Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts


Author of this essay:

Yin Cai Shakya
(November 25, 2013)

by Yin Cai Shakya

Writer's block. It's a pain in the ass especially for a man like me whose "Dharma Vocation" is supposed to be writing helpful sermons on how to live Zen's rational, balanced, real-world type of life. For months it was a nightmare, I lived with a beautiful muse who wouldn't talk to me.

So I did what any Zen Man would do. I stopped trying. I had no room in my life for hard-to-get women.

It was rather like the last powerlifting meet I participated in, which was nearly one year to the day of my penning this missive. My training in the gym had been coming along well, and then, with a competitive meet just eight weeks away, I lifted everything to hell. My Ego got involved and despite my best efforts to keep it from interfering, I tried to drive the weights up too hard while also training fanatically on the mat at Jiu Jitsu four or five times a week. I'm lucky I ended up only herniating a disc in my lumbar spine.

I still did the meet, but afterward, "What comes now?" I asked myself?

What came after was simple - I didn't worry about how much weight I could lift. I didn't worry about powerlifting meets, or Jiu Jitsu tournaments, or any of that BS. I concentrated on getting my back rehabbed, on exercising for enjoyment, on getting out on the road with my dog to do some slow-and-easy running for the sake of my cardio vascular system, and on enjoying my life from moment to moment, without worrying about anything.

My life had never been better. My goal: What to do to keep it that way.

About 6 months after I made that decision, I quit my job - one with which I hadn't been completely satisfied - and landed a better job - one in which I get to do only the things in IT & E that I enjoy. (I write programs which automate systems administration across 5,000 Unix and Linux servers, gather data from them, and generate reports from that data from which decisions are made by my superiors.) Even though, at any given time, I might be tasked with writing five or six programs, I don't feel any stress at all.

I don't have a plan for anything. I get up and I go to work and while there, I work. Then I leave. After leaving, if I feel good, I can go to the gym. If I feel good but I don't feel like lifting weights, I can go to Jiu Jitsu because there is always a Jiu Jitsu class going on at our academy. Or I can go home, throw the leash on my dog and we can go for a run. It simply doesn't matter, because I know that if I feel good, I can spend an hour doing something healthy and fun, and it doesn't really matter what that activity happens to be at the time since I'm doing what I enjoy.

And if I don't feel good, as is sometimes the case, I can go home, sit on the couch and read a book.

Before, whenever I'd sit down to write and couldn't find anything to write about, I'd bash my head against my keyboard until something insightful fell out. Now I just get up and do something else.

Frankly, it's been fantastic:

I've started drawing and painting again.

I've read several excellent books.

I've cleaned out my garage.

I've learned how to cook a few Thai dishes, real Thai Food, with real curry paste, made from scratch.

I've watched many samurai movies some of which were interesting enough for me to do a little research into Japanese Folklore.

I'm living the dream, ladies and gentlemen. Riding that "Gravy Train With Biscuit Wheels," and I'm loving every minute of it. My blood pressure has never been lower, and I cannot recall a time when I was happier than I am, right now.

And as it often happens in life, when you pause and realize how happy you are, and you express sincere gratitude to the Divine for the blessings you've received in your life, and the proper perspective from which to view them - arguably the best blessing of them all - the muse began to speak to me again. And so I'm typing on my keyboard instead of bashing my head into it.

I opted not to train the other night. I didn't feel like it, and I wasn't worried about it. I had trained hard the prior evening at my Jiu Jitsu class, and my body needed a rest. So I rested and opted to watch 13 Assassins on NetFlix, with my dog snoozing peacefully on the sofa beside me.

I don't intend to give a movie review - it was the standard "outnumbered fighting force that hangs tough till the end" plot. But there was something interesting in this film. One character in the film made me take a voluntary plunge down the rabbit hole and see where it goes, and you, the reader, can follow me.

In the film, while 12 Samurai are traveling in stealth through the woods, heading toward a pre-determined location where they plan to ambush the evil Lord Naritsugu of Akashi, half-brother of the current Shogun, they encounter a thin young man, imprisoned in a cage that hangs from the branch of a tall tree. They free him, and after some perfunctory introductions, they agree to take him along with them on the condition that he lead them to their destination. This young man, named Kiga Koyata, is a hunter who has sustained himself by prowling those woods for game, and since the war party is lost, he becomes indispensable.

