Shin and ki

Shin is the technical word for ‘heart’, including all we call mind and more. Ki is something like ‘vital spirit’. An example is better than theory: in picking up a teacup or throwing an opponent, shin is the notion of doing it, including the emotional colouring, ki is the ‘feel’ of initiating and continuing the movement conformably to distances and timing. What is technically called strength is grasping the teacup or making the throw: ki is still functioning, but with untrained people it tends to be felt less clearly when strength is being exerted.

These things may be pure and in conformity with the cosmic principle (ri), or impure and centred round an individual self.

When shin is pure, thoughts do not arise from selfishness or passion, and inspiration passes through it. When impure, it is distorted and dark: everything has to pass through filters of ‘will this be good for me?’ ‘will this get me what I want?’ ‘how shall I look while I am doing it?’ ‘what shall I do if it does not come off?’ ‘how terrible that might be!’ and so on. It is tense (‘hard’) and cannot adapt to changing situations.

When ki is pure, it adapts. At the time for stillness, ki fills the body and is serene. Prompted by shin at the time for action, ki is in touch with the cosmic energy – a flood of vital energy as Mencius called it. When ki is impure it is sluggish and uneven. At the time for stillness, there is fidgeting or vague unease; at the time for action, it wants to activate the part of the body where it is habitually concentrated (right hand or face etc.) and ignore the rest. It is slow and clumsy, not sensitive to distances and times.

When strength is pure, it conforms to the event and just so much is expended as is needed. When it is impure, either not enough is put forth (‘weakness’) or too much (‘hardness’).

A pure shin is serene, not plagued by worries over what happened or what may happen. It is not that there is no planning. Shin does plan, but once the known facts have been considered and the plan made, it does not worry; nor is its plan deflected by fear or hope. Shin is never absolutely pure any more than a body is ever absolutely healthy. What we call a healthy body is one which is seldom ill, and which when it becomes ill (from an accident, for example) recovers quickly. Similarly a pure shin is one which is very seldom dark or selfish, and which when it is on rare occasions clouded by such things, throws them off vigorously without much worry over them.

Shin is psychological; ki is psycho-physical; strength is physical. In the Ways, shin is the most important thing, and if it is made pure and clear, ki rights itself and the body also rights itself. ‘When your heart is calm and clear, your posture and movement become correct’ says one of the transmissions. If training in shin is being undertaken, training of ki and the physical training become natural, and the whole process forms a Way. If the training of shin is not being done, however, ki and the body are in service of a dark or distorted mind. They can still be trained, but the process is not natural; it is a matter of will, supported by passions like ambition. When a temporary success is attained on these lines, it distorts shin even more.

Training of ki and the body is through technique, accepted from a teacher. This is ‘tradition-received-from-another’. If shin also is trained and begins to experience inspiration, it is the ‘separate tradition’ of Zen.

Training of shin has been set out in the chapters on Zen in this book.

Training of ki consists in practising, deliberately and consciously, though inevitably partially, what will come of itself when shin becomes clear. The training is to prepare the instruments for the inspiration to come. It has two main aspects: training the attention and training the breathing. In many of the exercises the two are combined. Some Japanese doctors are seeking to explain the undoubted results in terms of present-day neurology. However, what has been developed by centuries of experiment in one tradition will not easily be forced into the concepts of a very different tradition; and furthermore as has been said ironically, ‘If it agrees with the neurology of today, it will certainly not agree with the neurology of thirty years hence.’

Here is one set of exercises out of many.

  1. Sit in a firm posture; it is worth mastering one of the meditation postures, in spite of the difficulties at the beginning. An easy one is to sit on the ground with the hips on a cushion, and the left foot on the right thigh.

Tie a cloth sash just under the navel, and put a pebble inside the sash so that it presses slightly at the tanden (elixir-field) point, one to two inches below the navel. Another way is to make a big knot in the sash and set it at this point.

