Not setting the mind

The mind turns in accordance with the ten thousand things;
The pivot on which it turns is verily hard to know.

Zen verse (much quoted in the Ways)

Like many of the Buddhist verses and aphorisms, this verse about not letting the mind get set, but keeping it freely turning on a pivot, seems vaguely ‘wise’, but is soon abandoned in practice. A fencer comes out without setting his mind on his opponent’s techniques or his own, and his movement becomes slack, so that he gets a hit on the head at once. The calligrapher goes to write without letting his mind be set on the proper way of writing the character; the result is a sprawling mess. It is true that in this last case, he may persuade himself that he has written well, in an unorthodox manner; but the archer who has missed by a mile has no such refuge. One of the advantages of the martial ways is that the result is so immediately apparent. In any case, after a few failures the whole attempt is abandoned.

As the classic says, ‘those who are not training in a tradition will find it hard to understand.’ The teacher has to supply one or two concrete examples from the particular tradition. Here is one from the judo tradition. In Tokugawa times, one of the big Jujutsu schools lost three of its best men, killed at night in the street. In each case there was only one mark on the body, a stab in the abdomen, slightly to the right side. It was guessed that these killings were done by a member of a rival school, with which there was a feud on, but the puzzle was how these three highly skilled men could have been killed by one clean stab. If they had been overcome by numbers there would have been other marks; a single man, even though armed, could hardly have finished the fight with one blow, especially a thrust to the abdomen which is easily checked.

The experts finally worked out how it had been done. There are only two effective ways of using the stabbing knife, (1) from below to the abdomen, and (2) down from above on to the neck and shoulder. Skilled Jujutsu men were well practised in the defences to both of these attacks. An expert could tell which attack was coming by observing the position of the attacker’s right hand: if the thumb is in front, the attack will come down, and if it is to the rear, the attack is upward (see Plate VI). Before the blade is actually visible, the defender’s body is already moving into the defensive reaction.

The other Jujutsu school had discovered how to make use of this fact. Their man was holding the knife reversed; his left hand holding the hilt, and the right hand holding only the sheath. This right hand had the thumb prominently displayed – in front. So the defender was moving to intercept a downward blow, but when that came it was being made with the sheath, while the blade moved upwards unopposed.

This is an example of getting the mind set on one thing, namely the position of the opponent’s thumb, which in the ordinary way is the key to the situation. Does this mean then that the thumb is not to be noticed? No. It is to be noticed, but not at the expense of the whole situation. As a matter of fact, the opponent’s posture is not the normal one of a man about to draw a knife with his right hand. The opponent is holding the knife in fact in his left hand, and he will have to advance his left foot to use it. If we look at the posture in the third set of pictures, we see that from the very beginning the knife-man has his left foot level with his right foot, whereas in the normal case it is well back. An experienced judo expert, who does not let his mind become set on the thumb position, will find something ‘unusual’ in the situation, and will correspondingly keep a freedom of action. He will not be tied to a mechanical defence reaction.

Followers of any Way should consider how technical excellence in a particular point gradually becomes mechanical, and creativity is lqst. Technique, like logic, can only operate by ignoring certain aspects of a situation as insignificant; it works well in nine cases out of ten, but in the tenth case the disregarded aspects are in fact decisive. In the tenth case, absolute reliance on technique, or logic, can be disastrous. The mind becomes set on them, and cannot adapt. Technique is to be utilized, but it must not become the master, as it does when it is worshipped by a mind set on it.



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