Sunday, May 4, 2008


I was doing some reading into Zen and I came across this gem in one of Dr Suzuki's books, written by a certain Bukkoku Kokushi:

No target's erected,

No bow is drawn,

And the arrow leaves the string;

It may not hit,

But it does not miss!

[Translated by Dr Suzuki]

I've been reading into Zen for quite a few years now and, having practiced Kendo, am somewhat acquainted with Zen's relationship with the real world. As I understand it, the poem above refers to a very specific moment in the mind. It can occur anywhere, and it isn't restricted to archery. Even those without any acquaintance with Zen or Buddhist teachings can experience it.

My personal experiences with that moment have always been very fleeting, transient moments. Moments of sublime perfection, like those very, very rare moments I put one over my sensei. From the Zen point of view there is no point in speaking of it, but a scientist in me would like to try, partly to satisfy my own curiousity, partly for my friends reading this who haven't a clue what I'm on about.

One moment that stands out in particular in my memory was during my first engagement against my sensei. I was still ungraded, and hence had no armour. It was an exercise in technique, where I and my fellow novice kendokas would hurl ourselves at a fully armoured sensei, using whatever techniques we could master to break through his guard and score. Of course, he was entitled to hit back, relatively gently as we were unarmoured.

Only those who have engaged another in single combat can understand the tricks one's mind plays with time and space here. From the moment we salute each other, the world slows down, the peripheral vision narrows and your whole universe shrinks and fades, leaving only you and your opponent. The past is a distant memory. The future is an infinity away. All there is you, your sword and your adversary.

The sensei was old, but by damn, he was fast. A blur and whack! A sharp pain shoots up my arm as he catches me on the wrist. I attack his wrist, but he deflects it easily and whack! He's struck me sharply on the head, and the world flashes white for the briefest of moments. I lunge repeatedly, and each time he deflects, sidesteps and is upon me. Before long my wrist is red and I'm nearly exhausted. I surprise him once by releasing my right hand as he went for it, then lunged for his throat with the sword in my left hand. He managed to deflect, but I took satisfaction in seeing his eyebrows raise in the gloom behind his helmet. I'm near my limit, but these engagements don't end until either the sensei says so or you simply can't stand anymore, so I lunge once more, locking swords. And then came my moment.

As we slowly moved apart, swords pressed closely into each other, I saw the gap. My sword was held on my left, like a spear, his was kept straight in front in him. I saw the tip of my sword point directly at the plate protecting his throat. That was the moment I lost myself. With no thought of attack or defense, my mind far away from my pain and fatigue, my world vanished, and I thrust with every fibre of my being towards my target, shouting "Tsuki!*" like it was the last word I'd ever say.

When the world came into focus again, the sensei was laughing his approval. It was a perfect strike, knocking him back 2 feet. By the end of the lesson I was dazed with elation, exhaustion and man, oh, man did my wrists hurt...

Not long after that training session, I would earn my armour and engage the sensei a few more times. He still beats the living tar out of me, and I've stopped for a while, but I still train, looking for those brief moments of perfection.

*For the uninitiated, in kendo, to score a hit, one must strike a valid target (head, hands, torso or throat), shout the name of the target and stamp one's foot at the same time. The concept is called "ki-ken-tai-ichi", which translates more or less as "Energy/Breath, Sword, Body as One". Tsuki is what to shout when going for the throat.

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