Be Resolute from the Beginning

Image Credit: Fa Ming Shakya

(Taken from commentary on the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai translated by William Scott Wilson)


Perhaps the most deceptively simple verse from the Hagakure is 1:41, quoted fully near the conclusion of the film, Ghost Dog:


There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.






Ideally, in Samurai or Zen culture, whenever a man has the authority to act and is required to make a decision – not a guess, but a decision – he considers both the positive and the negative consequences of his choice, and, weighing them, decides accordingly. He does his best to secure a good result, but he is not affected by the outcome or by the responses of others. In any case, he stands behind his decision. This is being resolved from the beginning.

Often, even in the simplest affairs of men, a person will take a course which he has not fully considered. Influenced, perhaps, by those who are conflicted by their own self-interests, he makes a choice, sanguine in the expectation of success. When a good result follows, those who influenced him will claim their share of the credit; but when a bad result follows, all the blame will be his, and the others will abandon him. He is confounded in either case. This is the perplexing aspect of irresolution.

How, then, does a man become “resolved from the beginning so as not to be perplexed.”? For the man who has already achieved the egoless state, indomitable resolve is a simple matter. But achieving that necessary selfless state is not so simple. Zen and the martial arts traditionally have been connected because a student in either discipline requires a master’s spiritual and psychological insights to guide him through the difficulties.

When a student begins training, regardless of his age, his new Code of Conduct requires that he develop a self-reliant character – with the specific goal of attaining the egoless state. He learns how to accept responsibility for his decisions and for his reactions to unexpected calamities. When the rain comes, he walks boldly through it, not seeking to mitigate its effects by running through the drops or hiding under eaves. He learns to recognize the true nature of praise and blame and to understand that both are meaningless. Whenever he allows them to have value, in either case, he will get soaked.

The student is taught to be constantly aware of his actions. He may not shift the burden of his errors onto others; but this discipline requires that he understand that it is his own nature that he must struggle against. It is not enough to stand up and admit to error; for what the outer man admits, the inner man may deny. It is in his own inner nature that a man unconsciously shifts the blame for his actions onto others. In his own unconscious mind, using psychological defensive tactics, he shapes that blame into a missile and then projects it into his environment onto some unlucky target. If left unchecked, such tactics will curtail his progress.

Although the Hagakure relates numerous anecdotes in which a leader’s egoless resolve is illustrated, the definitive text on the subject is a film made fifty years ago, Abandon Ship. No film, before or since, has come close to documenting the exigencies of egoless resolve in leadership. We’ll take a moment to discuss the film because, though long out of circulation, it is still an important work.

Ten years after he gave his transcendent, 1946 portrayal of Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s, The Razor’s Edge, Tyron Power decided to make, at his own expense, Abandon Ship, a film about a disaster at sea. (The film was cheaply made, proving that throwing money at a project has no relationship whatsoever to the quality of its art. It was shot in black and white and, despite being about a disaster at sea, was filmed entirely in a studio in England.)

In The Razor’s Edge, Power had portrayed a man who sought spiritual liberation, the vaunted egoless state, and found it, finally, in India. Acclaimed for this role, he was disappointed to be cast subsequently in a series of swashbuckling films, popular at the time with movie audiences. Believing that a man of character, under any circumstances, could find within himself this selfless dedication to purpose, Power grasped the opportunity to portray a young lieutenant upon whom command had been suddenly thrust.

Abandon Ship’s reality-based plot details the events of the post WWII sinking of a cruise ship, The Crescent Star, which had carried 1076 passengers.

As the film opens, we see the ominous presence of a derelict mine floating in the Atlantic. It strikes the ship and detonates. There is a chaotic churning of the water, the screams of victims, and then the quiet bobbing of flotsam, a few gasping survivors, and a circling shark. The Crescent Star has required only seven minutes to sink.

Only one small boat, the Captain’s personal ship-to-shore row boat, meant to accommodate no more than nine people, remains to pick up survivors. Twenty-seven people and a large dog have crowded into it or are hanging onto a rope that circles the boat. The excessive weight makes the boat sit impossibly low in the water, and the sea laps over its gunwales.

The Captain, mortally wounded, gives command to young Lieutenant Holmes (played by Tyrone Power) with the order to save as many people as possible. Holmes accepts the command. When a nurse, with whom Holmes has a romantic relationship, confirms the Captain’s death; they lower his body over the side.

Holmes has never before commanded any kind of vessel. Instinctively he tries to reassure the passengers as he assesses the situation. The ship’s radioman is traumatized, and in his confusion gives the impression that he had sent an SOS signal to a ship some two hundred miles away. According to this information, rescue should take no more than seventy-two hours. Aside from floatation collars and life preservers, the little boat contains a pound of biscuits, some sugar and cream, a gallon of water; a flare gun and a small first-aid kit. Holmes orders the supplies to be rationed. He also orders the able-bodied men to take shifts in the water, hanging onto the rope which circles the boat.

