Bodhi Day is less than two weeks away (December 8, 2021). I’m sure many readers who found this blog this close to Bodhi Day are new to Buddhism and Zen, curious about yet another holiday during an already busy holiday season.
Bodhi Day celebrates the day the Historic Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, became enlightened through his insight of the path to no suffering. In the West, that path is often referred to as “moderation”, “the middle way”. But as it is with many translations attempting to forge exotic concepts into familiar analogies, so much is stripped away that what’s left is misleading at best.
Therefore, when Buddhism is thought of using the English words, “middle way”, we tend to think of a spot along one-dimensional metrics. For example, not fat, but not too thin. Don’t work too hard, even though we think of hard work as a virtue. Drink in moderation, one or two alcoholic drinks per week is OK.
However, although we fool ourselves into thinking some elusive tip or trick will change our lives, we know life isn’t that easy. A “successful” life isn’t as easy as monitoring a set of metrics on a dashboard, following some recipe to success. “Master, teach me that secret throw!” “Chef, what is that secret ingredient!”
Additionally, the metrics we’re conditioned to watch in our lives pulls us in conflicting directions. For example, the tired movie plot of a parent caught between the focus on a career to provide a better life for their children, but doesn’t spend enough time with those children.
“Moderation” isn’t an adequate enough word to fully reflect the Buddha’s framework towards happiness. What is really meant by the Buddha’s insight is to blend in with the energy. For example, Judo isn’t firstly about skill and knowledge of throws, how to fall, or how to win matches. It’s about sensitivity to the complex movement generated by two sentient beings who found themselves in the squall of action that we call a match.
Blending with the energy is in contrast to the extremes of fiercely resisting it or limply submitting to it. Kuzushi is a middle way, but not as easy to implement as simply not trying too hard or trying too little. The middle-way is a skillful way.
That dynamic is complexity of constant change, most of which isn’t under the direct control of either of them. The one who clings the least to distractions and addictions falls into “just right” along the countless dimensions of real life. Given two equally-skilled and highly-skilled judoka, the one who clings to their thought is the one who falls out of “just right” and loses.
This is first of three main phases of any judo throw, called Kuzushi. This means to have the sensitivity of your opponent’s instant of imbalance. Next comes, Tsukuri, positioning yourself to make the throw. And finally the “money-phase”, the actual throw where the points are earned, Kake.
Kuzushi is the most important part, but the least mastered in our impatient culture of instant gratification. Why? Because it doesn’t look like anything is happening. We see what appears to be things happening during tsukuri and kake. But until the first phase of Kuzushi, it just looks like two people pushing and pulling each other.
Most would be wondering about now, “What are the techniques to get your opponent into a position of Kuzushi? I will learn those techniques, those tips and tricks for success!” Yes, there are techniques. But there is a catch. Your opponent knows them as well. Mindlessly using those techniques will only lead you into your opponent’s Kuzushi trap. There is no escaping the mastery of the genuine sensitivity that results from fully and correctly letting go.
Kuzushi isn’t just about judo. In American football, we first see 22 men scrambling around. Hopefully, the quarterback is safe until the timing is right – kuzushi. Then he throws the ball (tsukuri), and finally it is caught in the end zone (kake).
Kuzushi is the Judo manifestation of the Buddha’s teaching. But it’s overshadowed by our obsessions with striving for more. Instead, we’ll become faster, stronger, smarter, more accomplished. The problem is there will always be someone or “teams of many someones” that are more of whatever than you. And all of those things are capped by the limitations of our human body. Kuzushi isn’t. There is a longer road to the end of Kuzushi than there is with how strong and smart we could be.
Enlightenment on Bodhi Day will not magically change the circumstances of your life. What it will do is remove the pain so that you may merrily continue your journey with no fear. As it is in the Aesop’s fable where Androcles removed the thorn in the lion’s paw, genuine mastery of Kuzushi is the removal of the source of your pain and you will follow it for your remaining days.
The Expert Deep Sea Fisherman and the Master Mullet Fisherman
When I was a child, my grandfather used to fish for mullet at the nearby Haleiwa Harbor. He could fish every day and each time catch at least three of these terribly finicky fish. I’ve done my share of fishing and never did catch one. I was told by the other mullet fisherman that my grandfather was the best at it. And I could see the genuine admiration from those old folks who seemed so comfortable in their own skin.
