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Book Review

Tales Of The Hermit:
Volume II -Yambushi & Homecoming

By Oscar Ratti & Adele Westbrook

Publisher: Via Media
Hardcover, 191 pages of illustrationed text

Review by Christopher Caile

This is the second in a multi-volume series entitled “Tales Of the Hermit”. In this volume the reader continues the "Alice in Wonderland"-like tumble into 17th century Japan begun in volume one.

In this volume the reader experiences two more fascinating and thought provoking tales, the Yamabushi and Homecoming. The text is illustrated with such powerful, compelling images that the viewer’s experience is almost cinematic. This is Oscar Ratti, the illustrator, at his best.

The Tales Of The Hermit series is tied together by a larger epic story: the adventures of the Western pilgrim and scholar Père Dominic. In the face of political and military upheaval, Pe‘re Dominic abandons his missionary efforts on the Island Empire. Fleeing inhabited areas he is rescued and given shelter by a mysterious group of mountain dwellers known as the “Residents.” Their domain is a hidden fortress atop a mountain in a remote corner of the empire known as the “Summit”. The Residents themselves have been drawn from every coner of the globe.

During Pe‘re Dominic’s continued recuperation, in this volume he selects two more scrolls to read. The Summit has a huge library and the scrolls portray the personal history and adventures of many of its current and past occupants. By reading the adventures along with this Western visitor to the Summit, the reader accompanies him on his intellectual and emotional journey into the collective experience of those who have gone before.

On a lighter side, Yamabushi and the Homecoming tales presented in this volume are straight forward and enjoyable for themselves. But the reader has to be careful. The tales can also draw him in to elicit deeper questions about the very nature of man and society and the role of systematic violence both on a personal and societal level.

The two tales in Volume I, “The Castle In The Rain” and “The Judge”, delved into the roots and of physical and societal/political violence. Volume II extends this examination, but turns to the other side of the coin, so to speak. In this volume the tales contrast violent versus non-violent means of resisting violence, and the viability and repercussions of each strategy.

This is, of course, no less than the principal dilemma of our time: how to break the continuing cycle of violence against violence that has plagued man’s history, and how to formulate an ethical response to violence that can serve as an alternative to more violence. The works also examine the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by these decisions – a sort of Reinhold Niebuhr examination of the ethical and political application of force and the paradoxes of moral choice.

These questions have also been a central theme of investigation by the inhabitants of the Summit. And, we suspect, the reader in future volumes will accompany Pe?re Dominic in discovery of what is called the Summit’s emerging doctrine -- based on principles by which violence might be transformed to enhance, rather than disrupt, human existence. Detailed disclosure must await future volumes.

In the first tale, Yamabushi (Yama meaning mountain, Bushi meaning warrior in Japanese) centers on competing themes about how to respond to violence as seen through two characters, Naoto, a pilgrim and Haru, the Yambushi. Naoto has an aversion to violence, and when forced to physical self-defense, he limits his response to ethical action and does not seek to injure the attacker. The Yamabushi warrior’s creed includes pre-emptive violence, and he believes it is often necessary to kill or be killed.

Naoto is, of course, the embodiment of what the authors expressed so adeptly in their earlier work. “Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere” illustrated the principle of channeling an opponent’s aggressive energy to overcome an attack without injuring the attacker. “Secrets of the Samurai” certainly gives clues to remarks of Naoto about his teacher (in that book’s discussion of the concept of “Haragei”) when he talks about the ability to conduct streams of violence into the void and learn about the center where “life finds both its main source and fullest scope were pain can be absorbed and balanced by the harmony of creation.”

In contrast to Naoto, the Yamabushi (named Haru) sees pre-emptive physical violence and the use of weapons to kill as effective and appropriate, a strategy that in the tale actually seem to work, at least as a short term solution. And this is the rub: the ethical solution proves to have less short term validity. Clearly, however, as Naoto said, the approach he advocates takes much training on an individual level, and much time, education and patience.

But Naoto is not alone. The Residents at the Summit also allude to a longer term alternative. In the Prologue, Pere is told by Yu Xia, a hermit of the 9th level, how man’s Yang, or his instinctual urge towards violence, is tempered and balanced by his yin, his mystical and philosophical aspects as well as his creative abilities and artistic expression.

These two aspects, Yang and Yin, also find concrete expression within the two principal characters in the first story – the yang of a mountain warrior, a Yamabushi, and the yin, Naoto, a traveling monk, who represents a peaceful response to violence whenever possible.

This diversity really expresses a deeper expression within man himself – of man’s biological and instinctual “survival of the fittest,” a Darwinian heritage of biology, against his higher, evolutionary brain, where reason, education and behavioral training may help to temper deeper instincts – instincts always ready to spring forth – man against himself.

In the Interlude between the tales, an important definition is made between defense, the way to escape and avoid or stop an attack, and that of “counter-attack”, the way you defeat the attack – violently or non-violently. Involved are ethical questions, such as, if you believe that there is never an excuse for taking a life, doesn’t that lead to the conclusion that only men using violence and power will triumph in the end?

In the second tale a wounded and dying aristocratic warrior eludes a war party searching for him and asks a lowly peasant to finish him with honor and bury him – a very unusual bridging of class and society. The story revolves around concepts of “nobility”, that built on class and power, versus one derived from inner strength, spirit and moral position.

This volume defines the issues of violence and questions much more clearly than volume I, but the reader will still be perplexed as to where all this is going. In volume I, the reader’s interest was peaked not only by the Residents, but also by their mysterious refuge – an upward spiraling structure within a mountain built on nine levels. The lower levels included housing, armory and warrior training, aesthetic creations, and mystical and religious doctrines seen in architectural motifs. But in Volume II, nothing more is revealed about the structure.

What comprises the upper levels, and what does the structure represent? An actual mountain enclave or some sort of Maslow hierarchy of human motivation and need on a societal level? And what is this ethical doctrine of response to violence that the stories are eluding too?

Of course all these questions lead the reader to an upcoming volume three.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

martial arts books, martial arts, martial arts stories

Read more articles by Christopher Caile

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