Surprisingly, there is a connection between martial arts and Buddhism, specifically the Zen tradition. In the following it will show the historical connection lying between these two seemingly oppositional practices, through understanding the use of zazen, sitting meditation, within the dojo, martial arts training hall, and martial arts as a form of meditation in itself, specifically in relation to Japanese training systems. To begin, Zen meditative practice will be outlined, so it may be contrasted to martial arts later in the text. After this, the purpose of meditation will be demonstrated through the meditative states of mushin, isshin and zanshin. From here, examples of Zen mediation within Japanese budo literature, such as Hagakure and The Unfettered Mind, during the 15th to 16th century will be shown. Next, the influence of Samurai Zen practice in Japanese martial arts due to the Meiji Period will be acknowledged, then potential reasons why Buddhism, zazen and its meditative states continued to be practiced in modern Western dojo.
First, the practice and purpose of Zen meditation will be outlined, so it may be compared to Japanese martial arts practices. The meditative exercise for “students begins by regulating their breathing”, which can be done “lying down”, “kneeling (seiza)”, or standing (Friday 158). At the same time “correct breathing, called abdominal or tanden breathing” is accomplished by “inhaling deeply, flexing the diaphragm...drawing the breath into the seika tanden (centred on a point located about five centimetres below and three centimetres to the interior of the navel)” (Friday 158). The meditative practice is correctly done by “collecting the breath in the abdomen, then releasing it slowly and rhythmically” through the nose and out the mouth (Friday 158). Here, meditation is described as a breathing method and demonstrates that one needs to focus on how one breaths in order to do this successfully. Also, meditation in this case is not limited to a single position, but can be done in seiza, a formal sitting position, lying down or in a standing position. The first form of meditation that will be looked at is zazen, sitting meditation because it applies to preparation for martial arts training in the dojo.
Next, the purpose of the practice of zazen will be described. One explanation of the purpose and practice of zazen in relation to martial arts is demonstrated in the text Meditation and the Martial Arts. The text says “for the Zen warrior... desire is the only enemy” because “from desire springs both fear and hatred, the true sources of any conflict” (Raposa 80). In this passage, desire is the only true enemy for the warrior, in addition to all human kind, because this is where fear and hatred, two main concerns of the fighting arts, stem from. After this, the text goes on to say “the principal strategy for defeating this enemy is persistence in zazen” (Raposa 80). Here, the basic meditative exercise of zazen is deemed one of the main ways in which to overcome the hindrances of desire. Accordingly, the purpose of zazen “is not the cultivation of some experience or condition separate from the discipline itself: the purpose of zazen is zazen” (Raposa 80). In this case, the purpose of zazen is to practice zazen and as a consequence of this “one can transform the self in such a way that this manner of sitting, breathing, and paying attention is rendered thoroughly dispositional” (Raposa 80). In other words, only through practicing meditation for its own sake, not for enlightenment or to reach a meditative state, will one paradoxically achieve enlightenment or a meditative state.
Hence, the practice of zazen is also its goal, consequently leading to meditative states useful in martial arts. Here, the meditative states utilized in zazen as a meditative exercise in the Zen Buddhist tradition will be shown. One purpose of zazen is to reach “a state of ‘no mind, no thought’ (munen muso)”, which can also be understood as ‘mushin’ (Friday 155). Another, aspect of Zen meditation is isshin, which is translated as ‘one mind’, an act of complete, undoubted concentration on a single thing (Raposa 78). In addition there is a mental state known as zanshin, or ‘remaining mind’, which denotes a type of awareness, that is “a manifestation of mushin: watchful, waiting and unattached” (Raposa 78). From here, the meditative states of mushin, isshin and zanshin and their purpose will be explained within Zen Buddhism.
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First, the term mushin “is formed by two characters in the Japanese signifying the concept of ‘no’ or ‘nothing’ (mu) combined with the idea of ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’(shin)” (Raposa 75). When practicing zazen with the attempt to accomplish mushin, one must stay within the present moment, demonstrating detachment of the present, permitting it to pass by, not grasping to future or past; in this sense “every moment is dying” because “the self is real only in the present moment” for when that “moment is experienced the self that then existed is no more” (Raposa 79). Hence, by practicing zazen, one accomplishes detachment of self and fleeting experience, which is an important virtue in Buddhist practice.
The second term mentioned earlier, isshin, is a significant aspect of Buddhist meditation as it demonstrates focus on a single objective. It is by using the single point of focus that one can accomplish mushin because it is only when one puts their whole self into an action, for example zazen, that he or she can extinguish their desire. Another way of looking at isshin is as the full experience of each moment that passes. This element is important because “to live fully in each moment but cling to none of them is the essence of freedom, a freedom from desire and the suffering it brings” (Raposa 79). In short, isshin is to encompass all of ones being into a single moment and once that moment has past to release it.
