The secret to being zen
An interview with a modern-day samurai
Enter the ‘Age of Sensibility’ with Zen Takai – a remarkable samurai teaching the ancient art of Bushido on the beach in Tulum, Mexico
I grew up surrounded by swords.
I heard about ‘The Samurai’ almost immediately after arriving in Tulum, assuming at first that it was just a rumour – like the jaguars seen in the early hours of the morning wandering in from the jungle and feasting on stray dogs in the chic La Veleta neighbourhood or the ghosts spotted in the Mayan ruins.
His classes, mainly taught on the golden beaches of the Mexican city in the state of Quintana Roo, are known primarily by word of mouth.
In contrast to the ‘wellness movement’ that the boho chic hotspot is known for, the samurai teaches the ancient warrior art of Bushido (武士道) , a philosophy perfected by the professional warrior class of mediaeval Japan – once suppressed and now being rediscovered.
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Q&A: Zen Takai
Hi Zen. Please introduce yourself to us: could you tell us a little about who you are and your samurai lineage?
I was given the samurai name ‘Zen’ by my father, the name that is passed down from generation to generation in my family. Born in 1975 in Fukuoka, Japan, I’m from a family of 16 generations of samurai and ninja. Some of my ancestors became ninja 450 years ago, but I’ve been taught both techniques. I grew up surrounded by swords. I was trained by my father, himself a swordsman, learning the thousand-year-old physical manipulation methods. From there, I developed my method of mindfulness, actively disseminating the spirit of Bushido and Zen philosophy, a source of pride for Japan, to the world. I’ve taught more than 2,000 people at the Ninja Samurai Dojo in Asakusa, Tokyo.
What is a samurai?
The role of samurai changes depending on the times. Those who had highly skilled martial arts and served nobles and feudal lords were eventually given territories, and the Warring States period began with scrambles for territories and power struggles. After that, in the Edo period, samurai became leaders in the world and learned or taught art, philosophy, literature, etc., and also played roles such as politicians and teachers. After the Meiji period, the status of samurai disappeared. Even if you come to Japan today, there is no one wearing a topknot and stabbing a sword. I am working to inherit the samurai as a culture.
Be silent water.
I’m sure there are a lot of preconceptions in the West, but can you explain briefly what became of them?
Games, comics, and movies based on the samurai have been made, and the cruel scenes of the Sengoku period (Warring States period) have been made close-up. The 150-year-old Sengoku period was an era of bloodletting and the only goal was to fight and win. On the other hand, various aesthetics such as tea ceremony, Noh [a theatrical art form that has been handed down through generations and been labelled one of the world’s oldest performing arts], calligraphy and flower ceremony were born – and samurai spread at this time. After entering the peaceful Edo period, the philosophy of the samurai was reconsidered. The samurai’s job was to fight, but eventually Bushido, the way of thinking of the samurai, was born, and now Bushido is also used in business.
Why have samurai become controversial in modern Japan – aren’t they outlawed?
Following the teachings of the West after the War, the role of samurai and the meaning of martial arts changed. Martial arts themselves came to have competitiveness as sports and games. The purpose of swordsmanship and martial arts is not to defeat the opponent and win the championship.The original meaning of martial arts – purely as warfare – has faded away. Also, the philosophy of the samurai is not taught at school in Japan today. That is why I believe that now is the time to revive the wisdom of Japan. However, the sword, which was the spirit of the samurai, was treated not merely as a weapon but as art. In the 21st century, an exhibition of swords was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and became very popular. At auction houses such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s swords are sold as art and are sold at high prices. It is treated as a beautiful work with craftsmanship art. Samurai culture is starting to be valued again.
Can you tell us a little bit about Bushido and the way of thought of the samurai?
What is Bushido? Loyalty, bravery, Compassion, faithfulness, shamelessness, propriety, honour, frugality, and affection, which are the morals and ethics that samurai valued based on their various experiences on the training grounds and battlefields.
What do you teach exactly in your classes?
I teach swordsmanship, philosophy, and calligraphy. Swordsmanship classes teach techniques for fighting with swords, but they are not just for defeating opponents. In Japanese martial arts, there is a teaching that the mind and body are not separate. A balance of yin and yang is important. In particular, modern people try to control their mentality with their minds, but the samurai control their mentality with their bodies. Calligraphy class is different from normal calligraphy.I teach how to control energy and express it on paper. Samurai heightened their sensibilities not only through martial arts, but also art, dance, songs, and tea. It was one of education. This will be a training to arrange your lyricism.
How is samurai teaching relevant to the world in which we live today?
