Stopping the rush of thoughts

The Chinese and Japanese use of such special terms is often very general and vague.  They will use terms like Life, Mind, Buddha-nature loosely and sometimes as alternatives.  Indian thinkers, on the other hand, were usually very exact, they would never take Life and Mind as alternatives.  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 a translation from those languages, a good deal depends on whether translator and reader have some knowledge of the practice which the text is speaking about.

There was a famous book called The Secret of the Golden Flower.  It was a translation of a Chinese text by a great German scholar, Richard Wilhelm.  It had a modern commentary by the Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung.  

In it there is a section which Wilhelm translated: ‘Fixating Contemplation’. The original consists of two Chinese characters, which mean literally ‘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.

Dr. Daisetsu Suzuki translated most of a Zen text on swordsmanship.  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 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 for action, the body and nerves will go into action as a unit, and not jerkily. The whole body will be co-ordinated.

So this was another case where the translator is not giving the real meaning, perhaps because he did not know the reference.  It is a practice of bringing the mind to a definite point, and setting it there.   The practice of one-pointedness has to come first.   It is only after that, that there can be the practice of Emptiness.  So, when reading this sort of text, one should ask oneself:  ‘Do I do any practice on these lines?’  If not, I cannot hope to understand fully what I am reading.  Even a vivid illustration can illumine some technical terms.

Consider this phrase:  ‘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 an ancient Asian city, you passed under three arches as you came to the king’s palace at the centre.  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.

Now a new subject: how to practise movement.  I want to make a comparison. Suppose for instance, in the West we are being taught in our physical exercises to stretch out the arms to the sides.  We stretch them. ‘No, stretch more fully!’ yells the instructor.  We stretch more fully. He accepts that. 

But in the Far East, a teacher will say:  ‘Now, feel you are putting your fingers through the walls.’  We try it, but somehow find it unpleasant:  we are afraid our finger-tips will get bruised.  We hold back a little.  He sees this at once, and calls out:  ‘No, through the walls, right through! ‘After a few attempts we begin to get the feeling, and then as our fingers  GO through the walls, we feel the shoulders and arms s – t – r – e – t – c – h. They stretch much more than we can do by just trying to push them out.  The clear visualization is the secret.  A bare effort of will is not so effective.

Let us go back to the instruction to hold the sword with the right hand, ‘lightly but firmly’.  What is the clear visualisation for that?   Tokusai tells us to imagine that we see a baby chick just breaking free from its shell.  We want to help him.   We have to hold him very delicately and yet firmly.  And he says:  ‘Think of that as the example for the right hand.’

It is extremely useful to know about this method of teaching and learning.   Dr. Kano dismissed much of the Western physical exercises as ‘dead movement’, because they lack this kind of picture.   Dead exercises may build muscles, but they do nothing to improve co-ordination and precision.  They have no purposeful picture with them. 

The Eastern method helps to train the mental side as well as the physical.

This was taken from a talk on “Tokusai  on Sword and Mind”

© Trevor Leggett






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