Zen and the Art of Com­bat

Western­ers seem fas­ci­nated with Zen — or, at least, with what they think Zen is.

Black Belt - - KARATE WAY - BY DAVE LOWRY Dave Lowry has writ­ten Karate Way since 1986. For more in­for­ma­tion about his ar­ti­cles and books, visit black­belt­mag.com and type his name in the search box.

Z en seems to de­scribe a state of mind, for many Western­ers, of per­fect calm, deep in­sight, and mys­te­ri­ous and ex­otic power. When linked to Ja­panese budo, as it very of­ten is in the West, Zen ap­pears to con­note some spir­i­tual el­e­ment that el­e­vates the art into the realm of the meta­phys­i­cal.

ZEN BUD­DHISM is one form of that re­li­gion. In brief: Bud­dhism teaches that much of life’s suf­fer­ing comes from il­lu­sion. We suf­fer be­cause we don’t think we are suc­cess­ful or hand­some or rich enough, be­cause of this or that ex­ter­nal cir­cum­stance. In re­al­ity, Bud­dhism teaches, these are il­lu­sion­ary dis­trac­tions. The pri­mary con­cern of that re­li­gion, then, is to find a way to cut through these il­lu­sions and see re­al­ity as it is.

There are many ap­proaches in Bud­dhist thought that can lead to a clear per­cep­tion of re­al­ity. Zen is a Ja­panese in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Chan Bud­dhism, which evolved in the sixth cen­tury. The ap­proach taught by Zen prac­tice is one of con­tem­pla­tion, of en­ter­ing into a med­i­ta­tive state in which out­side thoughts are calmed, then grasped for what they truly are. The goal is to at­tain en­light­en­ment, which en­tails see­ing life as it truly is.

(What about the “sound of one hand clap­ping”? This is an ex­am­ple of a koan, used by some schools of Zen to en­cour­age prac­ti­tion­ers to go be­yond the lim­its of ra­tio­nal thought. A way of jump-start­ing the con­scious­ness, it is a ques­tion that has

no log­i­cal an­swer. It’s pre­sented to the stu­dent to en­cour­age a dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at re­al­ity.)

This is, of course, a very broad sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, but it puts Zen in at least some con­text use­ful to us.

ZEN BE­CAME con­nected to Ja­panese budo pri­mar­ily from two dif­fer­ent sources. The Zen priest Takuan Soho (1573-1646) was among the most fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ters in feu­dal Ja­pan. His teach­ings and trav­els brought him into contact with many of the most fa­mous fig­ures of his day, in­clud­ing renowned mar­tial artists. Among those was Yagyu Munenori (1571-1645), the mar­tial arts teacher of the Toku­gawa shogun. Munenori took an in­ter­est in Zen, and Takuan served as his teacher. The names of some of the kata and some of the strate­gies of Munenori’s Yagyu

Shink­age ryu came nom­i­nally from Zen lit­er­a­ture.

How­ever — and this is crit­i­cal — Munenori’s par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in Zen did not mean he in­cor­po­rated Zen phi­los­o­phy into his ryu. The Shink­age ryu, like most clas­si­cal mar­tial ryu, was deeply con­nected to other sects of Bud­dhism, no­tably Shin­gon, the only es­o­teric form of that re­li­gion. Rit­u­als and in­can­ta­tions cre­ate the struc­ture of Shin­gon; they were em­ployed by the samu­rai for pro­tec­tion and suc­cess in bat­tle.

It is true that some samu­rai, upon re­tire­ment, en­tered Bud­dhist tem­ples. Zen, how­ever, did not play much of a role in the ev­ery­day world of the samu­rai. Zen med­i­ta­tion and train­ing are long and time-con­sum­ing. The samu­rai did not have the lux­ury of de­vot­ing them­selves to such ex­tended prac­tice. They needed spir­i­tual help quickly, and the teach­ings of Shin­gon, with its re­liance on the pro­tec­tive pow­ers of Bud­dhist deities, were much more suited to their life­style.

IN THE MOD­ERN ERA, par­tic­u­larly in the early 20th cen­tury, “new” arts like karate, judo and kendo be­came pop­u­lar in Ja­pan. Their lead­ers looked for ways in which these arts could be dis­tin­guished. Jig­oro Kano chose to em­pha­size judo’s teach­ing method­ol­ogy, one based on Western meth­ods of ed­u­ca­tion that were much ad­mired in Ja­pan then. Kendo was pre­sented as a means of de­vel­op­ing char­ac­ter and a strong spirit. Karate, to some ex­tent, at­tached it­self to Zen phi­los­o­phy.

In part, karate lead­ers knew that link­ing their art to Zen would make it at­trac­tive to those who as­so­ci­ated it with the leg­endary Shink­age ryu — not un­der­stand­ing that the con­nec­tion was only through one of its masters and not to the ryu it­self. (Think of it this way: A Ja­panese per­son comes to the United States and learns lacrosse from a coach who hap­pens to be a Bap­tist, then goes home, as­sum­ing lacrosse has deep roots in the Bap­tist faith.)

AD­DI­TION­ALLY, a few kyudo (archery) en­thu­si­asts were Zen prac­ti­tion­ers, in­clud­ing some who taught Western­ers liv­ing in Ja­pan in the first half of the 20th cen­tury. One of those Western­ers, a Ger­man au­thor named Eu­gen Her­rigel, wrote an enor­mously pop­u­lar book link­ing Zen to kyudo. Another one, D. Suzuki, wrote a book that in­tro­duced Zen to many Western­ers. Suzuki was a Bud­dhist scholar but knew al­most noth­ing of Ja­pan’s mar­tial cul­ture. He made a num­ber of con­nec­tions and as­sump­tions that were ac­cepted un­crit­i­cally by Western read­ers and that have con­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cantly to mis­un­der­stand­ings and in­ac­cu­rate in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

The main thing to re­mem­ber is that Zen is a spe­cific ap­proach to Bud­dhism. Those who use the term to de­scribe a vague “spir­i­tu­al­ity” or mys­ti­cal aware­ness or monk­ish wis­dom are mis­us­ing it. Those who choose to adopt Zen Bud­dhism as their be­lief sys­tem are free to do so, of course. And if they wish to try to in­te­grate it into the budo, that is their right, as well.

They should un­der­stand, how­ever, that the word does mean some­thing, and it is not just a con­ve­nient catchall for at­ti­tudes or feel­ings.

A few kyudo (archery) en­thu­si­asts were Zen prac­ti­tion­ers, in­clud­ing some who taught Western­ers liv­ing in Ja­pan in the first half of the 20th cen­tury.

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