Zen in Fencing and Judo

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 17)


A demonstration how the Taoist influence in Aikido and Judo also influenced swordsmanship.



Man at his birth is supple and tender.

But in death, he is rigid and hard.

Thus, suppleness and tenderness accompany life.

But rigidity and hardness accompany death.


I was quoting Lao Tzu. The philosophy of the strength of weakness. You know, it’s a strange thing how I think men in the West, and particularly men in the United States, don’t realize how much softness is strength. One of old Lao Tzu’s favorite analogies was water, and he spoke of water as the weakest of all things in the world, and yet there is nothing to be compared with it in overcoming what is hard and strong. You know, you can cut water with a knife, and it lets the knife go right through. But when the knife is withdrawn, there’s not even the trace of a wound.


And Lao Tzu also said that, while being a man, one should retain a certain essential feminine element, and he who does this will become a channel for the whole world. The ideal of the hundred-percent touch guy—the rigid, rugged fellow with muscles like rocks—is really a weakness. Probably we assume this sort of tough exterior as a hard shell to protect ourselves not so much from the outside, as from fear of weakness on the inside. What happens if an engineer builds a completely rigid bridge? If, for example, the Golden Gate or the George Washington bridges didn’t sway in the wind; if they had no give, no yielding? They’d come crashing down. And so you can always be sure that when a man pretends to be a hundred percent man, he’s in doubt of his manhood. If he can allow himself to be weak, he can allow himself what is really the greatest strength—not only of human beings, but of all living things.


And so it is upon the philosophy of the strength of weakness—that came from China to Japan through the migration of Zen Buddhism—that there has been largely been inspired one of the most astonishing forms of self-defense that the world knows; what is called judo—or, perhaps more popularly, jujitsu. The word judo is fascinating, because it means: ju, the “gentle;” do, “way.” Do is the Japanese way of pronouncing the Chinese Tao. And so it is the “gentle Tao:” the philosophy of the Tao as applied to self-defense.


Now, this philosophy has various components, and one of the most basic things to the whole practice of judo is an understanding of balance. Balance, indeed, is a fundamental idea in Taoist philosophy. Because, as I’ve pointed out from time to time in these programs, the philosophy of the Tao has a basic respect for the balance of nature. You don’t upset that balance, you try to find out what it is and go along with it. In other words, you avoid such mistakes as wholesale slaughter of an inset pest, or introducing rabbits into a country like Australia without thought as to whether the rabbit has a natural enemy. And through such interferences with the balance of nature, you find yourself in trouble.


So the philosophy of balance, respect for balance, is the number one thing that all students of judo have to learn. And sometimes this is illustrated with a ball. You see, wherever I push it, the ball yields. But the ball never loses its balance. It’s the safest form in the world, completely contained, and never off-center. And thus, to be completely contained, never able to be put off-center, never fazed by anything, this is what is aimed at in Zen.


This is also symbolized sometimes in the figure of the legendary founder of Zen, Bodhidharma. And Japanese toy makers represent him as a little dumpy toy figure, like a Shmoo, weighted in such a way that, however you hit it, it always comes upright. And so, in the same way, the expert in Zen, as well as in judo, as well as in the Japanese art of fencing, must be a man who is never fazed—that is to say, he is never brought to a point of doubt where he hesitates; where there’s an interval between the action of life and his response to it.


Now, if we look at these principles of judo, the problem of balance is easily demonstrated with the question of lifting a heavy roll of material. We would be foolish to try and just pick it up like this, because that shows no understanding of the laws of balance. If you want to lift such a thing, you go below its center of gravity, put your shoulder to it, and, you see, undermine it, and so lift it. And that principle goes throughout judo. Also involved as part of the understanding of balance in judo is to learn to walk in such a way that you’re never off-center. That is to say, your legs form a triangle, and your body is on the apex of it. And when you turn, you always try and keep your feet approximately underneath your shoulders, and in this way you’re never off balance.


Now then, the second principle, beyond keeping balance and understanding balance, is not to oppose strength to strength. When one is attacked by the enemy, you do not oppose him, you yield to him just like the ball, and you use his strength and the principle of balance to bring about his downfall. Supposing, for example, there is a blow coming at me from this direction: instead of defending one’s self and pushing the blow off, the idea in judo is to carry the blow this way. The knee goes out below the adversary’s point of balance, and he goes bang on his own initiative and your cunning.


The same attitude of, as it were, relaxed gentleness is most beautifully seen, for instance, in watching cats. When a cat falls off a tree, the cat lets go of itself: the cat becomes completely relaxed and lands on the ground with a heavy thud. And thus, if, for example, a cat were about to fall off a tree and suddenly make up its mind that it didn’t want to fall at all, and go all tense like this—eeek! you know—it would land and be just a bag of broken bones when it hit the ground.


