Monday, January 3, 2011

Life Lessons from a Samurai

Kaibara Ekiken was over eighty years old when he wrote Yōjōkun. A doctor, philosopher, teacher, samurai, and scientist, Ekiken was responsible in many ways for introducing the concept of rational empiricism to feudal Japan. Much of the medicine he taught and practiced throughout the late seventeenth century is still being practiced today.

Yōjōkun was his final written work. When he was thirty-eight he married the daughter of a local samurai administrator. By all accounts Esaki Token was a match for the artistic and philosophical Ekiken. Schooled in music, calligraphy, and poetry already, she also knew enough of history and philosophy to keep him on his toes. She often accompanied him on his travels and is even suspected of having written one of his books herself, publishing it under his name to give the work a wider readership. When she passed away at the age of sixty-two, he finished his work on Yōjōkun, and passed away himself the following year.

Yōjōkun contains the collected wisdom of a man who spent more than sixty years treating the sick. Unlike other classic samurai works of the era which taught the warrior how to die with honor, Yōjōkun is a set of instructions on how to live. Kaibara Ekiken believed that living long and well was the truest way to show gratitude to our ancestors for gifting us with life, and the modern reader will instantly see the wisdom of his teachings.

The Way of Nurturing Life
Verse 27

"Different people have different vocations. They polish a vocation and add technique to their Way. For all vocations there are techniques in which you should become well versed. If you do not master the techniques, you will be unable to perform the tasks at hand. Even among the most trivial and humble accomplishments, if you do not have a command of the techniques, you will be incapable of the task. For example, making straw raincoats and papering umbrellas are extremely easy and humble vocations, but even there, if you do not study the techniques, you will be unable to do the job.

How much more so, then, for the Way of Nurturing Life in the human body of man, which is said to be one of the Three Powers, along with Heaven and Earth? In short, if you are intent on taking care of yourself and living a long life, you must learn the appropriate techniques.

The common practice for learning a technique, even for some trivial art, is to seek out a teacher without fail, receive the teacher's instructions, and learn the proper techniques. Even the extremely talented will learn nothing if they do not have access to the techniques, a teacher, and instruction.

The techniques for nurturing your health are a full-fledged Great Way, not some small art. If you do not study the techniques with resolution, you will not master the way. If you are able to study under a person who knows the techniques, do not trade that opportunity for a thousand pieces of gold.

When I look back on my youth in my hometown, there were many people who did not know the Way of Nurturing Life. They led dissipated and therefore short lives. Moreover, many of the old folks in my village, not knowing the Way, were often sick and in distress. Their health declined and they became doting old fools early on. In such cases, even if they lived to a hundred, their lives were without pleasure and full of aches and pains. A long life ill conceived is of no use. You may think that simply living long is a good thing, but longevity alone is not something for which you should be congratulated."

Seek out the Way of Nurturing Life. Learn its techniques and study them with resolution. Live a long and health life, filled with pleasure. That is how we can best show our gratitude.

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