Kentaiji Winds, the Lizard, and the Ontological Preemption of Storytelling

In the fourth year of the Kagemusha Shogunate, six years since the Tatamorii massacre when the Kazekuo Clan and the Daizoku family committed seppuku upon the death of their Master, a single man arose as the undisputed Master of the Kofuku clan of samurai. His name was whispered with awe and fear. Children in the countryside would play out the legends which swept and changed, like the kentaiji winds from the north that brought the sweet fragrances from the volcanic pits, mixing the bitter taste of ashes, hot spring waters, deep chasms of the heated underworlds, mixed with the cherry blossoms along the Zen Monastery of Kyozuku – as each roll of the winds picked up new mixtures of fragrances and changed in its essence, so the stories of the brave feats of Sazuro – the master swordsman – grew with each breath of the gods.

Legend has it that Sazuro, on a morning filled with the ashen fragrances of the kentaiji winds, in the dew mist of sunrise when the lizard pauses with its mouth parted to allow the rising sun to warm its blood, its transparent eyelids half shading its dilated pupils, sat before his garden, tended with care and patience, swept where each rock and stone rested upon the previous one, and the one before, combed meticulously to form a whole, as only a zen master could embrace; for zen is not to try, but to do, and yet in the act of doing, to understand, and embrace the void of his surroundings. Cross-legged, eyes closed, Sazuro breathed the air of winds; his mind embraced nothingness; his ears heard darkness; his eyes saw silence. Suddenly, from a hundred yards above, along the ridge of the surrounding mountains, the arrow came with the swiftness of the volcanic winds of gods, aiming with lightening precision at the heart of Sazuro. His teacup in hand, his eyes closed, his head slightly tilted, in the silence of darkness, with the sun rising with the pink tint and the dew of morning evaporating as the lizard began to limber under the rising heat, Sazuro flicked his wrist and caught the arrow just inches from his heart. The lizard opened its eyes. Sazuro began running; with such effortless strides, he ran barefoot up the side of the mountain, eyeing the ridge from whence the arrow had come, his sword in one hand, the arrow in the other. Some say that the kentaiji winds stopped blowing because the speed of Sazuro’s rush to meet his attacker created a counterwind; still others claimed that the lizard and man were one, that as Sazuro ran up the rocky mountain, the lizard had disappeared. As he reached the top, the archer suddenly realized that the volcanic fragrances of the kentaiji winds were now replaced with the throbbing of his own heart, the smell of his own sweat, and the mixture of one who had tried but failed; fear enveloped the archer’s mind. But the trap had been set, and the corners of the archer’s lips curled slightly with mischief; the second, hidden archer in the treetop; the two ronin samurai behind the large boulder to his left; and the archer himself with an arrow ready to shoot upon the figure of Sazuro over the ridge. But the kentaiji winds shifted, and Sazuro smelled the sweat from the archer, the garlic enjoyed the night before by the hidden archer in the treetop; the unwashed scent of the ronin samurai – the winds warned Sazuro of each, and the dangers hidden; from whence the dangers came; and how many. Or, perhaps, as some have said, the lizard knew the countryside, and each fly and insect which moved within its boundaries. For the lizard, too, was nowhere to be seen near the rock garden.

For the Zen Master, the encounter with Being is more than stepping upon a thorn in a half-sleep. Though the yell of pain, the trickle of blood, the wakefulness of sudden encounter, crashes us headlong into the realization that the world around us harms, titillates, roughs up and soothes, it is so with each of us; and not merely for the Zen Master. The ronin samurai, masterless by definition, and thus ronin, without identity, would surely die. Legend has it that Sazuro, with one swift movement, decapitated both of their heads, and the body of one took two steps before the second head landed in the cradling arms of the first. Whether consciousness was lost before the body separated from spirit, or spirit recognized the horror of being headless and thus soulless, we shall never fathom to know. The tail of the lizard left a streak of wetness upon the sun-baked, whitewashed boulder which, for a time, had hidden their presence from Sazuro, and the lizard, or both, or one. Nothingness was left for the two ronin; without an identity, without their heads, they evaporated, as the morning dew that morning, as the kentaiji winds began to shift again.

