The sword and the mind
Ittokusai had a big influence in reviving the spiritual elements in the traditional training of the samurai in Japan. Zen Buddhism had played a great part in that spiritualization, much as chivalry had in the West. The latter succeeded partially in refining and ennobling people who were originally little more than gangsters. In Japan, similarly, the cult of force, the naked sword, was partially spiritualized by the efforts of a chain of masters of the so-called knightly arts— including what became judo—and by Zen teachers at Kamakura and elsewhere who influenced them.
The so-called feudal Japan was not so very long ago. Fairly recently, there was a very senior Member of the Japanese Diet whose grandfather had committed hara-kiri because he had displeased the head of his clan. That was about 1860. So the memories were still alive. After the Meiji Restoration of that period, many of the samurai were suddenly out of a job. They had been the administrators of the country, and some of them were now very dangerous people. I give one little example, which was, I believe, translated into English in A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan.
In those days, and even later in the century, it was a terrible insult if a samurai’s scabbard was touched by anyone in passing. So a samurai who was orderly and did not want a fight kept his scabbard close to his side in the street. On one occasion, according to a newspaper report, a rather poorly dressed samurai passed three others who had been drinking. They turned on him and claimed that his scabbard had touched one of theirs. He denied it, and even offered to apologise for any supposed insult. But they refused. ‘You have insulted us,’ they said. ‘You’ve got to pay for it.’ So the three of them lined up, facing this single man. There were bystanders, but no one ventured to interfere. The newspaper report says that the single swordsman advanced steadily towards the central opponent. The man on his right thought he saw an opportunity and made a cut at his head. There was a lightning counterattack, and he went down bathed in blood. Then the opponent on the left came on, and he too was instantly cut down. The third man ran away. The lone samurai wiped his sword, and then went to report the matter to the local police, as the law required.
I have presented this account because Ittokusai, when talking about the practice of kendo in his time with bamboo swords in a training hall, said, ‘It is no longer a question of life and death, and so the spirit of intensity has been lost.’ Of course, he was not recommending that kendo men should practise with real swords. He meant that when you know that nothing serious can really happen, you may easily lose the spirit of kendo. The whole intensity is lost if you think that, after all, the worst will be a hit on the head with a bamboo sword. He added that if you practise like this, it is of no value for life.
We can see in our own time that tennis or golf is of little value for life if it is just getting skill in hitting a ball with precision and force. There may be some value in it if it is practised in the spirit of sport—which many so-called sportsmen fail to understand. To be able to keep your temper when losing, and refrain from exulting when you win, is a training in independence, and an advantage in life. But the spirit of kendo ought to give much more than that.
Notice in the following extract how Ittokusai not only explains technique, but also how he speaks of something much higher than that:
This dharma of the sword is made up of two elements: Ri (inspiration) and technique. Technique follows the nature of the form of the sword. When the adaptive movements of the body have been learned, one has to learn how to base them on ri. Then a natural inspiration appears, which develops into an understanding of the states called ‘emptiness’ and ‘fullness’, which are the, as yet, unmanifest signs of winning or losing. Broadly speaking, technique is easy to practise because it has a form. This is especially true when in kendo the opponents come face to face armed merely with bamboo swords. In that case, all idea of danger, of life and death depending on this single combat, is lost. One sees, then, how the great enemies of wrong thinking and delusive ideas make a sudden attack on the brightness of heart and body, so that the living freedom of movement is lost. Thoughts of selfadvantage spring up. Tricks and stratagems are devised. Or again, one falls into fixed patterns of sword technique to defend oneself. All these come bubbling up in one’s breast, so that in the end the spiritual blaze of energy becomes feeble and slight, and in fact is destroyed. It degenerates into hesitation, evasion, and finally fear. One can no longer understand clearly either one’s opponent or oneself. One misses one’s own opportunities of besting the opponent, and is, on the contrary, pathetically open to that opponent’s attack. This is why in kendo one must absolutely cut away all thoughts about winning, and become aware of whether one’s spirit can meet the opponent’s cut and thrust without flinching, or whether it cannot. One must practise going deeper and deeper into this.