In contrast to isshin there is zanshin, which as mentioned earlier can be described as awareness. The purpose of this mental state is to remain conscious of ones psychological, physical and spiritual situation whilst practicing zazen. In other words, one does not allow themselves to be distracted by a single moment, but to acknowledge each element of their conscious being. In doing this, one can maintain detachment and thus stay calm in any given situation.
Thus, the Zen meditative practice of zazen is significant as it promotes detachment from the self, via the three meditative states of mushin, isshin and zanshin. Also, it is through these states that one can realize calmness, focus and awareness, useful virtues when facing death like the Samurai would have. According to William Scott Wilson, the translator of The Unfettered Mind and Hagakure, Zen’s denunciation of life as a special form of desire “had much to offer the warrior” (Wilson 19). Hence, “meditation is one of the practices in which martial artists engage in order to prepare for combat” (Raposa 2). From here, the meditative states of mushin, isshin and zanshin will be exemplified in literature written by swordsman of the 15th and 16th century, in terms of its usefulness within martial arts.
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The two texts that shall be looked at in terms of it martial understanding of Zen Buddhism is Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a retired Samurai and Buddhist priest of the 1700’s, and the Unfettered Mind by Takuan Soho, a Zen master and swordsmen of the 1600’s. In one part of Hagakure, it reads:
Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves... or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself dead.
In this aspect of the text, meditation is deemed a way of desensitizing oneself to the horrors of war. Also, by facing the fear of battle within one’s mind a Samurai is able to come to terms with their death caused by others, or even through ritualistic suicide ‘seppuku’. With that said, in this passage it exemplifies an extraordinary amount of detachment on the part of the Samurai, as he should “consider himself dead”, as he meditates. The act of meditating on ones death can be considered a form of one point of concentration within the meditative process, to create detachment from the desire to live or die. In accordance with this text, this must have been a significant ritual to follow as Tsunetomo believes it should be practiced every day in preparation for battle as to die within battle was the greatest honour for the Samurai.
Another example of meditation can be seen in Soho’s text, particularly the meditative state of isshin. In the text it says “when killing, [the warrior] kills with complete concentration; when giving life, he gives with complete concentration’ means that in either giving life or taking life, he does with freedom in a meditative state that is total absorption” (Soho 82). Here, the “total absorption” Soho refers to is one point concentration. In this context, the passage emphasis’ complete commitment to whatever one does, whether taking a life or giving life, Samurai should be completely absorbed in it. The text goes on to say “the meditator becomes one with the object of meditation” (Soho 82). It is through this form of meditation that the Samurai can become one with the opponent, helping to perceive the opponents reaction. The idea of being absorbed by the target can be further explained by looking at archery. One can see the relationship between battle and Zen because “the warrior expands the target and places himself within it before releasing the arrow” and it is because of this “there is no place that is not the target, the arrow or missile cannot miss its mark” (Friday 156). The example of archery is exactly the same as Soho’s passage, as it is only by being completely absorbed or practicing isshin, that one can precisely hit the target, whether with sword or arrow, as if the individual wielding the weapon is a part of the target, one cannot fail. Hence, isshin helps to insure accuracy within battle, at least according to these Japanese Medieval texts.
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Another meditative state mentioned is mushin, as depicted in continuity with the Buddhist ideal of emptiness in Hagakure. In the text Tsunetomo speaks of a priest who invoked the ideas of no mind, he says “what is called ‘no mind’ is a mind that is pure and lack complication” (Tsunetomo 30). The idea of no mind is then compared to the way of the Samurai when he quotes one of his Lords “in the midsts of a single breath, where perversity cannot be held, is the Way” (Tsunetomo 30). Hence, if the mind ‘lacks complication’ with mushin, it cannot hold any meaningless thoughts and this according to Tsunetomo is ‘the Way’ of the Samurai.
Furthermore, the meditative state mushin is also promoted in Takuan Soho’s text. In the text it reads “for the striking sword, there is no mind. For myself who is about to be struck, there is no mind. The attacker is Emptiness. His sword is Emptiness. I, who am about to be struck, am Emptiness” (Soho 37). At this point, the passage suggests that it does not matter if one is on offence or defence, there should be mushin, ‘no mind’ because everything is emptiness. In other words, the mind should not be detained by any given moment during a dual, such as the sword, the person wielding the sword or ones eventual death, as all things are subject to dissipation, as implied by the word ‘emptiness’. The idea of emptiness that is achieved through mushin then allows the warrior to walk into combat without fear, making it a highly useful mental training tool.