This is my personal opinion, but after Covid-19, we are entering an ‘Age of Sensibility.’ I believe that the original way of samurai is the world of martial arts, where one cultivates sensibility rather than using one’s muscles to defeat an opponent. Samurai martial arts makes you feel like you are meditating. I think the samurai philosophy of living a balanced lifestyle, seeking peaceful solutions rather than fighting, is appropriate for the times today.
The samurai philosophy of living a balanced lifestyle, seeking peaceful solutions rather than fighting, is appropriate for the times today.
You have a strong presence on social media. We live in a world of high technology. How do samurai teachings relate to this world?
Today, social media has eliminated borders and made it possible to send messages to people all over the world. It is now possible to directly convey to people the samurai culture and philosophy that had been conveyed from a biassed point of view until now. In fact, I teach swordsmanship and philosophy online to people all over the world. I plan to continue using SMS to announce what I feel while living in this era and practising. As long as you have a passion for samurai, no matter where you are or where you were born, I think you can make use of it in your current environment and lifestyle.
We are entering an ‘Age of Sensibility’.
How did you end up in Tulum?
I wanted to pass on the samurai and Bushido regardless of borders, race, age, nationalities or their experience. I felt that Tulum is a place of diversity, where people from various countries come to visit, and that it is an environment that welcomes samurai with free and unprejudiced ideas. In fact, I think that there are many people in Tulum who are interested in and impressed by samurai lessons with elements of Zen and mindfulness.
What are your hopes for the future?
I inherited the name Zen from my ancestors and intend to pass on the teachings of the samurai. All my students are my children. Swordsmanship can be started at any age. Both men and women can learn equally, regardless of age. I would like to teach swordsmanship and a philosophy called ‘moving meditation’ to people all over the world. I want as many people as possible to learn samurai and make use of it in their daily lives.
Lastly, what do you think the history of the samurai teaches about the human race?
A samurai’s job was to fight. Even when they were sleeping next to death every day, even when they were asleep, they felt fear and death that they didn’t know when they would be attacked. They couldn’t be left open to attack. I would like to teach people the philosophy of the samurai, Bushido, which was born from such an ultimate experience. Bushido is not a religion. However, there is a commonality to all human beings with different cultures, environments, languages, and common sense. A samurai, for example, is compassionate: he cares about the people they have to fight and the families of those they have to kill. He helps other people’s families, adopts children, and takes care of their lives. He cared for others before fighting, avoided fighting and found peaceful solutions and compromises. A samurai learns the skills to save people while learning how to wield the sword, a weapon that kills people.
A samurai glossary
Katana – the long sword of the samurai
Bushido – the philosophy of the samurai
Noh – the tea ceremony perfected by the samurai in the Edo period
Sengoku Period (1467-1615) a period of intense civil strife in Japan, marked by a power vacuum following the collapse of Japanese feudal society, followed by a period of warfare between samurai groups led by warlords vying for control
Edo period (1615-1867) – a period of comparative peace and isolation from the Modern World when Japan was ruled by a Shogun, the golden age of the samurai
Meiji Period (1868-1912) – the beginning of the Modern Period in Japan following the reassertion of the Emperor’s control, characterised by intense technological development, and the eventual suppression of the samurai, despite a series of revolts, most notably that of Saigo Takamori in the 1870s. By the end of this period, Japan had become a modern nation, which had defeated Russia on the battlefield, while the samurai were increasingly regarded as the past. Nevertheless, Samurai warrior values permeated society, taking root in Japan’s increasing new militarism. After WW2, this negative association will take years to throw off.
What’s so good about this?
Zen Takai teaches us that a successful life is all about deep thought and self awareness, underwritten by a profound compassion for others, especially relevant in an age when the religion of The Self appears at times all consuming – and as appropriate today as when the Samurai were in their heyday. Today, the Samurai are being reborn and Zen serves as a perfect example of this. Follow @zen_takai_samurai.
Meet the writer
Matt Graham is a TV writer, originally from London, now based in Los Angeles. He’s the writer of the hit series Oliver Stone’s: The Untold History of the United States, a great many TV scripts for Hollywood, short fiction and a novel, The Night Driver. He’s the survivor of a plane crash in Panama and a roadside mock execution in Nigeria, and has worked as a crime reporter in South America, as well as a ranch manager in Colorado. He’s lived all over the world, and his great unifying passion in life is the search for the sleaziest bars imaginable. Sometimes he wakes up wondering whether or not it’s all just been a strange dream – the kind that jolts you from REM at 3am and leaves you staring at the ceiling. Follow @muzurphulus.