Practice has to be done till it goes past practice

Now a word about practice. We can have ideas and then practise, but practice has to be done till it goes past practice, until it is no longer practice. This is an example I heard from a master I knew. It was around the beginning of the twentieth century. The master happened to be in the place where the maids were doing the laundry. They were doing it as they did in Japan then. They soak the washing in the suds and then put it on a board and hit it with their fists. That knocks the dirt out. In India they used to swing a garment high and smash it down on a stone; effective but not so good for the garment in the long run. The master saw the maids doing this, and he stopped them and gave them a lesson in using the edge of the hand instead of the fists. He showed them how to strike with the force of the whole body rather than just with the arms. After that, he would go to look at them every month or so, and correct the movement when necessary. They became expert at it.

One day one of the girls had to go across Tokyo to visit a parent who was sick. It was thought that she would get back before sunset, but the visit took longer than expected and she had to come back in the dark. She kept to the lighted street but, as she passed in front of a dark alley, some roughneck jumped out and caught her long sleeve. Before she could think or panic, her arm and body moved in the familiar laundry stroke, and the edge of her hand broke his arm.

In a case like this, there is no idea of: What am I going to do? or even How can I defend myself? Her practice of the stroke had gone beyond practice. It was part of her, and when the need came, it was there. That teacher gave it as an example of how things should be practised:

Practise till it is no longer practice but a natural movement. Then, in a crisisy there is a sort of calmy an inner calmy a sort of coolness inside.

A point about the difference between repetition and true practice: We can become experts in the holy texts. Then we can recite them, and they are true and wonderful. But if we do only this, we may become like certain chess players who learn many sequences of opening moves, sometimes up to move twelve or so. When you play against unknown opponents, they may be one of these. You can find them playing fine moves rapidly and confidently. You play very cautiously, because you seem to be up against a champion. Then they make a brilliant move which you have never seen before, and you realize that already, at move twelve, they have established a big advantage. You resign yourself to a long defensive battle. But then, on move thirteen, to your amazement they make an absolutely pointless move, and then another. You realize that they don’t understand their own powerful position. They’ve got it, but they don’t know what to do with it. They have been playing with other people’s heads, so to speak, but now they have to use their own, and they don’t know how to do it.

In the same way, a teacher has said:

You can learn religious ideas without actually understanding how to release the power that is in them. You haven’t got access to their inner power.

Practice from the Old Zen Master

© Trevor Leggett

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