Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

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The Patient Quest

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" is one of those truths that have a surprisingly universal application. In words coarse or refined, throughout history and undoubtedly before any event was ever recorded, this maxim has spurred the slackening hopes of seekers everywhere.

And so, the disappointed metallurgical alchemist, as did so many others, told himself each night, "Just because I havenít found it yet doesnít mean I wonít find it soon." He did not realize that he labored with the same futility as all others who sought to change base metal into gold.

The spiritual alchemist faced another set of problems. He had already severed himself from the society of men and, in his isolation, aspired to make a singularly difficult connection: he aspired to mate with divinity. But in what did this experience consist? And how could he determine the stages of progress that led to it? It would have helped if he knew what he was looking for.

Sometimes what he was looking for found him. He would experience an epiphany, a spontaneous occurrence for which he would forever claim he was totally unprepared. The eventís reality was as unlike its description as a chemical formulaís notation is to a chemical compound or a printed recipe is to the dish it ordains. In altered states of consciousness, tremendous experiences present themselves with a paucity of words, involving, as they do, areas of sentiency that elude the verbal-brainís vocabulary. In the life of the spirit, he was a naive virgin; and nothing could have prepared him for the marriage bed.

In all advanced spiritual programs this lack of familiarity with the pursued objective is troublesome. To find something thatís been lost is to recognize it immediately - in fact, the ability to describe it in precise detail helps a person to establish ownership of it; but when the vaunted prize is as yet unknown to him, he can never be sure that what heís found is what he was looking for.

And then, too, there is the danger of being misled by the spurious claims of persons who did not reach the goal but who nevertheless felt compelled to comment authoritatively about it. A seekerís natural enthusiasm tends to amplify the significance of an experience or to mis-identify it; and if he has not escaped the sway of those arrogant arguments, he might, in moments when he was off guard and too eager for success, be inclined to suppose that he had reached a certain level of attainment.

But the true seeker - and we are here not interested in any other - would soon subject his experience to intuitionís more sober judgments, and curbing his hope and his disappointment heíd return to the place at which he made his mistake to mark the path that led nowhere. Since he had kept his own counsel, heíd be uncompromised by the embarrassments of having issued a false report. Heíd sigh and quietly resume his efforts. Tomorrow was another day.

The true seeker would understand how self-defeating it was to declare that he had grasped something precious which was, at best, of dubious value.

For such was the foolís gold of the spiritual alchemist.

Who Is Qualified?

Several oddities about the religious experience have long engaged our attention. Lao Tzuís paradoxical assertion that Those who know donít speak and those who speak donít know is perhaps the most famously puzzling. The mystical life goes even farther into contrariness and irony. For it is a peculiar fact that those whoíve attained the spiritual summit know that all religions are equally good at providing climbers with tools to reach that single high point, while armchair strategists, whoíve never viewed the mountain except through telescopic eyes, insist that their religion and only their religion can deliver a climber to the top.

We also find that often a successful mystic has left the Path of his original religion to follow another. The reason for the change, he concedes, was that he was introduced to the techniques of ascendance too soon, long before he was spiritually ripe enough to succeed in using them. Then, as unenlightened human nature demands, he assigned the failure to the techniques and then extended the blame to the religion, itself. How could anyone proceed with such flawed dogma, hypocritical clerics, gullible fellow members, simplistic methods? And so he left, passing on his way out a malcontent of that relgion who was coming in to convert to his - and for the very same reasons.

No religion can deliver a person to the mystical peak if the person is not ready even to approach base-camp. Not until he completes a period of disillusionment and "hungry-ghost" anxiety - and finally attains a humble and mature attitude, is he sufficiently ripened to climb with conviction. Not until he reaches the summit is he able to reflect upon his own callow demands and the impossibility of any religionís ever acceding to them at the time he had so impertinently made them. Then he can appreciate the old adage, "When the disciple is ready, the Guru appears." But not until then.

The accomplished mystic or spiritual alchemist is a party to the mysterium coniunctionis and, as such, intimately knows the persons of the divine drama. He grasps the commonalities of the prophets, saints, and persons of the Trinity - Buddha, Future Buddha, and Bodhisattva known by whatever name - who populate the the real worldís heavenly precincts; and he knows that however differently they are represented in their earthly forms, their heroic, loving and merciful character is uniformly preserved.

