ZEN IN THE DARK AGE
The latter half of the Ashikaga period was the age of arms and bloodshed.
Every day the sun shone on the glittering armour of marching soldiers.
Every wind sighed over the lifeless remains of the brave. Everywhere the
din of battle resounded. Out of these fighting feudal lords stood two
champions. Each of them distinguished himself as a veteran soldier and
tactician. Each of them was known as an experienced practiser of Zen. One
was Harunobu (Takeda, died in 1573), better known by his Buddhist name,
Shingen. The other was Terutora (Uyesugi, died in 1578), better known by
his Buddhist name, Kenshin.
The character of Shingen can be imagined from the fact that he never built
any castle or citadel or fortress to guard himself against his enemy, but
relied on his faithful vassals and people; while that of Kenshin, from the
fact that he provided his enemy, Shingen, with salt when the latter suffered
from want of it, owing to the cowardly stratagem of a rival lord. The heroic
battles waged by these two great generals against each other are the flowers
of the Japanese war history. Tradition has it that when Shingen's army was
put to rout by the furious attacks of Kenshin's troops, and a single warrior
mounted on a huge charger rode swiftly as a sweeping wind into Shingen's
headquarters, down came a blow of the heavy sword aimed at Shingen's
forehead, with a question expressed in the technical terms of Zen: "What
shall you do in such a state at such a moment?" Having no time to draw his
sword, Shingen parried it with his war fan, answering simultaneously in
Zen words: "A flake of snow on the red hot furnace!" If his attendants had
not come to the rescue Shingen's life, he might have gone as "a flake of
snow on the red hot furnace." Afterwards the horseman was known to have
been Kenshin himself. This tradition shows us how Zen was practically
lived by the Samurais of the Dark Age.
Although the priests of other Buddhist sects had their share in these bloody
affairs, as was natural at such a time, yet Zen monks stood aloof and simply cultivated their literature. Consequently, when all the people grewn entirely ignorant at the end of the Dark Age, the Zen monks were the only by men of letters. None can deny this merit of their having preserved learning
and prepared for its revival in the following period.