Wisdom of the Old Cat

Since I am finding myself up at 3am I figured I’d write a quick post.

There are few practices in life that can be a reliable source of humility and lessons on egoless dedication as in the martial arts. Of course this is based on ones mindset and level of self honesty. For me personally I am forced to confront one or more of my many shortcomings every time I practice. Over the years it has become one of the things I look forward to experiencing.

I recently wrote a post called “The Mind of Form” with a reference from the Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts by Issai Chozanshi “The Hayseed Taoist” (1659-1741) who was a samurai Niwa Jurozaemon Tadaaki of the Sekiyado clan. Again today I will make a reference to this great book.

Here is one of the fundamental messages contained through out in a variety of ways:

“It is foolish to think that another person doesn’t know what you know. If you have spiritual clarity, another person will have spiritual clarity as well. How could you be the only knowledgeable one, while everyone else under heaven is a fool?”

I believe this is an important message. It is very often we see people who have a belief in their own specialness. Something is learned then immediately assumed that they are the only ones that has ever heard of this teaching. Or even worse, somebody else passes on their wisdom and it is internalize to such a degree that even when returned to the ‘originator’ it is given as if it was their own. I can’t count how many times I have witness people offering something as if the idea came from them. This is by no means limited to martial arts. I witness this on a regular basis in the fitness industry and my career as a engineer.

One of my mentors Sifu Ted Wong once said this during a training workshop:

“I have not created a new JKD. There is only one Jeet Kune Do and that is Bruce Lee’s. All that I have done is discovered what was already there.” 

Bruce himself said:

“I have not invented a new style, composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from “this” method or “that” method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used, a mirror in which to see ourselves.”

Another Sifu Mike Rutter said:

“When you have questions seek the source.” 

There is very little if anything I have come up with on my own, what insights I have gained I find expressed throughout the ages from various masters of the past. What I have done and continue to do is work on perfecting my craft.

Issai Chozanshi also expresses these words:

“How could anyone in the world be so stupid? A man will learn some skill, and after making doubly sure he’s got it down, will use it over and over again in vain, never understanding that the skill has now become his enemy, and that he is inviting disaster.”

There are many different areas we can apply this wisdom.

“He [the martial artist] must perceive any situation with total concentration, and act as a mirror spontaneously reflects what passes in front of it. He can harbour no thoughts of prepared action, for they will only come between himself and the external circumstances. In the same way, any premeditated action will not truly reflect or respond to the reality of the situation.”

Bruce Lee reflects this in the answer to the below questions and the following quote:

Q: What are your thoughts when facing an opponent?

A: There is no opponent.

Q: Why is that?

A: Because the word ”l” does not exist. A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. When the opponent expands, l contract. When he contracts, l expand. And when there is an opportunity… l do not hit… it hits all by itself.

“Any technique, however worthy and desirable, becomes a disease when the mind is obsessed with it.”

Bruce Lee also found value with this verse from the Xin Xin Ming (Hsin-hsin Ming) which is often attributed to the Third Chinese Ch’an [Zen] Patriarch Seng-ts’an (died 606) and master of Tao-hsin. Although there is also reference that the Fourth Ch’an Patriarch Tao-hsin (580-651) is actually responsible for this work and it may have later been recorded by his disciple the Fifth Ch’an Patriarch Hung-jen (601-74) or it is possibiliy that the work belongs to the maverick Ch’an master Fa-jung (594-657) also known as the St. Francis of Zen. Xin Xin Ming (Hsin-hsin Ming) is one of the earliest Ch’an [Zen] writings. Masters Seng-ts’an, Tao-hsin, and Hung-jen are honored today as the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Patriarchs, respectively, and revered as the legendary founders of Ch’an. Anyhow the below translation which can also be found in a number of Bruce Lee’s works is originally translated this way in the book “The Religions of Man” (1958) by Huston Smith which included in it a collection of Taoist views.

“The perfect way is only difficult for those who pick and choose. Do not like, do not dislike; all will then be clear. Make a hairbreadth difference and heaven and earth are set apart; if you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.”

A few more translations of this verse of the Xin Xin Ming (Hsin-hsin Ming):

Translation by Dusan Pajin’s

The best way [Great Way, the Tao] is not difficult

It only excludes picking and choosing

Once you stop loving and hating

It will enlighten itself.

Translation by D.T. Suzuki

The Perfect Way knows no difficulties

Except that it refuses to make preferences;

Only when freed from hate and love,

It reveals itself fully and without disguise

Translation by Lok Sang Ho

The Way of the supreme is not difficult,

If only people will give up preferences.

Like not, dislike not.

Be illuminated.


Of course I’m not suggesting here that there is no place for practice and technique. There is a relationship between practice and spontaneity and we need to dismiss any notion that one is more important than the other.

Essentially what we are learning is a repertoire of techniques, tactics and strategies while practicing to maintain guard, powerline superiority, distance control, balance, timing, evasion, counter-attacking, and so on. We must however put this aside at the moment of need, so that one’s spontaneous nature can emerge without premeditation, and so that one will respond in the manner appropriate to the unique situation.

Likewise we need to be careful of our preferences toward certain techniques, tactics, strategies and habits. If we believe that a certain technique is not useful then we will not spend time developing or refining it. Thus our initial mind of its lack of usefulness will become the reality. We will in turn believe this to be the ultimate truth. When provided possible insight to the contrary it will be quickly dismissed because it doesn’t fit into our core belief system. Having to many preferences, ideals, categories of techniques and limiting views will smother our ability to respond naturally. Although Bruce’s goal was to liberate from classical mess as he called it.. This classical mess can be equally achieved within his art.

To me…. Learning is something I do myself. It is not something that is done to me. As the old cat says in the tale “The Mysterious Technique of the Cat“:

“A teacher can only transmit a technique or enlighten you to principle, but receiving the truth of the matter is something within yourself. This is called ‘grasping it on one’s own.’”

There comes a time when you begin to realize that a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick. What we are seeking is the roots and these roots are inherent to all things.

I’ll leave you with one final quote from the Cat’s Cradle (1963) by author Kurt Vonnegut before heading off to bed:

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.


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