Learning swordsmanship & Action through Nonaction (wu-wei)

From Joseph Campbell’s ‘Myths to Live By’

Once upon a time, in another time and place, there was a master swordsman who established a school so that he could share his knowledge with the boys of the village. Boys who wanted to learn swordsmanship would come and live in the school with the master. When they first came, he would set them to doing chores – washing the dishes, doing the laundry, sweeping out the rooms, etc. – and then he would ignore them for a while. After a few days he would come up from somewhere and smack one or the other of them with a stick.  The smacking would go on for a while, and then the boys would begin to be prepared for the whack; and then the master would alter his tactic, and he would come upon the boys from another side, another angle. Finally, one by one the boys would each learn that he must be prepared not from any particular direction, but rather from a constant and consistent state of centeredness – an undirected alertness ever ready for immediate response. In Japan, this is known as wu-wei, doing without doing, or action without action.

The master carefully monitored the boys progress, and one day he told his students that he would bow before anyone who, in any way whatsoever, could catch him by surprise.  Days passed and the master was never caught. He was ever aware and ever vigilant.  He was never off his guard, not even for a moment.

Life in the school went on, and all was well. Mostly that is. As you might imagine nothing is ever perfect. In fact, in addition to the boys in the village, there was one young girl who also wanted to learn how to become a swordswoman.  The master flatly refused, telling her that work with swords was for men only.  The girl persisted and finally asked the master if she could come and work in the school. Finally he relented and allowed her to work in the kitchen. But she was forbidden to touch the swords, and was restricted from even observing the classes in sword-techniques. She diligently attended to all of her work in the kitchen, and very, very discretely she would hide and watch the boys as they learned to hold and wield their swords. The master knew that she broke his second rule, but he quietly kept watch and allowed her to observe from a distance.

One day the master returned to his hut from a long day of teaching and working in the garden. He asked for a bowl of water to wash off his feet. The young girl brought it from the kitchen. The master felt the water was a bit cold, and so he asked her to warm it. The girl returned with a bowl of hot water, and the master, without thinking, put his feet in, quickly pulled them out, and when down on his knees in a very deep bow before the girl. He bowed deeply before the one student he had rejected. As he rose from the bow, he welcomed the girl to full status as a student among all the other students.

Joseph Campbell tells us that the mistake of inadvertence, not being alert, not quite awake is the mistake of missing the moment of life. The whole of the art of the nonaction that is action (wu-wei) is unremitting alertness. In practicing wu-wei, in living wu-wei one is fully conscious all the time, and since life is an expression of consciousness, life is then lived fully. There is a Zen saying that is the evening message at many Zen sangha’s (communities):

Life and death are grave matters.
All things pass quickly away
Each of us must be completely alert:
Never neglectful, never indulgent.

May we honor this message well, with deep thought and compassionate wu-wei.