Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Zen and the Spear

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Ichijoji blog. The full post may be read here.

Zen Secrets of the Spear

The letters sent by the priest Takuan are perhaps the most famous example of giving an explanation of bugei in terms of Zen (or vice versa). Of course, it is not the only one.

Here is another example, from Bankei Yōtaku (1622-93). A Rinzai Zen priest, he taught what he termed Unborn Zen, which emphasised direct experience of the human state and eschewed the use of koans or highly ascetic approaches. 

In later life, he became the most popular Zen teacher of his day and travelled widely and often. Among his students (and patrons) was the daimyo Katō Yasuoki, Lord of the Ozu domain in present day Ehime (Shikoku). Katō (whose Zen name was Gesso) was also a keen student of the spear, and Bankei gave him this advice. (For more about the spear, see an earlier post here).

Instructions for the Layman Gesso, given at his request

In performing a movement, if you act with no-mind, the action will spring forth of itself. When your ki changes, your physical form changes along with it. When you’re carried away by force, that is relying on “self”. To have ulterior thoughts is not in accordance with the natural. When you act upon deliberation, you are tied to thought. The opponent can tell (the direction of) your ki. If you (try to) steady yourself by deliberate effort, your ki becomes diffuse, and you may grow careless. When you act deliberately, your intuitive response is blocked; and if your intuitive response is blocked, how can the mirror mind appear? When, without thinking and without acting deliberately, you manifest the Unborn, you won’t have any fixed form. When you are without fixed form, no opponent will exist for you in the whole land. Not holding on to anything, not relying onesidedly on anything, there is no “you” and no “enemy”. Whatever comes, you just respond, with no traces left behind.

Heaven and earth are vast, but outside mind there is nothing to seek. Become deluded, however, and instead this mind becomes your opponent. Apart from mind, there is no art of combat.

From: Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei by Peter Haskel

What can we read into such a description? Is it instruction in the spear or in Zen? Or are the two linked at some deep level that makes them fundamentally the same?
If we regard it simply as instruction in use of the spear, it might be boiled down to the importance of not overthinking an activity, which doesn't seem particularly unusual. Today, it would be a common-place observation. Anyone involved in sports, for example, knows that thinking too much about any one part of it will likely result in a performance that falls short of their potential. In Zen terms, we are looking at something deeper, but let's stick to the spear for the time being.

Gesso must have spent years training in the use of weapons, so we might imagine he was aware of this – the importance of not thinking. Bankei, however, was a perceptive man. While he had probably never seen Gesso use a spear, nor used one himself, it would not be difficult to extrapolate from what he knew of his pupil that this would be an aspect of his practice that was holding him back. Bankei was known for his wit and intelligence and had built a reputation for being able to engage with a range of different people and overcome them in a kind of meta-physical debate. He was at the top of his field, and in feudal Japan, the ability to read people this way was, in any case, part of the particular skill set of Zen priests.

We might also consider that both these men were involved in their respective disciplines to the extent that they were dealing with far smaller tolerances than are allowed for in normal language (or, indeed, in everyday life). The hesitation they are talking about might be so small that it would barely register to the untrained eye. For those involved in serious training, the experience of simply being unaware of some aspect of the body’s movement until it is pointed out is probably common.

Although the skills and plausibility of Zen practitioners might lend credence to their opinions, there is a danger in applying this learning too broadly. This would suggest that traditional arts did not deal with these aspects of combat, and that Zen was necessary to enable practitioners to reach the highest levels of their arts. In fact, Bugeisha seemed to have turned to a variety of religious disciplines for any number of reasons: social, spiritual, and political. If deeply involved in a spiritual discipline, they might naturally have drawn parallels with the teachings of their martial studies, but Zen was just one of many disciplines.

An interesting example of Zen’s position as one amongst many is provided by Oishi Yoshio Kuranosuke, leader of the famous 47 loyal retainers (a.k.a. The 47 ronin). He received instruction in Zen from none other than Bankei. (According to Leggett’s book, ‘The Warrior Koans’, Bankei was said to have given him the koan of the paper sword to work on, but given Bankei's style of teaching, this seems unlikely). One might be tempted to see this as a prime mover in his actions to avenge his master, but he was also a direct student of Yamaga Sokō, a noted Confucian scholar and thinker, and it is Sokō who is usually cited as his major influence.


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