I have a t-shirt that was given to me by an American sensei. On the back of the shirt are two kanji taken from the late Nishiyama sensei’s original calligraphy Mokkei. A number of friends have asked me what they mean and when I tell them “wooden rooster”, they are none the wiser. The term comes from Zen and is based on a fable from the Chinese sage Chuang Tsu. The story as told by Daisetz Suzuki in Zen and Japanese Culture is as follows.
Chi Hsing-Tzu was raising a fighting cock for his master. Ten days passed and the lord asked, “is he ready?” Chi answered “No sir, he is not ready. He is still vain and flushed with rage.” Another ten days passed and the prince asked about the cock. Chi said, “not yet sir. He is on the alert whenever he sees the shadow of another cock or hears it crowing.” Still another 10 days passed and when the enquiry came from the prince, Chi replied, “Not quite yet sir. His sense of fighting is smouldering within him ready to be awakened.” When another ten day passed Chi replied in response to the enquiry: “He is almost ready. Even when he hears another crowing he shows no excitement. He now resembles one made of wood. His qualities are integrated. No cocks are his match; they will at once run away from him.
Like many of these Zen parables this can be interpreted in a number of ways. It can be read as an instruction to lose unnecessary pride and anger, neither of which have any place in the dojo. It can also be seen as an instruction to avoid all unnecessary reaction and movement in keiko or shiai. I was told of a tachiai in this year’s Kyoto Taikai where neither party made a strike, simply because the opportunity was not there. I did not see the shiai myself, but it sounds like the embodiment of the concept of Mokkei, remaining in a state of heightened awareness, ready to attack when the opportunity presents itself, but making no unwarranted movement.
Often kendo instruction seems contradictory, we are told to constantly attack but to make no useless movement. To do this, our kamae, posture and balance must be perfect so that we can stop or go at will. At the same time we must have the courage to either hold back or attack with total commitment, with no compromise between the two.