Samurai and Japanese Culture Reader’s Guide: The Works of Master Translator and Author William Scott Wilson

One of the greatest joys for me as an editor at Shambhala Publications is when I work on books by people I have long admired. This was most definitely the case when Shambhala had the good fortune to become William Scott Wilson’s publisher several years ago. I first encountered his work when I was a young martial arts student; his translation of Takuan Soho’s The Unfettered Mind was a revelation. When, many years later, I began to correspond with him and then actually met him, I was star struck.

Bill Wilson is the foremost translator into English of traditional Japanese texts on samurai culture—most famously the best-selling Hagakure—as well as other classical texts from Zen and Taoism, and the author of three books. His gift as a translator is not only his erudition and his skillful expression; it’s that his love of the subject matter pervades his writing and fills the reader up with that joy and inspiration. The samurai ethos at its very highest level was marked by the quest for self-realization and spiritual attainment, and Bill’s translations make that concept palpable. He also is a great storyteller—in person and in his writings—and that gift shines though in the introductions and notes to his translations, and in his original books.

A few of Bill’s translations were also used to create a series of graphic novels that we publish—and I’ve noted this in the descriptions below. They are a great way to enhance your understanding of the classic texts—or to introduce them to a young reader.

Bill is a warm and delightful person, and a complete joy to work with, and I am so pleased to be able to show off his works in this blog. Enjoy!

—Beth Frankl, editor

Translations by William Scott Wilson

Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunetomo

This classic guide for young samurai on how to behave, conduct themselves, live, and die was once a secret text known only to the warriors of the author’s clan. Now Hagakure is iconic—often referenced in popular culture. Part of its immense appeal has been readers’ morbid fascination with Tsunetomo’s reference to bushido (the Way of the Warrior) as “the Way of death.” Bill’s introduction to Shambhala’s edition reveals how in fact bushido was a nuanced concept that related heavily to the Zen concept of muga, or “death of the ego.” Seen through this lens, the text takes on an added richness and appeal. Also available as a Pocket Edition.

The Unfettered Mind, Takuan Soho

Written by Takuan Soho, the seventeenth-century Zen master, as a guide for renowned samurai Yagyu Munenori, there are few more inspiring books on cultivating right mind and intention than this slim book. Takuan was a giant of Zen, and a true renaissance man (he was also a gardener, calligrapher, poet, author, painter, and advisor to samurai and shoguns) and The Unfettered Mind is witty, acerbic, and utterly brilliant. Takuan’s directive is deceptively simple: The sword and your mind are one. Understand and refine your mind and you will gain mastery over yourself and resolve any conflict. A crystal-clear message that is as applicable today as it was in the samurai era.

The Life-Giving Sword, Yagyu Munenori

Despite his immense martial ability, and political power and acumen, Yagyu Munenori spent his life immersed in Zen practice. Zen teachings formed the basis of his deeply spiritual approach to sword fighting: No sword necessary! Spiritual readiness to fight and a mind that is free of everything are what will lead to victory. This book is a masterpiece—essential reading for cultivating the true martial mind.

The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi

There is no more famous Japanese sword master than Miyamoto Musashi. The undefeated seventeenth-century samurai has achieved a sort of mythic status, historically, and in art and culture. Late in his life, he retreated to a cave and wrote this manifesto on swordsmanship, strategy, and victory to guide his students and generations of samurai to come. Every martial artist needs to read this book. Also available as a graphic novel.

The Pocket Samurai

This tiny book contains essential writings of the era by the most esteemed samurai and philosophers of the samurai age including Miyamoto Musashi; Yamamoto Tsunetomo; Takuan Soho; Yamaoka Tesshu, a master swordsman whose colorful life was devoted to martial arts and Zen; along with many others. Put it in your purse or knapsack, and let these martial arts masters accompany you wherever you go. And I think it’s one of our best book covers ever!

The Demon Sermon on the Martial Arts, and Other Tales, Isaai Chozanshi

A classic of martial arts literature, these seemingly light and fanciful parables feature the Japanese demon known as a tengu, and a variety of other creatures. They contain, however, important lessons about the perception of conflict, self-transformation, and how the path of the sword leads to an understanding of life itself. Also available as a graphic novel.

Tao Te Ching: A New Translation, Lao Tzu

To create this new translation of Lao Tzu’s spiritual and philosophical classic, Bill used both the ancient text from 200 BCE and the even older Golden Seal script used during Lao Tzu’s time. The result is an authentic, subtle, and poetic read.

Cultivating Chi, Kaibara Ekiken

Unlike other samurai of his time, Kaibara Ekiken was less concerned with swordsmanship than with nurturing a healthy body and mind. He drew from his medical practice, the principles of Chinese medicine, and his life experience to create this guide for sustaining health and vitality from youth to old age.

The Spirit of Noh, Zeami

The Japanese dramatic art of Noh has long held a fascination for people both in the East and West. Wilson’s translation of the Fushikaden, the seminal treatise on Noh, illuminates this intriguing art form, and offers valuable teachings on the aesthetics and spiritual culture of Japan.

Master of the Three Ways, Hung Ying-ming

How do you live a simple but satisfying life, without distraction and material, psychological, and spiritual trappings? This unusual text—a prose-poem written by a seventeenth-century sage—explores how to experience “the true taste of life,” according to the root values of Zen, Confucianism, and Taoism.

The 36 Strategies of the Martial Arts, Hiroshi Moriya

If you are a fan of The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings, you’ll enjoy this collection of ancient Chinese maxims on strategy, battlefield tactics, and deception—unpacked by a contemporary authority on Chinese culture and philosophy.

Books by William Scott Wilson

The Lone Samurai

Over 350 years since his death, Miyamoto Musahi and his legacy still fascinate us, and continue to inspire artists, authors, and filmmakers. Bill Wilson’s biography of Musashi is both a vivid account of a fascinating period in feudal Japan, and a portrait of the courageous, iconoclastic swordsman. Also available as a graphic novel, titled Musashi.

The One Taste of Truth

Part history, part philosophy, and part inspirational guide, Bill highlights what is singular and precious about traditional Japanese and Chinese tea culture and explores the fascinating connection between Zen and tea drinking.

Walking the Kiso Road

Bill’s gift for storytelling is especially compelling in this delightful travel guide to the ancient Kisoji, a legendary route used by samurai and warlords, which remains much the same today as it was hundreds of years ago. The natural beauty of the route is renowned—and famously inspired the landscapes of Hiroshige, as well as the work of many other artists and writers. Bill shares its rich history and lore, literary and artistic significance, cuisine and architecture, as well as his own, often amusing, personal experiences.