Thursday, February 16, 2006

Five Lessons

The cook teaching Prince Wen Hui (Feb 15 blog) is one of my favorite Chuang Tzu stories. There are at least five lessons in the parable, all of which are applicable to martial arts training. The first is about character development through a physical art form. Wen Hui's cook learned to butcher cattle, starting out clumsy and eventually becoming fluent. As he got better at the physical components of his craft, his character deepened correspondingly. This wonderful combination is at the heart of all the traditional martial art forms. Whether you practice aikido, battojutsu, iaido, jujutsu, jodo, judo, karate, or naginata-do, the components are in place for significant internal development.

The second lesson is about how the tools of your trade reflect your ability level. The cook had gotten so good that he never needed to sharpen his cleaver; instead of hacking his way through the ox, his blade glided through almost on its own. Similarily, the better my students and I get at iaido, the less wear and tear there is on our blades.

The third lesson is about teaching by example. If the cook hadn't been so skilled at his craft, his words would have had less impact. The power of his example, paired with his words, was enough to catch the attention of the prince.

The fourth and fifth lessons are closely related. One is about the fact that status has nothing to do with one's ability to reach enlightenment, and the other is about beginner's mind. The lowly cook had devoted himself heart and soul to his craft and had become a buddha. Meanwhile, the exalted prince had been able to put aside his status and really pay attention to the intrinsic qualities of his cook, and had thereby learned an invaluable lesson.

Nicklaus Suino teaches iaido and other martial arts at seminars throughout North America. Information about his programs can be found at He teaches iaido, judo, and jujutsu at the Japanese Martial Arts Center in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. Calligraphy by the late Yamaguchi Katsuo, Iaido Meijin 10th Dan: "Grasp the sacred jeweled sword."

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