Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

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Author of this essay:

Shi Ming Zhen
(November 20, 2004)

by Ming Zhen Zhakya

A few years ago when Steven Tyler of Aerosmith sang the national anthem at the opening of the Indianapolis 500, he replaced the usual ending with a crowd pleasing "And the home of the Indianapolis Five Hundred!" When he sang the anthem for the opening game of the 2004 World Series I listened closely to hear what he'd sing this time; and maybe it was just my imagination, but I swear he sang, "And the home of the Braves."

Tyler is from Boston so it's entirely possible that as a child he was a Braves' fan. That's Boston Braves.... not Milwaukee Braves and not Atlanta Braves. I've got nothing against Milwaukee or Atlanta or Los Angeles, either. But when I hear Dodgers I think Brooklyn, too.

Of course it's just business... a franchise... professional stuff. We know what happened. In the old days cities were compact and transportation was public. The big stadiums had little parking lots, and when people bought cars and had no place to park them near their inner-city houses much less their inner city baseball stadiums, they moved to the suburbs. And when the games began to be televised, nobody wanted to have the "Live Theater" experience badly enough to take the train or bus. Thousands sat at home and watched a game being played in an empty stadium. It didn't look good, and the players must have felt like actors on a closed movie set. So the franchises moved to cities that had stadiums with ample parking space. It was just business.

And in the same way, inner-city churches and synagogues that used to have schools, sports' teams, and social clubs were unattended, deconsecrated, and sold; and that was just business, too.

When it comes to sports and religion, that stubborn recollection of the way things used to be is not some form of inane regression or pointless sentimentality. No, the nostalgia is warranted. We have had a generation's worth of disruption of what used to be a natural and dependable growth process. Gaps have been left gaping.

The two pairs, "baseball heroes and our home team" and "revered clerics and our neighborhood church" stabilized us in ways we are only now beginning to appreciate.

A great ball player fulfills a true, heroic role when he inspires us to be better human beings. It is not a lesson that is learned in a week or a season. We gain the poise that comes with a tempered adjustment to defeat or victory, to slumps or streaks, and, when our power fades, to the back-seat coaching job or the trading-down process. Over time, the game's grand clichés conform our steps to an accommodating cadence. We still find ourselves confronting adversity with a gentle shrug: "You win some. You lose some. And some get rained out." The Prajna Paramita couldn't have said it better.

Except for his enlistment in the Navy for WWII combat duty, Bob Feller pitched for Cleveland from 1936 to 1956. That's twenty years of inspiring kids to want to grow up to be like their hero, Bob Feller... of doing chores so well that their Dad wouldn't renege on his promise to take them to Lakefront Stadium on Sundays to see him pitch.

There was a time when you couldn't say Hank Greenburg without meaning Detroit, or Stan Musial without meaning Saint Louis. Now, mention the name of a great player and then pause to clarify where he was playing in accordance with your reference. Schilling... Boston? Baltimore? Houston? Philadelphia? Phoenix? or that other time he was drafted by Boston? Of course the movement has to do with money. It's just business. But lots of kids in Phoenix haven't yet grasped that concept. He led their team to a World Series' championship just a couple of years ago, and they claimed him as their own. But... he is Boston's hero now?

Likewise, when you said "Father Paul" or "Reverend Jones" you meant the same man who hosted your boy scout troop and heard your confession and officiated at your wedding and baptized your children. And he was living right near the church and you knew where to find him when you needed to talk to a man who knew you and your family and could give advice predicated upon "box scores don't lie" insight.

Rabbi, Minister, Priest, or Master... it doesn't matter. The duration of service to a specific congregation enables people to speak possessively about their spiritual leaders. A hero has to be "my" or "our" hero, and a priest has to be "my" or "our" priest. Conferring this status takes time and repeated contact with the priest, just as the priest who is heroically identified requires the historical perspective of an entire generation. The constant scrutiny helps him to prevail in his own struggle to become or to remain heroic.

