Get people to practise


Now a new subject: how to practise movement.  I want to make a comparison. Suppose for instance, in the West we are being taught in our physical exercises to stretch out the arms to the sides.  We stretch them. ‘No, stretch more fully!’ yells the instructor.  We stretch more fully. He accepts that.  But in the Far East, a teacher will say: ‘Now, feel you are putting your fingers through the walls.’  We try it, but somehow find it unpleasant. We are afraid our finger-tips will get bruised.  We hold back a little.  He sees this at once, and calls out: ‘No, through the walls, right through! ‘After a few attempts we begin to get the feeling, and then as our fingers GO through the walls in our visualization, we feel the shoulders and arms s – t – r – e – t – c – h. They stretch much more than we can do by just trying to push them out.  The clear visualization is the secret.  A bare effort of will is not so effective.

Let us go back to the instruction to hold the sword with the right hand, ‘lightly but firmly’.  What is the clear visualisation for that? Tokusai tells us to imagine that we see a baby chick just breaking free from its shell.  We want to help him. We have to hold him very delicately but firmly.  And he says: ‘Think of that as the example for the right hand.’

It is extremely useful to know about this method of teaching and learning.   Dr. Kano dismissed much of the Western physical exercises as ‘dead movement’, because they lack this kind of picture.   Dead exercises may build muscles, but they do nothing to improve co-ordination and precision.  They have no purposeful picture to integrate the whole of the mental side, as well as the physical side (as in the Eastern method).

Now we will read a section from one part of (Tokusai’s ) book. You will see that it has got the technical instruction about the stroke to the side of the trunk and then suddenly in the middle it will say this is a counter-attack but if you sit back waiting for him to make the attack so that you can do the counter it is all dead. Your body and mind must be full of this mental vital energy and then independently the counter will take place, as though, he says ‘a god had acted through you.’  Someone may object: ‘Oh, he can’t use words like that. He’s a Buddhist anyway. He’s not supposed to believe in gods!’ Well, he uses such words because that is what it feels like. 

One point is to get people to practise, and find out for themselves what it is like. A second point is that such words may help a student to recognise something that has happened.  At first these things often happen just for a moment, and then the inspiration has passed.  A wonder has happened, but it slips by almost unnoticed.   The man thinks, ‘Oh that went well.  He seemed to walk into it just as I moved; I wasn’t thinking of trying anything, I just moved and he got caught.  Lucky I suppose.’

Here is a brief quote about the inspiration principle:


When he strikes,

let him not think that he makes the stroke;

Let the stroke be no stroke,

the cutting no cutting.

To strike is to lose,

not to strike, is to win.

The distinction from the techniques of Kendo, done with a bamboo sword, is clear from this verse. These days, generally the fashion is to practise techniques alone, without regard for posture, unification of mind and vital energy, and so on, and simply prizing speed and skill in action of the sword.  Such cleverness gets highly praised.  But all this is a degeneration, which arises from constant practice with the bamboo sword, and it misses the central point of Kendo. These things are merely branches and leaves of Kendo, they are far away from its deep root. In such a case, though one may think it will be sufficient to meet a crisis, in fact it will not.

Conscious actions, though repeated and very expert, are not the inspiration which is the innermost truth of Kendo.  What is meant by this inspiration?  There have been some who believe that it is simply what is called ‘conditioned reflexes’. They give the example of learning to drive a car. First of all you are intensely conscious of each separate action, as you learn them.  And then gradually, the individual actions drop out of consciousness.  They become conditioned reflexes. And it is thought that as the driving becomes more and more a matter of reflexes, it becomes better.  It is automatic, as they say.

But in fact, people do not become better and better at driving their car.  Unless they consciously practice against some standard, mere repetition gradually begets sloppiness.  People get worse and worse in their methods, though they may get more skilful at applying bad methods.

The writer Arthur Koestler was a remarkably clever man, but he had no idea of practice at all (of anything beyond technique). He thought that these things that Kendo refers to, where the action takes place without any conscious decision, ‘Now I will do this’ must be a conditioned reflex.  He thought that the practitioner does so much Kendo that the actions take place automatically. 

But that is not so. Why is it not so?  Because the reflex action merely produces what has been repeatedly done before. There is nothing new in it. And in fact in Judo and Kendo, one can control an opponent through his reflexes. It is the reverse with a Kendo master, or a true master of anything. We do not know what he will do. It is a fresh inspiration each time. The difference from the conditioned reflex is this: in the reflex situation the mind is not clear. It is not thinking about this automatic action, but it is full of other thoughts. As Tokusai says ‘In a contest the minds are seething with ideas of ‘How can I win? Shall I try that? Suppose he has a counter…’ and so on. Because the mind is not clear, there is no inspiration. The word (concerning inspired action) literally is ‘without mind’, without thoughts but to us that could mean something inert.  Perhaps ‘without-minding’ would be a better attempt at translation.  There is calm awareness, but no ripples in it. Now, with car-driving reflexes it is quite true that I am not thinking about the particular movements of driving a car – but I am thinking about a host of other things. As Tokusai says in reflex action the mind is bubbling and seething with thoughts of self-advantage – ‘what I am going to do when I win, how bad it will be if I lose’ For inspiration, there must be no purposes in the mind. The mind has got to be empty and then the inspiration – flash, lightning flash – will come.

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: Sword and Mind

Part 2: Give up all idea of winning

Part 3: Get people to practise

Part 4: Freedom from reactions and endless planning

Part 5: The Lohan figure

Part 6: Make the mind empty

Part 7: Cut off before and after

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