Coronavirus Information
Please check our measures for preventing the spread of Covid-19 before visiting Sengan-en.

Shimadzu Iroha-no-uta - Part 5

Life lessons from the samurai of Kagoshima

kagoshima samurai

The Shimadzu Iroha-no-uta is a collection of short poems written by Shimadzu Tadayoshi in the mid-1500s.

These precepts each beginning with a letter of the traditional Japanese alphabet were used to educate the samurai of Kagoshima in basic morals for over 300 years.

This is the fifth part of a series of eight articles on the Iroha-no-uta.

Part one can be found here, part two here, part three here, and part four here.

samurai satsuma

 憂かりける今の身こそはさきの世と おもへば今ぞ 後の世ならん

The troubles of this life are the result of karma from past lives. Remember then that the actions of this life will determine your fate in the next.

The suffering and troubles we face in our lives are the result of karma from past lives. Since our past lives influence the present, we should be mindful that our present life will influence the future as well. The talk of past and future lives is fairly common in Buddhist religions. Whether this is taken to literally mean reincarnation, or simply as a metaphor for the fleeting moments of our everyday lives is largely irrelevant. This passage guides us to reconsider the cause and effect born out of our actions, and to be mindful of our conduct and its potential repercussions.

 亥に臥して寅には起くと夕露の 身を徒に あらせじがため

The wise men of old would sleep at ten and rise at four. Life is as fleeting as the evening dew. Waste not a moment!

The great men of the past would go to sleep at ten and wake up at four in the morning to concentrate on learning. He compares our life to the evening dew which settles and is gone in no time at all. This is a common trend not just among the great leaders of the past. Many top CEOs and business leaders today have very stringent time schedules which involve getting up early to finish their many tasks each day.

 遁るまじ所をかねて思ひきれ 時にいたりて すずしかるべし

Prepare yourself to confront the unavoidable. When the time comes your mind will be at peace.

Someday the lord may call on his samurai to risk their lives, and by thinking on this each day that the mind can be trained to be calm when the crucial moment comes.

samurai sword jigen-ryu

 おもほえず違うものなり身の上の 欲をはなれて 義を守れ人

It is easy to stray from the way without noticing. Cast off your desires and tread the righteous path.

We are easily led astray by our desires, and without noticing can easily stray from the path of righteousness. By being mindful of this inherent human weakness, we can strive to lead a just and decent life. This concept of self-control is inspired by the Confucian analects and summarized well in the maxim “A gentleman should be watchful when he is alone”. When nobody is around to pass judgement, who else is there but yourself to account for your actions?

 苦しくも直進を行け九曲折の 未は鞍馬の さかさまの世ぞ

Even if you suffer, walk the straight and narrow path. Follow the dark and twisted way and you will fall from Mount Kurama headlong into the darkness.

Even if it is tough, we must try our best to behave correctly and be moral and caring. By taking shortcuts or following temptation we only take ourselves away from the true path, and risk falling headfirst into the depths of darkness, as if tumbling down a crevice of Mount Kurama. Mount Kurama is a mountain to the north-west of Kyoto, and is said to be the home of Sojobo, King of the Tengu.

 やはらぐと怒るをいはば弓と筆 鳥に二つの 翼とを知れ

Calmness and passion, the brush and the bow. Like the wings of a bird, both are needed to fly.

Through our lives we will experience moments of calmness and passion, quiet and anger. Warriors would learn not only the martial arts, but also culture through arts such as calligraphy. Both the brush and the bow, or education and physical exertion, are necessary to succeed in life. Like the wings of a bird, one without the other will only lead to failure.

 万能も一心とあり事ふるに 身ばし頼むな 思案堪忍

Even a myriad of talents are useless without resolve. Do not be boastful of your talents, instead reflect and persevere.

Even if we are blessed with various talents, a lack of mental and spiritual fortitude will render them useless. Instead of showing off about your abilities, take the time to reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses and persevere through any difficulties you may have.

Part six of the Iroha-no-uta is here.

Alex Bradshaw

Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.

He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.

Book Tickets