Cut off before and after


Omori ( Omori Sogen) told me he knew an old master who had practised against Tesshu who was a great Kendo master and also a Zen man of the last century, very famous. This old man told Omori that he had been terribly disappointed. Omori asked him, ‘Oh, why?’ He replied, ‘Well, I made the attacks and he (Tesshu) was always there and I never got through. His sword doesn’t move very fast but his sword was always there somehow but he didn’t attack me at all. He didn’t score even once. Several times there was an opening, he had created an opening for a thrust and made a slight movement but he didn’t complete the thrust. And I thought this wonderful, this great fencing master, Tesshu, and he doesn’t score on me’. Omori told me that the old man thanked Tesshu and said he was honoured and when he went back to the changing room to change he began to feel that there was a hole in his throat. It was very vivid, he said, and lasted for quite a time where that thrust would have landed if Tesshu had pushed it home. I questioned him quite closely on it but that is as far as we got.

Now, Tokusai quotes for the Buddhist theoretical side of the Kendo from the work of Takuan, which Suzuki partially translated in his ‘Zen and Japanese Culture’. One of the things is when one relies on technical skill you have your things in which you are expert, there are tricks, like this one, in which you can get rather effective, provided they do not get too widely known so you do not use them very often and only at crucial times. And there will be other things in which you are weak so you have to cover up the weaknesses, protect the weaknesses and specialize in the strengths. But, he says, when the higher grade is reached there is no special strength and no special weakness at all. There is freedom, and he compares this with statues like Kwannon, the deity of compassion with the thousand hands and he says that there are some people who believe devoutly that Kwannon does exist with these thousand hands with which she helps the human beings. Then there are others who think that it is ridiculous that anything can have a thousand hands – fairy stories. He says they are both wrong, though the devotee is probably better than the sceptic, but in fact, he says, it refers to this release which takes place when the kendo man has risen beyond mere technique, risen to the level of inspiration. Then all the moves are available to him equally and he applies this to life. He just mentions it fairly briefly, but if we look at life we find we have got certain things at which we are good in life, things we specialize in, that we rely on and other things that we do not touch. You get people who say ‘I always look at things scientifically, you know – always. Problems can be solved: over- population – compulsory sterilization, it’s easy!’ Then somebody else says, ‘Well, no, this is typical, it is absolutely heartless and cold. Why have I got to be the conscience of all of you people. I feel for those who are unfortunate’. And then other people say, ‘These things are just abstractions, both of you, get on with what is at hand and then go and do a little bit of good and then go off and enjoy yourselves. That’s the sensible way to live’. Then you get somebody else: ‘We’ve got special things that we are good at and which we hope to exploit and there are other things we avoid’. Tokusai was a remarkable figure in the life of the early part of this century. He and a few others did their best, and he was in a good position as a famous fencing master, to restrict the impulse towards conquest which was set off by the successes of Hitler and Mussolini. He said that we must try to free ourselves from these obsessions, limited objectives for either national or family or other things. Do your duty to the nation, to your family, but there has got to be something universal behind it.

Well, these are the main points. I did translate quite a bit more of Tokusai but it is enough to give you the idea of how the Zen realisations are illustrated through this fractional field which has, however, the advantage that the results are clearly visible within this small field. He says that there is a famous Chinese poem which ends up: ‘There is another world apart from the world of men’. It has often been discussed what that exactly refers to but he adds, ‘There is another world apart from the world of the sword’ and it means that these things which have been learned with the sword should then be extended to the whole world. He gives one example: cutting off before and after. It is one way to make life interesting if you are doing some repetitive thing like painting a big surface or you have got some job that is going to take ten years, if you look at the before and after you will agonise ‘Oh, I’ve got all this left to do…’, but to cut off before and after ‘I’ve only done this and I’ve got all of this left to do’ and just be ‘here’ and then when the mind is made empty in this moment there will be an inspiration. So some boring things in life can be made quite interesting by practising that. If you have got to do a lot of writing then cut off before and after – ‘Only another half an hour to go’ then to try to empty the mind, free from the idea ‘I am writing’. ‘But, I’ll just stop…’ Well, see. If we try to practise this hilltop meditation he gives, then try to bring this realization into everyday life to do our chores under a wide blue sky.

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: Sword and Mind

Part 2: Give up all idea of winning

Part 3: Get people to practise

Part 4: Freedom from reactions and endless planning

Part 5: The Lohan figure

Part 6: Make the mind empty

Part 7: Cut off before and after

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