But the inestimable benefits of a long term association between a priest and his congregation do not usually accrue to Zen Buddhists. The missing link is the connection forged in the child's eye. Priests in our Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun have for years performed weddings, baptisms, house blessings, and funeral services. Yet, after the baby is baptized and the house is blessed, we lose contact. We may see the parents, but not the child - at least not on any regular basis.

Of course, Zen is not a family oriented Path. Zen means meditation and this makes it a mystical path. It stands to Buddhism as Contemplative Orders stand to Christianity. Our Path is essentially monastic in nature; and in another time and place, dedicated Zen Buddhists would be cloistered - as, indeed, many still are in the Orient. Laymen and their families, keeping a lunar calendar, come into town every two weeks to buy and sell - and while they are there they visit their temple. They don't stay long... just enough to light incense and say a prayer or, perhaps, to talk to their priest. If asked, their children readily identify themselves as Buddhists.

But rarely does this occur here. An American child of Zen Buddhist parents does not feel quite so at home in "his" Buddhist temple or know any person he could consider calling "his" priest. Culturally unsupported in his identity conflict, he is vulnerable to evangelical ambitions. His friends and classmates will invite him to participate in Church sponsored activities... scouting... music... sports... clubs of all kinds, and, naturally, Bible study.

At the slightest suspicion of "not being of the body" (to use an old Star Trek line) "Landru" comes down on him with proselytizing ferocity. He will be ridiculed, and every bit of news or gossip that is unfavorable to Buddhism will be hurled at him, as if he were personally to blame.

His peers will try to save his soul with their beliefs; and depending upon his age and susceptibility to their arguments, he may accept their alternative doctrines. Buddhism has made him different, and society deals with such differences cruelly. Either he converts or faces ostracism.

Conformity, the Persona's turf, is the field upon which all religions, at their base level, play. At this "civilizing" level, religions impose law and order on a community by rewarding good conduct with social approbation or assurances of Heaven or a favorable rebirth, just as they punish bad conduct with public castigation or threats of Hell or an unfavorable reincarnation.

At this base level, religions can be wildly different; but at their highest levels, we find nearly absolute uniformity. The religious trappings have dropped away and we are left with the Interior Spiritual life, a life which transcends the sermons and scriptures that supported us in our climb. Thus, upon attaining Enlightenment, the Man of Zen discards the tattered sutra.

It is at the base level, however, that most people are born into a religion; and the "unassailable uniqueness" of that religion becomes a family creed. A sense of superiority attaches to the creed, a sense that is universally felt. A Christian Fundamentalist will list the differences between his valid beliefs and those of a Roman Catholic. And vice versa. Each is so convinced of the rectitude of his faith that he is certain the other is damned to eternal hell despite "lip service" paid to the name of Christ. And so it is with every denomination.

In a strange way the old adage, "The friend of my friend is possibly my friend, but the enemy of my enemy is definitely my friend" comes into play. Groups congeal when the leader can collect the individual shadow elements of the members and cast them outside the group onto some despised minority or easily recognized adversary - who usually returns the compliment. Church leaders know this and street gang leaders know this. Common hatred glues a loving group together.

In the early days, the days when people moved to the suburbs, this exclusivity had the expected detrimental effect. Changing demographics brought old religious institutions to new suburban communities; but the new churches did not thrive as anticipated. Population distribution was thinner and more diversely composed. Gone were those compact ethnic neighborhood churches. A family's place of worship might be miles away.

On Sundays television brought the games to living rooms in which parents who had to drive everywhere all week - work; school; market; shopping; kid's extracurricular activities - were not disposed to go through yet another "gas ass day" (as we used to call it). But religiously inclined adults missed that old feeling of fellowship, and in an attempt to revive it they came together in small weekly gatherings in their homes. Many, finding it easier to convert to a new religion than to join a despised old one, gravitated to the welcoming neutrality of Eastern Paths. Yoga, meditation, and the exotic charm of India and Japan connected with those who felt spiritually isolated.