And so, in the same way, it’s a philosophy of Zen that we are all falling off a tree—that is to say, the moment we were born we were kicked off a precipice, and we’re falling, and there’s nothing that can stop it. And so, instead of going into a state of tension all the time and clinging to all sorts of things which are actually falling with us (because the whole world is impermanent), be like a cat. And so this cat-like attitude to falling is all through judo. If I, for example, fall straight forward, I learn to land like a cat: no trouble. So, in a way, this is the philosophy which is illustrated in a Zen poem which says:

While living, be a dead man. Thoroughly dead.

And then, whatever you do, just as you will,

Will be right.


It’s, again, what I called in the last program the backwards law, the law of paradox: that, in one sense, the more dead you become, the more alive you become; the more soft you become, the stronger you become. Because this is the principle of bend and survive.


It’s illustrated by the image of the pine tree and the willow. In the snow, the pine tree’s trunk stands rigid, and the snow piles up and piles up and piles up. The branch doesn’t give, and finally, crack! and it’s done for. But the willow—as soon as a little snow accumulates on the branch—down it goes: the snow falls off and the branch springs up again. So this isn’t quite the idea of limpness. It’s not softness in the sense of being just limp and flaccid, but of being springy, of having give. And thus, in this way, you might say that judo would turn around our ordinary proverb “Necessity is the mother of invention” and say “Laziness is the mother of invention.” How to achieve what you want to achieve by the easiest possible way; by letting go. And this, after all, is the height of intelligence.


Now, I think it would be interesting to see this in a more practical demonstration than I can give: by watching one of the great modern masters of judo, Mr. Mifune, in contest with a number of pretty tough customers. A little old man of seventy years old. Here he’s in contest with a husky, young Britisher by the name of Palmer, who’s been studying judo in Japan for about ten years. And little Mr. Mifune, who is seventy and very frail—he only weighs just a little over a hundred pounds—watch him work with this tough guy. No. Watch his balance and how he bent to survive; pretended defeat and overthrew his opponent. No. He can’t catch him off balance. He’s trying to trip him, but Mifune’s feet are always in the right place. That was one of the most astonishing throws I’ve ever seen, because there was practically no body contact—Mifune simply seemed to do it with his wrists. Again, notice how he goes below the point of balance, with the knee underneath the hips. They salute one another.


And then another contestant comes out. Look at this one! This is a Japanese, but pretty close to seven feet; a real husky fellow! And incidentally, by virtue of wearing a black belt, that means that he’s attained at least the rank of first dan. Actually, I think he’s fourth dan, as it’s called. The ranks go higher. You start with one, two, three, four, and you can get up to about fourteen. Again, his efforts to put Mr. Mifune off balance are absolutely to no avail. This man cannot be fazed. Again, he goes down. He stoops, and that’s the end of the big fellow.


Now, you’ll notice throughout this that the important, central, fundamental thing in Mifune’s technique is: he never stops. He never hesitates. He responds to the attack without any interval. This also would be a characteristic of dancing. Good dancing partners look as if they were one single organism. There is no interval between the man’s lead and the woman’s following. And when you are accustomed to a partner with whom you’ve worked some time, and who is expert in dancing, it almost feels as if she were part of your own body, because she moves so completely responsibly to your initiative.


In just the same way, the leaf on a tree responds to the wind: the wind blows, and the leaf doesn’t stop and think, “Well, shall I get around to wagging?” Immediately, the wind comes, the leaf goes with it. And the same way when you watch a ball floating on water: it responds instantly to the slightest modulation of the waves.


And this attitude of there being no interval is what is the real meaning of the Buddhist ideal of detachment. It doesn’t mean that a man is detached from the world, who has no emotions, who has no appetites. What attachments are, almost in the surgical sense, in the attachment or a lesion inside the body, where something sticks together where it shouldn’t stick. “Stickiness” is the best translation of attachment in Buddhism. And so the expert in judo has to be without sticking. He has to flow with life in the same way that the ball responds to the movements of the water, and then he’s never caught out.


Aside from judo, Zen has had perhaps even more influence on the Japanese art of fencing, called kendo. Ken is the sword; do, “the way of the sword.” And this surprises many people, because they think: how can the pacific philosophy of Buddhism be connected with anything so ferocious as the art of fighting? But it was. Shortly after Zen Buddhism was introduced into Japan it became the favorite way of life of the samurai—those feudal Japanese warriors who were, for many centuries there, involved in perpetual civil war between the various feudal lords. And as they lived in constant danger, constant insecurity, they took up Zen as a way of peace in the midst of fighting.


But what about the ethics of this? It seems to me quite a simple problem. Either we’re going to have fighting and war, or we’re not. Now, if we’ve made up our minds that it’s necessary to fight, that there must be soldiers, then surely there is no alternative but to do it well. In other words, if you’re going to chop somebody’s head off, chop it off with complete decision. Because a half-hearted chop is very agonizing for the victim. So, in the same way, as somebody said: if you’re going to tell a lie, make it a good one. No shilly-shallying about these things. And that’s the attitude of Zen: if you’re going to do an evil deed, really do it. If you’re going to make a mistake, make a good one. And so the whole philosophy of the sword is deeply imbued with Zen.


