discerning a brave man from a coward

A samurai wielding a naginata.
Image via Wikipedia

One of my interests is Bushido and the Samurai. I found this passage in the Bushidoshoshinshu, a book written by Daidoji Yuzan Taira no Shigesuke. This work was widely read and discussed by warriors of the middle and late Edo period and became one of the sources for bushi thought and behavior throughout the country, along with such books as Hagakure and Tengu Geijutsuron.

These books and others were discussions of what a warrior ought to do and how he should behave in the fulfillment of his duties, a combination of military thought and social etiquette. The core of this passage is the idea that “the worth of a man” is to be found in his day to day behavior, not in the extreme and relatively rare occurrence (even for the Samurai) of actual battle. As in my previous post, the idea is to perform small acts of courage as often as possible to be familiar with the feeling when the “big one” arrives.

When speaking of Bushido, the three qualities considered essential are loyalty, integrity and courage. When these three virtues are perfectly combined in one man, he is called a samurai of the highest quality. It is easy to link these three in one breath, but a weighty matter to understand them in one’s heart and then put them into practice. Thus, it has been said since ancient times that it is rare to find a samurai of the highest quality even among a hundred or a thousand warriors. In this connection it is an easy thing to discern a warrior of loyalty or a man of integrity, as these qualities appear in one’s everyday behavior. But there is some doubt if a man of courage can be distinguished in this uneventful period of peace. Such a doubt, however, is not justified. The reason is that the courage of a warrior is not exhibited for the first time when he dons his armor, takes up spear and halberd, faces the field, and is locked in battle. A man’s ordinary life at peace reflects his courage or cowardice just like a mirror.

Why is this so? A man born with a sense of courage will advance in high spirits all that is good, and avoid in the same way all that is bad. In his dealings with his lord and parents he will make his endeavors with unparalleled loyalty and filial piety. Having the least bit of spare time, he will put his mind to Learning, and not be negligent in his practice of the martial arts. Being careful to avoid extravagance, he will dislike wasting even a penny. One should not think, however, that this is due to a mean or shabby spirit, because for necessary things he will spend without regret sums with which others would not part. As for places or activities forbidden by his lord’s house laws or disliked by his parents, he will not go to them no matter how much he may want to, and will desist in such activities no matter how difficult they may be to stop. In all events he will not turn his back on the desires of his lord or parents. He will protect his health fully and will keep in mind the desire to perform at least once in his life a great meritorious deed. Having such a disposition, he will be deeply mindful of his own constitution and be moderate in his desires for food and drink. He will give wide berth to and be very prudent in matters of sex, that primary deluder of men, and, other than that, will endure anything. All these evidence a man’s courage.

A coward, on the other hand, will respect his lord and parents only on the surface, and in reality will not value them at all. He will give no thought to the house laws of his lord or to the aversions of his parents, but rather will walk about the places he shouldn’t and do things he ought not, putting his self- indulgence before anything else. This man will enjoy sleeping in the morning and sleeping at noon, and will greatly dislike anything connected with Learning. Even in his performance of the martial arts, which are the calling of a warrior, he will be completely lacking in discipline. Practicing a little of this and a little of that, he will speak knowingly of his pride in the arts, regardless of his lack in them. He will waste, without a thought of the future or the past, the little bit of stipend he may receive, spending any amount of money on sumptuous meals or useless and idiotic things. With anything else he will be stingy and tight-fisted. He will not even consider repairing the enameled lattice cords of the old armor he had received from his parents, much less wanting to update or repair the deficiencies in his absolutely necessary armory and saddlery. Such a man gives no consideration to the fact that when becoming ill he would not be able to serve his lord and would cause his parents anxiety and hardships. Thus, he indulges in gluttony and overdrinking, giving himself up to lasciviousness, and chipping away at the fiber of his existence. These all arise from a weak and irresolute mind, a mind unable to endure things for long. One would not be far off the track in judging them to be symptoms of a cowardly, weak-hearted warrior.
Thus, one can distinguish with no confusion the brave man from the coward, even in times of peace and tranquility.


What I find interesting in this passage is the idea that a persons character can be seen best in his/her day-to-day living and that a person of “everyday character” will most likely “stand fast” and fulfill his/her duty when the time comes.

A man’s ordinary life at peace reflects his courage or cowardice just like a mirror.

Our thoughts and actions are inexorably intertwined. Cultivate “courage” in your everyday life and chances are you will act accordingly during crisis as well.

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7 thoughts on “discerning a brave man from a coward”

  1. This was an inspirational quote. Thank you for guiding me to your site. You may also be interested in another friend’s blog at http://www.fizban.com He recently entered the Army and we have had lengthy discussions about martial arts, moral values, politics, etc.

  2. I do love this quote, especially the distinction between ‘on the surface’ and ‘within’ kinds of practice. It’s best to imbue ones-self with the principles one practices.

    Unspoken here, however, is that it is made Far easier on the warrior if the leader is consistent and honorable. There is an implied set of values for the king too.

    So wonderful.
    Ann T.

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