Opening The Gates

One day a samurai came to see the Zen master Hakuin and asked him, “Is there truly a heaven and a hell?”

“Who are you?” the master asked.

“I am the samurai…”

“You, a soldier!” Hakuin exclaimed. “Just look at yourself. What lord would want you in his service? You look like a beggar.”

The man grew angry and drew his sword. Hakuin continued: “Oh, good, you even have a sword! But you are certainly too clumsy to cut my head off with it.”

Losing all self-control, the samurai raised his sword, ready to strike the master. At that very moment the latter spoke, saying “Here is where the gates to hell open.”

Surprised by the monk’s air of calm assurance, the samurai sheathed his sword and bowed before him.

“This is where the gates of heaven open,” the master then said.

* * *

That passage was just one of many in a lovely book J lent me after class last week: Martial Arts Teaching Tales. It’s a collection of short essays on some of the key concepts any teacher of martial arts most consider, such as “The Snare of Appearances” or “Winning Without Fighting”. Each essay is followed by a number of short tales like the one above.

Some are familiar — the story of Bokuden and the insolent samurai on the ferry, or the teachings of the venerable old ratcatcher (also picked up in The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts) — but many of the tales here were new to me, and all are well-told. Short, to the point and without commentary, challenging the reader to confront and understand them.

There are many stories of untouchable masters who are able to avoid every blow, who cannot be defeated, and a shallow sort of understanding might come away thinking that this book puts forward the notion that becoming Superman is the point of studying martial arts. But I have found myself engaged in very few swordfights over the course of my life. Very few moments of life-and-death violence. So why study? Why read a book that lists one master after another effortlessly defeating thoughtless challengers?

Because to practice is to take action on the belief that you can transform yourself. And not by getting a better job, or a cuter girlfriend, or by winning the big game. These rewards are denied a follower of kenjutsu (these days, anyway. SIGH). But simply by submitting yourself to something bigger than you — something that has no ulterior motive, asks nothing from you, that just exists, and by existing, challenges you to confront it. These stories are all like that. They want nothing from me, and if I turn away from them, they still exist. Just like the endless kata of Katori Shinto Ryu. But if I face them, and push myself to confront them, they open up within me gate after gate.

And they help me to see that at every moment, in every challenge I face, there are gates I can choose to open.

Respond With Life!

After practice tonight I was polishing my sword (no, that’s not a euphemism (and yes, I can hear you snickering back there, Joshua)) and D mentioned that while she feels like she’s able to do the stances when we’re just practicing the stances, she has a hard time recognizing them in the katas.

And I missed out on the classic “Horrible Things Great Teachers Say” moment — I totally FAILED to say, “Don’t worry, you aren’t doing them right in practice, either.” Damn. That would have been pretty funny.

What I DID say was something or other about how they’re supposed to be different, because the kata aren’t just there to link together each stance in a particular order so that you can pretend you’re swordfighting. The kata are living, breathing intellectual artifacts that only exist because people embrace them, possess them and then pass them on to others.

I said, “It’s a practice, not a formula.”

So I was riding the Ossington bus back down to King Street and listening to the Propellerheads’ version of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (which if you don’t know is MIND-BLOWING) and thinking about D’s question and how that principle of practice over formula really applied at every level of Katori practice.

When I am going through the kata with my partner, I cannot just “do the moves”. The “right” stance will be fatally wrong if my partner is doing something other than what I expect. Katori asks you to pay attention with your WHOLE self to your partner, and to adapt your body, your posture, your soul, to what they bring.

To respond with attention and focus and vitality. With life. Respond with life.

And I thought, as John Barry’s fantastic horns rose up around me, as the bus turned onto Strachan Avenue, that “Respond With Life” was just a great… I don’t know. Thing. Saying. Stance.

Hey, yeah. Stance. The “right” stance in Katori, always, is to Respond With Life. SEE what’s really there, shed your expectations and see through to the heart of things, and then see into yourself and find exactly the position, the posture, the STANCE that will make the most of it. That will be alive and vital and strong and courageous.

Respond With Life. It’s a stance.

Photo by Arty Smokes