Thrust without thrusting

Do not thrust with the mind,
Do not thrust with the hands,
Let the spear make the thrust –
Thrust without thrusting.

From the Hundred Verses of the Spear

This verse has a relation to the interviews described in koan no. 44 of the Shonankattoroku, where the Zen teacher says, ‘No spear in the hands, no hands on the spear. If you don’t understand, your art of the spear is a little affair of the hands alone.’ The interview with Gio (arrived in Japan 1246) is probably the first reference to Zen in the Ways in Japanese literature .

There is a tendency to read a contradiction like ‘thrust without thrusting’ as a poetic conceit. Perhaps it means that the thrust should be in a calm spirit, without passionate desire to hit the opponent? The normal thrust after all includes, in fact is based on, this desire, so perhaps a thrust made without it would be a thrust-without-thrusting? Others with a smattering of Buddhism say that it means to make the thrust without ‘identifying’ oneself with it.

But what does this amount to? Suppose the practice spear is passed across, with the direction ‘now thrust without the usual passionate desire to score a hit, as you have said’. The spear moves in a vague way, the opponent at once counters. Or again one may be asked to make the thrust ‘without identifying’ with it is here again the spear makes no definite movement and is at once brushed aside in a counter. A great advantage of the knightly arts, considered as Ways, is that the result is so directly apparent. A dabbler in art can brush a few tentative strokes in a spirit of ‘non-identification’ as he thinks, and if they are not appreciated as inspired, he may still think that his inspiration is not recognized. But in a spear contest a vigorous blow in the chest from an opponent’s spear is a sufficient answer.

Thrust without thrusting.’ It is a riddle which has to be solved in practice. A Westerner is not likely to have enough faith in the teacher or the tradition to be able to tackle it as it stands. He often has a fairly complete faith in the power of intellect to grasp realities, and the anti-intellectual formulation – thrust without thrusting – produces recurring doubts. He may feel that it is unscientific.

Some Westerners need to investigate whether such things do occur here, and whether indeed they are at the very base of our scientific tradition. Take a parallel phrase from Zen: ‘Think without thinking.’ What can it mean? It is essential not to shunt the problem off on to a mental siding. Take it in concrete terms: suppose a problem in physics. In what sense could it be solved by ‘thinking without thinking’?

The Nobel prize-winner Enrico Fermi, who led the construction of the first self-sustaining nuclear reactor, made many original contributions to various phases of physics. He had a very pure reverence for truth – his colleagues reported that when in a discussion it became clear to everyone that Fermi was right, he would at once change the subject. He never took pleasure in the fact that he was right. In Zen, this kind of personal generosity in discussion is said to be a mark of purity of heart.

Fermi was asked by an Indian physicist, Chandrasekhar, about the process of discovery in physics, and he replied,

I will tell you how I came to make the discovery which I suppose is the most important one I have made. We were working very hard on the neutron induced radioactivity and the results we were obtaining made no sense. One day, as I came to the laboratory, it occurred to me that I should examine the effect of placing a piece of lead before the incident neutrons. And instead of my usual custom, I took great pains to have the piece of lead precisely machined. I was clearly dissatisfied with something: I tried every ‘excuse’ to postpone putting the piece of lead in its place. When finally, with some reluctance, I was going to put it in its place, I said to myself,

No: I do not want this piece of lead here, what I want is a piece of paraffin.’ It was just like that: with no advance warning, no conscious prior reasoning. I immediately took some odd piece of paraffin I could put my hands on and placed it where the piece of lead was to have been.

This kind of thing is what a Zen man would call ‘thinking without thinking’. It was not some unconscious process of inference$ there was no way in which an inference could have been reached – given the knowledge of the time – about the effects of slowing the neutron beam through paraffin.

A Zen teacher would also note that when Fermi was told, at the early age of fifty-three, that he was going to die of cancer in six months, he met the announcement with detachment and calm. He remarked to his Indian colleague, ‘The loss is not as great as one might think. Now you tell me, will I be an elephant next time?’ The joke dispelled the gloom of his friends, and this kind of carefree attitude in the face of whatever may happen is often referred to in the secret traditions of the martial arts, and of other Ways also. It is held to be an essential element in helping inner inspiration to manifest.

Such flashes of inspiration are at the root of progress in science, yet they have no place in our official accounts. Fermi had been thinking very hard about the problem $ as he says, ‘the results made no sense’. When the moment came, he did not actually think of the paraffin 5 there was no sequence of the kind which we define as ‘thinking’. But nor can we say that he did not think of it. It is thinking without thinking, and the concept may not be so foreign to us as we may have supposed. It is only that we do not have a name for it, and cannot fit it into our world view.

This kind of dramatic case is useful to loosen the hold of materialistic preconceptions, fostered by the immense prestige of science (though the Newtons and Einsteins are not materialists). The first thing is to acknowledge that there can be such a thing as inspiration. Fermi’s inspiration was not a guess, as is clearly shown by his account, and it was cognitive, it brought accurate information. An Eastern scientist may be a thorough-going materialist in his practice, but he tends not to be so dogmatic about it as in the West. He knows there are such cases, and has an open mind about them. Whereas many Western scientists – according to a prominent Japanese one – have closed minds: ‘they say they are open to consider any evidence on any question, but in fact on some questions they have already made up their minds, with or without evidence.’

