by C.S. Henrys

The Old Ones

“…and, not content with the rule of the tyrannical Titans, Zeus and his siblings rose up against Kronos to overthrow them in a great war that was supposed to have taken place before the concept of man. That’s where I’ll stop for now, children.”

The moans of nearly twenty disappointed youth groaned through the sitting room; Matsu-san just held his hands up innocently. “Hey, hey; I’ll continue the tale tomorrow, younglings! Don’t act too disappointed!” As Matsu glanced up, he saw Jin’s figure, standing like a wraith, in the back of his ward. His eyes widened uneasily as the children casually exited the chambers to resume their play and training in the compound yards.

“So now,” said Jin, “you’re teaching Greek mythology to the children, Matsu-san? I figured it would still be the ‘old gods’ stories you taught before.”

“No,” Matsu replied, “I’ve reeducated myself. It’s better that they know the Humanities than just the stories and myths of our native land. So, I teach the histories of the Greek and Romans, from what our greatest translators of literature have provided. As I’m sure you know, we Nihonjin are not the most traveled of people.”

“Hmph. It’s no concern to me what you tell the pupils, as long as it’s correct.”

“It’s the best we’ve got.”

“Best doesn’t mean right. Just look at our own country, and even you could see what I mean.”

“Surely you don’t—“

Jin just continued to stare coldly into Matsu’s eyes, providing him with the answer he required.

“I see. If you want to talk like that, then I suggest we sit down and have a chat.”

Awhile later, Jin was sitting in the rear of Matsu’s domicile, awaiting a cup of tea. “So, Matsu,” Jin inquired, “what’ve you been up to in the past two years?”

“Oh, still just staying here, teaching children. I’ve taken up woodblock carving as a hobby. It’s been a long time since I was placed in the levee.”

“Well, it’s nice to hear that you’ve been teaching, though I may not agree with all your methods. There hasn’t been any real conflict, as I’m sure you know. Not that any respectable person would have me, anyway; I’m Ronin.”

Matsu flinched coming from the corner of the room with a boiling pot. “Don’t say it like that! If you felt the same way as most people, you’d have committed hara-kiri long ago.”

“You’re right, Matsu-san. I don’t like that I can’t wield my blade in this province anymore.”

“They banned them several months ago, after a few rogue swordsmen murdered an innkeeper and his two daughters over an unpaid debt. Civilians were injured in the process. Real bloody mess, I heard. They sent a few men from the Imperial Levee to kill the brigands.”

“Unfortunate that tempers could not be mended.”

“Unfortunate that your name is the trait of honour!”

The two men laughed carelessly, like a pair of old ‘marms. Jin resorted to deep breathing to finally stop chuckling. Matsu just smiled and took a deep drink of his tea.

“Ho—so, finally to the topic of invitation. What do you mean of our country?”

“I’m sure you do know what I mean.”

“Perhaps—but enlighten me, Jin-san.”

“The Shogunate overthrew the old Meiji Empire. The Meiji overcame the old tribes, the Yamato. Nothing in our history has been toward the positive. We have never truly had a navy. We have never truly explored the world, but we know its girth. We isolate ourselves on the mother islands. This is the life of Nihonjin. We have accomplished nothing! Our culture? We are but a mere sham! What we know, we have stolen from our contemporaries, other than the Code of Bushido.”

“But what makes us incorrect?”

“We do not innovate; we steal! We do not earn; we take! We do not bear olive; we bear blade! All those who oppose the power are to die! How could we be correct?”

“And that is why you remain skeptical of the Greek lore?”

“I’m not skeptical of it; I just don’t know that it’s appropriate to teach. As I said, just because something is best does not mean it is correct.”

“People should naturally be pessimistic because if they are always optimistic they aren’t necessarily choosing the correct path for themselves? Is that what you’re getting at?”

“You make it sound insensitive, wrong, even. Bushido, however, prepares a man like me for this situation. Because I am a warrior, but I must face my culture with an earnest, I will always see both the best and worst of humanity. I will face the death and destruction of war and violence, and I will see the beauty and serenity of fine art and nature. I may see them both at once, and I may see neither, at any given time. I live as all men should.”

“Samurai are not the best of men. Samurai are knights in the truest sense. There’s nothing wholly good about knighthood.”

“And what, dear Matsu, is so ignoble of a feudal servant?”

“You are bound entirely to a will, a physical purpose. Knights have no true sense of the world; they see only that which they wish and that which they must.”

“Ah, but I am Ronin! I see no such bounds as those contracted to a higher lord.”

“Ronin are the most shamed beings in our society. You are paradoxically bound to see only the worst our society has to offer, because you cannot possibly ever experience the highs of culture again. You should, in your own sense, have killed yourself, because you cannot see the good of man’s life.”

