Zen and the Eastern Spirit

The Benevolent Kindness of the Government of Tokugawa Ieyasu

The government of Tokugawa Ieyasu, which formed the base of the 260 conflict-free years of the Edo era (1603-1867), is a good example of being able to build a peaceful world by following the example of the saints and the sages. We want to introduce the true greatness of Ieyasu, not only to Japanese people but also to the people of the world.

1, The Way of the Saints and Sages of the East

The twenty-first century world is gradually being filled with conflict and confusion. It is a tragic place where the future is unclear. Isn't it a time when all of humanity should reflect humbly about the stupidity of quarrelling with and killing our fellow human beings?

Now, especially, we can look back on the benevolent kindness of the government of the great Japanese Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616). It constructed a peace that extended through the 260 years of the Edo era, a peace of the sort we have seldom seen in world history. It is thus especially important that we learn about this government and see that the personal virtue that made it possible can be again realized.

Ieyasu's personal virtue and the respect that he received from others were a result of his using the wisdom of the Eastern sages and saints as his model. He realized that any person who thinks only about himself will not achieve to personal virtue and will not gain the respect of others. Furthermore, he saw that a country that blindly thinks of only its own profits will not be called a great nation. That path of the Eastern sages and saints that he followed was the path of genuine benevolence towards others.

Let me here present examples of the wisdom of the Eastern sages and saints which Ieyasu took as his model.

The following is from The Analects of Confucius.

"Tzu-lu asked about the qualities of a man of vertue. The Master said, he cultivates in himself the capacity to be diligent in his tasks. Tzu-lu said, Can he not go further than that? The Master said, He cultivates in himself the capacity to ease the lot of other people. Tzu-lu said, Can he not go further than that? The Master said, He cultivates in himself the capacity to ease the lot of the whole populace. Even Yao and Shun [two eminent ancient emperors of China] worried about cutivating himself and making ease the lot of the whole populace."

This is the enormously benevolent heart of the saints, and the true heart of the Eastern spirit. The following actions of Ieyasu show that if one becomes a policymaker who cultivates his own character through study of the teachings of the saints and sages, it will eventually be possible for him to build an era of world peace.

2, Ieyasu's Will

Ieyasu's testament, which he announced to the many feudal lords (daimyos) just before he died in 1616 at the age of 75, serves as a summary of his entire life and expresses the core of his personality and his benevolent government.

"My life is a flickering flame of a candle. It is in danger of being blown out, but the Shogun (Ieyasu's son) is handling everything well, so I am not worried about the stability of the country.

"However, if after my death the policy of the Shogun's government strays from the correct path and the people suffer trials, then I want you to find someone else for the job of Shogun. Any of the feudal lords would be acceptable.

"The world is not a world just for one person or group, i.e. the Tokugawa clan. The world is a world for all the people of the world.

"Even if someone other than the Tokugawa family were to administer Japan, if that resulted in Japan becoming peaceful and the people were able to receive the grace of a government full of benevolence, then, needless to say, I, Ieyasu, would not hold even the slightest regrets."

This last testament reveals that Ieyasu was not a narrow minded person who only thought of the prosperity of himself and the Tokugawa clan, but that he was someone with a benevolent personality who wished, from the bottom of his heart, that a peaceful era would arrive for the people of Japan who had suffered during the upheaval of the Warring States Period. (If Ieyasu were alive in the present, then he would certainly do what he could to promote world peace.)

3, The Formation of Ieyasu's Personality

Because of the political situation of that time, Ieyasu lived as a hostage from the age of 6 to age of 19 and had many bitter experiences during these years. However, during this period, as a result of working hard to study and cultivate his own character through reading the classics of the Eastern saints and sages, he prepared from an early age to become a dignified personage later on.

Even at the end of his life, Ieyasu never stopped reading the classics of the saints and sages that explain the cultivation of personal virtue.

