Zen, Martial Arts, and Building Muscle Mass, Part One: Overview

"Technical knowledge is not enough.  One must transcend technique so that the art becomes artless art, growing out of the unconscious."  -Daisetzu Suzuki

When the founder of Kyokushin Karate-Do (one of the primary arts that I trained in as a young man), Masutatsu Oyama, came off the mountain (it was a very literal, and at the same time, figurative, mountain), he defeated all in the martial world who came within his path in the dojo, felling almost every opponent he met in a quick, effortless manner.  The tales of Oyama has become the stuff of legend.  Even though his exploits are recent in the history of martial arts, it's still hard to tell what exactly is fact and what has already faded into myth.  But one thing is for certain: Oyama's mountain-top training was the difference between him and those who he dismantled so quickly.

Oyama's training was founded upon three integrated aspects, combining martial arts practice, zazen, and hard, physical training (primarily anaerobic, or perhaps more specific: anaerobic until it became aerobic).  Any one or two of the three without the other(s) would not have worked.  Out of all this, we can pretty easily come up with a formula:

Hard Physical Martial Arts Training + Intense Seated Meditation (Zen Style!) + Long Sessions of Anaerobic Training = One Bad-Ass Karate-Ka

Is that over simplified?  I don't think so.  In fact, the formula above is all you need to become another Oyama (well, let's be honest, there was only one Oyama, but you get the drift).  For the rest of this post in my on-going series on Zen and the martial arts (primarily Karate and the other Okinawan-Japanese arts), I'm going to get into some specifics on how the combination of these three forms of training - all of which overlap into the other, and have much more in common with one another than most think from a purely "surface" observation - are necessary to create the ultimate martial artist.

Simple, Not Easy

1. The "KISS" principle - "Keep it Simple, Stupid!" - applies here.

2. Remember: all three of the arts here - and they are all arts - are about training.  Study of, reading, and thinking about all three are, of course, important.  But thinking, reading, and studying should not, in any way, become the core of your focus.  The focus must remain on the training and practice of all three.

3.  The three are not isolated from one another, and should never be treated that way.  You must strive to make all three of them of one whole.

4.  Simple does not mean easy.  All three require hard training, but keeping things simple will allow you to focus on the hard training.


1. If you have never had any "formal" Zen training, pick up Kosho Ushiyama Roshi's "Opening the Hand of Thought" or Philip Kapleau's "The Three Pillars of Zen".  Both of these books - but Ushiyama's in particular - covers the basics of how to sit zazen.  You can learn "how to sit" in about 10 to 15 minutes, to be honest, but then it's a lifetime of sitting - and looking - that follow.

2. If you are a martial artist who is "bigger" - either genetically or through engaging in hard, weighted workouts - then it's okay to not sit full-lotus or half-lotus.  Sit in "Burmese" position or in the traditional Japanese seating of "seiza".  Seiza was preferred by Mas Oyama when he sat zazen because of the muscular bulk he carried.

3. Remember, Zen has nothing (or, at least, very little) to do with the common understanding of it in our modern world, especially our modern media and entertainment.  It has nothing to do with yoga, or learning to just be present, or practicing "mindfulness" all day long.  And it has absolutely nothing to do with losing weight, getting in great shape, or coaching a professional basketball team.  And it has everything to do with seeing reality as it is, seeing Reality Itself.  And Karate-Do and physical training have something to do with Zen.

4. Much of Zen, as it has been written about and discussed in various martial arts publications over the years, actually has very little to do with Zen, as well, I'm sad to say.  And much of what has been written that is not myth, has at least been overblown.  But this doesn't mean that there haven't been legitimate times when Zen and martial arts have coincided well, even if much of it is fairly recent in historical memory.  The truth is that, as both Zen and martial arts have been part of Japanese culture over the centuries, the two arts have had plenty of historical incidences of overlap, but it has (sad to say) created a distortion of real Zen at many of those times.

5. The history of martial arts and Eastern philosophy together has, in many instances, been a history of a more seamless coming together of martial arts with Taoism and Confucianism as opposed to a coming together of Zen and martial arts.  In fact, many Chinese practitioners are critical of the "hard" arts of the Japanese for the very fact that they are of a more Zen nature than a Taoist one - the thinking is that Taoism-infused martial arts are more balanced and "softer".  This thinking, of course, also has a lot to do with the prejudice the Chinese martial arts have toward their Japanese counterparts.  And a lot of it, in my opinion, is a little overblown, as the Japanese have produced softer, more balanced arts - Aikido for example.

6. Zen, when practiced with sincerity, and, oddly enough, not out of the goal of achieving anything, whether that goal is enlightenment or becoming a better fighter or lifter,  can be of tremendous help with both martial arts and lifting.

Practice Infused with Philosophy

1. Zen has a certain philosophy that comes with it.  Here, I do not want you to conflate philosophy with religion, even though those two definitely come together of a seamless whole, as well.  And when I say philosophy in this sense, I'm not discussing the more modern view of philosophy as a thought system.  I have in mind, instead, philosophy as a way of life, as it was approached in the ancient world, when the great philosophical schools arose from the near East, most certainly in Greece, but in Egypt, Persia, and, finally, Rome too.

2.  The philosophy of Zen allows you to achieve your goals, oddly enough, by not having much of a goal in mind.  But its philosophy works (if we can even use the word "works" in this sense, which I'm going to do, however much some might argue against it in certain circles) by cutting through much of the superlatives and the useless "philosophizing" over abstract concepts that you may find in other religious cum philosophical schools.  Instead, its focus is on the "practical" side of things.  Hence, even though much of what passes for Zen in the modern media (here, I'm specifically thinking of commercials and television shows, however low-brow or high-brow the shows might be) is not "real", it does understand, even if it gets the details wrong, that Zen is a practical, present-moment practice.

3. Zen philosophy must enter into and, thus, infuse every aspect of your zazen, your martial art, your lifting, and, in the end, your life.

Bringing Zen into Training, both Martial Arts and Lifting

1. When I was a young Karate-Ka, constantly thinking both inside the dojo and out of it, my sensei would admonish me - and the rest of the practitioners - to "fight without fighting" and "think without thinking".  This should be the "goal-less goal" of your training.  When sitting zazen, the admonition of Dogen Zenji rings forever true: "think not thinking".  And when training in the dojo and/or the gym, you must "train without training".  In this way, the "goal" (if we can even call it that at this point) is to simply train.  The path is the goal.


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