Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Skills of a Cat

Shoken was a martial artist. His family told him that a large rat was found recently. The rat was so fearless that it roamed the house even in daylight. Shoken shut all the doors and called his cat to find the rat. To his surprise, the rat jumped on to the cat's face and gnawed fiercely. The cat shrieked and ran to nowhere.

Shoken had to find an alternative and asked his servants to find big and strong cats in the neighbourhood. Once they were put in the same room with the rat, they all shivered at the corners of the room waiting for the rat to pound on them. Shoken was furious. He grasped a wooden sword and chased after the rat. The rat managed to escape narrowly every time the sword was swung at it. Instead of hitting its target, the sword broken everything in the room, paper windows and doors. The rat simply flew in the air at lightning speed. Many times, it flew towards Shoken's face and the master had to duck to avoid the bite.

Panting and sweating, Shoken called his servant, "I heard a famous cat six or seven blocks away. Go and borrow it." Soon the servant brought the cat. When Shoken saw the cat, it was an old cat. It didn't look too smart or move too swiftly. Having no other alternatives, the master doubtfully led the cat to the room. Wonder happened. When the old cat entered the room, the rat immediately quieted down. The cat didn't make any unusual move either. It just calmly walked to the hiding place of the rat, waiting the rat to emerge.

At night, all cats in the house assembled and honoured the old cat. They knelt before it and said, "We are being called 'famous' and trained to catch more than just rats, but rodents and otters etc. We know how to sharpen our teeth and claws, but we never heard any simple trick like what you did today can deal with a strong rat like that. Please tell us what to do."

The old cat laughed and said, "You young cats have never known the right way, although you did some research before. That's why you lost. I rather like to hear how you practise your skills. "

A frightening cat walked to the front and talked," I was born in a mice-catching family. Since I was small, I was trained to jump over a seven-feet fence and head into tiny cracks on the wall. I have mastered all nimble and delicate movements. I can pretend to be asleep and the technique of 'hyuri' (Remark 1) and when I jump up, none of the rats walking over the roof-top can survive my blow. Only this time made me surely uncomfortable."

The old cat replied, "What you have practised are movements only. You can use the techniques when there is a target. That is why the old schools teach movements. The movements look simple but they embrace important principles. If their followers can only practise the movements but forget the principles, even if they can create with their wits and cleverness whatever wonderful movements to compensate the principles, they can only reach a certain level. It is the same that craftsman know all the tricks and focus in their intelligence. No doubt that the application is a skill, but it is not the principle. If you practise only these applications, you may end up in a different way (not the right way). Intelligence will become a damage. To avoid so, please study with your heart."

A tiger-looking big cat raised its head and said, "I believe it is important that martial artists need ki. I have practise ki for a long time and my ki is so filled up it reaches heaven and earth. I crashed my enemies under my paws. I win before I advance. I also react to the lightest sound. Whatever the rats move, I will response automatically. Without thinking, I move spontaneously. A rat walked over the roof will fall down by my gaze. But that rat is much stronger. It comes and goes without a trace. What can I do?"

The old cat sighed, "What you learned are methods that ride on ki. They rely on something and are not the good ways. If I try to subdue others by using ki, other can subdue me with their ki. Or, what will happen if I use all my ki against the enemy but fail to subdue him? We can't suppose everytime that we are stronger than our enemies. To fill up the atmosphere from heaven to earth is only a feeling of ki. It is different from Mencius's ki. Mencius said ki is strength itself but the strength that you may have acquired is built on ki. Ki can be used in different ways. Like the difference between a continuous river and a flood (Remark 2). Even it comes as a flood, ki is useless if it can't subdue the enemy. A rat when cornered will turns its head and fight back. When it knows it will die and nothing can save it, it forgets life and desire, winning or losing, and escaping without injuries. When it has a mind of gold-iron, how can you subdue it by ki". A slightly older grey cat quietly entered the conversation, "Ki has a shape when it is strong. When it has a shape, it can be seen. I have practised harmony for a long time. I won't show up my mind. I won't compete with anything; I show nothing on the outside and I won't resist. When the enemy is strong, I move with it. My method is like using curtain to deal with stone. No matter how strong a rat is, it doesn't see me as a target. But today's rat can't be subdued by ki and there is no way to respond to its movement. It comes and goes as a god. I've never seen anything like that."

The old cat said, "The harmony that you mentioned is not the harmony in nature. This is a harmony acquired by your mind. When the enemy comes with its ki, the slightest flickering of your mind will be spotted by the enemy. If your mind strives for a harmony, your ki moves sluggishly and blocks natural feeling. Then how your techniques can be used? When you give off thinking and wanting to do something, you can move with your feeling. Then your movement will have no shape. This is the harmony that no one will be against.

