One hundred and thirty five years ago, on March 30, 1880, Yamaoka Tesshu, the master swordsman and originator of the School of No-Sword, achieved enlightenment. He’d solved the koan: “When two flashing swords meet, there is no place to escape; move on cooly, like a lotus flower blooming in the midst of a roaring fire, and forcefully pierce the Heavens!” Tesshu phrased his solution thus: A true practitioner moves without hesitation, through the confusion and chaos of the sensual world, avoiding all duality.
Tesshu’s solution contains important references to duality and unity that help us understand mental training. Mental training needs to address the kind of mind we need to have when we’re engaged in the experience, whether that’s a sword fight or climbing.
First, the koan is describing a fight: when two flashing swords meet. Therefore, we’re not intellectualizing; we’re engaged in an experience. We’re in the stress zone and can’t escape to the comfort zone. Both body and mind need to support being in the experience.
Second, Tesshu’s solution embodies processes. He understood that the mind thinks in duality to make sense of the world. It understands light because there’s also darkness. It understands comfort because there’s also stress. Yet, Tesshu understood that in order to fight well, when one is engaged in the actual experience, one needs unity. The body and mind need to be one unit, not two.
When he says “a practitioner moves without hesitation” he’s pointing toward the body being engaged in the process of moving, without hesitation from the mind. The mind doesn’t hesitate because it’s not thinking. We don’t have unity if the mind is thinking. We have duality. The mind thinks: “Will I win or lose?” The mind is lost in duality and hesitates, because it’s unsure what the outcome will be or if one can achieve it.
Tesshu continues: “through the confusion and chaos of the sensual world.” Life and growth include stress, which causes confusion and chaos for the mind. And, “sensual world” points toward how we interact with the world. We interact via our senses. Remember, the koan references being engaged in the experience of “when flashing swords meet.” This is not a time for intellectualizing with the mind. We’re interacting with the world, the stress, sensually, with our senses and our breath. These are ongoing processes that we keep our attention focused on. Finally, we “avoid all duality” because our attention isn’t focused in the mind, thinking about winning or losing; it’s focused in the body on the experience of fighting. The mind is aware, but not engaged in thinking.
Duality splits our attention. We focus on a future end result the mind wants to achieve, while the body is engaged in the present process of fighting or climbing. Unity comes from having both the mind and body focused in the present moment. The body is always in the present moment: it moves and breathes moment to moment. When engaged in experience, we need to stop thinking to get the mind in the present moment. The mind needs to observe, to take in the trillions of bits of information being perceived, process it intuitively, so it can manifest itself through the body. Our attention must be focused on bodily processes and not mental end results. With the mind focused this way, unity is achieved between body and mind.
The Warrior’s Way trainings emphasize committing our attention to either “stop and think,” or “move and take action with the body.” We do our thinking, which is dualistic, at stopping points on a climb, when we’re in our comfort zones. We analyze the goal, the consequence, and develop a plan. We weigh the duality of our desire to achieve the goal against the consequences, and make a decision. Then, when we commit to action, to the stress zone of experience, we shift our attention to the body, to the processes of breathing and moving. No thinking is involved. The mind is carried along as the present observer, taking in the information from the experience and feeding it directly to the body in an intuitive manner.
Enlightenment is simply moving beyond the limited dualistic understanding of the mind. It took Tesshu 40 years of intense practice of swordsmanship and Zen to become enlightened. I’ve been intensely studying and practicing The Warrior’s Way for about half that time. I’m just now beginning to understand the mind’s limitations and how to observe it, so it can be transcended. Maybe in 20 more years of intense study and practice I’ll become enlightened?
Practice Tip: Body and Mind Unity
When you rest, rest; when you climb, climb! When you’re engaged in an experience—two flashing swords meeting—you need unity of the body and the mind. Thinking is important, but you need to do it before engagement. Do a thorough risk assessment at stop/rest points to make sure you’re taking an appropriate risk. Then, set aside thinking and engage doing.
You set aside thinking by shifting your attention to the processes of the body: breathing and moving. Keep your attention focused on those processes and allow your mind to simply be present, to observe and feed information intuitively back to the body.
This Post Has 6 Comments
Wow that takes me back to my years at the Buddokhan. In combat the point of hesitation is the moment of defeat. Great post Thanks!!
Hi Harper, thanks for your comments. Yes, like Yoda said: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Trying, hesitating kills commitment, and maybe even ourselves if we’re in combat, as you say. a
That’s an incredible post- Simple, clear & powerful.
Welcome Matt. I’ve worked over the years with this material seeking to make it simple and practical. That, of course, doesn’t mean it’s easy to apply. But the simplicity gives us a solid beginning point for our practice. a
I forwarded this to my climbing roommate in San Diego who is about to get up and climb El Capitan this morning. In additon, I read it outloud to my 19 year old tennis player here in Egypt as he is competing on the professional tennis circuit.
All forms of athletics and accomplishment are in need of understanding these words of advice you gave. Just take out climbing and put any sport in there. Thinking is constantly in the way of performance once it begins. The key is how to get the mind out of the areas it does not belong in. (I have mentioned Krishnamurti before which we use).
With tennis the wrong thinking is scoring. If you concern yourself with scoring once the point has started you choke! I had the fortune of talking to Bjorn Borg in November who was with his son, and I consider him the best mental player ever. I asked him this question directly and he said that between points he would think a strategy and then when he went to perform he would just play. Borg never had anger nor got a warning from an umpire as he was focused entirely on hitting the ball over the net: Period!
This was your exact advice in this post! Thank you again for your insights and deep thinking you do to make these posts.
Welcome Phil. I’m also doing short videos of these lessons and posting on our Instagram channel (@rockwarriorsway). Those are pretty cool also and slightly different presentation of the lesson. Be well and tell your El Cap friend to enjoy his adventure. a