As the film rolled I was drawn to the character Kiga Koyata, and I found myself observing his strange behavior. This character seemed to be monkey-like, a little nuts as he leaps and jumps and hops along building tops. Crazy as he seemed, he was still sufficiently high-functioning to be allowed to act as their 13th "samurai" assassin, and he effectively aided the protagonists in their efforts. His antics reminded me of the Japanese demons I had been reading about.

My curiosity was piqued enough to do some reading when the film ended. I learned about some pretty interesting things.

Did you know that in Japanese folklore, there is an entire class of demons which were once human beings and who were subsequently transformed into their current grotesque state after they had given in to extreme emotions?

I had no idea.

Further, some of these entities display the same compulsive - almost insane - behaviors that Kiga Koyata did in the film.

For example, there is Azuki Arai, who washes azuki beans.

There is also Akaname, who dwells in dirty bathrooms and spends its time licking the floors and the commodes clean. Since I do my stint as a janitor in the dojo, this particular entity makes me shudder.

And then there's my personal favorite, Ashiarai Yashiki.

Ashiarai Yashiki, ladies and gentlemen, appears as a giant foot in your house, demanding that you, the terrified homeowner, wash it.

Yes. You read that right.

And when I read about him, the same switch in my mind flipped "On" that does when I stumble upon one of the more arcane Koans, one that hasn't yet been intellectualized into utter uselessness. It seemed so absurd at the time that it begged for some investigation.

I had to write about it. It was too fascinating to ignore.

So, that said, follow me for a moment while the situation plays out. I am your guide, and we are walking down a street to your house in the most pleasant of neighborhoods. It is a marvelous afternoon, the sky is blue with no hint of thunderheads on the horizon to speak of, birds are singing and your manicured lawn is as emerald as The Isle itself, no-doubt lending the kind of curb appeal that shouts "This homeowner is a credit to the neighborhood!"

We walk leisurely down the flagstone path to your front door, you unlock it, and we enter your house greeted by the kind of cool that only comes from central air conditioning, and the kind of smells that only exist in happy homes - a vague hint of homemade strawberry rhubarb pie, the pleasant-but-not-overpowering scent of a Glade plug-in air freshener, and oh!, do I detect a faint aroma of apple-cinnamon candles, the kind that come in the big glass jars? I believe I do!

We enter your living room, and we're taking a seat on your comfortable sofa. Let's put the old feet up on your coffee table, it's just the two of us, your wife isn't around to harangue you about it - not this afternoon - so we can relax a little! In fact, you stay put and keep your feet resting comfortably on that Ikea monstrosity while I run to the kitchen and fetch us a couple of beers from your fridge. As I said, your spouse isn't here to yell at you for drinking at three in the afternoon. Hang tight! I'll be right back.

...AH! Here you are! Right where I left you. Enjoy your brew. Your home is your castle. You can let it all hang out. You have your feet up, and I crack your beer open for you with the aid of my handy shark-bottle-opener keychain, and I hand it to you. You take it gladly, gulp down damn-near half of it, belch, and then rest that tallboy on the coffee table without a coaster. Nice work.

I join you on the couch, beer in hand and my feet join yours on the coffee table. There we are, enjoying a hockey game on your television which you're happy to discover I have somehow magically transformed into a brilliant 72 incher equipped with a Polk Audio surround-sound system.

Boy oh boy we're having fun now! The Pens are destroying the Washington Caps, we're marveling at the slapshots, Sidney Crosby is looking amazing on the ice and he's just about to score yet another goal - when, all of a sudden -

A gargantuan, bunion-ridden foot with yellowing toenails comes crashing through the ceiling with the force of a thousand bowling balls dropped from the 60th floor of the US Steel Tower, and smashes the brand-spankin-new television I just whipped-up for you out of thin air. There's a cataclysmic explosion of sparks and smoke which hurls debris at us and somehow doesn't damage the walls or the floor - and thank The Lord for that. I can help you explain the rings on your coffee table and even the TV which was smashed to smithereens, but actual property damage, sorry bud, you're on your own with that one.

