Kannon with a Thousand Arms

Kannon with a thousand arms

Now the second piece concerns a nobleman in the feudal days of Japan who had a responsible position. He developed a great respect for a certain fencing master and thought he would like to take up fencing himself. The teacher accepted this keen pupil, and after some time the pupil became an expert. He entered the grading contests and won most of them. The teacher then told him, ‘You are now master of the sword, and I will give you the diploma of mastership.’

The pupil was delighted to receive the diploma, but after a while he came back to the teacher. He said, ‘There is something wrong. This is not what I expected.’

You asked to learn fencing and you have the diploma and you are worth it,’ replied the teacher.

No. When I’m in the fencing hall facing an opponent, I have confidence, but outside the fencing hall it’s different. I’m not like you. You have confidence outside the fencing hall, but I haven’t got that.’

You asked me to teach you fencing,’ the teacher said.

Yes, but can you teach me to be like you?’

No. I can teach up to the diploma. I can give you the technical skill and you have that, but now the Way has to be found by you yourself.’

We won’t go into the difficulties he had, but this account gives a hint. There is a bodhisattva (enlightened being) called Kannon in Japan, and Kuan-yin in China. In the Far East this being is often represented in feminine form, so it has been compared to Mary the Madonna. There is one big difference, however. Although it is a compassionate mother figure, in the Far East it is never shown as mother and child. The normal representation is of a feminine figure radiating compassion and wisdom. The bodhisattva is also sometimes shown possessing many arms, like some of the Indian gods, and is often called Kannon-with-a- thousand-arms, or even with-a-thousand-eyes.

Some Western critics deride these figures: A thousand arms, a thousand eyes! This is a rather primitive representation to symbolize omnipotence and omniscience. But these distortions of the human form are quite distasteful. Such critics show that they haven’t the faintest idea of the point of such Kannon figures. It is, of course, true that they do hint at something glorious. Buddhists have a doctrine of Buddha- in-glorious-form; there is sambhogakaya (body of delight), nirmanakaya (body of transformation). The Buddha-nature also manifests in every grain of sand and everything—action or thought. Buddha-nature appears in different forms, and one form is glory. But there is another which you can see in the everyday incidents of ordinary life. The thousand arms show that this bodhisattva can manifest in any of the forms, can manifest in the things and actions of everyday life. Again, it is teaching that we must turn away from being totally absorbed in the presumed reality of things, and just turn back to find a Kannon in ourselves. The fencing pupil with his diploma had one arm, so to say, but away from the sword, he had nothing.

We can think, ‘Well, I’ll get more arms, more skills.’ Most of us have particular ways of meeting the world—some of us by shouting and domineering, and some of us by saying, ‘Of course I’m no good at anything like that. You’ll have to help me,’ which is just as much a technique as being aggressive. There are various techniques, but we get stuck in one or two, and don’t know how to use even these appropriately. You need a bodhisattva to do that. Until the bodhisattva is awakened, even thousands of techniques, skills and advantages of money will all be inappropriate. They won’t save us. When the Kannon is awakened, then all these things can be used in the right way, appropriately, in accord with the nature of conditions. In this case, the fencing pupil practised going beyond the sword-skill, and finally attained what they call the sword-of-no-sword.

Such a story, with its happy ending, sounds all right, but the question is: What is the actual practice? Although it is not desirable to talk too much about personal things, you are allowed to do so sometimes, in cases where experience gives conviction. In judo, which I can say I know, even experts generally rely on two or three things in which they have special skill.

Of course, they know a great many, but it is by those few that they get the results, and even of those few, there is one in which they have specialized and maybe found something new. The time comes when a promising student has an exchange with a traditional teacher, who says to him just before a contest, ‘How are you going to win this?’

Iil make a few feints to find out his reactions, and then I’ll come in with my toku-i, my special one, accordingly.’

Give up the thought, “This is how I’m going ton win.’”

Then how can I win?’

Don’t try to win. Go out with nothing in your mind.’

Not many of us have the courage or faith to try this at once. But we do try it on lesser occasions. The first time, you go out ‘with nothing in mind, practising inner training, transcending all techniques’, and you find yourself flat on your back. Something in you grumbles, ‘Doesn’t work, does it? I thought it wouldn’t,’ and some give up then and there.

But others may persist. It’s called cutting off the bull’s horns. The horns are what the bull fights with, and your special technique is what you fight with. It’s not only in judo; it may be a technique of domineering, or pathetic helplessness.

The practice of cutting off, in judo, is giving up ideas of that toku-i, that special trick, or any other technique. You throw it away. Gradually, you begin to find that the body can take care of itself against an opponent, and you get a little confidence. Then, one day, something happens—no one knows what it will be—and now it is he that is flat on his back, and you don’t quite know how it happened.

Then there may be tremendous excitement, and you think, ‘A-a-a-ah! Now I’ll do it again!’ But, no! The mind is not empty now, it is packed with anticipation of another triumph. So it doesn’t work again. All that has got to be thrown away into space, into emptiness. This is the judo-of-no-judo.

Kannon-with-a-Thousand-Arms from the Old Zen Master

© Trevor Leggett

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