We can see that among the present Japanese politicians and political scientists, there are no people at all who feel strongly and insist on the necessity of mastering the "path of personal virtue" via studying the classics in this way.

Having not studied the path of personal virtue, these politicians and political scientists do not humbly learn from the noble actions of their eminent predecessors like Ieyasu. Thus, their words and actions reflect a base world-view without ideals. Consequently, they lack the respect gained by Ieyasu and his lofty insights.

4, Benevolence, the Foundation of All Things

Well, then; looking at Ieyasu's personality and politics, what was their core which was cultivated by the teachings of the saints and sages?

A few years before Ieyasu died in 1617, a certain samurai who was a messenger for his son, the Shogun at that time, came to Ieyasu's side and stayed for several days. A summary of the instruction the samurai received on that occasion concerning the correct path of governing the nation remains as Ieyasu's "Last Testament."

This transcript truly shows the maturity of Ieyasu's state of mind during the final years of his life. It is said that there were many feudal lords in the Edo era who copied this transcript out by hand and used it as a model to govern their clans.

In this "Last Testament", Ieyasu speaks as follows of the unchanging "great treasures of Japan": "benevolence, wisdom, honesty."

"First, know that benevolence is the foundation of all things. Honesty that comes through benevolence is true honesty, but honesty without benevolence is dishonest and cold-hearted. Wisdom that comes through benevolence is true wisdom, but wisdom without benevolence is evil wisdom. In China these great treasures are called the three virtues of wisdom, benevolence, and courage."

Continuing these thoughts, Ieyasu goes on to explain the key to world peace.

"Don't do anything, under any circumstances, which is contrary to the reason or the path of personal virtue. In general, evil deeds spring from self-interest. The disorder of the world springs from conceit. The peace of the people requires that everyone works hard at his family's profession.

"The peace of the world and the stability of government depends on the benevolence of the upper class. Benevolence is the road of mercy. We must govern by eliminating conceit and making benevolence the base of all things."

In this way, Ieyasu had the insight that the foundation of world peace was a government based on benevolence. The greatness of Ieyasu is that he didn't just say it but that he boldly put it into practice.

5, The Respected Received by Ieyasu and His Personal Virtue

There is a Japanese proverb which applies to Ieyasu: "The leaves of the chinaberry tree smells sweet even when they are young." Genius shows itself even in childhood, and he was wise even when he was a child. Seeing Ieyasu's modesty at age 16, the master of the castle who took him hostage foresaw his future success.

Ieyasu did not forget the profound kindness that he received from that master, and whenever he passed by his grave, he always reverently got out of his rickshaw and visited the gravesite.

It is said that after the eldest son of the Lord became Ieyasu's vassal, Ieyasu greeted him very politely in spite of the fact that the son was his inferior.

The attitude of modesty and respect he shows here in his daily life reflects Ieyasu's mature state of mind especially clearly. Even after he united all of Japan, he was always reverent, never lacking the least bit of courtesy, and he never was overbearing or conceited.

Ieyasu says this concerning the loyalty of vassals:

"Cowards are always rough, coarse, and conceited. People who are very conceited always elevate their own interests over those of the lord.

"Those who are truly loyal are gentle and benevolent towards everyone regardless of standing. "Their attitude and words are humbler than their position requires and, because they value the kindness of the lord so much, their own rewards and standing increase. We call this true loyalty."

There are innumerably many anecdotes about the respect given to Ieyasu and his personal virtue after he succeeded in uniting Japan. This entire collection of anecdotes, which is over 600 pages long, is a precious gem.

Right now, however, I would like to relate a few anecdotes for the people of the West that demonstrate Ieyasu's dignified personality which overflowed with benevolence.

6, Ieyasu's Praise of the Loyalty of the Vassal Who Admonished Him

One of Ieyasu's vassals once came to his castle, took out a sealed letter from his breast pocket, and said "I have wanted to admonish you for a while, and so here is what I wrote down."

