The Spiritual Practices of the Ninja
Author: Ross Heaven
We know little about the origins of the Ninja, the ‘children of darkness’ - mysterious shadow-warriors who maintained their eerie mist-shrouded mountain secrecy in the Iga and Koga Provinces of Japan from around 900 AD, practicing the arts of stealth and invisibility. Legends, however, tell of the Ninja warrior’s supposed descent from tengu, savage demons that were half man half crow and were able to bend the laws of nature and control the human mind.
Probably closer to the truth, according to Stephen Hayes (the first American to be accepted as a personal student of Masaaki Hatsumi, the thirty-fourth master of Togakure-ryu Ninjutsu) is that these warriors were ex-military men who fled China after the collapse of the T’ang dynasty and settled in Japan. Here they became teachers of martial arts, philosophy, and mysticism adapted from the esoteric knowledge of India and Tibet and the spiritual practices of Chinese monks and shamans.
“They expounded systems of integrated mind-body awareness, based on personal understanding of the order of the universe [and an] unconventional way of looking at situations and accomplishing things… The original Ninja were mystics, in touch with powers that we would describe as psychic today. Their ability to tune into the scheme of totality and thereby become receptive to subtle input from beyond the usual five senses was strange and terrifying…”
Their spirituality or mysticism, however, was not based on empty and impractical religious teachings but on highly advanced combat skills and practical arts of deception and warfare, where warriorship was linked to natural law. Spirituality was not regarded as an external projection onto distant deities, as our religions are in the West, but as a way to inner knowledge, self-mastery and personal power.
To arrive at their understanding, the Ninja developed a comprehensive and holistic map of the human psyche and life cycle, which linked the inner and outer worlds – the world of creativity and imagination and that of time, space and nature – to give a full picture of life and the challenges facing every warrior on his path to liberation and happiness, as well as the means of overcoming these trials. This map revolved around the elements of Fire, Water, Air and Earth, and the qualities of Fear, Power, Clarity and Fatigue. The map can be looked at as offering four gates that we must all step through if we want an authentic spiritual life and one that has meaning for we who we really are.
In the modern world we are still at war, looking for peace, and our personal freedoms are still constrained by people and institutions that tell us who we are, how to behave, how much power and freedom we may have – work demands, tax demands, commuter timetables, celebrity fashions… the list is endless. Spiritual warriors know these things as ‘tyrants’. They are not so different from the demands and dictates of the power-crazed emperors that led to the formation of the remote mountain communities of the Ninja rebels.
In these turbulent modern times we are at risk as much from inner tyrants – ways of being and seeing that we have internalised as we have grown up and become socialised into our culture’s way of viewing the world – as much as external tyrants in the form of terrorists and warring nations who use military force to impose their worldview upon ordinary citizens (us) who get caught in the middle of their petty ideological skirmishes.
Our inner tyrants are fixed patterns of behaviour that get in the way of our search for freedom and divert our attention from the real work of the sacred human being: to live fully the beautiful and finite lives that are given to us. They lead us inevitably into external tyranny since, if we have not dealt with our own issues we end up projecting them out onto the world where we see monsters and chaos all around us which, in our fear, we must oppose and destroy before they destroy us; or else we feel too weak to oppose such lunacy because this system and habit of war is so much bigger than us.
Magically, however, if we deal with the inner tyrants, the external ones vanish like mist. In this respect, the warrior pathway of the four gates is as relevant today as it ever was and probably more important than ever.
The quest of the warrior has always been to overcome the impositions of tyranny and find a unique code to live by so that he or she can harness wisdom and power and find happiness in the material world. In doing so, warriors from many different traditions and cultures have noticed that we all face four ‘enemies’ to personal freedom. These enemies can be seen as our beliefs about the world, which have been passed down to us from the tyrants around us – the leaders, power elite and self-appointed experts in our societies who have set up systems and institutions to enforce their worldview upon us. We have internalised these worldviews and while we believe that the world operates in a particular way we can never be free because we never see an alternative.
If we face these enemies, however, we find that they transform themselves naturally and easily into the allies that can help us achieve the happiness we seek. Thus, these ‘enemies’ – Fear, Power, Clarity, Fatigue – are not only the challenges that face us, they are the means to their resolution as well as the gateways we walk through in order to resolve them. We are then empowered, clearer about who we are, and able to see the truth of our lives. That, in itself, is freedom, and greater freedom always equates with more happiness.
