Martial Arts and Zen: Essays on the History, Philosophy, and Application of Zen in the Martial Arts

C.S. sits on his zafu before a training session.

1 - The Journey Begins

When I was a teenager, I had one great love: martial arts.  To be more specific, I suppose, would be to write that my great love was traditional Okinawan Karate-Do, which I had trained in since I was 9 years old.
    I was a small kid, tiny you might even say, compared to the size of my fellow 4th-grade classmates.  For whatever reason - and perhaps schools still do this, much to the embarrassment of small boys - my 4th grade teacher would often line up the entire class against the wall of the classroom, boys and girls alike, from shortest to tallest.  I was always the shortest.  Add in the fact that, in addition to my smallness, I was something of an introvert, often bullied, and so my parents thought that martial arts might be a good way to build my self-esteem, not to mention keep me from getting pummeled on the elementary school playgrounds.
    Now, if you’re a 9-year-old boy in the early ‘80s, growing up in the deep south of rural Alabama, the chances are fairly good that your parents will know next-to-nothing about Asian culture, martial arts included.  My parents were not much different, with one exception: my father, a University professor, a fairly cultured man, and an occasional film critic for local newspapers, had a love for Japanese cinema, or, to be more specific, the movies of the well-known, acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa and his routine collaborator, the actor and bona-fide movie star Toshiro Mifune.  So when Dad flipped open the Yellow Pages in search of a local martial arts school and found 2 entries - one a Tae Kwon Do school, and the other a traditional dojo of Okinawan Karate-Do - he chose the Karate dojo without a second thought.
    Looking back on it with several decades of reflection and afterthought, I’m glad that I wasn’t given much of a choice in the matter.  I may have chosen the flashier, less traditional Korean dojang, instead of the Okinawan dojo ran by a Chinese Sensei with a love for the basics and an unwavering traditionalist.1
    But, even at 9 years of age, I fell in love with Isshin-Ryu, the “One Heart Way”, nonetheless.  And although it would be many years until I appreciated the significance, one very unique element that I was introduce to - an element not typically found at even the most traditional of Japanese dojos - was the fact that we would often sit zazen at the end of each class for 5 to 10 minutes.
    Zazen - literally translated as “seated meditation” - is Zen’s method of “entering” into the very nature of existence itself.  Although it would be many years before I understand the method of zazen I was introduced to - my sensei didn’t teach any philosophy, only the basics of how to sit, breathe, and “not think” - it was without a doubt the Shikantaza or “just sitting” method of the Soto school of Zen.  (There are 2 primary schools of Japanese Zen: Rinzai and Soto, and both have 2 distinct methods of teaching, and sitting, zazen.  As this series of essays unfolds, you will be introduced to these 2 schools in more depth. If you’re already somewhat familiar with both schools, then one word of note: the Zen that I practice, and primarily articulate in this book, is unabashedly Soto.)
    I trained anywhere from 2 to 5 days each week, Monday through Friday, with an occasional class on Saturday, from the age of 9 until I was 15, when I received my 1st Dan black belt, and then I continued with at least that much weekly training into my 20s.  That’s quite a lot of martial arts for a young boy, considering the fact that most training sessions were an hour or a little longer in length, and I often attended more than one class each day, especially once I was also permitted to train in the “adult” class after I was 13.  And even though we sat zazen for only a few minutes, and that not at every class, that amount of zazen really does add up.  And despite the fact that Zen philosophy was never really discussed - I imagine that my sensei was aware that he was in the heart of the very evangelical “Bible Belt” of the deep south, after all - zazen definitely began to have an impact of my ways of thinking and being.
    I wish I could remember the date, or at least the year so I could know my age, but one of the most momentous (almost paradigm shifting) nights of my life occurred sometime between my 12th and 15th year.  And although I cannot recall the date, or even my age, I can recall the experience as if it occurred yesterday.
    Taisen Deshimaru, author of the small but generally good book “The Zen Way to the Martial Arts”, had this to say about the practice of Soto-style shikantaza: “When we do zazen, it’s like fishing for the moon or tilling the clouds.  The mind grows vast, everything becomes calm, and we become intimate with ourselves.”
Taisen Deshimaru is seen here with one of his famous quotes from his book "The Zen Way to the Martial Arts".
    On that impactful night of my early youth - although I can’t remember the year, I can remember the season: Summer - it was hot and cloudless.  And it must have been one of those seasons where it seems as if almost numberless cicadas emerge from their 17 year slumbers. Their distinct chirping filled that summer’s muggy night air.
    My mother drove me home that night from the dojo.  On the ride, the thought of the short zazen filled my mind.  There had been something different about it, although whatever that “something” was, my young mind could not quite pinpoint.
    When we got home, I was still covered in sweat from the workout, and the brief, but intense, Shikantaza.2  I had removed my belt on the ride, but my gi, because of the sweat, still clung to me.  I took off my “uwagi” (traditional name for a gi jacket) as soon as I walked in the door, but left on my white gi pants (my “shitabaki”) and, for some reason, just couldn’t get the evening’s zazen out of my mind.
    My mother began to do housework, and my father, as I recall, was listening to his record player, most likely ‘60s British rock, probably the Beatles.  But I wanted silence, as if my mind was still immersed in zazen’s silence, and it needed my body to follow suit, so I stepped out our back porch and sat down in a folding chair.
    My sweaty exhaustion, the humid mugginess, the crystal clear starlit night, the incessant hum of the cicadas, and my sensei’s admonition that evening to achieve one-pointed “mushin” (roughly translated as “no-mindness”) coalesced into - for lack of a better word - an explosion where my mind became both infinitely vast and indelibly calm at the same time.  Then it was as if my entire body followed suit.
    I had never experience anything like it.  Somehow my young mind knew it had just encountered the truth about reality, but also knew it had no way to put it into words.
    The experience sat intimately with me for days.
    It didn’t leave me for years.  And it still lingers.

