Zen and the Art of Combat
Westerners seem fascinated with Zen — or, at least, with what they think Zen is.
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.