Umberto Eco, in his work, Kant and the Platypus, notes that in the primordial state of man, whether in the deep meditative abyss of a zen master, or that hypothetical time of man pre-language, “being is not a philosophical problem, any more than water is a philosophical problem for fish.” But can such an encounter ever occur? For man is by nature, inherent in his very rationality, wrapped within the definitional essence of Aristotle’s ascription of rationality as his very essence – a storyteller. A storyteller is a purveyor of words, put together to form ideas, for creations of conceptual models, in order to compose and describe a symphony of the human condition. Whether man was or was not ever in that primordial state, the essence of the storyteller impedes any such naked encounter with Being. Yes, self-awareness is an attribute of man; yes, the differentiation between I and thou, the consciousness of self, the awareness of one’s self apart from the other; the non-verbal realization of being; but, always and foremost, we bring with us the need to tell the story. Wrapped into the essence of man is a swirling precondition of historicity; that man comes not from a vacuum, but with a story. The baby who comes into the world possesses a name before she is named; she is the daughter of two who came together in love. And the history of that story is an infinite history of being.

The best trial attorneys are the best storytellers. Trial attorneys do not merely convey or portray “facts” to jurors; they tell stories – stories of crimes and misdemeanors, of passionate advocacy; of injuries so horrific as to make dull minds in a jury box impassioned and outraged, to lengths of irrationality such that the awarding of monetary compensation somehow makes up for the storied outrage. Suspend the fact that money is an insufficient substitute for loss of limb or life; the storyteller convinces us all that compensatory damages sufficiently provide a viable alternative to mental anguish. Go figure. Yet, the narrative told, the human drama described, the conflict relived, and the encounter between I and thou, until a community of empathy is solidified, where the jurors begin – through the story – to see it as we against the defendant. “We the jury find for the plaintiff, and award damages in the amount of ____”

And, as legends grow, Sazuro’s feats of courage and bravery never strayed far from believability. There are legends, and then myths and self-perpetuated, vain-conceited portrayals of bravado. Sazuro’s reputation needed no exaggeration. The hidden archer in the tree was able to shoot an arrow in the general direction of Sazuro; the very branches which he had hoped would shade him from revelation and retain him within the void of darkness, was that very obstacle which prevented him from attacking. The master samurai disappeared behind the boulders; the lizard slithered unnoticed between crevices and followed the paths of nature; and suddenly the sword of Sazuro, the one which whispered death when unsheathed, twirled effortlessly end over end and struck the hidden archer through his neck. With gurgling sounds like a river about to drain with a whirlpool of suctions, the lizard paused, waited, and when the lifeless thump of the body fell into the tall grass below, Sazuro retrieved his sword, and wiped the blood, the saliva, and the waste of human soil, upon the robe of the dead villain.

For, consider the master storyteller, Anton Chekhov, in his short story, Grief (translator’s subtitle: “To Whom Shall I Tell My Grief,”), where the cab-driver, Iona Potapov, within a span of 6 pages, tells the story of human need; of a son’s death; a tale of tragedy, and of human indifference. And in the end, he turns to his horse, and speaks the mournful song of every human desire: “That’s how it is, my old horse. There’s no more Kuzma Ionitch. He has left us to live, and he went off pop. Now let’s say, you had a foal, you were that foal’s mother, and suddenly, let’s say, that foal went and left you to live after him. It would be sad, wouldn’t it?” Sadder still if Iona was left incapable of telling his story. For the very ontological encounter that he and all of us have, is one which tells a story. To be human is to tell a story of one’s humanness; for we are neither inanimate objects, indifferent to the weathering storms of our surroundings, anymore than we are Pavlov’s experimental subjects exhibiting conditional reflexes or revealing transmarginal inhibitions, reacting or shutting down in response to our surroundings. For, Nothingness is not just the absence of Being; it is, more profoundly, the existence of Silence. And so the Zen Master attempts to reveal to his novices the path to enlightenment, to shed one from the confusion of one’s self; to dive into the abyss of Nothingness, a cauldron within a maze of conundrums, only to know that in the art of trying, one may lose forever the soul of his being. But the true zen master knows – lives – the essence of man as the storyteller.

