Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

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Author of this essay:

Shi Ming Zhen
(June 12, 2006)

Part 7: The Wisdom of the Hagakure: The Secret of Spit
by Ming Zhen Shakya

Our text is taken from two aphorisms given in Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Jocho Tsunetomo, translated by William Scott Wilson.

Chapter 10: Verse 3 "When faced with a crisis, if one puts some spittle on his earlobe and exhales deeply through his nose, he will overcome anything at hand. This is a secret matter. Furthermore, when experiencing a rush of blood to the head. if one puts spittle on the upper part of one’s ear, it will soon go away."

Chapter 11: Verse 15 "To calm one’s mind, one swallows his saliva. This is a secret matter. When one becomes angry, it is the same. Putting saliva on one’s forehead is also good. In the Yoshida School of Archery, swallowing one’s spittle is the secret principle of the art."

What, we wonder, is the secret matter that Jocho alludes to in these intriguing aphorisms? And can saliva rubbed on a forehead or an earlobe possibly reduce anger or make a fighter indomitable? Well... in a very real sense... yes.

The human body has three built-in autonomic nervous systems. The parasympathetic which kicks in when we eat or make love; the sympathetic which activates as we experience fear or anger - the "flight or fight" response; and the enteric which governs intestinal motility and urinary urges.

It is while we are in the domain of the parasympathetic nervous system that we salivate. We may not be rigorously amorous or ravenously wolfing down our food; but we are relaxed or, at the very least, not thinking about running away or getting into a street brawl. When we eat, we salivate as an integral part of the digestive process. When we are amorous, those long, wet kisses and all the various verbs that are common to eating and to mouth-involved lovemaking also require saliva. In peaceful sleep, we slobber like babies. In deep meditation, we drool. Our heart rate slows, our blood pressure drops, and we are utterly "collected," calm, and focussed on what we’re doing. Seldom are we ever distracted by extraneous thoughts when we are in the pleasant embrace of the parasympathetic nervous system. Nothing can compete for the attention we give a lover or a delicious sirloin steak when we’re hungry.

In the sympathetic nervous system’s domain, the body is jolted into varying degrees of panic or rage. In the fear response, we wish, we pray, we more than anything else in this world want to be anywhere else but where we are. The body, our mind’s wise host, accommodates our desire. It knows that we must conserve body fluids so that we’ll be able to run fast and far to safety. Therefore, when we’re afraid our mouth becomes dry and our hands get "clammy" as blood and fluids are withdrawn from the extremities to serve the requirements of the thighs and lungs. We don’t want our muscles to cramp.

Consider what happens to those of us who are not accomplished public speakers whenever we’re obliged to speak to an important assembly: our blood pressure rises; our heart races; our breathing becomes fast and shallow, and our mouth becomes so arid that our lips seem glued to our teeth. Answers to questions we very well know get "stuck in our throat." (For the speaker’s convenience, water is always placed on the podium.) We are totally self-conscious. Instead of seeing the people, we see the people seeing us. This displacement of perspective inhibits us from thinking clearly. We stammer. We stiffen, or we tremble. We stare into space with that "deer in the headlights" dumbness. If we’re reading from a text, we lose our place. If we’re reciting from memory, lines that we thought were chiseled into our brain are suddenly obliterated.

And this, says Jocho, is no way enter combat.

The military leader fears most the paralysis that comes from fear. He wants his soldiers to be efficient, agile, obedient, resourceful - and a soldier whose mouth is dry from fear is far from such competence. The good leader therefore inspires his men to trust him, to believe him when he reassures them that they will prevail; and, usually, he promises that after the battle they will drink together to celebrate sweet victory.

The "wet-mouth of fearlessness" is more than just the bravado of being able to spit in the face of an opponent. The promise of libations occurs in natural tandem with the victorious vision. It is no coincidence that triumph is proclaimed with beverages: No matter how cold it is, the winning coach will be doused with Gatorade. No matter how tee-totaling a championship team’s players are, those who don’t swill the champagne will shake a bottle of it and spray other teammates. No matter how exhausted the Indianapolis 500 winner is, he or she will lift that bottle of milk and gulp it as it sloshes down over face and neck. No need to worry about fluids now.

