Monday, August 31, 2009

squash balls

He taught them as one having authority.

-- Matthew 7:29 (NRSV)


My teacher – my sensei, though he did not want the title – stood before me with a squash ball in each hand. He was going to toss them both, and I was to catch them both, at the same time. But not by looking at them.

The others had attempted this, with degrees of success and failure. There were the ones who got all confused and missed both balls. There were the ones who concentrated on one ball while the other flew past. There were the ones who caught them both but went off balance, taking extra steps and showing how hard it all was. And a couple of the best young barbarians showed that they had gotten it. They really had gotten it. They threatened me. I was five years older. I was the teacher’s assistant. And I was learning what I should have learned before I was six – how to live in a human body. Everything that was easy for them was bitterly hard for me. They had learned to juggle in five minutes. Me, five weeks. And not well. And I would never get any better.

When I took the first year’s movement training for actors from my reluctant guru, he had not done this exercise. This was something new. I knew what the principles were. I knew how it was supposed to work. But I had never done it.

I was the master’s assistant. I couldn’t back down from the barbarian challenge. (I was the only one in the room who thought there was a challenge.) I had to do what they had done.

So I stood before the boss, ready to show myself, and him, and the others, a thing or two. Anyone who knows the literature of martial arts training – which this was not, and yet I thought myself in a severe dojocan tell you that this was a corrupt situation. The more I tried to prove something, the more I would confuse the issue. “Don’t think of what you have to do, don’t consider how to carry it out!” said the Master Kenzo Awa to Eugen Herrigel, when he began the study of archery.*

I breathed deeper than belly-breathing: I breathed into my crotch. I sent the ki through my feet, through the floor and into the earth. I looked into my teacher’s eyes and out the back of his head. I was somewhere else . . . and then the squash balls were soft in my hands. I had no thought of how they got there. There was silence in the room. My errors of intention had canceled each other out. For a moment I had become the model, the master’s assistant, to be admired and imitated.

In my years with this teacher, I never did better than that. I’m not really talented in this sort of thing. When I met him again years later I could not replicate this moment.

In another phase of life I worked with a great musician, on his way toward international fame. He was keyboardist, scholar and conductor, expert in the Baroque – and yet the sum of these prodigious skills did not contain his authority. He had touched the scores of Handel, Purcell, and Rameau; he knew what books they read, what clothes they wore, who they slept with and what they ate for breakfast. He could play anything in any style or key, and never played the same notes twice, particularly when playing the same piece. He worked from original sources rather than from tradition, so he never asked permission and was his own rule. Though he was rather a kind man, I could feel his impatience with the merely good musicians who had to work things through. He would have done well in my senseis studio, catching squash balls out of the air without thinking about it.

I think of a boy with his voice just breaking, left behind in the temple and disputing scripture with men several times his age. Speaking not like a student, tremulous and apologetic, asking permission and begging pardon for his interruption; but speaking as if he knew what he was talking about, turning the Law around in the light to reveal its unexposed facets, as if he had authority. How dare he catch the truth without effort?

The truth behind the truth is not to be exposed by effort. If I have to convince you that I ought to be here with you, then I ought not to be here with you. If I don’t already have the power in my hands, I can’t ask you for it.

*Zen in the Art of Archery (trans. R. F. C. Hull)

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