I'm still sitting comfortably with my feet still resting on your coffee table. Things like this don't bother me one bit. Weird shit happens to me all the time. But you? You're hugging your knees, and you're shaking uncontrollably. You look like you might be in shock. Or, you have a concussion from the subwoofer hitting you in the head when that ridiculous foot smashed the entertainment center and set it aflight.

And you jump a full foot off the couch when, with an authoritative voice, that giant foot booms-


You balk, mouth-agape, rendered momentarily speechless...




Can you handle this?

You glance at me and I'm grinning at the sheer absurdity of the situation, and you see my grin widen as I consider the thing and start laughing.

"How the Hell can you laugh about something like that?" you shriek at me, gesturing toward Ashiarai with your beer.

"I have no idea!" I offer.

"You can turn my fading 32 inch television into a monster 72 inch home-theater screen out of thin air but you can't explain THIS!?"

That zinger, which you timed perfectly for a comedic effect which I'm certain was completely unintentional launches me into a near-spastic fit of laughter.

"WASH ME!" the foot booms again. The windows vibrate.

And again you jump, and your head whips back to face the monstrous plantar before you. Your chin is moving up and down, and your lips do appear to be forming rudimentary words, but no sound comes out of your mouth.


My laughter intensifies, and you regard me from the corner of your eye as a hyena, looking at you madly, pointing in the direction of that voice, and howling, "Oh man! You are gonna be in so much trouble when the wife gets home! HAHAHAAAAA"

Through clenched teeth you admonish me with the following:

"For God's sake will you stop your chortling and tell me how to get rid of this damned thing."

And as I dry my tear-stained eyes and heave out the dregs of my laughter, I wave my palm in the foot's direction and say, "Well, I guess you should do what it wants."


You roll your eyes, and agree with an exasperated sigh.

"I'll go get you a bucket and a sponge. A big one." I say.

"Thank you. Thanks a lot. You have been a tremendous help," you say to me, wearily.

At least I was able to help you determine how to get rid of the thing. And as you scrubbed, while the foot cooed with delight and ordered, in a somewhat more jovial tone "OOOH! DO IN-BETWEEN MY TOES AGAIN HA-HA!" I sat on your couch, cracked open another of your beers, and pondered...

What was I pondering while you went about your chore of washing that monstrous foot?

That I am amazed a scene as ridiculous as this could manage its way into Japanese folklore. Something in my head keeps on telling me that it means something. And I'll be damned if I can put my finger on what it means, but that isn't really the point, either. Maybe I'm not supposed to.

Perhaps the meaning is is that it makes you think at all (though I doubt it, but hey, I'll take it).

What I look for in life, in terms of "inspiration" is that special feeling I get when I am forced to involuntarily pause and notice something and it appears in crystal-clear-brilliance under my special mental microscope. Time seems to stand still, and a voice that speaks in that Universal Language we come to be familiar with, speaks to me.

And doesn't it seem that in Zen, it is often the most ridiculous things, that speak to you?

OH COME ON! You've followed me this far! "The sound of one hand clapping" isn't exactly dry and mundane, is it? Where does the room go when you leave it? Well...?

Now stay with me, we're almost done, I promise.

The point I'm making here is that perhaps, at-least in my head, I had been living a life of premeditated plans and schemes which, when they came to fruition, would always come out a big, ugly monstrosity in need of a thorough cleaning. Perhaps I turned a corner somewhere, and cleaned up all the messes that I'd made. That's the only rational explanation for why things have been going so well for me lately and why, for the first time in my life, I feel not only that I am exactly where I belong, but also, that everything is perfect in that lasting way.

I sit back and think about spending time with my ex-wife in silence, on the sofa with some damn movie or another on the television, after an argument, and I see that gargantuan foot staring back at me. I see myself walking to the cubicle I used to sit in at my old job, and I see that thing in there waiting for me.

I did a lot of hard work, cleaning out that garage. I did a lot of hard work cleaning up my head, too, and I got rid of a lot of baggage. And these days I'm not living in such a way that creates horrible monstrosities that need to be cleaned up after.

I'm not haunted by anything anymore.

Humming Bird