And yet, though a rat will scurry away from danger, it is "the cornered rat" that attacks. This reversal of response can usually be attributed to the body’s attempt to achieve homeostasis. Areas of the brain can be so chemically over stimulated that the body introduces "opposition" substances as it attempts to restore balance. Another example of this oscillation can be seen in a mother’s response to the news that her young son is missing. Terrified, she prays and vows that she will be forever grateful for the boy’s safe return; but when the boy is found dallying with friends her terror converts to anger. She hugs him and then spanks him, chastising him for being disobedient and causing her such anguish. Then she hugs him again. Even the hysterical giggling that occurs from being tickled is said to be a relief response: a person puts his hands on us in what our body momentarily interprets as a possible attack, but as soon as we discover that it is mere playfulness, we react with giddiness and laugh in a peculiar way.

Especially after we’ve endured a serious, life-and-death physical challenge and suddenly realize that we’ve survived intact after gaining our objective, we may display an irrational fury in response to our fear’s over-stimulation. We occasionally see soldiers and police officers go a little berserk when, after a particularly dangerous pursuit, they are so emotionally conflicted with the hormones of fear, relief, aggression, and rage that they lose control of themselves, violently reacting to their captured quarry - and to anyone else unlucky enough to be near him. When the overwhelmed ego cannot interpret all the signals given it, routine training disciplines go unheeded.

This, too, is unsuitable conduct in a combat situation.

The third member of the autonomic nervous system: the enteric, acts to eliminate body waste. When signals between the various systems cause a confused, conflated, panic response, we may experience sudden and totally unexpected diarrhea, urination, vomiting, or cramps. It pays to stay calm.

As to Jocho’s reference to exhaling deeply, in order to do that, the combatant must first have inhaled deeply. Fear constricts our chest and makes our breathing shallow - or sometimes it even makes our breath seem to freeze within our chest. We have heard the descriptions: "I was frozen in terror. I could hardly breathe." or, "I tried to scream but nothing would come out." The reason we perform the Healing Breath or other slow, controlled forms of structured breathing when we prepare to enter the meditative zone is simply that controlled breathing initiates a biofeedback loop. A slow, deep, full breath, when held, will cause the thoracic muscles to secrete serotonin as they relax when the breath is exhaled. The serotonin promotes a feeling of well being which conduces to the generation of saliva and the lowering of blood pressure and heart rate.

Naturally, there can be no choking or gasping for air when a breathing exercise is performed. Gasping signals the body that there is a possibility of suffocation and this initiates a panic response. Adrenaline is immediately released, and until the adrenaline is "washed out" of the bloodstream there will be no entry into meditation.

Since controlled and relaxed breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, it provides for calm sustained concentration. Fear and anger can focus the attention, too, but it is a different kind of attention - narrow and unaware of ancillary or peripheral information. This, too, is not an advantageous state for combat.

So there we are, standing in front of an assembly, trying to give a speech. We can alternate between being livid with fear and flushed with embarrassment. We may want to run away or, in our embarrassment, we may flare into anger and wish that a bomb go off and level the place, putting our antagonists out of our misery. Embarrassment generally causes a blushing of the face, or, as Jocho puts it, a rush of blood to the head; and this experience of capricious emotion disrupts our performance. What is needed is the calm, cool, unemotional exercise of duty. And this can be found only in the domain of the parasympathetic nervous system - evidenced by that nice steady flow of saliva and that deep, controlled breathing.

Jocho’s "secret" lies in not getting into the fearful state at all. It takes a few seconds to activate the sympathetic nervous system but without disciplined counter measures, it requires an hour or so for these chemical agents to be purged from the bloodstream. Regaining composure is a very good thing; but better still is not losing it in the first place.