“There are natural goods.”

“There are natural men, and there is also artificial nature—and it is likely to see the latter before the former. Nothing in our world is sacred anymore. Our own culture has defiled the kami by infusing the will of Shinto with the philosophies of Kongzi. It is an atrocity of the highest order. Then again, I teach our children of the Lords of the Grecians. I am also responsible for this decline.”

“When I am alone, one with the absolute solitude and serenity of bodiless nature, I see the good that man can achieve. Whether or not man actually achieves, the sense and possibility is there. Blame lies in the corruption of man, but those ideals that man can reach will always exist.”

“So, you pine for an unachievable goal? Drunkards and fools chase similar interests, but seldom succeed and retain their worth or sanity.”

“You compare me to a street fiend?”

“In the philosophical sense. Recall, if you will, that I am also a learned man.”

“We learned of different schools.”

“That, friend, is obvious! For if you were taught in the same manner as me, you would see the futility with which you base your argument!”

“I know what I speak of. The only error is the interpretation which the individual man determines. I can see why Christianity is such a heated subject on the western continent.”

“Hmm—you talk with the swagger of a sociological genius. However, think for a moment about your theory again. Your theory is that man must both experience pleasure and hardship to live life properly, and ideally, they will experience them either simultaneously or at regular intervals. Not all men, though, are destined to see the faults of man, and not all men are destined to experience leisure or pleasure. The common rice man doesn’t have any time for playing; he lives a crushing, serf’s life of the eternal harvest, which he will continue with for the rest of his years. The life of a court eunuch is much different. A court eunuch is destined, sometimes from birth, to live a lavish life, during which he may potentially never even leave his lord’s castle. A eunuch never sees the gore of conflict! A rice man never sees the peace of a manicured courtyard! The rice man is put in the levee to die, to lose his one piece of happiness, his property. The eunuch dies in his sleep at a ripe age, probably because he drowned himself in liquor. How do these men live like you, Samurai?”

“The rice man grows to take pleasure in his land, his craft. He earns an income, no matter how meagre, with which to purchase and survive. In perfection of his life, the achievement of a ‘Nirvana’ to him, he has gained that balance and happiness. The eunuch must make decisions for the lord. He does not always have pleasant choices to make, and if he makes mistakes, he will see them in the land and the demeanor of his lord. The eunuch sees troubles, troubles which haunt him, even if it would require the damned corpses of a hundred men to crush the soul of anyone else. It certainly affected me when I fought in the Wars.”

“By living their lives, they will naturally experience these things, this harsh feeling and this effervescent feeling. Why, then, is that not true of everyone?”

“The rice man is but a simple agrarian, and the eunuch is a lesser statesman. Not all can take such pride in their lives, and not all have such difficulties or eases upon them.”

“But as you do, any can see the beauty of nature.”

“No—only the man with a divine patience can truly see the divinity of nature as one such as I can.”

“So the commoner cannot enjoy what he thinks is beautiful in nature?”

“The commoner has little concept of beauty. The commoner could not even write in verse as can I. They may perceive some joy in nature, but that joy is not those truths which learned men wish. Shortly, no; only those who have learned what real positive emotion is through education can derive any positive sense from nature. Lesser men do know more hurt than coddle. There is little than can be done about that, and that’s why the land is in this state that it’s in.”

“Then your ideals can never be achieved?”

“No; I don’t think they could be, at least not within my lifetime. I will be with the kami. If I follow Bushido, I will always know that I’ve attempted the fell life, and will never be a partner to that discomfort of optioning.”

“You, the champion of the moot point.” Matsu stopped to chuckle a bit at that thought. “May I now describe my side of this situation?”

“Certainly, Matsu-san.”

“Well, the way I see it, Jin-san, people should only live the life that suits them. What they learn, what they see, how they act and what they accomplish are but ends to their infinite means. Anyone can be successful, and anyone and all should be fulfilled and happy without the sense of duality you describe. In my case, I teach, and do little else. I teach the children both the lore of our native land and the Humanities of the civilised world because I myself have knowledge of these things. I do not teach the children of violence, bloodshed, depravity, war, greed or any other accursed sin, or if I do, it has a significant context, but I expect that these things can be acquired or avoided as part of the human experience.”

“You state the depravity of understanding under the pretenses of acquisition and youth, in the case of the children—is that what I’m to understand?”

“No—the children will learn of these things when it is appropriate.”

“I learned of my place at a very young age. I was not softened as a child—if anything, I was made to know more of the harsh things our world has to offer younger, so that I would not be shocked by them when I grew older. I feel that I have grown as an appropriate person in that sense, but it contradicts what you say.”