"Afterall, I don't say that your training and practice are useless. If you can understand the unity of the principle and the techniques, you'll find your movements contain the principle. Ki is the use of the body. If you can let your ki freely move all over your body, your movement will respond to whatever you want it to respond to. Your movement will harmonize with your enemy and you will not confront your enemy with sheer strength. When a weapon is laid upon you, you won't be hurt. But if you use your mind in even the lightest way, this is the same as using all your mind. There won't be natural application of the principle and body. The enemy will not be subdued by such movement and will surely act against it.

"Then what techniques should we use? There is only one way -- using no mind and let nature deal with it. It's simple as it is, but it has countless applications. Once there was a cat in the nearby village. It slept all day and posed no frightening posture. Like a wooden cat, it had never been seen catching any rat. However, wherever it went, people saw no rats at all. Even it went to a strange place. I went to him and ask him why. It was not that he won't answer. He just didn't know why but he surely knew how. Just like the old saying, 'those who know won't talk; those who talk don't know.' He had already forgot himself and the opponents. Those who want nothing are tough even in gods' standard. I am not match of him."

Listening to those words, Shoken is like dreaming. He blew to the old cat and asked, "I have practised kenjutsu for a long time but I still don't get the way. Tonight after hearing your discussion, I feel like getting the utmost principle of kenjutsu. I would like to beg you to enlight me further, if possible."

The old cat replied, "I am just an animal and rat is my food. How on earth do I know things about human. Kenjutsu as I know is not an expertise to win over other people. It is a guidance to know the issue of life and death when the time comes. To understand the right kind of mind, all samurai's need to learn kenjutsu. The first thing they should do is to fear no death. Don't deviate from this mindset, act with no doubt and no confusion. Keep the mind peaceful and harmonious without holding anything. Prepare the mind as a deep lake, it can deal with any sudden change. If this mind is occupied by an object or an image, it can distinguish self and enemy. In combat, it loses the freedom of changing. When the mind falls to a death spot, the spirit will go blind. How can you distinguish winning and losing. If you win, it is only a blind win and has nothing to do with kenjutsu.

"When I said holding nothing in the mind, I don't mean emptiness. The mind doesn't have a physical being and it contains nothing. If it has even the smallest object, ki will cling to it. The slightest imbalance of ki will prevent ki from filling the atmosphere. You'll feel that there are too much ki where it goes and there are too few ki where it doesn't go. You can't easily control the ki when it is too much. When ki is no enough, you feel weak and useless. Taking up both of these states, you can't react to any change. My saying of 'holding nothing' refers to no assembling (ki), no leaning, no enemy, and no self. React whenever changes emerge and leaving no trace.

Shoken asked, "What do you mean by no enemy and no self?" The old cat explained, "If there is self, there is the enemy. The enemy will go if there is no self. The word 'enemy' is relative to 'self', like yin-yan, water-fire. Anything with a shape has a relative complement. If I don't keep anything in my mind, whatever confronting me is an object but not a (hostile) enemy. There is no one to compete with. You have no self and no enemy. When you even forget there is a mind and all the images with it, your mind is like a deep lake showing no ripples. The kind of harmony is peaceful and united. You could break any enemy's attack without even feeling. It doesn't happen without your knowledge. It happens without you thinking about it. You are just moving with your feeling.

"When the mind is like a deep lake, this world is my world. There is no right or wrong, good or evil. You won't hold on to happiness or bitterness. They are made up by your mind. Even though the universe is wide, you won't beg for anything outside your mind. There is an old saying, "When there is a dust in your eyes, the whole world is narrow. When your mind is empty, you'll lead a broad life." Your eye can't open when a dust falls in it. The eye (mind) is supposed to be an empty place.

"When there are thousands of enemies, prepare yourself as a tiny dust. You can master your mind, with or without the strong enemies. Confucius said, 'You can't force anyone's mind.' But if the mind is confused, it may help the other side. You should always search inside your own mind. Whatever the teacher says to you is his reasons. Only after you discover your own reasons, you can be sure that you have learnt them. This is a heart-to-heart method and is known as 'conveying teaching without teaching'. No only zen-buddhism, everything from old saint's principles to any kind of art, is passed down by this heart-to-heart method. Teachers can only indicate to students their abilities that they possess but unknowingly. These are the abilities that no teachers can teach. In this way, teaching is easy; being taught is easy. However, correctly discover what is possessed and do the right thing is extremely difficult. This is called 'learning one's character'. To know is the waking up from a confused dream. It is an enlightenment and nothing different."


  1. "Hyuri" literally means "Outside and inside". Shinkage Ryu says, "Gentai hyuri", meaning choosing being active or responsive (to an enemy) depends on the situations of in and out.

  2. A flood comes with only a sudden force. Its strength can't sustain when it's over.
Copyright © by Shono Seiki.
Translation by HM Wan.