Be So Stupid

Few practices in my life have been as reliable a source of humility and ego-loss as studying swordsmanship. It seems sometimes that every time I practice I am forced to confront one or more of my many failings.

Those who start out junior to me practice more diligently and quickly outstrip my knowledge and skill. Those who teach me techniques tell me the same things over and over again, to no apparent effect. And yet I unerringly become prideful over what I see as my own spectacular progress.

I have been extremely fortunate in having had a series of teachers who have patiently pointed out again and again how undeserved such pride is. This is, in a lot of ways, the primary function of a teacher: the student learns some tiny detail on their own, and the teacher points out how much they have yet to learn.

I recently read through William Scott Wilson's translation of The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts, written by Issai Chozanshi in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. It is a document that repeats a fundamental message over and over, in a variety of ways and forms:

It is foolish to think that another person doesn't know what you know. If you have spiritual clarity, another person will have spiritual clarity as well. How could you be the only knowledgeable one, while everyone else under heaven is a fool?

Belief in my own specialness is a pernicious fault of mine. I learn something and immediately, in all my dealings with others, I assume that they have never heard of this learning, and that I will be able to do them an immense favour by providing them with my latest gem of wisdom.

Or even worse, somebody else passes on their wisdom to me and I internalize it to such a degree that I return it to them as though it were my own. I apply it in all circumstances, whether or not it applies.

Chozanshi has cruel words for those like me:

How could anyone in the world be so stupid? A man will learn some skill, and after making doubly sure he's got it down, will use it over and over again in vain, never understanding that the skill has now become his enemy, and that he is inviting disaster.

Sigh. Dead for 350 years and he's still beating me up. And of course, there's always the fact that to hold back whatever wisdom one has acquired is deeply selfish -- so sometimes you DO have to pass those gems on. Thankfully, Wilson was inspired to do so with The Demon's Sermon.

Wilson's work in this volume is as assured as in his previous translations of Hagakure and The Book of Five Rings. His voice is confident and never awkward, and he provides plenty of useful context for some of the more esoteric terms.

New to me in this book is the idea of shizen, "spontaneity" or "nature". Chozanshi discusses its application:

He [the martial artist] must perceive any situation with total concentration, and act as a mirror spontaneously reflects what passes in front of it. He can harbour no thoughts of prepared action, for they will only come between himself and the external circumstances. In the same way, any premeditated action will not truly reflect or respond to the reality of the situation.

Of course this does not suggest that there is no place for practice and technique. The demons discuss the relationship between practice and spontaneity at length, dismissing any notion that one is more important than the other. This is an insight into kata that I know I have to keep reminding myself of -- the kata are not rehearsals for battle. It is, in a sense, futile to try and interpret them as functional applications of technique. One does not, for example, always respond to yoko-do with a retreat to jodan (as in ikkajo). What one is learning is a repertoire of techniques and the practice of maintaining posture and distance and timing, but all this learning must be put from one's mind at the moment of crisis, so that one's spontaneous nature can emerge without premeditation, and so that one will respond in the unique manner appropriate to this unique situation.

Learning is something I do myself. It is not something that is done to me. As the old cat says in the tale that concludes the book:

This is not something conferred on you by a teacher. It is easy to teach and also easy to listen to the teachings. It is only difficult to see that they are something within you, and to make them your own.

Wakizashi photo by guuzi. Thanks!