Sazuro was a warrior. His zen training was a means to escape the natural fear of death; being a warrior defined the essence of Sazuro. For a warrior, it was the penultimate act to return the weapon meant for his death, to the one who so attempted to kill him. Sazuro, with arrow still in hand, stood before the archer. The eyes stared; it is a frightening sight to watch a man’s eyes, when those eyes show more than mere fear; for fear may be an uplifting emotion, one which allows for survival, and to be able to fight for another day; but fear mixed with the certainty of oblivion, when the mind knows that the body cannot respond to the adversary who stands before him – such fear results in the loss of soul of a man. A warrior’s first duty is to protect his lord; the second, to protect himself; and for the warrior samurai, if he fails the former, he must affirmatively fail the latter, and commit seppuku. Today, Sazuro stood before his enemy because the enemy desired to kill his lord; to kill his lord, he needed to kill Sazuro. Both Sazuro and the archer knew this. Legend has it that as Sazuro raised the hand which held the arrow which, but for the swiftness of the lizard in the misty dew of morning, aimed but an inch from his heart, and the hand which beheld the abyss of death beyond the valley of life, reached and grasped, stopped and froze, the pointed arrow; Sazuro raised the hand, and before he could act, to return the arrow to its rightful owner, the archer trembled, oozed blood from his pores, and convulsed in a weighty heap of quivering death. The legend of Sazuro – of death in silence, of vanquished enemies without raising a sword, would spread throughout the Kagemusha Province. And the children, playing in the dusty streets in towns and cities, would act out the legend; and the only true fights which would erupt noisily, would be the shrill protestations of the child who was chosen to be the archer.

Heidegger, in Being in Time, wrote: “When tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it ‘transmits’ is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part, that it rather becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial ‘sources’ from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn.” Yes, but what Heidegger did not understand – or fully comprehend – is that the blocking of such access was not a negative event to be corrected; it is, after all, the very being of our human-ness.

For, just as the lizard was seen the next morning raising its shiny white underbelly to the rising sun, so Sazuro meditated in silence before the crystal white stones of his rock garden. The kentaiji winds blew warmly that morning, bringing forth the soft fragrances of volcanic ashes, cherry blossoms, and the silent encounter with Being. But whether Sazuro was aware of the presence of the lizard, or the lizard felt the fearsome reputation of Sazuro, we shall never know. Only the storyteller can shed light upon that.

Virtue and Being

What does it mean to define something? At a minimum, it means to set it apart from others; for if x is to be defined, it must be defined as distinguished from y; otherwise, it remains subsumed and indistinguishable; for if in discussing x, you are unable to make heads or tails out of whether I am discussing either x or y, I have failed to set a boundary around the word, the subject, or concept about which I am discussing. I have failed to define my terms.

When taking on a partner in a business venture; accepting employment with a company or firm; interviewing a potential job candidate; considering a friendship; considering marriage; do we ever ask the question, Does he/she possess virtue? Or, What virtues (pluralizing the concept) does he/she possess? Is he/she virtuous (i.e., does that person’s essence or personhood contain the characteristics of virtue)? Are such questions so culturally irrelevant and anachronistic that they are no longer considered (is it similar to asking, how far must I travel before I fall off the edge of the earth?) Culturally, of course, it is interesting in this Post-modern Age that our language is dominated by purely emotive-injected adrenaline. Do I like him/do I love him/does he excite me/does he care for me? Virtue is without meaning; not because it cannot be defined, for certainly anyone can turn to a dictionary and verbalize the definition; rather, it has no meaning because it has no cultural relevance; it is a vacuous concept; it has fallen off the edge of the earth.

But can a truth exist without a mind to embrace it? Can virtue escape the historical relativity to which it has been relegated? And, moreover, how does one attain virtue? How can virtue retain a significance when the concept itself has been subsumed into relative vacuity? In Book II, Chapter 1, (1103b 21, following), Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides the key:

After noting that “moral virtue comes about as a result of habit,” he states: Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.

Thus, the conceptual vacuity of a concept like virtue need not remain so; truth unembraced and unacknowledged need not be perennially forgotten in the temple of meaninglessness; Aristotle’s point is that virtue, properly understood, has nothing to do with conceptual existence or non-existence; it has to do with the habit of acting in such manner as the consistency of actions brings about a state of character – of being virtuous. Just as one becomes a murderer by murdering; one is dishonest by acting dishonestly; so, one becomes virtuous by acting in a virtuous manner. Simplicity is often the subtle voice of profundity, and Aristotle is the master craftsman. In the cultural void of modern day; where chivalry, manners, being a ‘gentleman’; indignation at moral inappropriateness; embarrassment at lewd conduct; one may still define virtue, simply by being virtuous. And that is certainly how it should be – for words are cheap; a man can claim to be virtuous but act in ways which clearly define him differently; yet, consider the opposite: a man who acts virtuous, remains virtuous despite private thoughts to the contrary, for virtue is not defined by thoughts; it is defined by actions.

