Eastern influence: Zen and the samurai

A few years ago I had a slightly scary experience when training in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, where my instructor devoted a lesson to developing an awareness of what is going on around you, trying to sense where other students were with your eyes shut. The Japanese call it haragei.

I volunteered to kneel in front of the instructor facing away with my eyes closed while he held a metal practice sword over my head, to be brought down at a moment he chose. This is called the saki test, and the senior dan grades do it for real, for us it was just a taster. He reassured me that he would not hit me, but with a sword coming down on your head, you place a lot of trust. My only warning to dive away would not be noise, because it would be too late by then. No, my warning would be to detect his intent, a sense that something was wrong.

Somehow, I felt it. Something changed, a fleeting sensation that disturbed the peace in my mind. I rolled the hell out of there as the sword was coming down. I tell you about this situation not because I somehow developed super powers. I was probably lucky. But I felt something. Can you imagine how powerful it would be to have that sense working all the time?

This is one of several direct experiences which have given me inspiration for my writing. You might not think it at first glance, but Knight of Aslath has been influenced in part by my lifelong fascination with Japan, in particular the samurai, martial arts and their underlying zen philosophy.

Knights are a key staple of fantasy literature, but I felt the traditional knight had been done to death, and for my character Termaris I wanted to go in a different direction entirely. So whilst he might have the surface appearance of a western knight, perhaps one might say even a Templar, the real inspiration didn’t come from western medieval civilisation.

Since I was about twelve I was interested in martial arts and tried Kendo for the first time. I later returned to the Japanese sword arts, though never practiced them with the devotion they deserve. The zen spirit of kendo drew me in, the ritual, the spiritual transcendence one tries to attain when sparring. No fear, no anger, or indeed any thought. The concept of ‘no mind’ where training and reflexes take over from conscious decisions. If you haven’t read Miyamoto Musashi’s ‘Go Rin No Sho’ (Book of Five Rings) it’s a fascinating insight into the warrior mind.

These experiences of the martial arts gave me a great deal of fuel for my writing, and ideas for the kinds of powers which Aslath could have bestowed upon Termaris and the other knights. Over time I learnt more about zen, and buddhism generally. Along the way I read a book which I wholeheartedly recommend, Steve Hagen’s Buddhism Plain and Simple. No, I am not on commission, it’s just that good.

Buddhism even came to influence even the gods and mythology in my novels. Wheels, cycles and change are underlying themes.  When developing the ethos of the Knights of Aslath, the buddhist Eightfold Path with its guide to ‘right  thought’, ‘right action’ (amongst other forms of ‘right) seemed to me a natural adopted code of ethics for the knights, and we will see that come out fully in the sequel, Warlords of the Dreaming God.  For now let’s just say that in outlook, they are more zen warrior-monks than Knights Templar.

I have talked enough for today. As you can imagine it’s hard to distil a lifetime’s experience and ideas into a few words, but I felt it important to share where I was coming from.

About Scott Foley

Scott Foley is a British fantasy writer based in Manchester. He is author of Knight of Aslath and the Dreaming God Chronicle. Brought up on a steady diet of Tolkien, roleplaying games and a never-ending fascination with the question ‘what if?’, writing fantasy novels seemed the only sensible and worthwhile thing to do with his life. Knight of Aslath is his first novel, and he is currently working on the sequel Warlords of the Dreaming God. Both novels form the beginning of the Dreaming God Chronicle and are set in the fantasy world of Teth-Kiran. Knight of Aslath is available on Amazon, and you can find out more about Scott's work at: http://www.scottfoleybooks.com