Thursday, September 16, 2010

Takuan, Musashi and the Snake

Once upon a time the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was practicing zazen beside a stream with his life-long friend and mentor, Zen Master Takuan Soho.

Suddenly, he became aware of another presence nearby. From the corner of his eye, he saw a deadly viper slithering into the clearing toward Takuan.

Knowing that the slightest movement might frighten the venomous snake into attacking his friend, Musashi kept watching the serpent in utter stillness. When Takuan himself became aware of the snake's presence, a faint smile appeared on his face. The snake came toward him, and peacefully crawled across his thighs.

The serpent continued on its course toward Musashi. Several feet away, sensing Musashi's presence, he recoiled, preparing to attack, but suddenly scurried away into the bushes. Musashi had not moved. His fierce spirit undisturbed by the threat of the viper was so palpable that the snake had speedily moved away in fright.

Most men would be proud to possess such an intimidating aura, but Musashi felt only shame as he suddenly understood his own greatest shortcoming.


"What troubles you?" asked Takuan.


"All my life, I have trained myself to develop such skill that no man would ever dare attack me. Now that I have reached my goal, all sentient beings instinctively fear me. You saw how the snake fled from me!"

"I saw it", the priest said. "Since it dared not attack you, you defeated it without striking a blow, and because of that, both the snake and you are alive now. Why does that sadden you?"

"Because I am so strong that no one can ever grow close to me. I can never have true peace." Musashi pointed a finger at the priest. "Not like you", he said with admiration. "You did not fear the snake, nor did the snake fear you. Your spirit is so calm, so natural, that the snake treated you no differently than the rocks, the trees, or the wind. People accept you that way, too."


Takuan smiled and resumed his Zazen.


Musashi spent the last years of his life cultivating Heijoshin, the state of mind demonstrated by Master Takuan.


Please consider the similar story of the contemporary encounter between a Korean Tiger and Master Swordsman Yagyu Munenori, and the same Zen Master Takuan. Their main purpose is to illustrate the power of Heijoshin.


At a lower level, you might also want to ponder the point developed by Master Takuan. Because of the strength demonstrated by Musashi, no confrontation occurred, and no body got hurt. This is somehow the same as the doctrine of military dissuasion : You know that I am soooo strong that if you attack me, you will pay so very dearly that you won't even dream about it. It is in a sense a good thing - nobody gets hurt. However, the reason it occurs is that there is a balance of strength. If for an unknown reason the balance is broken, then there is no more deterrent, and war and destruction happen...

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