-Zen Master Taisen Deshimaru
Korean Zen Martial Artist
This is the first in what will be a series of entries on “Zen combat”, as well as a basic explanation of what the term actually means here at Integral Strength.
The term comes from a book of the same name by the historian Jay Gluck, first published in 1963. For early Karate-ka in North America, the book was exceptional reading, and it still remains so until this day. For some reason, it hasn’t always remained in print, despite the fact that - unlike the entirely useless and pretty much awful book “Zen in the Martial Arts” by Joe Hyams, which has, for some odd reason, remained a seminal favorite - Gluck actually knew something about Zen and the martial arts. Not to fault Hyams entirely, I suppose, since almost all martial artists I’ve come into contact with - even those who are Japanese, sad to say - know next to nothing about the actual philosophy, not to mention practice, of real Zen. But if you’re going to actually write a book with the title “Zen in the Martial Arts” it would be nice if you weren’t entirely ignorant of Zen in the first place. But I digress… moving on:
Zen Combat as Opposed to Bushido
“Bushido is a word known to many outside of Japan. It means literally ‘warrior way’, purported to be an ethic, a way of life. It does not mean a martial art in the sense of being a technique for teaching. ‘Zen Combat’ refers to these techniques, these jutsu. The Way, or do, one must make for oneself.” -Jay Gluck from “Zen Combat”
The writings in this series will focus on these techniques, what Gluck refers to as “Zen combat.” First, however, it’s important that the reader understand a little about the philosophy known as Zen in Japan (also known as Chan in China, Thien in Vietnam, and Seon in Korea, although most Western books written by authors from these countries still refer to their writings as “Zen”).
If you were to leave this page right now and google the word “Zen”, about ¾ of what you would find in your search under the title Zen would have next to nothing to do with real Zen. Zen has, in our country, become, sadly, eponymous with such things as “peace of mind”, “going with the flow”, “simplifying things”, or other such stuff that can be accomplished entirely without the use of real Zen. Take, for example, the website “Zen Habits” that is hugely popular (or so it would seem). The website seems to be about simplifying your life, becoming more organized, settling for some peace of mind, becoming “successful”, and other such crap. But it ain’t Zen. To use a bit of homespun phraseology, it would appear that the author of the website, Leo Babauta, wouldn’t know Zen if it walked right up and bit him in the ass.
But “Zen Habits” is far from the only transgressor of crappy, fake, pseudo-Zen. In doing only a cursory search, I even came across a video on Amazon for “Naked Zen Yoga” (or something such as that). It goes without saying that nothing in that video would actually be Zen.
To make matters even worse, once you find “authentic” Zen, even there you are going to find a host of things that, in my humble opinion, are not real Zen. Take, for example, the fact that most of American Buddhism (or so it would seem based on a few readings of popular Buddhist magazines such as Tricycle or Lion’s Roar) seems more like modern liberal Christianity, than it does Buddhism, just without Christ. But at least the Zennists practicing this form of Zen (Zen is a form of Buddhism, for those of you who didn’t know) seem to be, for the most part, rather sincere. Sure, there are some hucksters, but I’m guessing they are the minority and not vice versa. Most of the folks I’ve met who take Zen practice seriously, even if I wouldn’t buy into what can best be called their “metaphysics” or “epistemology”, do so with the best intentions at heart.
For the sake of this lone post, I don’t have enough space to get into all of the different “versions” of Zen that pervade the American marketplace, but perhaps I can do a post in the future on the different versions, which ones I like, which ones I despise, and which ones I think are pretty darn good even when I don’t agree with the authors’ view of Zen entirely. Let me add one caveat, as well: you can have very authentic, very real Zen of opposing viewpoints. The Soto Zen of Dogen, for instance, is authentic, I would say, even though it, at times, seems diametrically opposed to most of the teachings within Rinzai Zen. To take a more modern example, I’m not particularly fond of the flavor of Zen taught by the hugely popular Vietnamese monk (and prolific author) Thich Nhat Hanh, but to say that he’s not authentic would be entirely without truth, not to mention hugely arrogant on my part.
So in order to keep things lean and focused for this post, I have chosen one modern author that I think represents an authentic school of Zen, and a school that can speak to the martial artist, since “Zen Combat” will often represent a form of sudden awakening for the practitioner when performed with sincerity and with the right attitude during martial practice. This author is the late Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn.
Seung Sahn was the founder of the “Kwan Um” school of Korean Zen. Kwan Um combines elements of both Rinzai and Soto Zen (though primarily Rinzai in teaching, since it relies a lot on koans - kong ans in Korean) as well as elements that seem to be primarily Korean in nature. I mention this only at the outset so that you may do more external reading after this post if you are interested.
Zen in a Nutshell
Can Zen actually be put “in a nutshell”, so to speak? I don’t know. Perhaps it can at least be intellectually understood this way, which is what I’m going to attempt here. The realization actually comes during practice, whether that practice is while “on the cushion”, doing laundry, washing the friggin’ dishes, or performing Zen Combat - the techniques that will be discussed at length later on in future posts. The main point is that the Zennist must practice.
Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed - that is human nature. When you are born, where do you come from? When you die, where do you go? Life is like a floating cloud that appears. Death is like a floating cloud which disappears. The floating cloud originally does not exist. Life and death, coming and going, are also like that. But there is one thing that always remains clear. It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death. Then what is the one pure and clear thing?
-From a favorite teaching of Zen master Seung Sahn
Zen means understanding my true self. “What am I?” Everyone says “I am.” Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” We always say “I.” But what is this “I”? Where does this “I” come from? When you die, where does it go? These are the most important questions you can ever ask. If you attain this “I”, then you attain everything. That is because this “I” is part of universal substance. Your substance, this desk’s substance, this stick’s substance, the sun, the moon, the stars - everything’s substance is the same substance. So if you want to understand your true nature, first you must attain your original substance. This means attaining universal substance and the substance of everything.
-From The Compass of Zen
At this point, are you still asking yourself: Sloan, I just don’t know what this Zen Combat is anymore than I did when you first began this post. That’s okay. Seung Sahn would simply tell you to hold on to this “don’t know”, and not to let it go until “not knowing” explodes into All That Is.
In the meantime, read the above quotes over and over, in an almost contemplative, meditative manner. Don’t think about them. Just let them seep into your being. And in the next post on Zen Combat, we’ll learn a little more about Zen and how it truly ties into the martial arts.