And so it is; we may recapture virtue, by being so. Let those who speak meaninglessness sound the hollow sounds of vacuity; those of substance, let his actions reveal the true Being of Virtue.

Doing Philosophy and Law

Is wisdom determined by the answer, or the question? Or is the circularity of such a question in and of itself the key to its own answer? How does one attain a state of character, a state of being, such that one has become “wise”? Is this even a relevant question anymore? Are men today attempting, through a life of virtuous activity, to attain a sage-hood stature? Should that not be the goal of each man? Have we become so lazy that we no longer aspire to such a status? I once had a professor who began the class by telling us that he was not interested in our opinions; we had no right to opinions until we gained sufficient knowledge to form such opinions. That systematic methodology is no longer upheld today; with deconstructionism and the post-modern view that all opinions are equal; that relevance and weight of logical force, recognition of facts, truth, and validity – all are subjugated to the overarching primacy of the value of “equality”.

But despite the subjugation of Truth to relativism; the absolute anarchy of ideas today, where blurring of distinctions between facts and opinions, between a logically sound argument and an emotionally-charged slogan of vacuity – the primacy of truth may still emerge, when the extreme of mediocrity is once again recognized. I am always profoundly struck, each time I reread Aristotle, by the sheer force of his wisdom. For example, meditate upon the following excerpt from Book III, Chapter 1, (995a – b) of Aristotle’s Metaphysics:

We must, with a view to the science which we are seeking, first recount the subjects that should be first discussed. These include both the other opinions that some have held on the first principles, and any point besides these that happens to have been overlooked. For those who wish to get clear of difficulties it is advantageous to discuss the difficulties well; for the subsequent free play of thought implies the solution of the previous difficulties, and it is not possible to untie a knot of which one does not know. But the difficulty of our thinking points to a ‘knot’ in the object; for in so far as our thought is in difficulties, it is in like case with those who are bound; for in either case it is impossible to go forward. Hence one should have surveyed all the difficulties beforehand, both for the purposes we have stated and because people who inquire without first stating the difficulties are like those who do not know where they have to go; besides, a man does not otherwise know even whether he has at any given time found what he is looking for or not; for the end is not clear to such a man, while to him who has first discussed the difficulties it is clear. Further, he who has heard all the contending arguments, as if they were the parties to a case, must be in a better position for judging.

At its most fundamental level, of course, the doing of philosophy (if there is such a thing) is nothing more than the pursuit of wisdom – to love knowledge, to go after paradoxes and thought-provoking conundrums; to love wisdom for the pure joy of meditative challenges; and part of that process is to confront those ‘knots’, those difficulties; for it is the tackling of those difficulties beforehand which then clears the path for greater knowledge. In this day and age, knowledge is no longer revered; intellectual laziness abounds, for the individual believes that that which he does not know, he can always google. But you cannot google the untying of a knot; you must take the time to attain knowledge by meditating upon the untying of knots; and in that process, one is doing philosophy.

Prior to becoming an Attorney, my first love was Philosophy. I studied Philosophy at Catholic University, then went on to the Graduate School of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, where I had the opportunity to study under Richard Rorty, who was in the Humanities Department at the time. But the practical problems of life intervened, and to become an Attorney was, for myself, the perfect melding of an intellectual component with the practical aspect of being able to make a living. It was a knot of life which I contemplated for quite some time; now, twenty years later, I love the life of law; of the intellectual component of researching Court opinions; the logical component of making sound legal arguments; and the practical aspect of actually helping my clients secure their financial future by obtaining disability retirement benefits for them. And during these twenty years, I have had the freedom to continue to read philosophy, to meditate upon multiple philosophers – from Plato and Aristotle, to Kant, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Popper, Putnam, et al, and to continue to untie the bounds of knots, within the loving circle of my wife and three wonderful kids.

