Give up all idea of winning


There are phrases which seem absurd. ‘Give up all idea of winning’. I will just make one or two general remarks.

For instance, there is a technical word here – Ri. Philosophically it means a principle.  But, with us the word ‘principle’ has got also very strong intellectual associations. You get the principle of double-entry in book-keeping, you get the principle of keeping a store – Fifo -first-in-first-out. The principle of Fifo is, that the goods which the store takes in first, should be the first to go out. If Fifo is not followed, the goods taken in first go to the back of the store, and remain there and finally become useless.  These principles are abstract ideas; they have a practical use, but they are no more than ideas.   They are not experiences.   Ri, in the Kendo texts and in Zen, is not simply an idea:  I have here translated Ri as ‘inspiration’, which means an in-breath of new life. A principle is usually not a living thing, but Ri is a living experience.

Now, the Japanese and Chinese use of terms is often very general and vague.  They will use terms like ‘life’, ‘mind’, ‘Buddha-nature’ loosely and sometimes as alternatives. Whereas the Indian use of terms is very exact and careful.  I have sometimes thought that the Japanese use of these terms is rather like the terms used in music: ‘andante’, ‘crescendo’, ‘staccato’, and so on.  Their meaning is not very precise. But the aim is not precision, but to get people to practise. So, when you are reading translations of Chinese and Japanese texts, a lot will depend, not on the words, but whether the translator and reader have some experience, some little experience. Without that things are liable to go completely out of phase with the original (text).

 Let me give an example.   There was a famous book called The Secret of the Golden Flower.  It was a translation by a great German scholar, Richard Wilhelm, of a Chinese text.  It had a commentary by Jung.   In the course of that there is a section which Wilhelm translated: ‘Fixating Contemplation’. The original consists of two Chinese characters, which literally mean ‘to stop or cease’ and ‘to see or look’.  Wilhelm’s translation is a possible one.   But the text itself says that this is a Buddhist practice, and this Buddhist practice was evidently not known to Wilhelm.   (As a great Sanskrit scholar once remarked to me sadly: ‘Unfortunately, one cannot know everything.’)  The Buddhist practice is not ‘Fixating contemplation’, but ‘Stopping and Looking’ (in Japanese Shi-kan, and in Pali samatha-vipassana).  So it refers to stopping the rush of thoughts, and then looking to see what is beyond them.  If translated ‘Fixating Contemplation’, the passage does not read really intelligibly; the translation ‘Stopping and Looking’ does read intelligibly.  The mental process is quietened and finally made empty, and then there can no awareness of the Buddha-nature apart from thought. So these technical words are difficult to grasp unless the reader does at least some practice.

Another example is this:  Dr. Daisetsu Suzuki translated most of a Zen text on swordsmanship, a very important one.  It is a letter by Priest Takuan usually called simply ‘Fu-do-Chi’ (the Mind of Fudo the unmoving).  It is in his book on Zen and Japanese Culture.   In this the question is asked: ‘Where should the mind be fixed, in a contest?’  He translated the suggested answer as: ‘In the abdominal region.’  The actual word is ‘sai-ka’, which means ‘below the navel’.  He took it in a wide sense, as the whole abdomen. But in fact it refers to something quite definite:  It is a small area (‘a square inch’) just below the navel.  In the Kuden or oral transmission, the distance is given as ‘the middle joint of the middle finger’ below the navel.  (In one of the Kuden methods of reviving an unconscious person, this point is manipulated. It is extremely effective, though rather difficult to do.)  For the ordinary practice of setting the mind there, they bunch the fingers and press them in at this point. They tense the abdominal muscles there, so that one feels a strong pressure there.   Then the fingers are taken away, but using the after-sensation, it is easy to bring the attention there.  After some practice, attention can be held steady at that place without having to use the fingers.

What is the use of this?  Suppose you are in a situation where you have to wait an hour or two hours, and then go into action.   A typical case in Budo would be before a contest.  But it often happens in ordinary life:  before a driving test, or before making a speech, or before some important interview. Usually people get very nervous and tense, and all their vitality runs away into the fingers and feet and face.   They fidget with their feet, or bite their nails, or chatter and twitch. Or sometimes they freeze into a tense lump.  Now, instead of all that, they can try bunching the fingers and pressing them in below the navel. Pushing them in against the resistance of the muscles there.   Every time you feel you want to fidget nervously, tense the abdominal muscles there.   This will relieve the impulse to fidget.  So the other muscles of the body can remain relaxed. When the time comes that you have to go into action, the body will go into action as a unity, and will not be all over the place as it is when the attention and vital energy becomes dispersed to the extremities. In the ordinary case of nervousness this is what happens.

So this is another example where the translator did not know that this was a reference to a specific practice. When reading these texts, one should ask oneself: ‘Do I do any sort of practice on these lines?’ Even a little practice on these lines will sometimes illumine these technical terms.  Without that, you get words that you cannot hope to understand fully such as: ‘The right hand should hold the sword lightly but firmly.’  What does it mean?  If you hold it lightly, it will tend to wobble about.  If you hold it firmly to prevent the wobble, then it will not be lightly.  The second part seems to contradict the first. In the end you do not know what to do.

In a famous Asian city, you passed three gates that led in to the inner city.  On the first arch was written in big letters:  BE BOLD. Passing under that, and riding on, you came to the second arch. On this was written in big letters: BE BOLD.   Passing on still further, you came to the third arch, on which was written:  BUT NOT TOO BOLD.   Here too, the last advice in fact cancels out the earlier ones. It can be the same with texts on the inner training, if the reader does not have a background of practice. You feel you have got something, but then you read a bit further and it is all taken away again.

© 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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