You will notice that there are phrases which seem to be absurd. To give up all idea of winning, for example. Before looking at this, I will make a few general remarks. First of all, there is the word ri. In normal use it means something like ‘a principle’. However, in the West words like ‘principle’ have very strong intellectual associations. There is the principle of double entry in accounting, and the principle of first in, first out (FIFO) in storekeeping. The principle of FIFO is that the goods which the store takes in first, should be the first to go out. If FIFO is not followed, the goods taken in first go to the back of the store, remain there and finally become useless. These principles are abstract ideas. They have practical use, but they are no more than ideas; they are not experiences. R/, in the kendo texts and in Zen, is not simply an idea. I have here translated ri as ‘inspiration’, which means an in-breath of new life. A principle is not usually a living thing, but ri is a living experience.
Consider this phrase: The right hand should hold the sword lightly but firmly. What does it mean? If you hold it lightly, it will wobble about. If you hold it firmly to prevent the wobble, then it will not be held lightly. The second part seems to contradict the first. In the end you don’t know what to do.
In an ancient Asian city, one passed under three arches as one 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, one came to the second arch. On this was written in big letters: BE BOLD. Passing on still further, one came to the third arch on which was written: BUT NOT TOO BOLD. Here, too, the last advice cancels out the earlier ones. It can be the same with texts on the inner training. If readers don’t have a background of practise, they feel they’ve got something, but then on reading a bit further, it is all taken away again.
Now, a new subject about how to practise movement. Suppose, in the West, we are being taught in our physical exercises to stretch out the arms to the sides. We stretch them. ‘No,’ yells the instructor, ‘stretch more fully!’ We stretch more fully and that is accepted. 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’re afraid our fingertips will get bruised, and we hold back a little. The teacher 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 they would do by just trying to push them out. The clear visualization is the secret. A bare effort of will is not so effective.
To return to holding the sword with the right hand ‘lightly but firmly’, what is the clear visualization for that? Ittokusai tells us to imagine that we see a baby chick just breaking free from its shell. We want to help it, so we have to hold it 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
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.
Now Ittokusai’s teachings contain a certain amount of technical instruction in the field of kendo, but there is no need to explain that here. What is interesting is that he speaks of something higher than correct technique. He will say, for instance, ‘that when mind and vital energy are united in emptiness, right action takes place of itself, independently. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘as if a god acted through YOU.’
Someone may object, ‘Oh, he can’t use words like that. It doesn’t mean anything. He calls himself a Buddhist, so he’s not supposed to believe in gods …’ Well, he uses such words because that is what it feels like.
One point is to get people to practise and find out for themselves what it is like. A second point is that such words may help a student to recognize something that has happened. At first these things often happen just for a moment, and then the inspiration passes; a wonder has happened, but it slips by, almost unnoticed. The man thinks, ‘Oh, that went well. He seemed to walk into it just as I moved. I wasn’t thinking of trying anything, I just moved, and he got caught. Lucky, I suppose.’ Here is a brief quote:
The Song of the Ri When he strikes,
Let him not think that he makes the strike.
Let the strike be no strike,
the cut, no cut. To strike is to lose.
Not to strike is to win.
The distinction between ri (inspiration), and the techniques of kendo done with a bamboo sword, is clear from this verse. Generally these days, the fashion is to practise kendo techniques on their own, without regard for posture, or for unification of mind and vital energy, and so on. The practitioners prize only skill and speed in the action of the sword. Cleverness in these gets highly praised. But it is all a degeneration, which arises from constant practise with the bamboo sword, and it misses the central point of kendo. These things are merely branches and leaves of kendo; they are far away from its deep root. In such a case, though one may think one has sufficient to meet a crisis, in fact, one has not.
Conscious actions, though practised repeatedly till they are expert, are not inspiration which is the innermost truth of kendo. What is meant by this inspiration? There have been some who believed that it is simply what is called ‘conditioned reflexes’. They give the example of learning to drive a car. First of all, you are intensely conscious of each separate action as you learn it, and then, gradually, the individual actions drop out of awareness; they become conditioned reflexes. It is thought that as the driving becomes more and more a matter of reflexes, it becomes better. It is automatic, as they say.