Reflections Upon Law, Arête, and the Banality of Life

The practice of law is a peculiar exercise in combining the theoretical with the practical; in that sense, perhaps it is an anomaly in that the two disciplines rarely intersect, and the great divide between a conceptual discipline and a practical one is defied by the ‘practice’ of law. Indeed, the very phrase ‘practice of law’ is an anomaly — it is in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that the Greek philosopher notes that moral growth “comes about as a result of habit,” revealing to us the banal truth that excellence in something comes about through the habitual practice of that thing. Such a truth should be self-evident and unsurprising; yet, reflection on the very idea that to ‘practice law’ is to gain a level of competence and excellence in the endeavor is a frightening concept – especially for the client upon whom a lawyer practices. But, of course – it cannot be avoided; just as wisdom is reached through age, experience, encounters with difficulties, and overcoming life’s episodic challenges; similarly, a lawyer becomes competent in an area of law through the experience of research, preparation, depositions, trials (both wins and losses) – through the ‘practice of law’.

For the beginning attorney, the practice of law can be an unnerving prospect; for neither wisdom nor experience has yet been gained; ‘practice’ can be one of trial and error – literally. And even for an experienced trail attorney, the prospect of an overlooked detail, of an unexpected answer from a witness on the stand, or a sentence in a document that suddenly takes on a destructive life of its own in the midst of a trial – these practical aspects of law are what makes being a lawyer both exciting and angst-filled. Leibniz once wrote that virtue “is the habit of acting according to wisdom. It is necessary that practice accompany knowledge.” It is this latter statement – of the necessity of knowledge accompanying practice – is what is often ignored. The practical aspect of ‘practice’ in law does not mean practice without knowledge; and that is the difference between competence and incompetence. The great tool of a lawyer must always begin with the theoretical side of the discipline – knowledge. For knowledge is gained through study, research, observation and a humble recognition that we can never know enough.

Law combines the theoretical (research of case-law; systematic and logical argumentation of legal principles, etc.) with the practical (courtroom strategies; voicing sustainable objections; having the rhetorical ability of persuasion, etc.). In this world of pragmatism, however – where the practice of law is driven by profit-motives; where law has become not a profession, but rather a business; and where the art of trial-work too often gets reduced to obnoxious and aggressive acts of unprofessional behavior – the theoretical is too often expendable; the success of a case is based too often upon courtroom strategies.

We have lost something in this age; whether because technology has left irrelevant the necessity of quiet reflection; where poetry and metaphor can no longer impact the mind; or because we need constant entertainment as opposed to sustained meditation upon conceptual conundrums (reflect: if Wittgenstein, Wisdom, Derrida, et al are correct, that there are no substantive philosophical problems to be solved, and all that we are confronted with is a confusion of language, then what substantive issues are left which require sustained meditation?); and the loss of that which we must recover may be found in the very principle of ‘virtue’, or arête (?????) as found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Book II, Ch. 6), where he states, “Virtue then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.” Arête is a principle with a pervasive quietude of enveloping profundity; it is a state acquired through habitual application over time; it cannot be reached in an episodic instance; it is almost a Zen-like principle (and yes, I have no qualms about using this term, despite being a Christian) where, if you ask yourself if you have acquired arête, then in all likelihood you have not. It is a level beyond mere competency or a quantitative roster of having won x-number of cases; it is, instead, a state of excellence.

We have lost that sense of having excellence as a goal, both in law as well as in all other aspects of life. We have goals to make money; to become an x; to go mountain climbing; we have financial and career goals; we have goals for our spouses, our kids – but when have you heard of someone saying, “My goal is to acquire arête“? It is a goal worth having; to reach a state of a life well-lived is a worthwhile goal. As the ‘practice of law’ is a combining of the conceptual with the theoretical, so is life itself; for as we mature, it is our conceptual framework; our ‘foundational beliefs’; our ‘noetic structure’; which determine our behavior in this temporal, short span we designate as ‘my life’ as opposed to ‘that other’. As with all disciplines, the practice of law is merely a microcosm of who we are in the macro aspect of living our lives. Hannah Arendt coined the famous term, “the banality of evil”; there is an even greater banality in the life we live as ordinary people – the banality of living a life of worth. That such a concept might become a banal one is of faint hope in this day and age.