Breathe in slowly, taking four or five seconds, and feel that the current of breath is going down to that point and as it were swelling it out like a little balloon, so that it presses against the pebble. When the in-breath is complete, hold it and pull in the muscles of the lower abdomen slightly. Feel you are pulling in and up a little with the muscles, and that this in-and-up pressure is meeting the out-and- down pressure of the breath at the tanden point. Of course inhaled air does not actually get down to the navel, but the easiest way to come to feel the current is to feel that it does. It is an experimental process.

When this is being practised, you may feel a little growl in the throat, much as someone who is lifting a heavy weight with the abdominal muscles. Some teachers make the Katzu! shout with an abrupt tension at the tanden.

Hold the pressure for five seconds.

Breathe out in about five seconds, and relax the abdominal pressure but try to retain the sensation at the tanden.

This exercise should be repeated ten minutes morning and evening. If you feel out of breath, stop the practice and take a few breaths in any way you like. Then begin again.

One of the secret transmission scrolls of a Jujutsu school, dated about 1710, comments on an exercise of this type:

Keeping in a formal posture, exhale and inhale, thinking that the breath is passing to just below the navel. This is in fact the natural course of feeling the breath, but because people move badly their inner organs are compressed, and the vital current is felt only as in the chest. So people soon get out of breath when they are hurrying, and when they speak their voice has no carrying power and is not clear. The defect is bad breathing. So we must train to make the breathing correct.

And it is said in a tradition of our school: breath is the ])ulse of the mind. When the mind is agitated, the breath is always irregular. The instruction is to practise improving the breathing, and that will help to calm the mind.

Most people take up this kind of exercise enthusiastically for two or three weeks, and then drop it. It needs to be done for two or three months at least before it shows itself, though in some cases results come sooner.

There are many hints about it in the traditions. Musashi in his classic of the sword called ‘Five Rings’ remarks on the stance before a duel, ‘Tense the abdomen so that your hips do not bend. What is called “the wedge” means to push your short sword into your belt so that it comes tight against the abdomen.’ The knot of the belt’was just below the navel, and Musashi’s advice is to help the fencer to concentrate attention there. He adds that this should also be practised in daily life.

For some time, holding attention at the tanden during ordinary activities is an artificial affair. Those who are not doing any real training but trying it only out of curiosity, find they become irritated and abandon it. But when it has been seriously practised for a time, physical movement changes 5 it becomes easier to use the body as a unity.

  1. Practise tanden meditation first in simple operations, for example polishing the top of a table. This has a technique, though a simple one, and it should be learnt. The practise is to hold attention at the central tanden point instead of letting it be fixed in the polishing hand. After some weeks’ practice, there is an experience of balance, and the body suddenly feels ‘alive’. The long strokes are made from the loins – a slight movement at the centre moves the hand at the circumference.

This is sometimes a marked change, and when the practiser first becomes aware of it he usually becomes excited and ‘interested’. His concentration is dispersed. The disturbance sometimes remains for weeks, upsetting him every time he tries to practise. It is well to be familiar with this situation; it arises in a heart still full of self-reference. This is why the teachers say that a special training of ki alone, however intensive, without training the heart, is ultimately self-defeating.

  1. After some months, or perhaps longer, attention is expanded to the whole body. The vital current is taken in with the breath and felt to fill the whole body from the tips of toes and fingers to the top of the head. While breath is held, the body is felt to be full of light, and empty and cool as breath is expelled. In daily life, awareness of the entire body is cultivated. When writing, every few minutes the writer stops and flexes his left hand, presses his feet on the floor and so on, trying to become vividly aware of the whole body. If he can, he stretches. Later he can keep total awareness without having to recall it so often.

In the West, individuals discover these things occasionally. Nietzsche used to say, ‘When I write, I write with my whole body.’ Pianists have a tradition that parts of the Hammerklavier Sonata should be played with the hips. But there is no general tradition to co-ordinate these glimpses.