An additional example of meditative states in budo literature can be seen through zanshin, especially with The Unfettered Mind. In this part of the text, Takuan Soho explains where the mind should be in order to be prepared for combat; “If the mind moves about the entire body, when the hand is called into action, one should use the mind that is in the hand. When the foot is called in to action, one should use the mind that is in the foot” (Soho 31). Hence, the mind should not be in any single point, but ready to be used at any given moment. It goes on to say “but if you determine one place in which to put [your mind], then when you try and draw it out of that place, there it will stay. It will be without function” (Soho 31-32). At this point it explains if one is determined to use one part of the body before one can know it is necessary, one will not be able to defend oneself and be without functionality. It is for this reason Soho suggests the mind should be “put nowhere”, so it “will be everywhere” (Soho 32). Thus, zanshin is emphasised in this passage, as it suggests to be functional in terms of battle one must let the mind flow freely, in order to stay aware and ready.
Consequently, it can be seen there is a significant role of Zen meditation within Japanese martial arts literature during the 15th-16th century. However, the meditative states exemplified within the literature was not just due to the practice of zazen, but the transition from sitting meditation to “moving meditation” in terms of “the physical exercises that constitute much of the discipline of the martial arts” (Raposa 2). In other words, one can achieve the meditative states of mushin, isshin and zanshin via martial arts, as demonstrated in Takuan Soho and Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s understanding of martial arts as Swordsmen and Zen practitioners.
As a result of the Japanese cultural writings such as Hagakure and The Unfettered Mind the virtues demonstrated in part via Zen meditation became a part of Japanese nationalist identity. In the Meiji Era of Japan, there was change from feudalism to democracy and the Samurai class faded away (McCarthy 52). Yet, there was a fear that foreign influence would dismantle the national identity of Japan, hence it encouraged modern Japan to “perpetrate old traditions” such as “feudal-based ideologies” whilst instilling the “development of many new social pastimes” like “bugei (martial arts)” and “became an instrumental force in shaping modern Japanese history” (McCarthy 52). Hence, martial arts as recreation began to take on “spiritual convictions” based on budo culture of feudal Japan, which can be seen in modern day martial arts such as Kendo, Judo and Karate-do (McCarthy 52). It is due to the influence of budo culture, that martial arts dojo acquired the ritual of spiritual elements such as practicing zazen before and after every class, even in the West.
Subsequently, one must wonder why dojo around the world have acquired and maintain the religious practice of Zen meditation. One reason that Zen meditation is still encouraged is due to tradition. Another reason meditation is still practiced is because in some cases, the combative nature of martial arts no longer needs to be consider, hence spiritual and psychological improvement is emphasised. Thirdly, the reason meditation is still maintained is because it improves one’s ability to defend themselves.
To continue, another reason Zen meditation is continued within the modern day dojo is because some feel the need for a higher purpose outside learning combat. In one text it suggest “many practitioners of martial art, largely freed from the burden of combat, urged a higher purpose for their inner activities” which included “to discover ones innermost secrets, develop a heightened degree of mental awareness, and even achieve enlightenment” (Cameron 70). The transformation of martial arts into a spiritual conquest, as mentioned before was due to the transition of Japanese culture during the late 1800’s. Once the feudal era departed, many warriors were no longer needed to fight because, as was the tradition, many warriors chose a life of Priesthood, like Tsunetomo for example, and saw their martial arts practice as a way to reach enlightenment.
Furthermore, Zen is still maintained within the martial arts because it aids in students ability to defend themselves. As shown earlier, aspects of Zen meditation promoted a Samurai’s ability to overcome anxiety during battle and to become a better warrior. The ability to overcome fear in the face of conflict is arguably still useful when practicing martial arts today because “unlike an athlete”, a martial artist “cannot afford slumps, or days off, or even off moments. He cannot allow his performance to be compromised by fear, excitement, fatigue or even by illness, injury or intoxication” (Friday 151). For practitioner of self-defence, one does not know when he or she will be attacked, hence one must have “the ability to perform at one’s peak at any time in any place, and under any circumstances” (Friday 152). Therefore, the martial artist must reach a type of self-perfection, not necessary in other type of extracurricular activities, because one must be spontaneously functional at any instance.
