Zen in the Martial Arts

Zen in the Martial Arts

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"A man who has attained mastery of an art reveals it in his every action."—Samurai Maximum.

Under the guidance of such celebrated masters as Ed Parker and the immortal Bruce Lee, Joe Hyams vividly recounts his more than 25 years of experience in the martial arts. In his illuminating story, Hyams reveals to you how the daily application of Zen principles not only developed his physical expertise but gave him the mental discipline to control his personal problems-self-image, work pressure, competition. Indeed, mastering the spiritual goals in martial arts can dramatically alter the quality of your life-enriching your relationships with people, as well as helping you make use of all your abilities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553275599
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/1982
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 147,491
Product dimensions: 4.18(w) x 6.88(h) x 0.38(d)

About the Author

Joe Hyams was a Hollywood columnist, former movie editor of This Week magazine, and Hollywood correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. He was the author or co-author of more than two dozen books, many of which are bestselling biographies of Hollywood stars. He died in 2008.

Read an Excerpt

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.

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Zen in the Martial Arts 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 33 reviews.
loadersgirl More than 1 year ago
I am taking Martial Arts and our Instructor reads a story out of Zen in the Martial Arts once a week at the end of class. I wanted to buy the book for myself so that I could highlight what is important to me and make my own kind of notes on thoughts that have come to me when reading it. I feel it is a book that you can apply to your everday life. It can be used not just for Martial Arts, but anytime, so the examples in it can be utilized by any profession. I would suggest anybody to buy this book and read it, and see what they can pull out of it to apply to their lives.
James0627 More than 1 year ago
Well as a high schooler i actually though this was pretty good. Being in martial arts really helped with all of his analogies. This is a must read for anyone in martial arts or seeking some sort of daily living tips.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have heard criticism of this book citing the fact that Mr. Hyams is not a very accomplished martial artist (He never claims to be in this book.). and that the depth of his understanding of zen is open to question (as would be my own). For me neither of these criticisms bother me in the least and shouldn't dissuade anyone from placing this little gem on their bookshelf. Here we have a book about a man who trained with many of the best martial arts practitioners available in the West in his time ( Parker, Lee, Han etc. )and while he may not have drank as deeply from the cup as some (who am I to judge?)he was able to sample what there was to offer from far more sources than many of us ever will. He also was able to learn many lessons which he was able to apply with significance to his life outside the dojo. Hitting a special chord within me was his recounting how, during a very dramatic medical emergency, he was able to slow down his breathing by using the breathing exercises he had learned in his aikido class and avert having a heart attack. A clear example of the benefits of training extending beyond the the narrow confines of martial technique. This book really is one man's odyssey through various martial paths and their significance to him, but they are written so well and in such an engaging way that I feel that I have learned these lessons along with him. I felt that this book was one of the more significant books on the subject that has actual appeal even to the less serious practitioner or the non-practitioner of the martial arts.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's amazing that just by reading the personal experience of a martial artist can put your mind in the same state as his. There's a saying that said ' Experience teaches experience ! ' This book is base on experience and you will gain so much more experience for yourself by reading it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I teach myself the martial arts and without proper guidance I was getting confused about Zen. With this book, I came to realize the obvious, martial arts are much more than fighting arts, they are the bridge between our spirits and physical selfs. I thank you Joe!
catalogthis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not something I would have picked up on my own (I know nothing of the martial arts beyond the Karate Kid movies), this came highly recommended by a friend. For a tiny book, it is packed full of insightful -- and deceptively simple -- observations about how to live.
bibliosk8er on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Loved this book. Short but sweet. Great stories and wisdom from various martial artists including Bruce Lee.
michellegarrette on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a book that I read very quickly, as it is possible to do. However, I am keeping it in my karate bag and I will go back to it often. I feel like many of the lessons in the book, although sometimes very blantantly spelled out, are integral to martial arts and to life in general. This is one book of mine that will be highlighted, underlined, margin-noted, and dog eared. I highly recommend this book to serious martial arts practitioners of all levels, especially black belts. The only drawback is that I'm afraid it may be discouraging to beginners or non-practitioners because the author is always talking about how little he knows and how long it takes to understand. I hope that everyone comes to those conclusions often in their training, but maybe not till they have been doing it a little while; I wouldn't want beginners to get too discouraged!
GreyGhost on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of my favorite 'short reads'. Joe Hyams has a tendency to 'name-drop,' which is probably due to his background as an LA screenwriter, but he manages to pack a fair bit of interesting reading into this little book. For example, the "empty your cup" metaphor is often see in zen, but is illustrated very nicely in one of the early chapters.
SiLLySaNdMaN on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"One afternoon I was training with Bruce" was no more than an opening sentence. You totally missed the purpose of these examples; each one has a meaning and involves a tip to make your life that much better. Think outside the box............
Bingobuddy More than 1 year ago
This is a very well written, easy to understand book. It should be read by martial artist of all styles. The only thing I wish is that it is longer with more stories in it. The stories are a great deal part of the book.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Found that I keep it close as I research other books
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's a good book -- short and easy to read. We bought it because the information is applicable to tennis. Very useful for the tennis mindset.
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TEST NOOKUSER More than 1 year ago
Required reading for every martial arts enthusiast
Anonymous More than 1 year ago