Ri and ji

Ri and ji are well-known terms in Buddhism, meaning respectively universal truth and a particular event. In the Ways they have special meanings.

Ri is something like inspired following of the inner lines of the universal flow: it includes feeling-into the true nature of the material at hand, the space-time relations, and also the moral situation. The true inner lines of a situation are expressions of Buddha-nature, and most clearly appreciated as beauty and power. To do something ‘muri’ or without-ri is to force a result, using unnatural and therefore ultimately wasteful and tiring means. To shout someone down in an argument, to use advantages of wealth, prestige or physical strength to override the legitimate interests of others, to chop wood across the grain, to bang the keys of a typewriter – all these are examples of muri. It has been said that muri is doing things without love for the material and the action. To do things in conformity with ri is to feel oneness of self with them.

Ji means, in the Ways, particular techniques which have been evolved by experts; in a way these are formalizations, and ultimately imitations, of what was originally ri. They are records of ri inspirations of the past. In so far as they remain only imitations, however, they lose touch with ri$ situations change constantly, and so techniques should be constantly adapting under the light of ri, or they become muri. Furthermore even a correct technique when wrongly employed may be muri.

Take the methods of writing as an example. Writing with a hard pencil is different from writing with a soft brush. Writing from left to right, where the hand begins writing somewhere near the centre of the body and pushes out from there (note the phrase ‘pen-pushing’) is different from the Semitic writing from right to left where the hand is pulled in towards the central line, and different again from the Eastern system of writing in columns down the central line. But in all these systems, to press considerably more heavily than required is muri. It goes against the situation, and is an expression not of the natural lines but of something else. Again, there are those who hold a pencil near the point and have to move the hand with almost each word. This does not conform to the instrument, which has length and should be balanced on the middle finger, so that the hand moves only occasionally and the fingers need very little movement to make the pencil form the lines. An expert shorthand writer holds a pencil in this way.

Many Westerners make the final twist in wringing out a cloth by holding it across in front of them with both palms facing down. Japanese women lay the cloth pointing away, and grip it from below with the palms upward ; the elbows are brought together and the hands turn against each other. This gives rather more twist. But the best way is to hold it with one palm up and the other down; the elbows go out and up as one hand comes right over and down. This sort of insight was originally ri and has become ji; probably no one thinks of it now and it is learnt purely by imitation.

Ri can show itself in any situation at all; the Ways were developed by giving special attention to a technical situation as a field for becoming aware of, and then expressing, ri by means of ji. If the inner state is to some extent clear and calm, any situation is an expression of ri; the point of using one special field again and again is that the manifestation of ri becomes easier to recognize. With a master of a Way, the smallest action reveals the ri fully; a prima ballerina walks more beautifully than a ballet student, and an expert could pick her out after seeing a few steps. But it is easier for the ordinary person when she is dancing.

The principle that each and every action of the Way reveals a master’s ri in full is called ‘ri-ji-mu-ge’; again a special meaning of a familiar Buddhist phrase. It has also the sense that ri contains the potentiality of an infinity of actions (ji).

A related principle is ‘ji-ji-mu-ge’, which means that each single technique of a given Way, when demonstrated by a real master, displays all the others also to an eye that can see. It is even thought that one Way can demonstrate other Ways also.

Anything can be a Way. Suppose a merchant is trying hard for financial success. That is not necessarily a Way. He may succeed, but perhaps by chance or dishonesty; again it might ruin his health.

Lastly, the accumulation of wealth might absorb him completely, so that he becomes a mere watchman for the hoard, and no longer a man at all.

But he might practise his calling as a Way, as a means of spiritual development. A great fencing master of the Meiji period, famous for his perfect calm in the face of danger, was asked how he acquired it. He said, ‘I got the idea from a merchant whom I knew.’ Merchants in those days were supposed to be timorous folk, and this was a surprise. ‘Yes,’ the master continued, ‘he told me about buying and selling. You buy and hope the market will go up, and if it does, you have to decide when to take the profit, or perhaps to take the profit with half and hold on with the rest. If the price goes down, you have to decide when to cut the losses. He told me that when he was young he would make a decision, and then change his mind for no reason except the nagging thought that perhaps the market would improve. And after he had sold, he would be still looking at the market figures and thinking “If only I had held on a bit more” or “If only I had got out a bit sooner!” He found he was wearing himself out with speculations and regrets. So he made a resolution to control his mind, make a decision, act on it, and afterwards never think what he might have done instead.

I was impressed with this man’s personality; he seemed to be calm and free. A big loss never disconcerted him, a big success never elated him, a big risk never daunted him. I thought him to be a master of his Way, and I applied it to my own Way.’