Ieyasu was overjoyed and said "Read it out loud." As the vassal read it, Ieyasu nodded, and, impressed, said "That's exactly right!" at the end of every paragraph. When the vassal had finished reading it, Ieyasu said over and over, "Words cannot express how full of emotion I am at your intention to admonish me. From now on, if there is ever a time when you want to admonish me, tell me to your heart's content. This really touched me." The vassal said "I am extremely grateful", and left the room.

A high-ranking vassal who remained said "What he admonished you about is not something that you have to take seriously." The expression on Ieyasu's face changed dramatically and he said:

"No, that's not true at all. There are many times when we go along not knowing our mistakes. In addition, if we become people who rule countries and govern people, then there are many people who flatter us and few people who admonish us and let us know our mistakes. Even if what we say is unethical, then there are very few people who will reply ‘That's not true.'

"People who refuse admonition lose their countries, destroy themselves, and become laughingstocks for future generations. The person who admonished me just now carefully wrote down his criticism of the things he saw every day, and was planning to show me if he had the opportunity. That loyalty is so great that I can't compare it to anything. Regardless of whether I listen to his criticism, I value highly his loyal heart."

Ieyasu said this, and further asserted, "A person that is someone's lord should praise a vassal who admonishes him."

How noble are Ieyasu's sentiments! By learning in detail Japanese and Chinese history, Ieyasu was able to reach the point where he possessed these lofty insights.

7, The Employment of the Brother of an Opposing Lord's Samurai

On the occasion when he employed a samurai as a high-ranking official, Ieyasu explained the reason as follows.

"You are still young, but the reason why I gave you this appointment is none other the following: When your elder brother was serving along side his lord, he was disowned and was placed in confinement because of the report of a fellow soldier. However, as his lord was near death on the battlefield, your brother went to him and asked him to release him from confinement, and overjoyed, died with his lord. He was truly a model samurai.

"Your brother didn't have any children, so I feel pity for him because there was no one to ask him to perform such a splendid deed. Thus, I call upon you, his younger brother, in order to try to continue his family. I am honoring your older brother by giving you an appointment like this. You should understand and remember that this appointment is thanks to your older brother and not think at all that it is for your own praise."

It should be understood that the lord and vassal (samurai) above were enemies that Ieyasu had fought and annihilated. Because Ieyasu trusted an enemy's samurai as his own vassal, the members of the enemy clan came to respect and embrace him.

Ieyasu also scolded a vassal who had received the favor of another enemy clan but then betrayed that clan and defected to the Tokugawa side, saying "Even though you received the favor of your lord! You ungrateful criminal! Hateful creature!"

From these examples, we see that Ieyasu praised deeds that followed his way of the samurai, even if these deeds were performed by the enemy, and on the other hand, refused to do things that strayed from the path of personal virtue, even if they profited himself. This is what we can call the traditional Japanese "way of the samurai (bushido)."

8, The Man of Virtue Takes the Goodness of Others as His Model

Ieyasu stated the following.

"The stupid and small-minded take the evil of others as their model. They always see the evil in others and say that they aren't that way, and they don't refrain from speaking badly of others.

"The present wise men and men of virtue take the goodness of others as their model and from the beginning don't talk about the bad things.

"No matter what they do, these people behave with a moderation that does not praise itself by saying that it comes from the example of the people called wise men and men of virtue. People who truly have wisdom aren't proud and don't become conceited."

In addition, he asserts "We must try to picture the state of the other's heart," and says the following.

"You should try to picture the state of the hearts of even your wife, children, and subjects, saying to yourself, ‘It seems to me that they think this way', and behave taking their feelings into consideration. If you do what you want without thinking about their feelings and have your own way, you will completely forget modesty, and people will most certainly stop approaching you."

9, A General Needs a Generous Heart

Ieyasu explains clearly why two excellent lords of that time in Japan could not unify Japan. He says that the reason was that they didn't have generous hearts.

