What is the sound when you drop a penny?
Some of the learning we do is in the form of a koan. It is a question often without an answer. Most questions have answers that require an understanding to get. A koan insists that the point of the question is not to think about it but rather to intuit it.
Here is some traditional koans:
Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?
If you meet the Buddha, kill him.
Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born.
Two monks are arguing about a flag. One says, “The flag is moving.” The other, “The wind is moving.” A third walks by and says, “Not the wind, not the flag; the mind is moving.”
Q: Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not? R: Mount Sumeru!
In this case, the Penny dropping is a similar concept used to illustrate how we learn. At first we think, “Of course I know what happens when we drop a penny. It falls, hits the ground and makes a tiny sound.”
Everyone has experienced it and can intellectually get it. it’s just like when we learn a new technique, like a spin kick.
Sure, we know how to plant the pivot foot, rotate, extend the leg and snap the heel at the target. We feel like we “got it”. And then we try to use it. It misses the target, it throws us off balance, we get hit while trying to spin, we get blocked, and we totally don’t “get it”.
One day Kwanjangnim was sparring with his brother-in-law, Master Lee. This was way back when I was a brown belt (equivalent of our red belt). It was at the end of class after we all had gone through several rounds of sparring. Master Choi was shorter, stronger, and more aggressive. He had trained the military and was familiar with street fighting. When he would hit, it was thunder. Master Lee was tall, thin and moved like a willow, his attacks were lightning. We watched as these two men maneuvered around the floor slick with sweat, gliding effortlessly.
Master Choi suddenly moved in with a barage of driving kicks culminating in a jump back kick. We all thought Master Lee was going to be decked, fly through the air as the stronger and heavier attack reached him.
In a flash of thought, Master Lee was airborne, spinning. A jump spin kick, over Master Choi’s back kick, his knife edge of his foot hit Master Choi‘s neck. In those days, there were no pads, no guards, only the self control of the fighter. We all held our breathe expecting our Master to be cut down.
Spellbound we watched Master Lee’s kick land with a flutter of the uniform, make contact with Master Choi’s neck, and then stop in mid air.
Master Lee landed on his feet, smiled at Kwanjangnim, and both bowed. As Master Choi turned to us we all could see the red welt on his neck where Master Lee had just touched, without knocking Master Choi down.
Both returned to the class, we lined up and finished class. Everyone of us were amazed at the fury, passion and love with which these two Masters fought. Full on street speed but with the Grace of a mother with a newborn child, these men fought.
That day, a penny dropped. We knew spin kick, but that day the kick came alive in our hearts.
2005 fight with Master Eddie 6 dan Note spin kick at 0:06
I remember trying to do that kick so many times with that speed, aggression and balance. With each kick falling short of that one beautiful kick, I came closer to that. With each kick, a penny dropped.
So the thought of the kick and the understanding of what a kick are different things. It is is not enough to do the kick. It is the feeling, the deep reflexive understanding for which we search.
We were born knowing how to walk, run, breathe and move. We do not need to learn how to pull our hand away from a hot stove, we just know it. We do not need to learn how to blink when the dust blows, our eyes just do it.
The thinking mind is always working on resolving issues, making sense of the world. We find ways to explain and justify our world. It is only natural. Trying to think our way through every conflict is exhausting and just leads to slow reactions. It is in creating the space for the mind to move without thought and yet still aware of all our surroundings (mushin and zanshin) where we can live in the center of the hurricane calmly and not at the furious edges of it.
In the same way, we already know how to fight and how not to fight. Showing up to class, training, repetition, feeling the connection of a punch even before it happens that is the way we discover this talent.
The Sun does not need to know how to shine, it just does. Water flows into a container, becomes the shape of it without thinking of it. The punch or the kick hits the target without reaching for it, the target just becomes one with the technique.
Each time we find another level of a hand or foot movement, we hear the penny drop. We find a more intuitive understanding. Just like the koan defies intellectual comprehension and craves the open mind to feel it’s way, we train to discover that there is more to fighting than just punches and kicks.
It is in this constant learning, the beginners mind, we find a release from the churn of thinking into a spacious place where we live in the eye of the hurricane of life. We are able to meet events big and small in the same calm way. This learning never ends and we learn more about what it means to have the penny drop.