In my last post Of Swordsmen and Rat Catchers, I retold an old world parable that circulated in Japanese martial arts schools likening the art of catching rats to swordsmanship. Shortly after, a reader sent this response.
“The latest story on your blog feels very zen. It’s interesting to me, but I also find it frustrating. All these cats are practicing and trying, but apparently, they’re all doing it wrong because their minds are in the wrong place/state. I think most frustrating is that there is no clear "right” way that the old cat describes. He seems to advocate balance and self-emptying, but I don’t think he provides any of the others with a realistic method to achieve this enlightened state. … I feel like this is probably a typical complaint of a student struggling to learn these ways – if only our language could better communicate our mental states.”
I agree with his assessment. Who’s talking about the mind in martial arts outside of the monks? Can the cats really figure out Menscius’s vast-flowing vigor by themselves? Many sensei don’t have clear answers on this subject because they are dancing on the same hot Zen roof. So to get some clarity on this dilemma let’s follow what the cats did after the swordsman Shoken left them alone.
CAT ON A HOT ZEN ROOF
By Shifu Christopher J. Goedecke
Realizing that they didn’t have a clue how to further advance their studies of rat catching, the cats pleaded with the master cat to give them further insight into the proper way to train.
They found the sage in a good mood and willing to talk. “Ah! Dogs aren’t the only ones that suffer ignorance and rigid thinking,” the old cat stated. “Let’s see if I can teach you fellows some new tricks.”
The three cats put their egos aside to listen to his sage advice. (in truth it is never that simple. Half the battle is detaching from the ego which is the cause of the cat’s ignorance that led to their faulty tactics in the first place).
“The true power of rat catching and swordsmenship lies in linking your physical training to your mental practices. The reason that even the most serious and diligent of you never achieve higher levels of skill is for a lack of understanding how physical practice relates to breathing and concentration techniques. Of course, you’ve gotten encouraging results for your current efforts at rat catching but these are mostly superficial ones. There is a legend of an eight-limbed cat who lives as a mountain ascetic in a land of no rats. He is considered the supreme rat catcher, the Buddha of Mice Mincers! Just looking into his eyes any rat is instantly killed. If any of you fully comprehend the nature of his eight limbs you will inherit his power.
His first limb is called Self-Restraint. It is the limb of behavior that keeps you at peace with the world. Have you ever deeply evaluated your behaviors? Can you see the long term outcomes of your actions? What you cats don’t realize is that an absence of past indiscretions frees your mind in the present and prevents negative karma. Also, a mind free from past concerns is not only at peace but able to focus deeply. The old cat spread his right paw revealing five exceptionally sharp claws. “Each claw represents one principle of self-restraint. The first principle is Non-killing. Ah yes, I know what you are going to say here. You are cats. You kill rats. This is true. But I am not referring to that which is intrinsic to your nature but to blood lust and unjust, unnecessary violence and killing. The other four principles are Truthfulness, Non-stealing, Sexual Continence and Non-covetousness.
The second limb is called Observance. To make sure you do not fall back upon your old habits, Observance sees to it that you hold to the above five principles with consistent practice. Purity of action, contentment, austerity, the study of self-development through the classics, physical discipline, honoring your teacher, and surrendering your ego to the ultimate universal power are all natural extensions of self-restraint.
The third Limb is called Physical Practice. This is where most swordsmen and rat catchers begin and end. Overdoing physical practice creates a superficial learning plateau. Solely developing your physical nature is not enough. Sitting meditation will further strengthen your central nervous system and the channels of energy circulation. The highest level masters combine self-cultivation practices with their hunting and warrior skills as the natural and ultimate progression of their development.
If you wish your art to lead you to higher consciousness you must take root within this eight-fold framework. You can begin by recognizing it as a psychologically significant level. It is also here where you will find the most noticeable rewards of excellent health—a central pillar for any skill.
The fourth limb is called Proper Breathing. Breathing exercises accelerate the production of Prana or Chi. However you must not presuppose that feeling energy traveling through your limbs or spine that you have realized the ultimate goal of your training. It’s true that such practices will improve all your skills dramatically, and a diligent swordsman or rat catcher will surpasses the normal person in strength and fighting ability, but you must beware of preoccupation with these gains: the highest levels of martial ability are not reached until additional levels of meditation have been discovered.
The fifth limb is called Sense Withdrawal. You must learn to pull your five senses back into your mind and detach from the stimuli generated from your surrounding environment. This stage is the precursor of ‘internal listening’ and your first introduction to spiritual life.
The sixth limb is called Concentration. Concentration is only possible once sense withdrawal has begun. The refocusing of the senses on a single concentration point like the tip of the nose begins to turn the mind inward. The breath and senses merge at the nose tip to open the central nervous system in a way that is not possible by feeling any whole limb or the whole body. The nerves connecting the nose to the brain enhance the bioelectric nature of the breath. It is believed that if you can inwardly focus on such a point without distraction for twelve seconds, without interruption, you have achieved Concentration.
The seventh limb is called Meditation. This is the unbroken flow of the mind on a single point for an extended period.
Most aspirants’ minds are interrupted from this task by either physical or emotional considerations. Worldly matters can force their way into your mind just as your concentration is achieved.
Each attempt is like doing pushups. The first time you try, you can only do a couple and your muscles ache. But years down the road, if you practice hard, doing a couple hundred can be an invigorating round of exercise.
The last limb is called Superconsciousness. This is a state of union where you lose your individuality an enter Menscius’s vast-flowing vigor. Just as the river joins the ocean, the individual self joins the Supreme ocean of absolute consciousness.
At this level a swordsman and rat catcher reaches peak evolution and will discover where all of the great esoteric traditions merge into one, beyond their ethnic inflection.
If you structure your physical practices correctly with your mental practices you will reach the highest levels of achievement where no rat or enemy, no matter how fierce, can stand in your way.”
Shifu Goedecke is the head of the Wind School of Karate-Do in Morris County, NJ and author of numerous trade magazine articles on the martial arts.