Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

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Author of this essay:

Shifu Nagaboshi
British Shingon Buddhist Association

by Shifu Nagaboshi

In considering the spiritual foundations of martial arts one needs to distinguish from the outset those forms of the art which are concerned only or primarily with the perfection of martial technique and effectivity and those which are concerned with other perspectives.

The first is common to the military forces of every country and concentrates exclusively upon the combative art pursued for its efficacy and economy of effort in defeating an enemy.
The extreme and dangerous nature of these preclude them from being practiced as sports and in present times such methods are studied only by specialised sections of the military or governmental forces. Such forms make no pretence at either spirituality or morality and concentrate solely upon bringing any encounter to a swift and victorious conclusion.

The second form of the martial art usually indicates systems of practice in various forms of interactive & combative type sequenced movements which are orientated towards or maintain non combative and other aims. We call this 'combative type' movement here because while to an onlooker what is being performed does indeed seem to be movements of offense and defence, but to those actually performing them such a view would be quite inadequate to describe what is occurring.
In the same way that a person may be simultaneously a father, brother, son, husband or colleague so the movements used in Kempo may occupy many different functions and status to those that our culturally conditioned gaze initially confers upon them.

The aims of this second form of martial art may be somatic, spiritual or therapeutic and arts with all these aspects were practiced in China in various degrees of combination dependant upon the ethical or doctrinal moralities chosen as the basis of the art concerned.
Such supra-physical forms of practice are referred to as 'inner' or 'high level' systems and each usually has its own distinctive manner of attaining its goal. Ancient China contained practitioners in both types of system and developed many combinations and mixes of them over the ages.
The earliest martial systems of China were as far as we know developed initially from native games and sports. With the introduction of Buddhism in the 2nd C AD a slow but certain change and development in such arts and the attitudes associated with them began. It was during the peak periods of philosophical and doctrinal development within Buddhism that the practice of the higher systems became more prevalent and influential.

If one had to choose a spiritual and philosophical basis for an occidental practitioner of the 'high level' martial arts, particularly the unarmed defensive forms known as Kempo, taking all relevant factors into consideration, Buddhism would always emerge as the most suitable basis for such practice in our modern times. There are several salient reasons for such a choice.

It does not require any superstitious or blind belief.

Despite its oriental genesis and the wide variety of its cultural interpretations it is truly universal in both its scope and its application.

Its principles and methodology have already attracted the attention and admiration of eminent writers, scholars, philosophers and scientists in the West for over 200 years and found to be in accord with a surprising number of their commonly accepted principles.

It is familiar with and addresses directly & practically the social, moral and ethical issues involved in the experiences arising from violence and warfare.
It has a deep understanding of the factors involved in both the development and transformation of the psychological forces within an individual as well as a long experience with the practical issues involved in such development and transformation.

Now there are many cultural forms and systems of applying and understanding Buddhist principles and each utilises a different approach to its goal.
Whilst some appeal to those of an emotional temperament and others attract the more intellectual all of them are founded upon a set of basic truths concerning our experiences of life and the sufferings and pains which seem inherent to it.
It was the Buddha who first pointed out the way that these experiences themselves could be used to dissolve future sufferings and pain and in doing so he created a way of understanding ourselves and a manner of living which has helped millions of people since.

In accordance with this way one of the goals of the high level systems is to experience and understand oneself and then to utilise such knowledge to enrich both our own lives and that of others around us.

When one comes to think about this we can see that such an endeavour must begin with us coming to understand more about the basis of our attitudes and values towards ourselves and the world at large because how we view ourselves and our interaction with those around us conditions our values and beliefs.

If we have no interest in self understanding we can only operate as a victim of our own desires and impulses and others who can recognise this are able to easily manipulate such desires. Successful advertising is built upon such a skill.
To begin to break free of such victimisation we need to recognise and address this issue of what we are and what we wish to become. Until we are prepared to do this we will neither recognise nor be able to break free of such manipulative conditioning.

One of the most dramatic conditioning situations lies in suddenly finding oneself within a confrontational crisis. We each respond to crisis situations in different manners whether they seem to commence from within our own minds or from the actions of others and we form our responses to these situations in accordance with our experiences.

Now we are all different and our personal histories may vary widely, not all of us are familiar with confrontational situations and many of us would not wish to be, but many of the psychological factors within confrontational situations are broadly the same for all of us - the state of fear being one good example.

Fear is a state we all know and understand and to warriors it a common experience. Learning to deal with or overcome it is an important part of a soldiers' training.

Within an armed conflict such overcoming is often achieved by suppressing one's personal sense of fear in favour of the immediate aims of the group we are fighting within. The groups goals are regarded as more important than one's own.

Although our daily life may not be a literal battlefield we can also encounter fearful situations which threaten our lives, we may for instance be attacked by robbers on the street.
In such a scenario the soldier's method of suppression is not sufficient because in this case one's fear arises outside of any group or battle situation. It therefore makes sense to give some thought beforehand as to just how we would respond in such circumstances.

Even though Kempo's initial features of study are expressed in forms which embody notions of self defence these are not its only goal.
At the heart of Buddhist Kempo lies a method for attaining a state or quality of consciousness characterised by non attatchment, a free flowing state which when present has laid aside all thought of either aggression or self preservation.

This state is known by many names, a common one being termed 'No Mind' (Mu Shin). In non mindedness the idea of defenders and attackers has been left behind and there is only awareness and insight into what is occuring at the present moment. When expressed in physical activity non mindedness defends with no idea of defence and with no wish to harm any other. Because it has no thought of itself non mindedness experiences no fear or hesitation, no doubts or judgements. It protects life without any idea of protection arising and by doing so protects even an assailant from the negative karma of his own actions.

One thing that becomes clear when we consider such matters is that there is a difference between what we are capable of resolving based upon our current understandings and capabilities and what we may be capable of if we understood ourselves to our full capacity. This first state can be termed our 'panorama' the second can be called our 'spectrum'. We are all very familiar with our personal panorama but few realise or can actualise the full possibilities of their spectrum. Abstractly we could say that we achieve this latter goal by decreasing the gap between these two polarities and indeed such an achievement constitutes one of the goals of the higher martial arts. In more concrete terms the closing of the gap between self confusion and self insight is greatly helped by studying within and receiving a traditional and living teaching.

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