He understands that the Kingdom of God is within each man - a genetic endowment to which all men are heirs but only few men are beneficiaries.

Whether or not a climber stays with his original religion or substitutes another, he will use similar methods of meditation, breath control, mantra, yantra, chant, dance, prayer, and so on, to assist in his advancement; for these techniques vary little among the religions.

Scriptures, too, are fundamentally the same. The languages may differ, but the messages are ethically similar, proscribing murder, deceit, licentiousness, theft, intoxication, and all manner of antisocial behavior. Usually, however, by the time a person is motivated to follow the mystical path, the sacred writings of religion have done their civilizing work and remain for him a source of lyrical beauty and wisdom upon which he can meditate.

In the distance, in doctrinaire conflict, clamor the various zealots, waving their scriptures and issuing polemics about the tittles and jots that separate them. But on the slopes no such differences obtain. Mystics and spiritual alchemists never argue and in fact will borrow and appreciate each otherís paeans and poetry.

At the outset it should be noted that however many other mountains there are, the one we speak of here is climbed only by a celibate Path. This decision to live the spiritually singular life - regardless of marital commitment and respectful of marital commitment - must be made before the journey commences, for immediately as the climber outfits himself for base camp, an array of directives confronts him; and his first challenge is to choose the correct one. The true path will become narrow and steep with room for only one climber at a time.

The language of spirituality is not the language of religion. The same words are used, but their meanings are different; and their terms are not interchangeable. The spiritual nuances must be learned so that the subtle seductions of other paths which use guru worship, drugs and sexual practices can be recognized and avoided.

The bane of every beginnerís life is the lack of reliable guidance. If he seeks the counsel of those who possess only ecclesiastical authority, heís likely to deepen his confusion. Only mystical experience can answer questions of mystical significance; and seldom do mystics care to occupy positions of hierarchical importance.

If he relies upon the accounts of persons deemed knowledgeable by persons who do not themselves know, he is surely no better off.

Authoritative narratives are usually written in a foreign or an antique idiom; and the inexperienced aspirant is left to struggle with a translatorís guesses about the meaning of terms that reference mystical states which he, the translator, does not comprehend. And worse, there is usually a purpose to the work of translation, and in order to make definition conform to that intention, meanings can be skewed.

Compounding the problem are the "twilight" languages which describe to the initiate - while confounding everyone else - esoteric aspects of the spiritual process. Spiritual anatomy is conflated with physical anatomy. Literature regards chakras as if they were gears on the spineís axle. Force is distributed through a system of channels which do not correspond to any known nerve or vascular system. In the complex spiritual practices of Alchemy; Kundalini Yoga; Kabbalah; Microcosmic Orbit; and other similar internalized systems of energy-circulation, the methodologies and the benchmarks of the route are cryptically given in terms peculiar to astrology, mythology, numerology, world directions, medieval metallurgy, and fantasy botany and zoology - most of which are relics of pseudoscientific vocabularies that are irrelevant today.

Because the constancy of a single vocabulary is vital, our commentary essentially will confine itself to English versions of the terms used in ancient texts from Kashmiri Shaivism and from the text that is the common denominator of many mystical products: the Aphorisms of Patanjali - and to Professor Mircea Eliadeís insightful analysis of Patanjali's text. We'll also refer to the works of Carl Jung, Vivekananda, and a few other notables.

An outline is not a guide book or a map; but it can function as a kind of altimeter that allows us to account for the increasingly rarefied air that we breathe, our best indication of progress.

The religious life evidences itself with art and architecture, with literature and legend - icons and hagiography intended to inspire. Mystics describe the divine persons; and artists, who may or may not have had a vision of their own, strive to reproduce or record the revealed characteristics.

But the spiritual life leaves no trace. The one who successfully quests leaves no footprints behind, and a seeker who tries to follow searches in vain for broken twigs. However much circumstance requires the mystic to interact with others in the material world, in his meditations he is a solitary spirit.

And so, at the end of each arduous day, he sighs. This day he did not meet his divine beloved.

Undeterred, he sighs again. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The Choice of Leader

Professor Eliade begins his authoritative commentary on Patanjaliís famous aphorisms with a significant tale: In the mid-eighteen hundreds, a story about a certain yogi named Haridas astonished the academic world. In the grounds of a royal residence in Lahore, Haridas was buried alive for forty days. Soldiers of the Maharajah Ranjit Singh guarded the grave both day and night; and, at the conclusion of the forty days, Haridas was disinterred. After a little massaging and some mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, he regained full consciousness.

