The Religion of the Samurai by Kaiten Nukariya is somewhat misnamed in that this book does not really deal with the religious beliefs or practices of Japan’s warrior class. Rather, this is a book about the Buddhist sect known as Zen that many of that class followed. There are many Buddhist sects or denominations practiced in Japan and the Zen Buddhism has had a wide following beyond the Samurai, yet somehow Zen has become especially associated with the Samurai and with Japan generally.
Zen Buddhism is part of that branch of Buddhism known as the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) or Northern school, as opposed to the Theravada (Teaching of the Elders) or Southern school of Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is distinguished from other Buddhist sects by the belief in sudden, inspired enlightenment through meditation and personal instruction from a teacher. Zen Buddhist deemphasizes the study of scripture and doctrine, holding that enlightenment cannot be truly described by dead words in books. Even the instructor does not so much teach truths or beliefs as encourage the student to experience enlightenment on his own.
The Religion of the Samurai is a short book, only about 160 pages in print, but it covers the subject fairly well. The book was written a century ago, but the basic facts about Zen Buddhism haven’t changed and the book does not seem to be out of date, except for a few expressions here and there. The author begins with a quick and very general survey of both major schools of Buddhism before moving to the beginnings of Zen or Ch’an in China, placing the origins within the Mahayanist context. He goes on to tell of the transmission of Zen to Japan and the sect’s influence on Japanese history and culture.
The bulk of this short book is taken up with an attempt to explain the teachings of Zen. I say attempt not because the author is unsuccessful, but because by Zen’s own teachings, it is impossible to fully understand Zen without experiencing it. Still, Mr. Nukariya does an adequate job explaining Zen’s views on the nature of the universe, human nature, good and evil, and Enlightenment and its attainment. There are a few faults, though. The Kindle version of this book is not well formatted and the footnotes are interspersed in the main text. This problem may have been corrected in later versions of the ebook. I also noticed that the author tends to disparage other Buddhist sects; especially those of the Theravada school, which he, along with many other Mahayanists refer to as Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle). This is not really a fault, but it should be noted that Mr. Nukariya was promoting Zen with this book, not providing an unbiased account.
I can recommend this book to anyone wishing for an introduction to this fascinating religion.