“You are an appropriate person, as are many, when the time and place are sensible, and your mood suits you. Your very aura, though, frightens me much of the time. You are one that belongs on the battlefield, not in a classroom. You learned through experience, but later determined that the acquisition of knowledge came in many forms, and now act within that sense. As a boy, I lived as many in our lands do—poor. My family, as you well know, was one of many farming families in this province, in these valleys. I rose to my current status by deciding that gaining the knowledge necessary to advance my status from a serf to a serviceman was more important. I still own the family farm now that my father has passed, and my mother lives with my sisters, but I do not work on it. I have other men that tend the land, and they have what they are content with in life, which is to say rather little. But someone always has to receive what seems unfair to others, simply because it appears an improvement to them.”

“Not everyone has the added opportunity that you were granted. That is not to say much of myself, being born of my class; still, it gives you no right to presume things that are not always truths.”

“Is the commonality of human will not true of all men? Or, as some would say, does man not have a will to exercise?”

“I do not think that man has free will. You are always guided. I am a spiritual man; I believe the ancestor spirits guide my actions, though I do not always perform as they expect or command. If man had free will, he could always make the proper determinations to succeed in life. As it stands, most men are content to sweat like pigs underneath unforgiving feudal lords, never showing any sign of rebellion and never even complaining about their labours or positions in life. I live as I was born—a man bound to Bushido.”

“So man never deviates from his birth? I am sure I just told you that I was born a crop-tender, and I educate children nowadays.”

“Have you really risen from your position in life? Have you ever petitioned the constable or the lord? Have you ever violently rebelled against your masters? Have you ever dared to defy what we consider to be the sacred law of Conscientiousness and Decency?”

“You are throwing declarative arguments at me as if I do not find them incredulous to be asked! Of course I haven’t done those things; that would mean the death of me!”

“Then you have never truly understood what it means to live, if you have not participated in those base human actions. I mean in these words: Circumstance, Questioning, Iconoclasty. You’ve never acted in an iconoclastic way; I live the life of an iconoclast simply by being Ronin. You have never questioned the rule of your lordship; I have killed lords, personally, for their crimes. You have never wondered about your place in this world and never ventured from the mother islands; I have sailed on the seas, to China and the Spice Lands. I constantly consider that key philosophical question ‘Why are we here?’ There is no one answer for me, and I hope that there is no one answer for you, either, Matsu-san.”

Matsu paused to think. “Do you know of Epicurus, Jin-san?”

“An ancient Grecian. I know nothing more of him, though.”

“Epicurus was a strange man, but I think you would understand his philosophies and way of living. Epicurus told men that they should live life like Libertines, in the securest sense. Nothing, essentially, is worth having unless it advances human enjoyment and frees the senses. Towards the end of his life, Epicurus lived much like a beggar, sleeping in the streets and eating little but the weariest stipend of victuals. Do you see?”

“I see that this man sounds like a fool. He claims man should have the greatest luxuries at the lowest personal cost, and lives like a wandering peasant.”

“Ah—but you, like many, have missed the point. Epicurus’ did not say that man should live in utter luxury; merely that man should only live to advance his own happiness. Epicurus, earlier in life, did live with little inhibition. There is little morality to speak of in Epicureanism, but it is all in the drive to free man of boundaries, and make it so that man has no desires, only goals to be met. Therefore, Epicurus, despite the hospitality and concerns of many good friends and students, lived a harsh, but personally fulfilling life on the street until his old age. He, like you, saw many hardships in his lifetime, but lived in a way that was always positive to him. Therefore, in the sense you described, he lived the perfect life.”

“That is not what I meant—“

“Oh, but you argue? I have given you a good example; what do you wish to counter it with?”

“I…“ Jin was floored; it seemed that Matsu had actually given a good example of his now apparently flawed idea. “I will concede to you this time.”

Jin rose from Matsu’s hard sitting room floor, delicately setting his porcelain cup on its platter. “Well, I have to be off. Authorities from the next province will probably be looking for me, and I have bounty work a few villages away to complete. As you probably know, I do not advertise that I am Ronin—and because of it, few know that fact. I work honestly, and still follow Bushido. Every day, though, it grows more and more difficult to perform those tasks which I was born to perform, and I have frequently fallen upon the jagged idea of suicide. But I believe it is against that will that we preserve, against our nature as creatures in this world, to commit such a heinous murder upon our own flesh. Therefore, in honour of being a human, I refrain, from time to time, from being Nihonjin—from being Samurai. Do you understand my concession, Matsu-san?”

Matsu smiled and nodded, hefting his welling frame from the floor. “Yes, Jin-san—I really do, and I can only hope that you continue to think that way, well into the future. Arigato, Jin-san.”

Arigato, Matsu-san.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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