New groups, including Zen, usually began with weekly gatherings at an individual's home. Growth would be swift. Announcements made on book store bulletin boards or by word of mouth would bring strangers to the home - strangers, not all of whom were seeking anything remotely spiritual.

Nobody suspected that many of the devout were actually networking... passing out business cards as they trolled for new clients... real estate agents, family counselors, psychologists... or that many of the strangers were thieves and, judging from fingerprints left on the medicine cabinet's mirrored door, drug addicts. This revelation, and the armed neighbors who issued ultimatums about alien cars being parked in familiar places, signaled it was time to consider formal quarters.

A properly zoned hall would be sublet; and in the years that followed, the group would thrive or disintegrate. But always, the problem of a lack of family involvement remained. Momma could go to Yoga and Daddy could go to Zen, but Junior went nowhere except to the place his peers wanted him to go.

Ethnic Temples were the only ones that accommodated families. They served the needs of a specific immigrant group, their temples functioning as a nationalistic club which fostered social cohesion - as places that provided opportunities for young people to meet, or as places where employment needs and business matters could be discussed along with a variety of non-religious activities. As such, these temples did not entirely welcome the presence of ordinary Americans. Some held meditation and other instructional services for Americans - but at a time that did not compromise their own activities. If we had gone to these temples in their native countries, we would have been completely welcome. But they were trying to bring a bit of their old country here. It made an understandable difference.

Streams of foreign heroes, folk tales, holidays, and quaint, non-English speaking Buddhist clerics were no match for oceanic American Christianity; and because they were not, the American born children of foreigners found themselves inundated by the same conversion pressures, especially when prosperity dispersed the congregation to the suburbs.

Regardless of what foreign Buddhists did, we still needed to engage our religion on our own terms. Zen's problems were exacerbated by its injection of a monastic discipline into a secular setting. And the solution consisted in the ability to inject secular life into the monastic setting.

Some Zen groups adopted or modified the practices of other successful Eastern-oriented religions whose clerics had English educations. The solution of Vedantists, for example, was to have an extra Sunday afternoon service which was followed by a communal meal prepared by the laywomen of the congregation. The chapel service was short, and the informal buffet style meal enjoyable. The kids did kid things together and became friends. In this setting they were not "different," and no one tried to convince them of their eventual damnation. They felt at home, and seeing their parents' reverent regard for the temple priests, a respect for Eastern clergy registered in their impressionable minds. These convivial gatherings engendered precisely the familiarity that confirmed their religious identification. The children knew where they belonged.

Other Zen congregations, lacking accommodations for such amenities, confined their occasions for family interaction to special celebrations such as Vesak or Guan Yin's holy days. They rented a facility or held the celebration in a garden or park.

Today we find that many of our Zen practitioners - especially young parents - have begun to include Christmas and Easter in a Buddhist schedule of celebrations. And why not? Christmas still marks the winter solstice: from then on the days will lengthen. (December 25th used to be the day on which the solstice occurred; but the earth's precession - the earth spins like a top - slowly moves the date back.) This return of the sun marked the celestial arrival of Maitreya. Nobody knows when Jesus was born; but for so long as Maitreya is our Future Buddha, who has a better right to celebrate the return of Sol Invictus?

And Easter, too, is determined by a celestial event - originally it marked the appearance of the new moon following the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. This calculation also marked a holy day for many deities around the world, including Guan Yin. (Various Christian groups have adjusted the formula so that Christ's crucifixion falls on a Friday each year in order that the three days of what would have been "no moon" will end on a Sunday.) Eastra is an ancient goddess of the dawn - which is the specific time of day that the new moon rises. Giving children Easter baskets and bunnies and buying them new Easter outfits parallels many spring celebrations in the Orient.

In its long history, Buddhism has always adapted itself to the culture of its host country. Since Zen made its appearance in the U.S. some fifty years ago, it has been evolving; but if we want to ensure its future and guarantee that we'll never have to look back on it nostalgically, we'll need to close completely the generation gap. Like every other country, we're entitled to develop our version of Zen.... the one that is as American as baseball and apple pie.

Humming Bird
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