His equipment consisted of a 15-foot bamboo pole, about 20 feet of fishing line, a hook, and a piece of bread. By 15-foot bamboo pole, I mean he actually cut down a 15-foot bamboo – far from the fancy katana-quality equipment from brands such as Penn and Shimano. He would sit at the end of a dock in Haleiwa Harbor for a couple of hours. All but maybe a minute of that time was spent dealing with hooked fish.
I would see the pole moving and tell him, “You get one bite!” But he just sat there. That is, until some subtle movement of the pole indiscernible to me. That movement was the instant the mullet and hook were in a position where my grandfather could artfully set the hook – with the right force, right angle. If my grandfather reacted to the movement I saw, the fish would have just run away.
Contrast this to my uncle’s deep sea fishing. He had a beautiful 25-foot Bayliner that he took out almost every weekend with a regular crew of my other uncles (one blood, one in-law) and a friends of his. His very high-end deep-sea poles and Penn reels were racked against an entire wall in the family room where he and my grandparents lived.
They were considered among the better boat crews at Haleiwa Harbor, regularly hauling in 200+ pound ahi, marlin of many hundreds of pounds, and 50+ pound mahimahi and ono. On another wall of the family room were his awards from the local deep sea fishing club.
My uncle was quite a … uh, you know … in all ways. Short in stature, even by the standards of Hawaii fifty years ago, he more than made up for it with his brash personality. However, although he was the “mean girl” of Haleiwa Harbor, one must still give his spirit some sort of credit.
He ceaselessly ridiculed my grandfather’s one-pound mullets versus his catch of glamorously huge game fish that was superior in volume by magnitudes, while at least on par in quality as food. A couple hundred years ago, my grandfather’s comparatively meager catch would have provided more than enough protein for his family, every single day, with just a bamboo pole, 20 feet of line, a hook, and a piece of bread. His catch of three or four mullet was so consistent that there wouldn’t be much fear of not obtaining food the next day.
If you watch YouTube videos of Florida deep-sea fishing, you’ll see folks using throw nets at the shore, pulling up hundreds of mullet, and using it for mahimahi or crab bait. Don’t get me wrong, though. I enjoy those deep-sea fishing videos. For what those videos are, they certainly are more entertaining than watching an old man sitting on a dock. And, I very much enjoyed a steak of ahi or mahimahi from my uncle’s catch as opposed to picking through the tiny bones of a mullet – but that’s not the point 🙂
My uncle’s success required the relative wealth of a modern middle-class American to buy his own boat, pay for $20 of gas (a lot of money back then), own a souped-up Bronco to pull the boat back and forth, and a huge chest freezer to store hundreds of pounds of fish.
As with any hunters of pre-industrial times and even today, they often came back empty-handed, and when they did have big catch, it was a pain in the ass to preserve. In terms of pragmatism, the consistency of my grandfather’s method would have made more sense. But it required a very special quality to pull it off. In his case, it’s mullet kuzushi.
My grandfather was a master fisherman. My uncle was an expert. This distinction of master and expert isn’t on some ordinal scale. Meaning if I were to list the ranks of Master, Expert, Advanced, Intermediate, and Beginner, Master is just one level above expert. However, in reality, a master is much more than just a more advanced expert.
True Mastery of anything is the ticket into the genuine classroom of Zen where the real learning begins. A master lives in a completely different world from others, even though it seems like the master is just another schmuck living among us. Often the master seems to be the bullee of a bully (hahaha – that is funny), but you would be mistaking that for the master honing her/his Zen courtesy of a juicy petty tyrant, as Carlos Castaneda would put it.
Now, my grandfather was no don Juan Mr. Miyagi, or Kwai Chang Caine. But he was at the gate for decades, never venturing through. I don’t think he knew it was there.
Maybe you have mastered a kind of kuzushi through an art or profession of your own. Through it, you actually know the Buddha’s teaching of holding off until things fall into place. And you know “falling into place” doesn’t necessarily mean the way you had hoped. There are countless other ways that will work just as well, not just that one. Are you there and just need someone to point out the gate that you had not been taught to recognize?
Bodhi Season 2021 Starts Soon
Bodhi Season 2021 begins on Wednesday, December 1, 2021, culminating with Bodhi Day on December 8. It is seven days of being more mindful of yourself as opposed to simply going through the motions of getting through the day. The home page is a place to start with a fuller explanation of Bodhi Day as well as links to past Bodhi Day blogs.
Mrs. Hanamoku, The Eternal Fishnu, The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet, Ringo, and the rest of us at BodhiDay.org are with you all the way! I will “see” you next on December 8!
Faith and Patience to you!
Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku