.

The essence of a real fight is not found in tactics, or even in intensity. Genuine combat is defined by its absence of fairness and finality. There are no honored champions, and no nobly accepted defeats; in their place are uncertainty, postponement and escalation. Today, you win by knockout; tomorrow, you are shot in the back.

Even death is no denouement, considering its legal and karmic consequences—not to mention vengeful friends and family of the recently deceased, with their own troublesome interpretations of justifiable homicide.

Budo shuji by Kondo Katsuyuki

All martial artists know that budo is not for starting fights. Some have unfortunately been taught that martial artists should avoid them altogether. Honestly, avoidance is a tool for agoraphobics and drunks, not warriors; the true purpose of budo is to end conflict decisively.

What can the ancient Japanese code of bushido teach us about conflict resolution strategy?

Hagakure: The Way of the Warrior

…if someone were to ask, “What is the true meaning of the Way of the Samurai?” the person who would be able to answer promptly is rare…The Way of the Samurai is found in death.

Thus begins Hagakure, the classic treatise on bushido philosophy and culture. Written in the 18th century, Hagakure describes one man’s vision of proper samurai conduct, in times of war and peace.

Among the varied, controversial and sometimes downright bizarre commentary in the Hagakure, you will find all the stoicism and brutality suggested by its modern retellings (such as the movie Ghost Dog). Yet this fierceness only represents one side of the story. In many passages, the Hagakure recommends instead the use of compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness.

Hagakure book

In the eyes of mercy, no one should have hateful thoughts. Feel pity for the man who is even more at fault. The area and size of mercy is limitless. It is because mercy is so profound and expansive that the holy men of Tang, India and Japan are still respected to this day.

As to what to do for the good, simply, we must withstand pain. If we cannot stand pain we are wrong in everything.

Feeling deeply the difference between oneself and others, bearing ill will and falling out with people — these things come from a heart that lacks compassion. If one wraps up everything with a heart of compassion, there will be no coming into conflict with people.

It is unkind to speak ill of a man who has committed an offence. It is of no help being remiss and calling down a man living a happy life. We should sympathize with a man who has strayed from the path. It is the right way for the Bushi to help him make a comeback some way or other.

Even a warrior—especially a warrior—should master the art of repaying cruelty with kindness. Forgiveness of minor insults, attacks and other transgressions is the single most powerful method of de-escalation.

Compassion has its limits, to be sure. Some aggressors may require a forceful correction, perhaps even assistance with an expedited reincarnation. Nevertheless, it is always best to exhaust those limits before employing other means of conflict resolution.


  1. “ah-ha” ::light bulb turns on::

    Thanks for clueing us in on what you really meant. I read Hagakure a while ago, but now I think I’ll have to go back and read it again.

  2. Hmmm… from my somewhat limited knowledge of historical Japan, and the hints you’ve provided, I would now say: the key to “ending conflict decisively” is found in one’s attitude towards and relationship with Death. To the Samurai, death and life were yin and yang. You must have both. The only combat is mortal combat.

    Yes, it does require great strength – in this view – to accept that a death is the price of admission to a fight, and yet still be a brave man. I think your point is that within this paradigm, one never fights casually.

    My father taught me that “a gun is ALWAYS loaded; NEVER point a gun at someone unless you intend to kill them”. I believe this 100%-serious attitude of caution and forebearance is what you’re alluding to vis-a-vis the Martial Arts.

  3. As I became more mature in my martial arts, I found that I was becoming less fearful of facing physical pain. Eventually, I realized that not letting fear itself control me was empowering. Ultimately, if you do not let fear of death itself affect you, then nothing in this world can hurt you.

    I believe the reason a skilled martial artist can be more forgiving in a confrontation is because they have a better control of fear.

  4. In a real fight, you are right. You absolutely cannot afford to think about honor or fairness or anything, it seems, other than your own survival. However, with the way of budo, how are we to repay cruelty with kindness? Forgive the unforgivable? Should Brandon have apologized for his rudeness during the argument before the physical fight started? And how far are we supposed to take the “forceful correction,” if we assume that the escalation will always continue?

  5. Chris:

    Great post! I agree that higher level martial artists should have greater compassion and tolerance (toward minor insults and attacks), provided that they have cultivated the spiritual side of martial arts as well as the fighting skills. I think they can control fears better, partially because they are mentally strong, and partially because of the confidence resulting from knowing they are capable of executing “forceful correction” if needed.

    Thank you for sharing this with the Carnival of Healing #111 edition, posted at Intensive Care for the Nurturer’s Soul.

    Kind Regards,

  6. OK, I think I see where this is going. I haven’t studied the martial code(s) in any depth, just enough to get some of the flavor. My own proclivities tend toward pacifism, though that just masks a duality.

    Look at how we tend to love fictional portrayals of “the peaceful man who became the innocent victim of random or planned violence — maybe his family was harmed, that’s a favorite — and is *forced* to become a Rambo-like death machine”. At the end he’s the “last man standing” and we’re all supposed to cheer this “harmless fantasy”.

    I recall one pretty good – and pretty odious – Chuck Norris movie where everyone he loved and cared about got wasted; but Chuck offed all the baddies in the end, and the close of the movie was a voice-over from Chuck’s character saying philosophically that come what may, “Hong Kong will always be THE place”.

    For what? Horrific misery? The movie didn’t speak to that after all the fights and deaths and loss. Our guy “won”, that’s all.

    But what I remembered today was an episode of the TV show “Kung Fu”. (I am dimly aware that pondering these Hollywood products is not a substitute for studying Wu De and Bushido.)

    I don’t recall the details of the plot line, and they actually don’t matter. Someone had been wronged. Really, it was fairly black-and-white, a great wrong had been suffered in the past, and the perpetrator was finally in the cross-hairs.

    Kwai Chang Caine’s role of course was conflict resolution, and for one hour we saw him drawn in to the conflict, and having to help as best he could.

    But right at the end, he prevented an act of vengence that certainly seemed to have some justice on its side.

    Protagonist, bewildered, distraught: “If I don’t have the right to revenge, then who does?!!”

    Caine answers: “No one”.

  7. However, my impression of traditional Japanese culture and history is that “forgiveness” was close to being a null concept. A person was expected to expunge the shame of even small failures and errors. Surrendering one’s own life was a ready solution to the problem — not looking for forgiveness — which would have been insulting if offered and shameful beyond words if accepted???

    Am I missing something here?

  8. Perhaps the remedy of “turning a blind eye” was the way they avoided having to slaughter each other constantly over life’s ordinary mishaps of behavior? That too would fit what I know of Japan — very selective, specific range of vision in human affairs.

  9. The code you propose is the antithesis of the culture of the American inner city today where every perceived slight, indiscretion or “disrespect” can escalate to lethal, often random, violence. And look how that’s working out for both the participants and the bystanders.

  10. To Karl (the other karl), The inner american city is a battlefield you’re right (god I hate this town sometimes), but that’s the battle. This whole idea is not easy when you are dealing with people who seem to be nothing more than animals, THAT’S the fight, but it goes deeper than just saying “I forgive you” when someone does you wrong. You must also learn to speak your opponent’s language, you have to learn to pick up on how to communicate with someone in an instant. Death is not just something physical, it is also of ideals. If you are truly not afraid of death, you will not be afraid of the death of your idealistic pride.

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