A sensei once told me a story about a poor Japanese peasant farmer and his feudal lord. This is my rendition of it.
Once upon a time, the lowliest, poorest peasant in the poorest farming hamlet in the domain of some unremarkable Japanese feudal lord (daimyo) managed to offend his master. So insignificant was the affront, by so an insignificant man, that history forgot all about it.
The mighty daimyo, however, the most skilled swordsman in the fief (han), in spite of the peasant's apologies, preferred to take great offence and challenged him to a duel, to take place the following day, at sunrise.
Maybe the unsophisticated mind of a peasant could have missed the mockery involved in the "challenge": it was a crime punishable by death for a peasant to own swords (katanas). Everybody knew it. Katanas were the soul of the samurai: peasants had no soul.
Harder to overlook, even by a peasant, was the certainty of death. And, miserable as his life already was, full of toil, humiliation, hunger, disease, Peasant did not want to die. So, again he apologised to his lord making an extra effort to show more humility and contrition.
To no effect.
Then he promised compensation and begged and grovelled.
All to no effect.
Beyond the pleasure his own self-debasement gave Daimyo, there was nothing else he could offer. Even that was of such little value that the Daimyo quickly tired of it, leaving him alone in despair awaiting for next morning.
Peasant desperately thought. Running away? No, that wouldn't do. Neighbouring daimyos would deny him passage through their han and Daimyo would send his samurai to hunt him down.
Perhaps there was a clever way to cheat death! Heroes of legend, after all, do that all the time. But the hamlet elders knew of none. The unspoken truth is that they all thought he was going to die.
Still, the elders reminded him of the hermit warrior monk (yamabushi) living in a cave in the mountain. Monks were smart and learned and knew many tales. Perhaps he could help him. At least, he could provide him some comfort.
Peasant, however, didn't want spiritual comfort before death. He wanted to live. He, nevertheless, had no better idea and nothing to lose, so he decided to go.
Hours later, shortly after nightfall, Peasant found the yamabushi in his cave. Quickly explaining his situation, he asked for advice. He wanted to live.
After deep reflection, Yamabushi said: "You can only die".
Peasant had refused that certainty earlier. Now, however, he didn't. Why not? History doesn't say. Maybe he was too exhausted by search and hunger and hopelessness and had no strength left to deny the truth any longer: he was going to die and, unfair as it was, there was nothing he could do about it.
At any rate, Peasant humbly thanked Yamabushi and prepared to leave.
Yamabushi stopped him: "It's getting dark and soon you'll die. But you are alive now. You don't need to spend what little time you have left, your last hours, alone, in the dark, and hungry. Stay and share a meal with me. Tomorrow I'll guide you back to the hamlet.".
As they ate, Yamabushi told him that every spring the roaring streams, fed by melting snow, carry rocks and soil and pebbles of all shapes and colours away from Mount Fuji, down into the valleys and the sea. One day, in the distant future, long after the Emperor and the Shogun and all daimyos are gone, the sacred Mount – whom those who never witnessed its beginning assure him was once created by the goddess Segen-sama – will be no more.
"Summer flies are to daimyos, as daimyos are to Mount Fuji", explained Yamabushi. "Everything has a beginning, or is born, everything has and end, or dies. Some lead shorter lives, some lead longer lives. That's the way of things. Why should a humble peasant be any different?"
Peasant opposed: "But death is a bad thing. No?"
"Death is the end, the cessation of life", replied Yamabushi. "If one's life is full of glory and joy and pleasure, death is the cessation of glory and joy and pleasure; if one's life is full of misery, death is the cessation of misery".
And they talked and talked. Hours went by.
Engrossed by the conversation, a pleasure peasants seldom enjoyed, Peasant almost missed the eastern sky slowly turning red/orange, as it does before sunrise. It was time.
What did Peasant make of Yamabushi's wisdom? Sensei never told me. What he did tell me is that Peasant and Yamabushi went back to the hamlet.
On their way through the forest, Yamabushi produced a katana from under his cloak and offered it to Peasant.
"You are going to die by a samurai's katana", he said. "You might as well confront Daimyo with one in your own hands."
Peasant, however, politely refused: "I wouldn't know how to use it".
"Then, you must learn some basics", the Yamabushi added. And he showed Peasant how to stand and hold the katana properly.
"Don't think and never lose contact with Daimyo's eyes", he added. "When he's ready to strike, you'll see death in them. Then, without any hesitation, strike him like this -- as fast as you can, with all your might. A lowly peasant cannot cheat death. Nobody can".
Shortly after sunrise, when Daimyo and his retainers arrived in the village, Peasant was awaiting in the middle of the village's one dirt track, the other villagers somberly watching from their hut's doors.
Surprised that, instead of cowering somewhere, Peasant stood there, calmly holding a katana and looking at him straight in the eyes, in a recognisable if crude swordplay stance, Daimyo cautiously approached on his horse.
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Something was out of place, Daimyo decided. Fearing an ambush by a rival daimyo, he readied himself to flee before demanding: "Whose katana is that?"
"Mine", answered Yamabushi, stepping away from Peasant's filthy shack, so as to be seen clearly. "I lent it to him".
"Master!" mumbled Daimyo, upon recognizing Yamabushi, some composure lost.
"I didn't know this peasant was your trainee", Daimyo explained. "He never told me, Master, I assure you. I could never harm a fellow student. I'll withdraw my challenge, if that's acceptable".
"You stole that katana to scare me?", spat Daimyo. "Fool! To yesterday's affront you just added a crime! I'll enjoy this", he screamed while dismounting theatrically.
To no effect. This time Peasant didn't drop to his knees.
Slowly unsheathing his own katana, eyes locked on eyes, the now silent Daimyo approached Peasant, stopping a couple of meters in front of him.
Seeing the incoming strike in Daimyo's eyes, Peasant did a lowly peasant's best impersonation of a swordsman.
For the briefest moment, all there was is movement and the swishing of swords slicing the still morning air. Then, silence following a loud thud.
To nobody's surprise, Peasant's head rolled a few meters on the ground, stopping not far from the katana he once held. His body, limp, fell right next to Daimyo, blood splattering the latter's expensive robe.
The smirk in Daimyo's face, however, quickly turned into an expression of disbelief and pain and horror: a second bloodied katana was lying on the ground, two severed arms still holding it, blood gushing profusely from stumps where his arms used to be.