    Sometime shortly after, I was at the local mall, perusing through the book store’s small collection of martial arts books when I came across a slim volume I had only seen advertised in the pages of Black Belt magazine.  Now, keep in mind that this was probably sometime between 1986-88. There were no large bookstores, and definitely no Internet. The only access I had to either martial arts or Zen literature was whatever the library or the local mall’s bookstore had to offer.
    The small book that I removed from the shelf and pretty much paid my life’s savings for was Joe Hyam’s “Zen in the Martial Arts”, published about a decade before, in 1979.  I took it home and devoured it in one or two sittings.
    At the time, I didn’t really know what to make of it, other than the fact that it didn’t really answer any of my burning questions.  
    As I write this, more than 30 years later - and with several decades of Karate practice under my belt, not to mention a decade-and-a-half of serious Zen study and practice - I know now exactly what to make of it: it’s pretty much awful and entirely useless, even though it has, for some odd reason, remained a seminal favorite.  Not to fault Hyams entirely, since almost all martial artists I’ve come into contact with - even those who are native Japanese - know next to nothing about the philosophy, not to mention actual practice - of Zen. But if you’re going to write a book with Zen in the title, it would be nice if you weren’t entirely ignorant about Zen in the first place.
    In the years since, I’m sad to say that the average martial artist’s knowledge of Zen hasn’t much improved, despite some relatively good (though largely unknown) books on the subject have been published.  In fact, I’m pretty much convinced that the average knowledge of Zen has just gotten worse.
    If you were to set down this book right now, pick up your phone or sit down at the computer, and google the word “Zen”, it’s a pretty safe bet that about 75% of what you would find under the title “Zen” would have next to nothing to do with real Zen.  Zen has, in the West, become sadly eponymous with such things as “peace of mind”, “going with the flow”, “simplifying things”, “living in the moment”, or other such stuff that can be accomplished just fine without the use of Zen.  There’s nothing wrong with any of that stuff, martial artist or otherwise, but it ain’t Zen.
    This small volume of essays is my attempt to rectify this, for the martial artist in particular.
    You will be introduced to what (I hope to be) authentic Zen and how it has truly influenced the martial arts throughout their shared histories, not the pop culture versions portrayed in a lot of books and cinema.

    One last word of note, however: this is not an entirely academic or scholarly set of essays.  Yes, it gives you a brief history of Zen, then a history (or, rather, histories) of Zen’s encounter with the martial arts, particularly those of Japan, China, and Korea.  But it’s meant to be an encounter with Zen, and an encounter with the way of practicing the martial arts that encourages you to take up the practice of both, and how much more rewarding both can be when practiced together.

1. I must add a caveat here so that I’m not misunderstood. There are good, traditional dojangs in America, but there are also a lot of them - such as the one in the city of my youth - that are more concerned with getting large number of members and catering to the whims of its “practitioners”.

2. As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate some of the “nuances” found even within the Soto school on the “methods” of Shikantaza. And my practice has become more gentle, for lack of a better word, as I have matured. However, the kind of Shikantaza that I was introduced to by my sensei, and the kind that he was introduced to - I have a feeling it was the only kind he knew - was very intense. In his monumental work “The Three Pillars of Zen”, Roshi Philip Kapleau has this to say about Shikantaza: “It is the mind of somebody facing death. Let us imagine that you are engaged in a duel of swordsmanship of the kind that used to take place in ancient Japan. As you face your opponent, you are unceasingly watchful, set, ready. Were you to relax your vigilance even momentarily, you would be cut down instantly… This state cannot be maintained for very long - in fact, you ought not to do shikantaza for more than a half an hour at each sitting… If you are truly doing shikantaza, in half an hour you will be sweating, even in winter in an unheated room, because of the heat generated by the intense concentration… Compared with an unskilled swordsman a master uses his sword effortlessly. But this was not always the case, for there was a time when he had to strain himself to the utmost, owing to his imperfect technique, to preserve his life. It is no different when doing shikantaza.” Now that is the shikantaza I knew in my youth. Its obvious, too, of the appeal of this style to karate-ka.


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