  1. A more advanced exercise in ki training is designed to facilitate inspiration. For a long time, a pupil cannot shake off his attachments when performing an action; he hopes for or dreads what it may bring, or considers how he is doing. Perhaps he may try to shake off such thoughts by alcohol or another drug, but then he drops into another and lower mental phase, inertia or silliness. When a student of the Ways first tries to allow the cosmic current to How through him, either he simply stops moving, or else he tries to imitate what he thinks it ought to be like, and his movements become nervously busy and over-reactive. Either way, nothing significant happens.

The first phase of this exercise is to use the breath. For his polishing he selects a wide surface, and makes long strokes with the cloth feeling the tanden as usual. Now he begins to breathe in to say five strokes and out to the same number (no holding of the breath at the beginning). After a time, he forgets the tanden and feels that the breath current is brimming over from his arm and doing the action itself. At first he will just feel self-conscious, but later he feels that it is so. His muscles relax a good deal, and the movements become smooth, regular and easy. He does not have the sensation of putting out effort5 the breath itself seems to be moving hand and cloth.

In this exercise, when the movement is so to say ‘handed over’ to the breath, it tends to go slower for a little, and then picks up speed. Most students lose their calm when the movement slows, and put out a little voluntary effort to rectify it. This breaks up the exercise.

  1. The final stage is to abandon breath also. When shin becomes clear, the cosmic life acts directly through it and through ki. Take a case where it should be easiest for this to happen, where what is required is simply relaxation.

In archery, release of the arrow is a central problem. The aim has been taken, and it is just a question of relaxing the tension of the right hand, without making any other movement. But the decision, ‘Now I will do it’ affects posture and aim. So it must be a decision that is no decision, and that is no easy thing. One of the Songs of the Ways is:

To think of not-thinking is to think another thought:

Giving up thinking and not-thinking, rest in natural purity.

One of the secret archery transmissions says, ‘The action of releasing the arrow is to be not an action of the individual but an action of the universe. Then the arrow will not be deflected even a fraction from the aim, since I am myself unconscious of its release.’

Another says, ‘Release of the arrow is without thought, without idea, like a dew-drop falling from a leaf, or a fruit falling when the time is ripe.’

But for a long time students cannot attain this. They wait for the universe to make its move, they wait for the fruit to fall. And nothing happens. Finally in impatience they irritably jerk their hand open and the arrow goes wide. (It is interesting to know that Western archers were aware of the problem – a saying is attributed to Robin Hood to the effect that it is doubtful whether any arrow has ever been perfectly released.)

In Japan, the students are therefore told first to put their attention on ki, as a stepping-stone to being open to the cosmic current. The technique of ki has various forms, but one of them is to take it that the in-breath as it passes through the nostrils makes the sound A, and the out-breath a long UM. (Some schools make them the other way round, but that is not important here.) The bow is drawn to a long inbreath, to the A; then with the outbreath, the arrow shoots off to the sound of a long UM. It is much easier to abandon the arrow to the breath as it were, without a conscious decision ‘Now’. But still, it needs a good deal of practice. And again, after a success excitement often breaks up the mental poise.

A passage from the transmission of the Yoshida school of archery (late sixteenth century) runs:

Release of the arrow is to be as if the string snapped. The bow does not know; I also do not know – this is the important thing. Beginners however have to try to attain this state by pulling the bow and taking aim with the A breath, and releasing with the UM sound of the breath.

With beginners, breathing tends to go fast or to be held, or to come and go in gasps and jerks, and all this has to be overcome by training. The same thing applies to all arts; unless this one thing is mastered, the art is not mastered. Though a man may shoot successfully, if his breath is uneven he cannot be called a master.

The text explains later that however great the technical skill, it is liable to fail in a crisis unless the breath has been mastered.

There are many other points concerned with shin and ki, but it is no advantage to have them explained. They have to be discovered for oneself. One who practises with reverence can find the Way in the most boring and repetitive jobs of life; one day his heart will become clear and calm, there is inner brightness and emptiness, the sensations and movements stand out with brilliant clarity but without interior reactions. This may not happen often, but even to seek it is to find a new meaning in life.


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