"People who are usually regarded as generals, are prudent about being broad-minded, and have large hearts. If something isn't a great injustice, then it's best not to worry about it. Things other than a big injustice are inconsequential. They say that if the water is too pure, then fish won't live there, and the same way if people are too critical of other people, then there will be no one to associate with.

"When you employ someone, you must not worry. Instead, take advantage of that person's strong points and realize that there's nothing that you can do about the weak points.

"The two lords above killed their vassals because the vassals made them feel guilty, and they didn't think twice about killing them. In an intimate family like that, abandoning their right-hand men who had become their arms and their legs was very narrow-minded.

"In the time of my father, when my father was sick, my luck in battle declined. Almost all of my own family, my vassals, and servants, betrayed us, and many of them defected to the other side or wavered between the two sides, and many of them didn't support me up until my childhood.

"However, once I attained good fortune in battle, those people all obeyed me and showed loyalty to me militarily. I (not caring about the past), acted as if I didn't know of their disloyalty, and I used them often so that they all became like my arms and legs and my right hand men and performed many brave deeds for me.

"When you use samurai and soldiers, you must be relaxed without any restraint in your heart; you must not forget the truth in your heart. If your heart is too narrow, then there will be a lot of suspicion in it. It then becomes difficult to take advantage of the skills and usefulness of many people."

10, Rewarding Severe Disloyalty with Kindness

After unifying Japan, Ieyasu spoke as follows one night.

"As everyone knows, I was born in the middle of the Warring States Period, and from when I was a child, I worked hard at battle councils day and night and didn't try hard at my studies, so I am uneducated and illiterate.

"However, I heard and remembered one phrase and it has remained in my heart. I established the Tokugawa family on this one wise phrase.

"What kind of phrase do you think it is that I mentioned? What teaching of the saints and sages or Buddhist sutra? Try and think about this."

It goes without saying that we can't expect that the vassals easily understood the phrase that Ieyasu trusted, so he said the following to himself.

"What each of you said seem to echo those words of the saints and the sages which can be seen in the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism. Of course, it's essential in learning. But as I am uneducated and illiterate, I've never heard words like that.

"However from early childhood on, I was familiar with and always remembered, this one phrase: 'Rewarding severe disloyalty with kindness.' This was greatly useful for me, both in encountering serious and trivial matters. Therefore, though this is a extraordinary secret for me, I would like to reveal to each of you today."

They say that when Ieyasu said this, he smiled.

He spoke modestly about himself, saying that he was "uneducated and illiterate." "But it was by no means true. As previously mentioned he made a point of learning and studied various things whenever he could find a occasion. Needless to say, in this case the "study" doesn't mean bookish knowledge, but means that of cultivation of our character.

Still, how wonderful a fresh and frank exchange there was between the principal and accessory at the beginnings of the Tokugawa era!

Those vassals who served their lords as Ieyasu did, and who faithfully lived up to his moral principles, were graced with the benevolent influence of their lord, and would live fulfilling lives.

11, The World Depends on a Benevolence

We should be very clear about the importance of the fact that, in the whole course of the history of Japan, it was Lord Ieyasu who achieved peace, finally putting an end to the Warring States Period.

This was accomplished by dint of his effort to cultivate himself in accord with the teachings of the Eastern saint and sages. He thought their teaching were precisely the way for us humans to follow.

Ieyasu's final words as he was preparing to die were given to his grandson (future third Shogun Iemitsu):

"You know you are the Lord of Japan. The world depends on benevolence."

This one phrase "The world depends on benevolence" is a phrase which characterizes the whole life of Ieyasu.

In our present period of ever-increasing conflict and confusion, it is important to recognize the noble mind and life of men such as Ieyasu.

To sum up, I believe that the teachings of Eastern saints and sages surely teach each and every one of us the principle of peace both in our world and in our minds.

( Translated by Stephen Pitts )

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