THE SPUR IS AN ESSAY FOR SAMURAI, WRITTEN BY TOREI, A disciple of Hakuin in eighteenth-century Japan. He wrote this essay in 1755, and it is addressed to a samurai who has faith. So it is in Japanese, and not in Chinese as it might well have been if intended for monks. Torei got it approved by Hakuin, and it was then published.
During the two and a half centuries of peace which Japan enjoyed up to the attack by Western powers in 1854, the samurai had become the administrators of the country. They were not just warriors, though they still had to wear two swords. The Chinese character for the very word “samurai,” which is used by Torei, also means “scholar.” It is the second element in the compound haku-shi, an academic distinction corresponding to a doctorate. Typical is the comment in a classic of 1830 called Introduction to Budo, which points out that though the samurai must have a basis of firm, strong character, one who relies on sheer force in his undertakings is bound to make a mess of them. He is like a peasant- farmer pushed into the role of samurai. There has to be learning and culture besides courage and will, it concludes.
The full title of this work is The Spur for the Good Horse. A fundamental point in the presentation by Torei is that we already have a good horse. It is not a question of creating one: it is a good horse already. But for some reason, that morning it is feeling a bit dull, or a bit obstinate, or it doesn’t grasp what it is supposed to do. And then, just a touch of the spur, and—swish—away it goes. A good horse needs only a touch to recall it to itself. The example is meant as a loose parallel to the Buddha- nature in man. It is so to say a good horse, but somehow it seems to have become dull or darkened or obstinate or destructively minded. So it needs a touch of the spur, and then—swish—it shows itself as it truly is.
A word which Torei uses, normally translated “dye,” originally meant something like a smear or grease. But it became confused with another character which looks very similar, and which means the paths of hell. In hell there is a path where you are climbing over sharp swords, and you never come to the end of them, and there is another hell of flames, and so on. So the character can refer to these, but originally it is something like grease, and this sense is characteristic of the text. The mind gets greasy, gets smeared. One teacher commenting on the point gave a kitchen illustration: “You have got to pick up something very hot and move it from here to there. Now if your hand is perfectly clean and dry, and you pick it up and put it down quickly and cleanly, you won’t get burned. But if there is any grease or smear on your fingers, any stickiness, then you’ll probably get badly burned because you won’t be able to just pick it up and let go. There will be a little bit of clinging, and you’ll get burned!”
A central point in Torei’s exposition is the necessity of purity. It means cleaning off the grease of clinging attachment, or equally clinging hatred, or miry dullness. (Hatred is clinging; we cannot hate people unless we are interested in them.) First of all we must get rid of sticky attachment. It does not mean never taking up things and putting them down: it means not to clutch at them, not to say “I must have that,” or “Don’t leave me.” Because however much we cling, they all simply pass away. While the karma is favorable, they look solid enough and we feel we can hang on to them; but it soon changes, and we suddenly find they were never there at all.