Let’s take a look at one of these Japanese swords. They venerate these things. Look how beautifully this is wrapped in its silk case, with brocade on it. It’s a lovely thing. This one has a blade, oh, probably about four hundred years old, and it was lent to me by Mr. Shibata. It’s a terrifying instrument. Just a great, big, heavy, two-handed razor. Look at this! Worn at the side, you don’t draw it and then go into action. You can draw it and go into action at one moment. And its principle of balance is such that the right hand holds it at its convenient center of balance, and the left hand can simply control the movement very rapidly with a good principle of leverage. So that practically all the defense of blows from either side is simply accomplished by slight movements of the blade from side to side, giving great economy of movement.


There is sometimes only one rather startling and dramatic-looking form of defense used against a blow to the head, which is one that turns into a cut, thus. The principal movements of the sword—always taking the center of gravity as what is called in Japanese seika tanden, or the “belly center,” the solar plexus—the blows are to the neck this way, to the neck that way, to the side, the wrist cut, and only one thrust straight at the throat. And then the blow to the head, ho!


You’ve probably heard that shout on samurai films, and you wonder, perhaps, what that is. That comes from Zen. There was an old Chinese Zen master called Rinzai. And when people asked him, “What is the meaning of Buddhism?” he’d say, “Ho!” They were profoundly disconcerted. Simply, if you’re a philosophical gentleman, you don’t answer polite questions like that. But that, again, is a trap: to see if the questioner can be fazed and thrown off-center. And so, in the same way, the samurai in attack uses the same terrifying shout, as it were, to startle his opponent into losing his balance and thinking for a moment. And if he thinks and hesitates, he’s lost.


Now, of course, the practice of this is carried out with bamboo swords. And we can watch a young Japanese fencing student putting on his bamboo armor and getting ready for a bout. They wear this helmet (which is somewhat like the old style steel helmets worn by the samurai in medieval times), and they wear breast plates of lacquer, and heavily padded gauntlets. And then, in the fencing room, they salute one another and start in. And now you can see this two-handed sword in use.


This, then—again, as in judo: one must move without stopping—so, in fencing, there is to be no interval between attack and defense. Watching good fencers, they seem to dance together and to, as it were, be going through the motions as one body. And then there’s just that critical moment when one man loses his guard and he’s done for. So the attitude is called, in Chinese, mo chih chu, which means “going straight ahead.” A Zen poem says:

Under the sword lifted high,

Is hell making you tremble?

But go straight ahead

And there is the land of bliss.


No stopping, complete response to the moment. And this is particularly true, for example, if a single man is surrounded with several opponents. He can’t hesitate and wonder what is this fellow going to do next—because when he’s defending himself here and, as it were, his mind is stuck on an opponent here, he can be caught unawares from an opponent over there. So what he has is what is called an unstuck mind: an ability to be alert to the whole situation around you. So that if your mind gets fastened at any particular point, you’re caught by that point. And so this unstuck mind is the fundamental requirement—not only for the artist in fencing, but also for the practitioner of Buddhism.


Now, in the hands of a man who is really both adept in Zen and adept in fencing, the sword of destruction can, in a curious way, become a symbol of mercy. For the highest school of Japanese fencing is called the no-sword school: to be able never to use the sword. A good story about this is that there was a great samurai traveling on a ferry boat, and just as they were putting off, another drunken, rowdy samurai stepped on and started bragging about his powers. And he turned to the first samurai and said, “Well, what’s your school of swordsmanship?” And the first samurai politely answered, “Mine is the no-sword school.” “Haha!” he said, “I’d like to see your no-sword school!” And immediately he challenged him to a fight and pulled out his sword. And the first samurai said, “Excuse me, but if we fight on this boat we may hurt innocent bystanders. Why don’t we go and fight on that island over there?” So they got the boatman to move over to the island. And as they arrived, the ruffian jumped off onto the island, all ready to begin the fight. And at that moment the other samurai grabbed the oar from the boatman and pushed the boat away into the water, and left the rowdy stranded. “There,” he said, “is my no-sword school.”


This applies, too, even in the actual making of the sword by the swordsmiths, whose craft in Japan is something of a ritual. And as an example of no-sword in the work of a very skilled swordsmith, let me tell this story. There two swordsmiths in old Japan: one who was considered the greatest, and the other just a little inferior. And they had a test one day as to which of them made the best blade. And they first took the blade of the second best swordsman and put it in the stream like this, and set a piece of paper floating down towards it. And the sword simply slid through the piece of paper, and it joined together and went on. How could that be improved? They put in the sword of the greatest swordsmith. How could it go better than that? Well, what happened was: the piece of paper came down like this, and it went round it, and went on.

Zen in Fencing and Judo

Alan Watts


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