At the same time, it is self perfection where meditation helps a martial artist to become increasingly lethal. It is through meditation a martial artist “eliminates any perception of separation between body, mind and spirit”, which emulates the goals of Buddhism, such as “enlightenment and transcendence of worldly cares”, yet the bugei seek this “for an independent reason: to achieve proficiency in combat” (Friday 152, 156). Consequently, by shredding the separation of body, mind and spirit that students of combat can escape from worldly desires, but he or she does not just for spiritual benefits, but to become a better fighter as well. Hence, many practitioners of Japanese martial arts, like Karate-do, Kendo and Judo, believe “a martial art is an active form of Zen meditation; it should be a vehicle to transcend self” and not just “a means to defeat others” (Cameron 82). Here, martial arts are explained as a form of Zen meditation and is useful to overcome the self in addition to opponents in combat. It is by engaging in martial arts for its own sake that it becomes a form of meditation similar to that of zazen as “all life’s practices should be transformed into zazen, so that it does eventually come to represent a way of being” (Raposa 82). As a result, martial arts can achieve the same meditative states of zazen, like mushin, isshin and zanshin. Also, the pursuit of self-perfection as a psychological, physical, and spiritual being encourages one to seek excellence in their every action. Specifically for the martial artist, perfection in ones technical skill, thus increasing ones efficiency in combat.
Even though the meditative elements of martial arts can promote ones accuracy, one must be aware of the excessively stressed relational elements in Western modes of understanding meditation and martial arts. It has been noted “the religious elements, especially Zen Buddhist elements, can be overstressed in both swordsmanship and archery”, as well as other Asian combative art forms (Cameron 198). At the same time, “although Zen influenced the manner in which once deadly combat techniques were transformed into vehicles for self protection and competition, there has been, especially in the United States, a tendency to read far more religiousity into the activity than facts permit” (Cameron 198). The passage here, suggests that in the West there has been a greater emphasis on the spiritual aspect of Japanese martial arts, than there might in fact have been in its original context. In the text Clouds in the West by Dave Lowry, a martial arts writer and practitioner, one can see the reasons for spiritual exaggerations. In Dave Lowry’s book he says the east Asian martial arts “were attractive” due to the fact that they were “more exotic” (Lowry 166). In the text Lowry cites one example, writing “in the fifties, Judo was utterly exotic. Outside of some Japanese-American enclaves it was little known and less practiced and taught” (Lowry 166). Here, the text suggests that Japanese martial arts were deemed “attractive” because they were foreign and mysterious. Not only this, but along with Japanese martial art’s attractive exoticism came infused romanticism. According to Lowry, “popular novels and movies have glamorized ‘Samurai Swordsmanship,’” and through national association, other Japanese martial arts. Thus failing “by a lack of reliable information” to place “these art in realistic historical context” leaving “a gap that romantics have been free to fill in with their own notions of chivalry, derring-do” and in the case exemplified thus far, spirituality (Lowry 167). With that said, even though the spiritual aspect of martial arts in the West may be over-emphasised, one cannot argue against the connection between Japanese martial arts and meditation, the fact is the connection does lie there.
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In conclusion, Zen meditation demonstrates a significant influence within Japanese martial arts. The connection between meditation, specifically zazen, and martial arts first lies in the meditative states of mushin, isshin and zanshin because it is these states ordinarily reached in zazen, that can also be accomplished in martial arts practice. The connection can be seen via Japanese budo literature from the 16th century with The Unfettered Mind and the 17th century with Hagakure, which demonstrate the usefulness of meditation when facing battle. Also, these Japanese budo texts, influenced the development of martial arts as a spiritual conquest during the Meiji period, allowing Japanese martial arts such as Karate-do, Kendo and Judo to be viewed not just as a way of combat, but a way of self-perfection, physically, mentally and spiritually, even within the West. However, one must keep in mind the over emphasised elements of spirituality in the West, even so, the link between martial arts and meditation can certainly be seen from a historical perspective.
Friday, Karl F., Seki Humitake. Legacies of the Sword: The Kashimashinryu and Samurai Martial Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
Hurst III, G. Cameron. Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. London: Yale University Press, 1998.
Lowry, Dave. Clouds In The West: Lessons from the Martial Arts of Japan. Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2004.
McCarthy, Patrick. “History and Philosophy”. The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1995. p. 23-57.
Raposa, Michael L. Mediation and the Martial arts. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press. 2003.
Takuan, Soho. The Unfettered Mind: Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master. Translated by William Scott Wilson. Tokyo: Kodansha International. 1987
Tsunetomo, Yamamoto. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Translated by William Scott Wilson. Tokyo: Kodansha International. 1979.
Wilson, William Scott. “Introduction”. Hagakure The Book of the Samurai. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1979. p. 15-23