I enjoy making simple sushi rolls at home, but would like to give it some more focused effort and become a true tenzo. The film Jiro Dreams of Sushi has been very inspirational to me, not just in terms of its portrayal of Jiro’s mastery of sushi preparation, but even more so for its pearls of wisdom for following the path of mastery and attainment. Along these same lines, I aspire to own a great set of Japanese knives someday. I recently came across this beautiful and inspiring infomercial from Kamikoto. There is another one I will post that is even better!
I came across this video narrating a story related by zen master D.T. Suzuki (read by Christopher Reed). The story concerns a swordsman who is furious about a rat that lives in his home, and the solutions he attempted. Suzuki stated that the story may come from the Ittō-ryū school. I won’t spoil the ending and the embedded lessons for you, but you can probably surmise that the story is not really about cats and rats. There is plenty to reflect upon and learn from this story and Suzuki’s narrative interpretation. The insights can be applied not only in martial arts but in life just as well.
“There is a saying of the elders that goes, ‘Step from under the eaves and you’re a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting.” ~ Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure
“Alas! The world is a nuisance!” ~ Takuan Soho
(Minneapolis Institute of Art, photo by Tom Delaney, 2014)
During my normal commute yesterday morning, I was almost rear-ended by a speeding aggressive driver while I was changing lanes to the right, with my blinker on, nice and slow, with all possible care. Luckily no contact happened as the other driver resorted to speeding down the parking lane on my right with their horn blasting and I let them pass. But the trigger in me had already been pulled.
For a long time I have been one of those guys who walks around with an invisible chip on my shoulder that can sometimes be the size of a railroad tie. I have been working on getting the chip off my shoulder by seeing my short temper and anger as an expression of fear and ego, the same two forces that tear apart our world on a daily basis from the level of homes to the level of wars between nations. There are plenty of injunctions against anger in Chinese and Japanese traqditional martial arts literature. The one I always find easiest to remember is…
“Let anger be your enemy.” ~ Wang Foudeng, Bubishi
Anger, along with greed and delusion, is another one of the “three poisons” of the mind identified in Ch’an and Zen Buddhist tradition. It is an obstacle to establishing an enlightened view of things and way of life and inevitably leads to causing suffering for others and oneself. You cannot walk around as an angry person for a long time without causing a lot of damage to self and others. On this point, I can sincerely attest that I do not feel good when I am angry or ever feel good about having been angry. Later in the morning after my commuting encounter, as angry as I was at the driver I became just as disappointed with myself at having lost my temper. I began to think that I needed to really nail down the alternative to anger and put it into action that day! The warrior’s path is the path to true victory…and “true victory” in this case meant victory over myself and my anger.
“Greater in battle than the man who would conquer a thousand-thousand men, is he who would conquer just one — himself. Better to conquer yourself than others. When you’ve trained yourself, living in constant self-control, neither a deva nor gandhabba, nor a Mara banded with Brahmas, could turn that triumph back into defeat.”
~ Siddhartha Gautama
“I do not know the way to defeat others, but the way to defeat myself.”
~ Yagyu, quoted by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure
“To win without fighting is the highest achievement of a warrior. Never forget this wisdom, and live your life according to the principles of the warrior.”
~ Sun Tzu, Art of War
“Using the orderly to deal with the disorderly, using the calm to deal with the clamorous, is mastering the heart.”
~ Sun Tzu, Art of War
I thought about it a lot and concluded that this true warrior spirit, this true path to victory, lies in being a person who restores and preserves harmony in the world. A very good Native American friend whom I met for lunch that day described this higher path of warriorship as a path of “healing,” and I think that when you consider that healing is about restoration of harmony (as in when a scratch or bruise on your body heals) then we are talking about the same thing. When I began thinking that this was all well and good as a concept but needed to look like something in terms of action, I remebered reading once somewhere that the antidote to anger is doing acts of compassion. For example, on a few occasions my gongfu teacher David Wong prepares a meal for all of us students. I now understand that this preparation of a meal for all of us, this act of community-building, is a demonstration of true warrior spirit. Then I understood that what I needed to do was acts of compassion, kindness, generosity — no matter how small or in what way — and I would whip my anger.
(David Wong, photo by Tom Delaney, 2014)
The other lingering issue was my own disappointment and impatience with myself. I need to remind myself to be patient, believe in my own potential, and take small steps. Mistakes and stumbles are going to happen, and are maybe even necessary for real growth. When asked to describe the life of a zen master, the great teacher Shunryu Suzuki would quote Dogen and humorously declare, “Shoshaku jushaku! One mistake after another! Life is one long continuous mistake!” With this and a few other admonitions in mind I can cut myself some slack and instead just allow mental calmness that is free of impatience and perfectionism.
“The jeweled sword of Taia was originally raw iron.” ~ traditional Japanese ichigyomono (tearoom scroll)
“One must edge forward like the inch-worm, bit by bit.” ~ Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure
“Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending.” ~ Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure
“This one word, ‘patience,’ is the gate to myriad wonderful accomplishments.”
~ Lu Pen-chung
To put it simply, this is an awesome book! The title The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea does not really describe this book adequately. This book is very much about the lessons of zen. The introduction does a good job of exploring the historical connections of tea drinking with zen in Japan, but the bulk of the book is comprised of examples of ichigyomono, short phrases from famous poems and platitudes on tearoom scrolls that are linked to the zen tradition in Japan, and many to the ch’an tradition in China. Each example is explained and usually accompanied by at least one good illustrative and entertaining story. To me, this is the kind of book that you read all year round, one chapter a day. The writing and lessons are dynamic, and each time I visit a chapter I find a little deeper meaning. The text also includes examples of the ichigyomono written in kanji (Japanese calligraphy) and also related Chinese characters and their concepts. Good information if you are interested in shodo (Japanese calligraphy) or shufa (Chinese calligraphy). Seriously, I can’t recommend getting a copy of this book highly enough.
(my photo of the Japanese teahouse at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts)
Here is today’s traditional Chinese character — “to understand.” I found this quote from the Tao Te Ching (tr. Stephen Mitchel) to think about with this character today:
The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.
Have a good day!
– Tom Delaney
Hagakure (“Hidden Leaves” or “Hidden by the Leaves”) is a collection of observations, anecdotes and aphorisms by 18th century samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo. The edition I read was published by Kodansha with William Scott Wilson as the translator, and included extensive introductory and historical information. The book itself is a compilation worth one’s while to peruse if you want a feel for the social norms and moral maxims of samurai subculture in Yamamoto’s time. There are numerous sayings that can inspire one in the pursuit of excellence in any discipline. There are also numerous case examples of seppuku for one to consider the rationality of, or the possible irrationality. If you are looking for a book that more directly addresses mental discipline and swordsmanship, I would steer you to Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings before I would to Hagakure. That said, one of the last quotes I copied into my own notebook is definitely one of my favorites from the entire work:
“A warrior is a man who does not live his life in regret.”