In the end, these things are only finally convincing when they happen to oneself. Stories about them and evidences for them have value only in giving a man confidence to try to experience inspiration himself.

One of the contributions which Japanese tradition may make to world culture is to show that inspiration may manifest in any situation, however trivial it may seem. In the West, inspiration is usually thought of as applying to great situations, and then in an intellectual or aesthetic context. The Ways as developed in Japan have also been concerned with the aesthetic, but even more with spiritualization of the concerns of life, whether the profession of the warrior or a household activity like serving tea. The notion was not unknown in the Indian and Chinese traditions, but it was not systematically applied to ordinary things. However, take this example from the classic of Chuang-tzu. (This is the old translation by James Legge.)

His cook was cutting up an ox for the ruler Wanhui.

Whenever he applied his hand, leaned forward with his shoulder, planted his foot, employed the pressure of his knee, in the audible ripping off of the skin and slicing operation of the knife, the sounds were all in regular cadence. Movements and sounds proceeded as in the dance of the ‘Mulberry Forest’ and the notes of Ching Shau. The ruler said, ‘Ah, admirable! That your art should have become so perfect!’ The cook laid down his knife and replied, ‘What your servant loves is the method of the Way [tao – in Japanese, do], something in advance of any art. When I first began to cut up an ox, I sawnothing but the [entire] carcase. After three years I ceased to see it as a whole. Now I deal with it in a spirit-like manner, and do not look at it with my eyes. The use of my senses is discarded, and my spirit acts as it wills.

Observing the natural lines [my knife] slips through the great crevices and slides through the great cavities, taking advantage of the facilities thus presented. My art avoids the membraneous ligatures, and much more the great bones.

A good cook changes his knife every year – [it gets blunt] from the cutting; an ordinary cook changes his every month – it gets broken. Now my knife has been in use for nineteen years; it has cut up several thousand oxen, and yet its edge is as sharp as if it had newly come from the whetstone. There are the interstices of the joints, and the edge of the knife has no thickness; when that which is so thin enters where the gap is, how easily it moves along! The blade has more than room enough. Still, whenever I come to a complicated joint, and see that there will be some difficulty, I proceed cautiously and carefully, not allowing my eyes to wander from the place, and moving my hand slowly. Then by a very slight movement of the knife, the part is quickly separated and drops like a clod of earth to the ground. Then standing up with the knife in my hand I look all round, and in a leisurely manner and serenely I wipe it clean and put it in its sheath.’

The ruler Wanhui said, ‘Excellent! I have heard the words of my cook, and learned from them how to cultivate inner vitality.’

This passage shows important elements in the Ways, but application to ordinary affairs of daily life was not systematically cultivated in the Chinese traditions. There are more of these stories in Taoist classics, but they are only fragmentary hints. The operations of the cook are beautifully described – ‘like a dance, movements and sounds in rhythm’, showing that the whole body took part as a unity. As a rule in such operations the lower part of the body remains fixed, with arms and shoulders alone active. To overcome this great defect is essential in cultivation of the Ways.

We may also notice that though the cook says, ‘I do not look at it with my eyes’, he later remarks that when there is a difficult place, he does not allow his eyes to wander away. And though he says ‘my spirit acts as it wills’, he also says that in those difficult places he proceeds cautiously. The inspiration is not like automatic writing, or a sneeze, where something happens that does not involve the whole of the man.

When these things are actually tried, when a man picks up a brush to try painting from inspiration, or when a judo or kendo man tries simply not thinking about technique or winning or losing, what happens? The short answer is, nothing happens. He holds the brush for a little, waiting for something to occur. Then in an embarrassed way he makes a few tentative strokes, or else he tenses his whole body and tries to jerk off a masterpiece in a fever of excitement. In neither case is the result of any significance. In the case of the judo man, he usually finds himself flat on his back in a matter of seconds, even if he has taken the precaution to select a considerably inferior opponent.

After a few such experiences, most people give up any attempt to attain inspiration. Some cease to believe in it, while others push it into a mental limbo, true perhaps on some high level but not as a practical fact.

But a student who still retains his keenness is told to practise hard, and to meditate on, and realize, the ‘moon on the water’. Here are a few traditional verses about it:

The water does not think of giving it lodging
Nor the moon of lodging there –
How clear the reflection!

The moon’s reflection is deep in the lake,
Yet you can carry it away in a dipper
If your hand is steady.

Over Sarusawa Lake when the mist is thick;
The rising and setting of the moon
No man knows.

The water does not think of giving it lodging,
Nor the moon of lodging there –
How calm the water of Lake Hirosawa!

A single sentence which comes in several traditions is: ‘When you are waiting, it is Moon in the Water.’


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