Snaking a Path to Enlightenment

I discovered Anna Sanner’s book of teachings from Aikido and Zen master Katsuyuki Shimamoto, Dance With Heaven and Earth, after a Facebook friend posted a story from it on his page and I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Here’s the story that obsessed me:

Miyamoto Musashi was a famous Japanese swordsman who lived about 400 years ago. He did everything in order to win. When he sat in zazen meditation, he always had the possibility in mind that at any minute, somebody might attack him. He did zazen in order to clear his mind of distracting thoughts and always be ready to react to any kind of attack. His zazen was a kind of strategic weapon.

One day Musashi was sitting next to a professional monk in the mountains. Both of them were meditating, sitting in zazen, with correct leg position, good posture, and calm breathing. From the outside it looked like they were doing exactly the same thing. You couldn’t tell the difference.

As they were sitting there meditating, a snake came along. When the snake saw Musashi, it stopped dead in its tracks and pulled back its head in a startled swan neck pose. Even its constantly moving tongue got stuck in its mouth for a second. The snake caught itself, cautiously made a U-turn around Musashi and slithered swiftly across the monk’s legs to disappear back into the mountains.

So even though to us there seemed to be no difference between Musashi and the monk, the snake could not be fooled. It clearly felt that Musashi was ready to cut any attacker at any moment. The monk on the other hand, who was doing zazen in the sense of true Zen meditation, was in a state of 空ku (emptiness). To the snake he was the same as the grass, the stones and the earth it slithered across daily, and slithering across his legs did not make the slightest difference.

One of key elements of good training in martial arts is learning how to be aware of what is happening around you at all times. In Aikido, we emphasize this by reminding people to continue to be aware of their partner even when they have thrown or pinned them. When we train on a crowded mat, we must pay attention to everyone around us so that no one gets hurt.

Awareness is inherent in our practice.

When I teach self defense, I emphasize the importance of paying attention to everything going on around you. But the specifics of learning how to do that are more complex than just the barked words “pay attention,” which I’m sure all of us heard from parents or teachers or coaches at various parts of our lives.

In both cases, practice opens the door to awareness.

In this story, Musashi exemplifies the kind of awareness and attention that is at the heart of martial arts training. Even when sitting in meditation, he is aware of everything going on around him.

Had the snake moved to strike, I have no doubt that Musashi would have killed it. Obviously, the snake thought so as well. However, since the snake did not act, Musashi let it go.

That is, Musashi was calm, aware of what was happening, and aware of whether there was a real threat. I suspect he did not even tense up when he sensed the snake.

Far too many of us are not aware of what is happening around us. Far too many of us also react when we see something that could be a threat without noticing whether the threat is real.

I have spent 40 some odd years working to incorporate this level of awareness into my life. While I’m no Musashi, I do feel comfortable walking at night by myself in a city or the woods.

But in reading this story, I found myself compelled by the monk’s action. The monk was so deep into that state of emptiness that the snake was not aware that he was a person who could be a threat nor did the monk react to the snake as if it were a threat. In fact, the story suggests that neither the snake nor the monk knew the other were there.

I find myself unsure as to which way of being — and which form of meditation — I prefer.

I have been told that some people find me intimidating and I must confess that a part of me really likes that. That is not the most enlightened part of myself.

But I am drawn to the idea of being aware of everything around me and of always being ready to act when necessary and also of knowing when it isn’t necessary.

That probably reflects that I’ve spent those 40+ years studying the way of warriorship rather than 40+ years as a Buddhist monk.

I am more attuned to Musashi’s way, but I’m not sure the monk isn’t on the better path.

Dance With Heaven and Earth came out in 2012 from AuthorHouse. I found the ebook edition on iBooks, but it appears to be available in print and electronic editions in most of the usual places.

2 thoughts on “Snaking a Path to Enlightenment

    1. I kind of like the idea that the monk was so deeply in emptiness that the snake didn’t even recognize him as a person, as opposed to recognizing that Musashi was a very dangerous person.

      But while the story presents the monk as unaware of the snake, it might make more sense to say he knew there was no threat. Or maybe that he created a space with his meditation in which there was no threat.

      Lots of room for contemplation there.

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