In fact, people do not become better and better at driving their cars. Unless they consciously practise, they become more and more sloppy. They get worse, though they may get more skilful at a bad method.
In the same way, golfers take lessons at the beginning and reach a certain standard. After that they no longer have lessons, but just play. They may develop a bad swing. True, they may get more skilful at using this bad swing. Sometimes you see rather good results from a very poor swing. But if these golfers have to play when they are a bit tired, or have bad colds, often their swing will fall to pieces completely; they can’t do anything at all. Whereas, one who has continued to take lessons, and so has corrected bad habits before they became fixed, will still play reasonably well even when tired.
The writer Arthur Koestler was a clever man, but he had no idea of anything beyond technique. He heard of the state of kendo and Zen where an action takes place without any conscious decision, and believed this must be a conditioned reflex. His explanation, therefore, was: One who has practised kendo continuously for a long time will acquire these reflex actions; they will take place without his intention.
Koestler thought the movements would be automatic, like an experienced driver automatically braking when a child runs across the road. But this idea is quite wrong. Why? Because reflex action merely produces what has been repeatedly done before. There is nothing new in it. And, in fact, in judo and kendo, one can control such an opponent through his reflexes. If I do this, he will do that automatically, every time.
We do not know what a kendo master, or a true master at anything, will do. It is a fresh inspiration each time. The difference between ri and the conditioned reflex is this: In the reflex situation, the mind is not thinking about this automatic action, but mind is not clear either; it is full of other thoughts. As Ittokusai says, ‘In a contest, minds are seething with ideas of: How can I win? Shall I try that? Suppose he has a counter? and so on. Because the mind is not clear, there is no inspiration.’
The mind has to be without thought. The word ri literally means ‘without mind’, but to us that could mean something inert. Perhaps ‘without minding’ would be a better attempt at translation. There is calm awareness with no ripples in it. With the car-driving reflexes, it is true that I am not thinking about the particular movements, but I am thinking about many other things. ‘Those other things,’ adds Ittokusai, ‘are all about my self-advantage, what I will do if I win, and how bad it will be if I lose.’
For inspiration, there must be no purposes in the mind. We can note here that this is a very ancient theme in the Far East. In the ancient Chinese classic Chuang Tze, there is a little section which runs something like this:
The Yellow Emperor went on a pleasure trip. He climbed the great mountain and surveyed the Red Plain. He returned, and found that he had lost his black pearl. So he sent Knowledge-by-Reasoning to find it, but Reasoning could not find it. Then he sent Keen-Eyed to find it, but Keen-Eyed could not find it. Then he sent Big Words to find it, but Big Words could not find it. Then he employed Purposeless. And Purposeless found it. ‘Strange,’ said the great Emperor, ‘that Purposeless should have been the one to find it!’
The interpretation of the Chinese characters is quite involved, but ‘Purposeless’ is from the meaning ‘no symbol’, ‘no form’. The second element of the character is literally an elephant, and the tradition is that the Chinese came across the bones of an elephant before they had ever seen one. They pieced together the bones and tried to construct the form of an elephant; hence the character for elephant came also to mean an abstract form, or a symbol. One point of the story is that inspiration will flash only when mind is cleared of laying traps and clever counters, and winning and losing generally. It is Purposeless who finds the black pearl of inspiration.
How is this state to be reached? By inner practices. One of them, which kendo men do, or used to, is the following. You might like to try it yourself.
Sit reasonably upright, the head balanced on the spine. Feel that you are on a hilltop, facing the blue sky. Feel that in your lap you have a cloth filled with pebbles. You sit there, and a thought comes up in your mind. Mentally pick up a pebble and throw it with the thought, away down the hill— not wanted. Another thought comes up: That quarrel I had yesterday, I could have said… Throw it away with a pebble. Another thought: What am I going to do about.. ? Throw it away—not wanted. Another thought… Chuck it away in the same manner.
Well, if you go on doing this, finally thoughts become less. They cannot exist without your support. You sit and chuck them away with the pebbles. There is a sort of satisfaction as the thought and pebble go rolling away down the hill. Then, just sit under the blue sky with no more thoughts coming up. Try it now for a few minutes.
Sword and Mind from the Old Zen Master
© Trevor Leggett