A Tool is Never Just a Tool

I remember having a discussion years ago with a friend as we talked about Asian philosophy in general and Shankara’s Crest Jewel of Discrimination in particular. We were wrestling with the question of whether a thing was simply and fully itself. For example, a was a tool like a saw simply itself or was it defined by doing? Maybe wrestling is not the best way to characterize this discussion. As readers have determined by this point, I am not the most subtle of thinkers. And I recall that my conversation with my friend was one in which I maintained that a thing like a saw was defined by what it did and I didn’t see how form and function could be meaningfully  separated (this is probably a much more refined and cogent characterization of the original conversation). My friend, way more intelligent, vastly more interested in asking these questions and staying up late to explore them than I was, was willing to argue the opposite. It probably was connected to a variety of interesting concepts like “thusness”, etc. and was worth more discussion, but I went to bed. I had other things occupying my mind–like the sequence of moves in Heian Godan. I imagined asking my hard core JKA sensei a question about form and function, but quickly dismissed the idea as being a) pointless and b) dangerous.

Decades later, I wonder whether I have grown in wisdom at all. The fine points of Asian philosophy still elude me (that’s why I like the Zen stories about the master who is met on a bridge over a river by some eager quester and, on being asked some abstract question about the Buddha nature, offers to toss the questioner off the bridge) . And I continue to believe that form and function are two wheels on the same cart.

Oh, on some level a thing is just a thing. I get that. But in the larger sense, tools are what we do with them. And the doing brings about a type of completeness for both the tool and the one who wields it.

So it is with the sword. As a thing, it has physical properties, but its nature is fully revealed in being used. And the way we use it and the purposes we use it for have the capacity to make the tool not only a valuable thing, but also possibly a means to a greater end.

So. Skill is not enough. Technique is not enough. Action is not enough.

Right action…right intention. These are the things we need to meld with our training.

And so I come again, through Satsujinken to Katsujinken.


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