Six of the passengers are critically injured. A woman whose upper arm had been badly cut during the explosion, has had a tournequet placed on it; but no one has thought to loosen it. After remaining tied for three hours, her arm is swollen and in the incipient stages of gangrene. As the nurse tends to her, the radioman regains his composure and reveals that no signal whatsoever had been given. They are fifteen hundred miles and weeks away from the nearest land.

Another critically wounded officer tells Holmes that they are so over weighted they cannot possibly make landfall. To reach land, they must row, and the boat is too low in the water. He advises Holmes to”evict” some of the passengers who are either feeble or critically injured and unlikely to survive. Holmes rejects the advice. The officer tells him that it is better to save half their lives than it is to lose them all. He stands and tells the others that the weakest of them must be cast adrift for the salvation of the others, and then he leaps overboard. His advice has obviously had no self-serving motive.

When the woman whose arm is now gangrenous wants more water, Holmes refuses, realizing that it is pointless to waste water on someone who is going to die anyway. His refusal is called “outrageous” and”heartless” by the passengers who mostly fail to appreciate the desperate position they are in. They persist in their demand that he”do something!” But having more than two dozen people and a seventy pound dog in a row boat does not give a man many options.

Their situation is made clearer by the presence of the dog. One man who has been in the water begs to be taken aboard in place of the dog. Holmes says no. The passengers object to his refusal; but Holmes is adamant: the man must stay in the water until his shift is over, and the dog will remain on board. One passenger, an officious retired general, demands that he explain such an inhumane decision, and Holmes replies simply, “We’re likely to be at sea for a long time. We can eat the dog.”

An approaching gale forces Holmes to reconsider the “eviction” action. Laden as it is, the little boat cannot withstand the fury of an Atlantic storm. The waves splash into the boat, and it is no longer possible to allow the men in the sea to hang onto the rope since they are dragging the boat even lower.

Aside from the woman with gangrene, a few passengers are sick from having swallowed petroleum or inhaled searing smoke. A few have broken bones. One, the dog’s owner, is too seasick to take his turn in the sea or even to bail. Against everyone’s objections, Holmes orders that they be given the floatation collars and “in God’s hands” to be cast adrift. The passengers call Holmes a cold blooded murderer and try to impose their “civilized” philosophy on him. They remind him that it is the responsibility of the strong to care for the weak. He counters that the extremity of their situation favors the strong who can row, since rowing and keeping the bow pointed into the waves is their only chance to keep from capsizing. No one supports him in this action. Only at gunpoint does the crew obey his order; but in the mutinous confusion, the dog jumps into the water and several able-bodied men fall overboard and are lost.

The gale is quickly worsening and Holmes orders the remaining passengers to row or bail; but one passenger who is armed with a knife, continues to object and irrationally insists that they go back and retrieve all the people in the water, clearly an impossibility. Frantic, he stabs Holmes in the chest. Holmes shoots him and he falls overboard. The boat’s occupancy is now down to fourteen.

Throughout the harrowing night of fierce wind, lightning, and huge waves that break over the boat, Holmes, despite his wound, continues to man the tiller and to direct the actions of the terrified passengers.

In the morning, with the sea calm again, the exhausted passengers are jubilant to see that they’ve all survived. Unanimously they credit Holmes with saving their lives, congratulating him profusely for having the courage and foresight to make his grim but necessary decision.

Of all people, it is the nurse – the woman he loves – who begins to second-guess him. Perhaps they would have made it with the others still aboard, who is to say? Perhaps the storm would have edged past them. Something else could have happened. Holmes says, “But the storm did happen. I did what was right.” She responds, “I don’t know what was right or wrong.” He sees even more clearly how alone a leader is. He also understands that his wound has so weakened him that he has become a liability, and he calmly accepts the same fate that he decreed for the others. He transfers his command to the radio operator and then drops himself overboard. A few passengers jump in after him and pull him back aboard. In another moment an ocean liner is seen on the horizon.

Now that rescue is imminent, the passengers begin to fear that their effusive praise has made them complicit; and one by one they recant their commendations, claiming that from the outset hey had vehemently opposed his action. As to whether or not he was right in doing what he did, that, they hasten to remind him, is for the courts to decide. Holmes has been as abandoned as his ship. When asked if he requires assistance to board the liner, he says, as stoically as a samurai warrior, “I can make it alone.”

A voice-over commentator discloses that once they were safely back in England, Holmes was tried for murder. (He was found guilty but in consideration of the circumstances, given only a six months’ sentence.)

The question of his guilt or innocence, while interesting, is not at issue here. It is his previously untested indomitable and selfless resolve that concerns us. Whether by talent or training, Holmes avoided the psychological traps that often ensnare those who strive to become enlightened.

The first trap that the Zen master or Samurai mentor eliminates is one that other teachers frequently encourage: displacement of aggression. In an unconscious shift, a person who is frustrated by his inability to strike back at an antagonist will release his anger by hitting or kicking a helpless individual, a wall, or punching bag. Instead of using a surrogate victim, the samurai student is taught to acknowledge his own inabilities; to consider the situation from all aspects – including his antagonist’s; to seek to resolve the conflict honorably; and to increase his martial arts’ training in order to meet the next challenge.

