Bushido, education focused on self-reliance, and treating matters of great concern lightly

by Jon

This quote, taken from Hagakure, often puzzled me when I first read the text in 2002:

After reading books and the like, it is best to burn them or throw them away.

Compiled by Tsuramoto Tashiro at the dawn of the 18th century, Hagakure is a collection of commentaries on Bushido from his conversations with the then retired samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo.

The text covers many topics concerning the way of the warrior, many of which I identify and agree with. Particularly with regards to education, Hagakure addresses the constant need for an individual to learn:

Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending.

Do not rely on following the degree of understanding that you have discovered, but simply think, “This is not enough.”

After reading such lines, and many more like them, it is easy to be confused as to the meaning of the first quote. Surely, someone who promoted constant and never ending education would not advocate the burning of books!

The key to understanding this paradox, I find, is in the following quote:

Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.

which is explained as follows:

Thinking about things previously and then handling them lightly when the time comes is what this is all about. To face an event and solve it lightly is difficult if you are not resolved beforehand, and there will always be uncertainty in hitting your mark.

So then, in order to handle a given situation, we must have been previously resolved to handle that situation. To be resolved, we must know what to do before the situation ever arises.

Since there are a multitude of possible situations that we may encounter in our lives, we must then strive constantly to become more skillful and more knowledgeable in as many areas as possible.

However, skills and knowledge are most useful to us when we are free of the need to consult references. That is, in order to treat a “matter of great concern” lightly, we must be confident that we can act immediately, without the benefit of books to consult.

Taken from this perspective, the suggestion to burn books after reading them is designed to help us internalize the material and be better prepared for using the knowledge that we’ve obtained. Even if the burning is not taken literally, reading a book with the expectation that you won’t have access to it later can be a powerful motivational tool for remembering the material.

So, the suggestion is to read as if you won’t have the text with you when you need the skills and knowledge that it contains. This promotes self-reliance in knowledge, from which stems the confidence to treat matters of great concern lightly.

When we are confident in our knowledge and our skills, we can be resolved to handle anything. But remember, we must be both confident and yet unsatisfied with our current level of skills. Overconfidence breeds intellectual stagnation, which can undermine our self-reliance.

If you’re interested in learning more about Bushido you should read William Scott Wilson’s translation of Hagakure.

This article was originally published January 23, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here with some slight modifications.