THE FOUR GATES
According to the four gates model, we are born in the East of the circle that represents our self and our life journey. In infancy, we are not even aware of a separate self, so intimately are we still connected to the flow of all things and so deeply a part of primal, universal consciousness. This stage represents a time of no-self in the sense of a socialised conception of who we are with a unique identity distinct from everything else in the world or any expectations upon us to perform or be anything but what we are. Although our socialisation will begin at this time, we are less conscious of this ‘mind stuff’ and more aware of our bodies and their physical demands, as anyone who has heard a newborn scream to have its needs met will know only too well. This physicality and passion of the young child is represented by the element of Fire.
As we grow, the world moves in to ‘hook’ us into its worldview and so we progress to the South, becoming teenagers and young adults, with more and more socialisation taking place into the ways of our culture. Although there is no firm age structure or chronology to this journey (and, indeed, some people do not naturally achieve all of these stages, becoming stuck instead in one or more of them as they go through life), this aspect of ourselves is best represented as an age period of perhaps 15-40 years, with the main action taking place from 15-25. It is at this time that we first begin to express ourselves as unique individuals in the world, out to make a place for ourselves and carve our mark. It is a time of ambition and emotions, when we first fall in love, have our first sexual experiences, have our hearts broken, find partners, and ‘settle down’ to focus on home and career. Spiritual work becomes unconscious, bubbling on within us while our minds and bodies are occupied with the physical world. Because of the emotional content of this period it is identified with the element of Water, whose ebbs and flows correspond to the highs and lows and the emotional comings and goings of this age.
As we reach the West we find that we have entered what we in the Western world call middle age. This is a time for large-scale recapitulation of self, a time when many people re-examine their lives up until this point, the assumptions they have made about the world and the agreements they have made with it. It is a time when, in the words of the philosopher Noam Chomsky, many of us will realise that "The average man follows not reason but faith and this naive faith [has been founded upon] necessary illusions and emotionally potent oversimplification by the myth maker to keep him on course." We have been living a lie, in other words, which has been based on the mythology of our culture and its definitions of what makes a ‘real’ (socially acceptable) man or woman, success or failure. This myth, most likely, has never been us, but we have still lived it without ever seeing this before. Now, from the perspective of greater life experience, we begin to question who we are and, even if we are successful, settled and wealthy in social terms, whether this is enough to satisfy us on a personal and spiritual level. We have been hooked for perhaps 20 years by a vision of success defined in consensus or corporate terms but now begin to reassess who we have been and, with death starting to breathe down our necks, to reconsider our lives and ask ‘Is that all?’ as we look at who we might have been and how we might better spend our remaining days (more ‘face time’ in the office or watching our children grow? Climbing the corporate ladder beneath a mad and ungrateful boss or surfing the Rockies for kicks?). This is a time of consideration and thought about who we truly are and what we want from our lives, offering us the potential for adaptation, reinvention, rejuvenation and re-emergence into someone new. It is a time of life when the powers of the mind are more fully and productively used, both in reflecting on the past and revisioning the future. Because of this it is characterised by the element of Air, which has the ability to blow away our past lives and sweep us forward into a new and deeper sense of a more authentic self.
Finally, we arrive in the North and, if we have done the necessary work throughout our journey around the wheel, we may experience a true understanding of self, leading to deep peace and harmony, where we can look back on life and see our real place in the world, the meaning of our life’s path and, perhaps, the flow of all things, from a perspective of wisdom and good humour. We are able to take a more spiritual and reflective look at things and to experience maturity and groundedness, where we can be of service to our community and happy in ourselves. This grounding quality of the North is represented by the element of Earth, which is fitting because this is also the place of death, where we return to the Earth before rebirth to the East as the cycle continues into new lives to come.
Once again, it is worth emphasising that these four are only enemies when you have not confronted them; as soon as you enter into battle with them you automatically transform them into allies who can help in your quest for balance and internal harmony and, once you achieve this, external success is assured since you are the great dreamer of your world.
The way of all warriors is not to hide within fantasy or to search only for the ‘light’ (as is the way of many modern ‘new age’ practices) but to embrace the darkness as well, for it is only in our shadows (when the light is behind us) that we see ourselves truly reflected, and only then that we can address ourselves and heal our pains so that the world itself is healed.
This article is adapted from The Spiritual Practices of the Ninja: Mastering the Four Gates To Freedom, by Ross Heaven. For information on Ross, his other books and his forthcoming workshops, visit his website at http://www.thefourgates.com