The second one is projection. In this trap, the student is guilty of some objectionable behavior… lying, perhaps. Instead of trying to understand why it was that he felt obliged to lie and to set the matter right, he internally and unconsciously shifts his guilt onto his Enemy Shadow archetype (see the link to Seventh World of Chan Buddhism – psychology section – available on our website). Once there, it is quickly projected onto someone else who is a likely target for the attack. The student, unaware of the dynamics of this shift, feels genuine contempt for the innocent scapegoat. “If there one thing I can’t stand, it’s a liar.” The teacher, recognizing that all emotional displays indicate one form or another of projection, meets privately with the student and counsels him accordingly.

Rarely does a person comprehend that his contempt manifests unconsciously. In our Zen prison sangha, as we discussed these traps, one of the men suddenly realized why he despised a poor old man who couldn’t work and who was reduced to picking up discarded cigarette butts and smoking them. He called the man “a cockroach.” (It is the Shadow’s function to make a perceived enemy sub-human so that he may be destroyed with impunity. Usually we refer to our enemy as a creature that steals our food or fouls our den… “a rat, a snake, a skunk, a bitch, a roach,” etc. We never refer to him as a panda or a giraffe.) The man in our Zen sangha had been trying unsuccessfully for years to kick the truly dirty habit of chewing tobacco. He immediately understood why he hated the old man and had constantly referred to him in such disparaging terms. He felt so bad about shifting his own guilt onto him that he bought the old man a few packs of cigarettes.

The third mechanism the ego uses to defend itself is one of the most difficult to deal with: Reaction Formation. The mechanics of this trap are well concealed. Freud studied anti-vivisectionists (persons opposed to using animals for medical experimentation or surgical practice) and found that they were uncommonly cruel individuals. This peculiar shift is seen often in anti-abortion demonstrations in which some protesters are so motivated to end abortion in the name of the sacredness of human life that they approve of murdering the doctor and other medical personnel. When a Zen or martial art’s master encounters this kind of exaggerated “conviction” in a student, he generally has long, private talks with him – not the usual “darshan” (interview with the master called dokusan in Japanese) but gentle reflections in which he offers the points of view of the despised persons. The master’s aim is to get the student to see that he, too, shares some of the traits he so vehemently despises. He does not tell him “to use” his anger on the mat.

The fourth trap is regression. In this shift a person who is going through a difficult period in his life reverts to an age in which he was free of such problems. For example, a man who is entering middle-age and cannot face his increasing signs of physical deterioration, may suddenly turn to the martial arts as if he were a young man again. Usually, he harms himself trying to perform the various physical exercises in the dojo. The master recognizes his true motivation and, while welcoming him into the group, assigns him less strenuous exercises until he can gain the required ability. He talks to the man, accentuating the wisdom of maturity and gets him to look at his problems more objectively. He does not encourage him to believe that youth is a quality that can be had by associating with the young.

The fifth trap is repression. In this tactic, the person simply buries a grievous insult or injury so deep in his mind that he forgets it completely. He honestly cannot remember the incident. He may, however, in response to the repression, exhibit great disdain for something he associates with the subject. If, for example, a person had nearly drowned as a child at the beach, he may grow up completely forgetting the incident but being a radical proponent of saving the wetlands and prohibiting ocean-front development. Whenever a student demonstrates strong emotion, the Zen master suspects that he has fallen into a trap. With gentle private talks he can gauge the depth of the pit and try to help the student to extricate himself by remembering that long forgotten injury.

The sixth ego trap is rationalization. In this, the student simply invents a justifying cause for his contemptible behavior. He is open about his actions and may ever exaggerate them, but he excuses them automatically by casting blame upon others. For example, after hitting a child with his car, he may say, “If the kid had been properly supervised, he wouldn’t have been playing in the street ” or, “If John hadn’t called me on my cellphone, I wouldn’t have taken my eyes off the road.” If he has been particularly brutal in a fight, he may claim that he taught his victim a lesson for having insulted his Master or his school, a claim that he invented but nevertheless believes.

The seventh trap is somatization: Guilt and fear easily transform into physical symptoms. The ego finds it easier to deal with a sick body that can quickly gain sympathetic attention than it does to deal with guilt that it prefers to hide. The martial arts’ master soon learns which students frequently attempt to excuse poor performance by claiming illness. If the student is young and believed by his parents, the master is not likely to succeed in counseling him.

The stoicism of the resolute samurai was also well depicted by Forest Witaker in Ghost Dog. Vowed to protect his master, he would not even defend himself when his master decided to kill him.

A leader must be as one-pointed in his determination to fulfill the duties of his commitments as he is prepared to accept their consequences. In order to do this, he must remain free of emotional projections. It was the belief that his only real enemy was the one he harbored within himself that enabled a samurai to commit Seppuka with such indifferent coldness.

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