How do we prevent fear from occurring? Insofar as combat or physical competition is concerned, we train by repeatedly experiencing situations that at first elicit a fear response but then repeatedly prove to be harmless. By "crying wolf" sufficiently, the mind is lulled or tricked into ignoring the fearful message. We habituate to the presence of the stimuli of danger when they do not deliver the expected harm. Also, the drill sergeant who shouts obscenities at his men, who heaps insults upon them, is training them that "sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you." A soldier that is easily provoked into anger, is likewise a poor combatant.

Consider that old "crying wolf" story. A farm boy wants attention and knows that if he shouts that he is being threatened by a wolf, the workers in the field will come to save him. So he cries, "Wolf! Wolf!" Alarmed, the workers come running... but there is no wolf. A few days later, the boy again cries, "Wolf! Wolf!" And again the workers run to his aid. But there is no wolf. They may be fooled a third or even a fourth time. But they will soon ignore his cries. They have habituated to the distress call and no longer allow it interfere with their duties.

When two martial artists are in training, contesting on a mat, one may be thrown violently to the ground. But he gets up and to his body’s surprise, he is not hurt. He may be clumsy in his initial reactions, but with enough practice, he acquires confidence and can respond effectively.

There is a story told about training in Zen monasteries in which older students are permitted to kick or punch a new trainee at will. The newcomer learns to be alert to possibilities. Danger can come from any side and from any one and at any time. At first he is a nervous wreck. But he understands that he is being subjected to learning experiences and that there is no malice directed towards him, that the intention is not to destroy but to teach. This helps him to maintain a positive attitude despite the bruises; and once his body acquires the reassurance that the blows are not going to be fatal, he eagerly goes to the dojo to learn those techniques which block attacks against him - providing he can remain in control of his emotions. Eventually he learns not merely to parry, but to reposte. Once he is able to strike back effectively, his opponents respect him and his elementary training period is over.

And this is true of any kind of combative skill. With repeated encounters that do not result in serious harm, the fear diminishes until it dissipates entirely. If a warrior stays calm, he stays in control. He is not likely to flee in fear from his post just as he is not likely to let his emotions devolve into uncontrolled rage.

The control of performance fear - artistic, scholastic, or of a variety of events that require a public presentation - requires uninterrupted concentration upon the material. The moment the performer wonders how his audience is regarding him, he has broken his concentration and will fumble his lines. A series of successful performances provides sustaining poise, but when the material is being delivered for the first time, concentrated self control is required. Rehearsal helps the quality of the performance, but the focus cannot be shifted from delivering the material to considering the audience’s appraisal of it.

Jocho often asserts that spiritual conviction confines the ego’s focus upon inwardly directed sacred service and generates the faith that all will be as it should be, regardless of the outcome. Trouble occurs when attention is shifted outwardly in prideful concern for one’s appearance or reputation. Inward focus promotes the humility necessary for meditative freedom from the interfering ego. Outward focus creates the obstacle of ego awareness that slows down all action and reaction times.

Humility and a lack of desire for status are the best aids a performer can have. This requires the self-discipline to stay focussed on the task, faith in the outcome, and an understanding of the parasympathetic biofeedback loop.

Once the practitioner acquires the ability to enter the meditative zone at will, he can act and react subliminally, with extraordinary alacrity.

The angry or fearful hand is not steady; but the relaxed hand is - and for this reason the archer who can swallow his saliva - that magical elixir - attests to his being in control of his emotions. He’s on his way to becoming one with the bow, the arrow, and the target.

Jocho, a Buddhist monk and a Samurai, knew the extent to which ignorance, egotism, improper and incomplete training, and juvenile emotions hamper the ability to fight effectively. The warrior who is afraid is emotional, and in an emotional state, it is not possible to enter that vaunted meditative zone in which the ego yields to its Buddha Self; and the sensory data of action and reaction slip directly, automatically, and "subliminally" under the threshold of consciousness.

As long as fear dries the mouth, the man who stands on the battlefield with spit to spare is somebody whose side you want to be on.

Humming Bird

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