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. Continue reading “Snaking a Path to Enlightenment”