Zen and the Sword
A fencing teacher on a journey visited a temple, and was given hospitality by the priest whom he knew. The food was served to him when he arrived, laid before him respectfully by a small boy who then sat on the other side of the room perfectly still while he ate. On the hot summer evening the sliding doors into the garden were open, and the master noticed a rat creeping stealthily in. The boy sat like a statue as it passed in front of him, then suddenly lunged forward, caught it and flung it out with one movement. The master went on eating with no remark.
Next day he asked the priest, ‘Who is that boy?’
‘An orphan’, was the reply, ‘whom we took in because no one would have him. He has no inclination to Buddhism5 he is a very wild boy whose only interest is in fencing. He was thrilled to be allowed to bring your food.’
The teacher said, ‘If he is willing, I will take him off your hands and train him.’
Ten years later, this boy was a good fencer, and he had a duel against a man whom he believed to be technically superior. He consulted his teacher to inquire whether there was any trick by which he might hope to win. ‘That man knows them all’ said the teacher, ‘but think back to when you first met me and caught that rat. Did you think how you would set your hand on it?’
‘No, I simply caught it.’
‘Then do the same in your duel tomorrow; don’t think of any particular way of attack or defence. The night before the duel you will not sleep and neither will he; spend the night meditating on the rat.’
The next day the duellists faced each other, and neither made any move for twenty minutes. This is a sort of psychological contest, in which the less experienced man loses patience and comes out with any special attack which he has prepared, without waiting for a proper opening. As it does not find an opening, it can be parried easily, perhaps countered$ in any case the advantage of surprise is gone. The young fencer did not fall into the trap, because he had not prepared any special attack. It was his opponent who lost patience and made the first attack. He parried and countered with a thrust, which is a risky move. If it succeeds it wins right away, but if it fails it is often impossible to recover balance quickly.
He made the thrust and missed. The onlookers were expecting that he would be cut down before he could recover, but in fact it was the opponent who fell. He said later, ‘When I missed, I knew he would get me before I could recover. But as I missed, I saw at his waist there was an ornament in the shape of a rat 5 the sword turned in my hands and skewered it, and he went down. Afterwards when I looked I found the ornament was not a rat after all. I don’t know how the sword moved – it moved itself.’
(previously The Rat)