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ZEN IN THE MARTIAL ARTS
Several hundred books have been written about performing the Oriental martial arts, but no more than a handful address the significance of Zen in the martial arts. This is an unfortunate oversight since the martial arts in their finest form are much more than a physical contest between two opponents—a means of imposing one’s will or inflicting damage upon another. Rather, for the true master, karate, kung-fu, aikido, wing-chun, and all the other martial arts are essentially avenues through which they can achieve spiritual serenity, mental tranquility, and the deepest self-confidence.
Yet I had studied the martial arts for several years before becoming aware of this. In the early stages of training, like most students, I spent my time learning and refining complex physical techniques and movements. Only occasionally did a sifu (“instructor” in Chinese) hint that there were other lessons to be mastered.
Of course, it was not my intention when I started studying karate in 1952 to become involved with Zen or any other spiritual discipline. In fact, nothing could have been further from my mind. Had anyone told me where my path would eventually lead, I would probably have dismissed the notion as nonsense, because I associated Zen with mysticism and prided myself in being a pragmatist. Only after several years of training did I come to realize that the deepest purpose of the martial arts is to serve as a vehicle for personal spiritual development.
The martial arts began to develop this emphasis on personal spiritual growth in the sixteenth century, when the need for fighting skills in the Orient diminished. The martial arts were transformed from a practical means of combat-to-the-death to spiritual educational training that emphasized the personal development of the participant. Thus the art of fighting with the sword, kenjutsu, became transformed into “the way of the sword,” kendo. Soon other martial arts were given the ending - do, which means “the way,” or more fully, “the way to enlightenment, self-realization, and understanding.” This Zen element is reflected to various degrees in aikido, judo, karate-do, tae-kwon-do, hapkido, and jeet-kune-do, among others.
The role of Zen in the martial arts defies easy definition because Zen has no theory; it is an inner knowing for which there is no clearly stated dogma. The Zen of martial arts deemphasizes the power of the intellect and extols that of intuitive action. Its ultimate aim is to free the individual from anger, illusion, and false passion.
It is possible for the student to make contact with Zen in the martial arts only by a slow and roundabout route. Once I came to this realization, familiar to all true masters of the arts, I began to keep notes on my discoveries. For the past decade, Zen in the Martial Arts has been the great story over my horizon, the book I most wanted to write. But there was always another master to study with or another discipline to learn before I felt I was prepared.
This is not a book, however, for the reader who wishes to master Zen, for the concepts central to that tradition are certainly not acquired from the written word. Nor is this a book for those who expect to learn how to perform the amazing feats of martial artists who break boards and bricks with their bare hands and easily defeat several opponents at a time. The reader interested only in learning about the physical aspects of the martial arts can adventure alone in the literature without my guidance. Instead, this is a book from which readers may learn to apply the principles of Zen, as reflected in the martial arts, to their lives and thus open up a potential source of inner strength they may never have dreamt they possessed.
My own involvement with the martial arts began in 1952, when I was a Hollywood columnist for the New York Herald Tribune. I was sedentary, overweight, restless, easily bored, and constantly seeking new adventures. I had no clear awareness of who I was or where my life or my career was going. To make matters worse I was anxious, intimidated by authority, insecure, and hostile to compensate for my insecurity. Every day I interviewed film stars, many of whom were younger than I. Because I often resented their success, my interview technique was to needle them until they responded with something quotable.
One day Bronislaw Kaper, the Academy-Award winning film composer, recognized my technique for exactly what it was and suggested I study karate. “The exercise might help you slim down and allow you to work off some of your hostilities,” he suggested. At that time karate was new on the Hollywood scene and was viewed merely as an exotic Asian way of fighting. Such concepts as consciousness raising, taking control of one’s life, and heightened self-awareness were as yet unheard of. Only recently have we come to understand the relationship between sports and personal or spiritual growth.
When Kaper arranged for my first lesson with karate master Ed Parker, I accepted with the thought that even if I learned nothing I would still gather enough material for several newspaper columns since a handful of stars, including Elvis Presley, were then studying with Parker.
In those days Parker was teaching kenpo-karate, an American form of Chinese boxing, in the weight room of a Beverly Hills health club. At our first meeting he told me, “I am not going to show you my art. I am going to share it with you. If I show it to you it becomes an exhibition, and in time it will be pushed so far into the back of your mind that it will be lost. But by sharing it with you, you will not only retain it forever, but I, too, will improve.”
I soon learned that the concept of the teacher learning from the lesson is basic to all good martial arts instruction. For this reason perhaps the practice hall—dojo (Japanese), dojang (Korean), kwoon (Chinese)—where martial arts is studied is traditionally called “The Place of Enlightenment.”
A dojo is a miniature cosmos where we make contact with ourselves—our fears, anxieties, reactions, and habits. It is an arena of confined conflict where we confront an opponent who is not an opponent but rather a partner engaged in helping us understand ourselves more fully. It is a place where we can learn a great deal in a short time about who we are and how we react in the world. The conflicts that take place inside the dojo help us handle conflicts that take place outside. The total concentration and discipline required to study martial arts carries over to daily life. The activity in the dojo calls on us to constantly attempt new things, so it is also a source of learning—in Zen terminology, a source of self-enlightenment.
There is a Buddhist saying that anyplace can be a dojo. I have studied shodokan karate in a beautiful modern building in Johannesburg, South Africa; judo in the back room of a Japanese restaurant in London, England; jujitsu in a sport halle in Munich, Germany. But most of my study in hapkido, aikido, tae-kwon-do and wing-chun has been in Los Angeles where stores are frequently converted into martial arts studios. Bruce Lee taught jeet-kune-do to screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and me in the driveway of my home.
Each dojo is presided over by a sifu, or sensei (Japanese), meaning “master.” Sen means “before,” and sei means “born.” The literal meaning of the Japanese word is “one who is born before”; thus, the one who is born before you is your teacher. This refers less to chronological age (some of my teachers have been young enough to be my children) than to the teacher’s wisdom: In spiritual terms he or she is my elder, and thus my teacher.
The martial arts sensei is very much like the Zen master; he has not sought out the student, nor does he prevent him from leaving. If the student wants guidance in climbing the steep path to expertise, the instructor is willing to act as guide—on the condition that the student be prepared to take care of himself along the way. The instructor’s function is to delegate to the student exactly those tasks which he is capable of mastering, and then to leave him as much as possible to himself and his inner abilities. The student may follow in the footsteps of his guide or choose an alternate path—the choice is his.
The instructor first teaches technique (waza) without discussing its significance; he simply waits for the student to discover this for himself. If the student has the necessary dedication, and the teacher provides the proper spiritual inspiration, then the meaning and essence of the martial arts will finally reveal themselves to him.
Although one can read about the Zen in the martial arts, true knowledge of it is experiential. How do we explain the taste of sugar? Verbal descriptions do not give us the sensation. To know the taste, one must experience it. The philosophy of the arts is not meant to be mused over and intellectualized; it is meant to be experienced. Thus, inevitably, words will convey only part of the meaning.
In more than twenty years of studying the martial arts I have not retired to a Zen monastery nor retreated from the pressures of working and living in a competitive society. But I have found that when I attain the spiritual goals of the martial arts, the quality of my life has been dramatically altered—enriching my relationships with people, as well as keeping me in closer touch with myself. I have come to see that enlightenment simply means recognizing the inherent harmony of ordinary life.
I put this book forward to you, then, in the spirit of sharing what I have learned, and in the hope that some may wish to travel a similar path. Perhaps by sharing my experiences I will also learn more, because that, too, is the way of Zen.