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zen fridge magnet

Zen sayings pop up everywhere: on postcards, calendars, and fridge magnets. They may sound cool but don’t seem to have much practical use … until certain situations arise and they help unlock a puzzle.

I’ve been reading — a page at a time — a little book on 16th century Japanese martial arts and warfare. One line caught my attention: The sword that kills is the sword that gives life. Say what? According to the translator, when used in Zen literature this does not refer to actual killing, but to the “mystic initiation known as Great Death, by which the limitations of artificial conditioning are transcended” (p. 10).

Today the phrase helps me reach a little understanding regarding a relationship. It suggest that by relinquishing cherished opinions and putting aside personal needs I might be able to set us both free. Opening clenched hands may give us room to breathe — and risk that we may have to separate ways or, perhaps more risky, become even more intimate. In essence, letting go (“using the sword”) opens my heart-mind to that which is unknown (“the Great Death”), leading to liberation from the bondage of ignorance (“the sword that gives life”).


text source: “Martial arts: the book of family traditions” by Yagyu Munenori (1571-1646). In: Cleary, T. (2005). Soul of the samurai. Rutland, VT: Tuttle. image credit:


One response »

  1. sounds like heavy reading…not sure I could get through a book like that much less make sense of it! You are so wise to be able to translate the messages into meaning for your life!


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