Another example. Miyamoto Musashi was one of the best artists in Japanese history – some of his works are now National Treasures. He was also a fearless duellist; he killed fifty-three men in duels and affrays, sometimes against great odds. Musashi was invited to brush a picture at the court of a noble. He began the picture in front of everyone, but found he was overcome with nervousness, he that had faced a group of armed attackers without any fear. He tore up the picture and said he would bring it the next day. He went home much disturbed, and then faced the paper as if it were an armed enemy, throwing himself into the state of mind in which he went into his duels. The picture was a masterpiece.

These examples show there is something of one Way in a completely different Way. A swordsman, however expert technically, who does not know ri will be like a merchant, however clever, who does not know ri. They may be successful, but they will be liable to difficulties in a crisis. The unresolved instinct of self-preservation will hamper their freedom.

One of the songs of the Way runs:

He is deluded who would learn these things merely to preserve himself.
No one can preserve his life for ever.

About a year after I had begun calligraphy, the teacher said, ‘Your strokes are not too bad, but the balance of the characters is poor.’ I could not make out what he meant. He would show me what he called a well-balanced character, and compare it with one of mine which he said was badly balanced$ but though I could see they were different, I could not see that one was better than the other. He said suddenly, ‘Look at that character as if it were a judo man. Can’t you see that its balance is bad?’ When I looked at it with this in mind, I did get an impression of instability, and I was able to feel that the characters he called well-balanced had a sort of poise and spring in them which I had not been able to see before. This was a big help in getting life into the characters.

In the loose Japanese way, ri and ji may be explained as ‘formless’ and ‘with form’. A ji is a definite technique with a form, and can be seen and taught, but what is formless cannot be seen or taught. In a sense, ji can be compared with the grammatical patterns which one learns when taking up a foreign language. For a long time, one is restricted to the sentence-patterns which one knows by heart. To express a thought, one has to fit it into one of these patterns, and that means that the thought is slightly altered. In the same way, the individual techniques learnt in one of the arts will never quite fit the circumstances. Even in judo, where the techniques are very numerous, one tends to rely on certain ones which have been mastered, even if they are not absolutely appropriate. There are means of forcing the situation a little, to bring off some favourite trick. This is skilful ji, but it cannot be said to be ri. One of the first manifestations of ri is to free a man from the restriction to his special techniques.

Outsiders oftqji think that abandoning the conscious thinking would mean that the techniques which have been learnt will go into effect as a sort of reflex, like a man changing gear without thinking about it. In fact, the very reverse happens. It is just the conscious thinking which holds the nervous energy and feeling in those habitual patterns. As a matter of fact, it is very easy to defeat a man who simply executes his techniques as a reflex. One can control his body through them. One sets off a reflex in him, and then waits with the counter.

This is one reason why an expert finds it much easier to defeat a man who has trained for a year than an absolute beginner. He knows what the partially trained man will do – he will do the technically correct things, but he will not be good enough at them. Whereas the absolute beginner has to be watched all the time, because one cannot predict his movements. Most of them are hopelessly clumsy, naturally, but occasionally there are fairly effective attacks which are theoretically unsound but which may succeed because of their very unexpectedness.

The transition from mere ji to the ri can be compared with the moment when a student of a foreign language begins to speak freely, instead of translating in his head to constructed sentences. It is quite a jump, which needs some courage, and there are students who never succeed in making it.

As a young judo man of Fourth Dan grade I had a two-part contest, as an experiment, against a kendo man of the same grade. He knew almost nothing of judo, or I of kendo. The first contest was a judo contest. Beginners generally come forward in tiny steps, teeth clenched and arms outstretched stiffly; one just picks them off at leisure.

This man gave a yell and launched himself straight at my knees like a torpedo, in a sort of flying tackle. I was so surprised that I could not get out of the way, though I managed to double up as we went down so that I finished up on top and at once tied him up, partially saving face.

When it came to the kendo contest I knew it would be useless trying to imitate kendo technique. As we came to meet each other, I slid my right hand to hold the tip of the sword-handle, and jumped in the air, holding my wrist high and swinging the bamboo sword downward in a one-handed blow to his head. A skilled kendo man protects his head by only just as much as is necessary and he made a defence to this unusual attack. But I was already much taller than most of his opponents, and the jump gave me extra height, so my bamboo sword did manage just to touch the top of his head. It would not have been a point by kendo contest standards, but it gave him a little surprise, like the one he had given me. We both agreed we had learnt something from the experiment.


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