Strength through fearlessness of death

Mar 11, 2009 Strength through fearlessness of death

Last June I blogged about maintaining calm in the eye of the storm. In my view, the deepest calm will come not from becoming a hermit but by learning to be calm in the most otherwise stressful situations, and by continuing to test one’s calm in such circumstances.

For fourteen years I have practiced the internal martial art of t’ai chi chuan, which focuses on the strength of calmness, relaxation, and softness, so that instead of expending brute force and muscular energy, one summons, stores, and uses the internal energy of chi/energy/breath. Analogous goals of t’ai chi practice are to be as soft as water so that the opponent has nothing to push against, but to have the devastating strength of a tidal wave; to be as buoyant and yielding as a beach ball in the ocean; and to be as pliable and firmly rooted as a plant being blown by fierce winds without being uprooted.

Fortunately, two groups of local t’ai chi practitioners meet every Saturday morning to start with t’ai chi form practice, followed by push hands practice, both to test one’s t’ai chi relaxation and to highlight how truly powerful chi energy can be. The first of these practice locations is at the mini-train station at Cabin John Park in Potomac, Maryland. The second location is at Lincoln Park, eleven blocks east of the United States Capitol. Last weekend I joined the Lincoln Park practitioners for the first time. I am grateful for the other three practitioners’ patience in helping me learn push hands — also known as sensing hands, because the hands are used in hearing the opponent’s intentions and moves, and in harmonizing the fighter’s situation — which I had only done twice before, with my previous practice having focused on the t’ai chi form.

At the end of the session, one of the practitioners — who has been around long enough to have included study with Robert W. Smith, who was the first Western student of t’ai chi master teacher Cheng Man Ch’ing — told me that he tries to learn at least one new thing every time he practices t’ai chi with others. One of the most beneficial things he taught me was to read Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, and translated by R.F.C. Hull (1953).

Zen in the Art‘s Herrigel was already deeply interested in mysticism when invited to teach philosophy at the University of Tokyo. He then set out to learn about mysticism through Zen Buddhism. Herrigel was rebuffed in his efforts to find a Zen teacher, and instead was told "that it was quite hopeless for a European to attempt to penetrate into this realm of spiritual life — perhaps the strangest which the Far East has to offer — unless he began by learning one of the Japanese arts associated with Zen. Herrigel could have chosen Japanese painting or flower design as such a Japanese art. Instead, he chose the physically demanding art of archery, which involves the use of a bow that requires tremendous physical strength and endurance … until one learns to become one with the bow, arrow, and target, and to relax through focusing on one’s breath. Herrigel diligently studied for several years under his master until he could achieve such muscular and internal effortlessness in pursuing the spiritual art of archery.

Herrigel quotes a shogun’s sword teacher as saying "’the ultimate secrets of swordsmanship also lie in being released from the thought of death. [With fearlessness of death], you need no technical training, you are already a master.’"

It is curious that Buddhism focuses so heavily on peace, but at the same time has been summoned in bloody battle for the benefit of those including masters at archery. Herrigel taught in Japan from 1924 to 1929, between World Wars I and II. He returned to Germany working at Erlangen University, retiring in 1951 and passing in 1955. My initial skimming of Zen in the Art reveals no mention of World War II nor of the horrors of Hitler and his followers. Herrigel was born in 1884, which distanced him from being forced into work for Hitler and his cause. However, with Zen focused so much on peace, it will feel strange indeed if I find not a word in his book about Hitler’s horrors and the rampant atrocities of the Japanese military in World War II.

Returning to the theme of power and skill through fearlessness of death, such fearlessness seems to be a familiar focus both to Buddhism and Hinduism. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh teach lessons on being fearless of death. Ram Dass — who was influenced substantially by Hinduism in India even though he has said that he sought out Buddhism there — does the same. 

Here is what Mahatma Gandhi said about fearlessness of death:

"If someone fires bullets at me and I die without a groan and with God’s name on my lips, then you should tell the world that here was a real Mahatma…" Gandhi on the morning of his assassination.

"He Ram, He Ram" – Ghandi’s last words, praying to the deity.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said many things about fearlessness of death, including:

Contemplation on No-Coming and No-Going
By Thich Nhat Hanh

"This body is not me
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries
I have never been born,
And I have never died.

"Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,
Manifestations from my wondrous mind.
Since before time, I have been free."

Ram Dass (who calls death another moment, but one that proceeds to a new incarnation) and the Dalai Lama have written about the benefits of passing through the doors of death with calmness and positive thoughts.

The same t’ai chi practitioner who introduced me to Zen in the Art also said that he seeks to know the tao better through t’ai chi. Taoism is a basis of t’ai chi. Hopefully this practitioner knows that t’ai chi master Cheng Man Ch’ing has cautioned about the rampant number of insufficient translations of the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching/Book of Changes. I have the Tao te Ching translation by Liu Yutang, but still am trying to confirm the quality of his translation work, even though I have no information to doubt that quality. 

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