The Japanese word rōnin (浪人; literally “wave person”; 浪 means “wave” and 人 means “person”) has an interesting interpretation these days. And an interesting reputation. If you were to stop most people in the West and ask them what this word meant, they’d likely give you the Robert De Niro or Keanu Reeves movie. Or, less likely, they’d reference the film “Yojimbo,” or even know the word in its current (wickedly over-romanticized) context: “masterless warrior.”
It’s an old word. Over the centuries, it has come to mean many different things. Originally (late 6th century in Japan), it meant “homeless person” or “person with no residence.” It was a legal term, for the most part. Aside from the later bushi-related context, in modern times it has also been used with regularity to refer to anyone who is unemployed, or anyone who has graduated high school, but has yet to pass any university entrance exams. However, the lasting meaning outside Japan remains that of a warrior who has either lost or left his master. And that “master” needn’t be an actual person or command. It can function seamlessly as “warrior context.”
The masterless man
I sat there in the car, untethered once again. Not adrift, exactly, but no longer tied to the shore. Any shore. The phone was sitting on the passenger seat to my left. My bow lines had just been severed.
I’ve heard over and over again how “successful” or “action-oriented” people must be able to thrive in ambiguity; be resourceful, resilient. Over the years, I’ve begun to wonder exactly how many people making those lists have ever been head over heels in ambiguity. Even with a bag full of KSAs (knowledge, skill, ability), having a lack of context for those KSAs—a lack of a master (as if I ever really had one)—nets you precisely a bag full of irrelevant KSAs.
Resourcefulness and resilience can work wonders for a man who’s spent more than a few minutes here and there trying not to get deceased. That’s tactical. It comes down to muscle memory (however abstract) in most cases. But when the totality of you and your place in the grand scheme gets tossed onto the rocks, your resourcefulness and resilience only have a place in getting you out of the drink and back onto dry land. From there, you do whatever you can to eke out an existence on whatever island you’ve ended up on. Still, those things can only do so much in getting you back to a place you may call home. Back to context.
So there I was, masterless, purposeless, and tossed by the waves.
The quest for relevance
Anyone you’ve ever heard of outside of a nerd-level otaku discussion or class on pre-modern Japanese history was most likely rōnin. Miyamoto Musashi, Sakamoto Ryōma, the 47 Rōnin of the Akō Vendetta…all masterless warriors. Each cast to the tides by their individual circumstances. And all, brothers in the quest for relevance, were tossed by their own waves and climbed their own rocks to find and maintain a little sense of purpose.
In the case of the 47 Rōnin of the Akō Vendetta, that purpose—that context—was vengeance for their murdered lord. (And it’s a damn fine story, in and of itself.) For Sakamoto Ryōma, who initially planned vengeance, it was the discovery of a new context. He ended up being a prime voice for a modernized, independent Japan, free of feudalism and fueled by an American-inspired dream that “all men are created equal.”
Certainly the most famous rōnin of all, Miyamoto Musashi—author of “Go Rin No Sho” (“The Book of Five Rings”) and founder of the Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū dual-sword school—opted for what was known as a musha shugyō, or warrior quest. Shugyō were a big deal in most warrior and ascetic communities in those days. A person who goes on such a pilgrimage is known thereafter as a shugyōsha. Miyamoto spent years in a cave meditating on and conducting duels in swordplay. Eventually, he developed his own school, his own philosophy, and his own unique artwork.
These men—these warriors—and thousands of others in pre-modern Japan, found themselves in precisely the same (lack of) context as thousands of men and women globally today. Most of us will do well to find some new context out there. Some fewer will be able or be willing to engage in some sort of vengeance. And still fewer will walk the gauntlet of the shugyō.
Becoming our own master
No man is an island, I’ve heard. A metaphor. And a weak one, at that. Every man or woman is an island, if they can manage it. Or a boat. Or the builder of their own currents or tides. But you will never realize that until you have crossed the threshold of your own shugyō. Beyond my bag of KSAs, my resourcefulness, my resilience, and my singular context, lies an archipelago, an armada of men and women in my world who are drifting along their own figuratively wave-tossed paths. Even alone, naked, floating in an empty sea, a warrior is no less a warrior.
Having spent a significant part of my adult life operating alone (and more times than I’d like to remember literally and figuratively naked, floating in an empty sea), going weeks and sometimes months without speaking to another native speaker in my native tongue, waking and sleeping and eating and drinking and running and thinking in complete solitude, I have come to understand several deeper points with regards to loneliness and context.
We are the masters of ourselves.
(Featured image courtesy of warriorpoetwisdom.com)