“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”
The great samurai Miyamoto Musashi once rested in a small mountain inn in the Harima province. With a cup of tea in his hand, he enjoyed the exquisite scenery around him, when he was suddenly approached by a young boy.
The boy bowed and said, “Musashi Sensei, my father was recently killed by a samurai who used a very dishonorable method. As his oldest son, I must avenge his death.”
He looked gravely serious as he spoke — absolutely determined to avenge his father, even if it were a life-or-death situation.
“So, you want me to help you fight your opponent, who killed your father, right?,” Musashi asked gently, expecting himself to be directly involved in the duel.
The boy shook his head and refused Musashi’s offer. “I am only thirteen years old and I know I am not strong enough yet to fight a real samurai on an equal basis,” he said. “But it’s my duty to fight him and, if possible, defeat my opponent with my own hands so that my father’s soul can rest peacefully in heaven.”
Musashi was impressed. Considering the boy’s young age, he possessed the courage of a future samurai.
“Miyamoto Sensei,” the boy continued, “I’ve heard about you from many people. Even my father, while alive, used to speak of you as the greatest warrior in this land…I have one very important request, if I may. Would you please teach me a technique that will make me able to defeat my opponent in this coming duel?”
He taught the boy his technique of wielding two swords, one short and the other long. The boy was to carry the swords above his shoulders as he moved towards his opponent, and to wait until his opponent struck.
“Your opponent will try to stab you in the chest, at which moment you must quickly parry his attack with your sword in the right hand and with all your might, thrust out your short sword in the left hand against your opponent’s chest,” Musashi instructed. “No matter what happens, don’t hesitate to block and attack, for there is no question that you will be victorious.”
It proved difficult for the boy to wield two swords in his hands, but he tried his best anyway. They kept training, and Musashi continuously praised the boy’s efforts.
But Musashi knew that mere technique wasn’t enough for the young boy to win. The boy needed hope — a dogged optimism that he would see the duel through, even though his opponent would be a seasoned samurai.
Before the day was over, Musashi told the boy, “Young man, I have one more thing to share with you. Now, I know that you will be able to avenge your father’s death using the technique I’ve just taught you. But you are still young and your opponent is an experienced samurai. I think it’s good if I give you an additional power that will make you certain of your victory.”
“I am going to pray to the God of Ants, who will protect you against your opponent for sure. Before you advance towards your opponent, remember to look down at the ground where you stand. If you find an ant crawling around your feet, it means that the God of Ants has listened to my prayer and there’s no way you can lose.”
On the day of the duel, the boy remembered everything Musashi taught him. He raised his two swords high, and he remembered to look down at the ground, anticipating to find an ant or two as a sign of victory.
It was a bright summer day, and it was hard not to miss an ant on the ground. There were in fact, hundreds of ants around the boy’s feet, and he felt more and more hopeful and confident about winning. He believed that the God of Ants was with him that day, and that Musashi had prayed for him.
He boldly walked towards his opponent, and as Musashi predicted, the opponent tried to stab the boy in his chest. The boy parried the attack, thrusting his short sword into the opponent’s chest. The boy won the duel, successfully restoring his family’s honor.
This story teaches us that the greatest gift that we can give as artists is our hope. Sometimes we can get so lost in the intricacies of our art, that we forget that our ultimate aim is to inspire.
Just as Musashi helped to instill hope and confidence in the young boy, our work must have the same end. Our work must be a beacon in their darkest days which reminds them that their lives are indeed worth living, and that the betterment of humanity is worth striving for.
Whenever I watch my favorite movie The Shawshank Redemption, I get to thinking about how it’s not just the story itself that inspires me, but the story behind the story.
It was originally written by Stephen King during the most turbulent years of his life as he battled his alcohol and drug addiction. He admittedly couldn’t stop popping pills and drinking mouthwash — even doing so much cocaine that he had to stuff cotton into his nose to stop blood from dripping onto his typewriter. Yet, he still had hope for himself, and he has given hope to many of us through the story.
Perhaps another metaphor I could use for art is that it is like a great educator. It teaches us new things, and sure, it criticizes us, points out our errors and tells us things we don’t want to hear — but at the end of the day, all of it is for the purpose of making us better people.
As novelist John Steinbeck wrote in a letter to his editor,
“It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage. If the written word has contributed anything at all, it is this:
Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know.”