Zen Koan: Way of the sword

The air wrote poems in cold white words and Master Yoshikazu watched their affair with the dark green leaves of the kumquats outside his window. His fingers trembled as they reached to hold the cup of jasmine tea. It wasn’t old age or the heat that caused the occasional flutter but the coming to terms of what the body felt and what the body needed.
While he was sipping his tea, he heard sharp rapping noises and shut his eyes. His hands were free of the cup and all he could now sense was the hardness of the tatami mats and the noise from outside. He tried to recognise the source of the sound.
“Yuudai? What is he doing outside at this hour?”
He opened his eyes and sipped the tea. Once he was done, he slowly rose and walked outside his room.
Yuudai was practising against a stout bamboo. He placed small flowers in a wedge and moved swiftly to chop one petal at a time. His katana was a blur of shining silver against the bamboo. The first petal had barely fallen off when the remaining five followed it earthward. When he planted another flower in there, he heard his master open the sliding door. He turned around and waited for his master.
“Yuudai, what are you doing at this hour?”
“When the hands are cold, precision is an issue. I am practicing to improve that.”
“What for, young man?” asked Master Yoshikazu, with a smile.
“I need to perfect it if I wish to become Samurai.”
The Master looked at the young boy who could be anything he decided on becoming.
“And what will become of you then?”
“I will lead my men.”
“And then?”
“My name will melt the katana of my enemies.”
“And then?”
“I will become Shogun.”
“And then?”
“And then? I am not sure what else would be left to achieve then, Master. Please enlighten me.”
“I wouldn’t know what you have achieved even then. Give me your katana.”
Yuudai knelt down and offered the katana with both his hands.
“Pick that long sliver of bamboo and defend yourself.”
Yuudai got frightened but obeyed his master. He held the limp and arching slice of bamboo, which could be a better whip than a sword and faced his master.
“What is it? The shogun of the future trembles?”
Master raised the sword in one swift move and brought it down towards Yuudai’s head. Yuudai raised the feeble shred of bamboo, only to watch it cut in two. The sword stopped just after splitting the hair on Yuudai’s head, though he could feel the cold blade breathing on his scalp.
“First, learn to transform even the air into a katana, and then you can be Samurai.”
So saying, the master handed the sword back to Yuudai and picked one of the halves of the bamboo sliver that had fallen to the ground.
“Attack me with your katana.” The blade and its cut
Yuudai hesitated for he knew that the slip of bamboo couldn’t protect his master. He moved slowly as to poke his master in the ribs. Master Yoshikazu slapped the flat of the blade away from him and hissed at Yuudai, “Afraid you might hurt me? Go on, attack me, you coward who will never become Samurai.”
Yuudai was stung by these words and swung the sword in a a circle that cut a bleeding gash in the blue sky. Master moved along with the blade and escaped the edge while swiftly reaching forward to place the point of the sliver at Yuudai’s jugular.
“Think you can move fast enough to save your neck?”
Yuudai conceded defeat and wondered how his master managed to move like that.
“To offer least resistance to the sword, is the way of the sword. Those who rush to stop the sword, will always perish. You can never cut air or water, nor can you harm an opponent who always moves in the direction of the sword and away from it. Of course, it is a hundred times easier when the swordsman is incensed.”
Yuudai bowed his head in shame.
“Know the way of the sword to be the way away from it, and you shall have peace. Being a Samurai or a Shogun is any man’s job. Any swordsman who can stay on his feet for five straight hours and move his katana and wakizashi in wide and narrow circles can be a Samurai. If people around him cannot manage that, he can also become Shogun to them. All it requires is endless effort and some skill. But those who realise the beauty of pausing to collect flowers to offer them to the Buddha, will know the way of the sword. Not they, who stick them in a groove in a bamboo.”
Yuudai lowered his head further but managed to whisper.
“Master, if I may ask.”
“Why does sensei and scholars claim the worldly way to be mean? Isn’t the world in which we live real enough to warrant a way of the sword for this world?”
Master Yoshikazu smiled and turned around to walk away. He stopped and said over his shoulder, “The worldly way is not mean because there is no worldly way beyond that which is in your head. Life is not about achieving, young man. It is about nourishing and being nourished. The worldly way simply takes you nowhere. Meditate on this Haiku, dear Yuudai.

A caterpillar –
Embarked on a ten year march
In spite of grey clouds.

5 thoughts on “Zen Koan: Way of the sword

  1. “A caterpillar – Embarked on a ten year marchIn spite of grey clouds.”would read better if the caterpillar is replaced by a “snail” , because I think that becoming a butterfly at the end of it all still makes it all worth it, whereas such a destiny or endpoint is not there for a snail. somehow your koan exalts the excellence required in this world, and only makes the other way a great one, because of its ability to make this excellence in works of the world a bytheway product of following/walking the path.The teachers words have more value only because he has conquered every nuance of the worldly way that exists in the head or not all all.“A snail – Embarked on a ten year marchIn spite of grey clouds.”# all said and done, a post that is full of completeness. its effect on one is indescribable. rich spiritual vibrations abound. 🙂

  2. Dear X, Glad you liked it… 🙂Dear P, Point is not whether something is worth it or not. The Haiku has a different meaning which I will leave you to meditate on. Its not about being a snail or a caterpillar. Its about… well, you should meditate on it! Glad you found the post so.

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