Traditionally and historically, the Chinese have not been fond of fighting. They have generally rated the warrior’s role as something undesirable though sometimes necessary. They could fight well when needed; Confucius remarked, I do not like to fight, but if I must fight, I win.’ But they do not think that a warrior, for instance, is specially suited for spiritual training, as was thought in India, where the Buddha came from a warrior line, and in Japan, where Zen first came in through the warriors of Kamakura.

In the classic of Tao, one of the most ancient Chinese scriptures, it is said that the fighting man is an ill-omened instrument, and the Way of Heaven has no love for him. Yet sometimes it has to make use of him.

A great Japanese warrior commented on this: ‘The bow and arrow, the swords short and long, are unblessed tools of fighting, and of ill omen. Therefore as the Heavenly Way is a way of giving life, and these are the contrary, being means of killing, they really are instruments of ill omen. They can be said to participate in transgression of the Way of Heaven. And yet, when it is unavoidable, making use of them to kill people is also said to be the Way of Heaven. How can this be?

‘With the breeze of spring, flowers bloom and their colours vie with each other; with the frost of autumn, leaves fall and the trees are desolate. This is fulfilment and falling away in the Way of Heaven. When a thing is completely fulfilled, Heaven strikes it.

‘Man, too, on the tide of fortune, takes to evil; when that evil becomes full, Heaven strikes it. This is when Heaven uses fighting for its ends. Ten thousand people are oppressed by the wickedness of one man, and by killing that one man the other ten thousand are given new life. So there the sword which kills is indeed a blade which gives life.

‘There is righteousness in using the arts of fighting in this way.

Without righteousness, it is merely a question of killing other people and avoiding being killed by them. Consider carefully what the arts of fighting are for/

This is like the Western tradition of the ‘just war\ Yet, as in the West, there is a tradition of something higher.

The Mongols conquered North China about AD 1230, and in another forty years had control of South China too. Khubilai Khan then prepared two great invasions of Japan, both of which were repulsed by the samurai government of Kamakura. Altogether the fighting in China lasted nearly a century.

Some time towards the end of this period, a great Chinese official sought an interview with a Zen master, and it happened that from the temple they could see the camps of the Mongol conquerors, then preparing yet another campaign.

‘The fighting is endless,’ lamented the official. ‘It goes on and on, and there’s no way to stop it.’

‘Fighting can be stopped,’ said the Zen master.


The teacher came up to him and gave him a backhander on the face.

The official was startled and furious . . .

This rude old man! . . . the old devil …

I know I asked him, but what’s the point of that. …

I suppose it’s one of their damned Zen riddles

. . . supposed to have some meaning . . .

Idiots! . . .

no, it must have some meaning

. . . there must be some meaning in it . . .

The teacher, who had been looking at him closely, said,

‘You stopped it.’


© Trevor Leggett – The backhander

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