While Eliade cannot verify this particular account, he does allude to many other strange and mysterious feats which yogis perform with curious regularity. His point, however, is that Haridas was hardly possessed of a spiritual nature. Known to be severely morally deficient - and for which lack he was driven to seek refuge with his wife in the less accessible regions of his mountainous world, Haridas eventually died - as even cataleptic yogis must, and was buried permanently, according to custom.

Immediately, the Professor offers his definitive appraisal of the possibility of exploiting sacred forms for profane purposes; and he leaves not the slightest doubt that all psychic powers attributed to masters as evidence of spiritual excellence are quite accessible to charlatans. The tendency we all have, therefore, to slip under the spell of a person who demonstrates extraordinary powers, accrediting him with an equal degree of spiritual prowess, is a very dangerous inclination.

So much depends on what the reporter considers evidence, on his sophisticated doubts or his ignorant gullibility, that we are always left to wonder how much of what we have heard - or even have seen for ourselves - is to be given credence.

But, after all, this view is the exterior one. We are not privy to the view that is seen from the other side of the eyes we look at. Only the one who has such powers knows whether he has casually gained them through the course of traversing the sacred mountain or whether he has labored to acquire them for power and profit. In this latter case he is a performer of Haridasí ilk.

The Solitary Path

Patanjali offers his instruction specifically to those who intend to follow the "Right Hand" Path. He allows for no "Left-Hand" sexual forms of "dual cultivation" or of any other form of partnered or group sexual practices. The person who meditates, meditates alone, worships alone, and all his studies and reflections are directed inwardly towards the spiritual source and object of his own solitary devotions.

Centuries ago a man quested by "going into the forest" - a term which denoted the exchange of his householder status for the life of asceticism, a wanderer who begged for whatever food he could not freely gather. Todayís laws prohibit this kind of squatting or vagrancy. Further, a man who is healthy and educated may very well choose a life of poverty; but if, in doing so, he uses public or charitable resources allocated for those who are not able to care for themselves, he has taken a step in the wrong direction.

"Extended family" imperatives, once obeyed from empathetic considerations, have degenerated into squabbles about paying nursing home costs for elderly parents, just as a householderís marital responsibility now involves more than a paid-up mortgage or annuity. The companionship assurances of "till death do us part" covenants do not provide for spousal abandonment in the cause of self-realization or allow for any neglect in that same cause. After decades of domestic responsibility, the worries and the work, a spouse is entitled to enjoy retirement's freedoms of travel and recreation - in the company of that lifelong partner. If both husband and wife want to retreat to monastic life, this is a solution. In the absence of mutual consent, spiritual practices have to be blended into a congenial domestic arrangement.

Every experienced meditator knows the incomparable bliss of divine union (samadhi); and knows, therefore, that the Path is hardly devoid of sensual gratification. Aside from marital relations, there is no accommodation for overt sexuality.

The spiritual adept may acquire many powers but the one he will cherish most is that indispensable power he gains over himself. Regardless of his social circumstance, he seeks always to be a self-controlled and independent man.


A belief systemís foundation has to be properly gauged before a practitioner can build a spiritual life upon it. The Yoga Sutras were readily appreciated by those who lived in Patanjali's time since the philosophy upon which they were based was well known and accepted by them. The modern climber needs to acquire information about this philosophical foundation - not to replace his own religious or scientific beliefs, but to see how the various spiritual exercises he performs fit into the ancient program. With these correlations he can measure his progress accurately.

According to the ancient model, this foundational knowledge is predicated upon thirty six or thirty seven principles of existence (called tattvas), numbered, in the accounting we will use, zero to - but not including - thirty-seven.

The nirvanic principles, tattvas #0 through #5, which constitute the pure spiritual states of consciousness, will be discussed at the conclusion of the review of the material, samsaric principles. Since the attainment of spiritual states is the purpose of the Aphorisms, they will constitute the body of this work.

Tattva #6 through #36 are descriptive of the thirty-one material world principles as they are grasped by the senses and comprehended by the mind. The meaning and value of things and of states of being in the material world are the province of samsara, the egoís world of illusion.

Humming Bird