Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

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Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(March 1, 2006)

by Abbot John

In moments of weakness we all make promises to ourselves. That we all do this is of no consolation. Or help. I speak of programs of self-improvement or of religious devotion, practicing musical instruments, learning Greek or Sanskrit, going on a diet. All that stuff that requires regular physical or mental effort.

A few months ago I sat upon my stool like Rodin's Thinker and contemplated the outer walls of my defenses. They seemed so fragile - built, as they were, of so many cobbled excuses. I thought and thought and chanted under my stony breath that most western of all mantras, "May the walls fall down."

I had been having those headaches that are caused by working so hard so that I wouldn't have to work so hard. The headaches had reached the "dozen-aspirins-a-day" level of distress. This was a habit that required rehab. I was also forty pounds overweight.

And then I got yet another of my promising brilliant ideas. The solution to my problem would be found in "doing" Yoga. I have had this brilliant idea many times in the past but, as I've said, in moments of weakness we make all kinds of promises.

Since I (and not my wife) was doing the thinking, I decided that I have a sattvic mind in a tamas body and needed only rajas to get rid of the tamas and establish harmony in my life. This meant that I had to "do" yoga since sattvic, tamas, and rajas are yoga terms which mean, respectively, pure, sluggish, and active. My wife would have put this differently, but she was not the one sitting on the stool.

I made the inevitable promise. I would do yoga and unite myself with divine wholeness and get rid of the headaches, the fat, and the need to do more work so that I would be able to do less work. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

In a New Age mall I usually pass without even the desire to enter, I tried to look like a casual habitué as I browsed the book racks of a "holistic" shop. An eager clerk saw me thumbing through a yoga book and asked if I had any specific needs. I said, "Curing headaches and becoming whole." She recommended Shirshasana, the yoga posture called a headstand and gave me a book that she said excelled in this "asana."

So, as is my wont, I bought the book and proceeded right to the head-standing chapter and positioned myself in the corner of my bedroom and began to thrust my legs up somewhat violently to reach the proper asana. After two unsuccessful days of this during which I almost broke my neck twice and once hit the corner of the wall so hard that a mirror was dislodged and fell next to me breaking with such a force that only the book itself saved me from decapitation, I decided to rethink the process. More Rodin.

Damn, I thought, I'm an American. Surely someone here has invented a machine that will allow me to stand on my head without the danger of killing myself. Someone had.

Three hundred dollars later I was the proud owner of a cushioned board with boots on one end that was balanced between two huge triangular stands. Hastily assembling the contraption with the help of my son and wife I prepared to strap myself in, assuming that as I mounted the machine I'd reach nirvana. I didn't want company in my ascendance and was happy to bid the wife and boy goodbye as they left for a shopping trip. When I heard the garage door open, I took a deep breath, pushed, and wham, I was straight perpendicular to the floor upside down or as it came to pass wrong side up.

The first few minutes were intriguing but then the novelty wore off. My two hundred pounds of weight were not mostly in my legs, if you get my drift. I don't know how many of you realize this but your hands are a long way from your feet and your arms are heavier that you might think when suspended 180 degrees against the norm. I was in the exact opposite predicament from a few days before, when I couldn't get my legs up. I could now not get them down.

Dangling just within arms reach was a little booklet on one of triangular legs that had these letters on it, D I R E C T I O N S, albeit upside down. I thought that now might be an appropriate time to peruse the little manual, not having many other options at that time. Page One in bold letters Do Not Attempt to Use this Machine When Alone. Ah shit, I thought, now they tell me. I'm going to die here wrong side up in my own bedroom. I hope I have clean underwear on, the crime scene pictures are sure to be in the annals of the FBI and show up "fictionally" re-enacted in some CSI show within the year. What are they going to list as my cause of death, "improper orientation to the planet?" Even worse, my wife - who has a low tolerance for stupidity, is going to kill me if I ain't already dead by the time she gets back.

On and on these thoughts went as my ankles screamed"Uncle" promising that they would never again complain about my weight as long as I made them bear it from the top down. Finally, and there is no other way to say this, I just surrendered to the situation and began observing it from inside out. There I was upside down viewing myself from inside out. You've got to go a long way down the path of yoga before it gets any weirder than that.

After about an hour - I can't be sure since I was long past temporal consciousness - the garage door roused me when my wife and son came back from the mall. It was the only time in my life I can recall being glad she bought something extravagant since she came straight up to the bedroom to hide it. She found me hanging upside down with a dark blood red face like a satiated vampire bat.

Did she immediately cut me down? Oh no, not my wife. Between her hysterical bursts of laughter she called for my son to come up and see Dracula. My son is in that teenage inertial phase... "Ah, Ma, whaddya want now?" and he proceeded to make the slowest climb of a stairs ever accomplished in the history of adolescent man. I was beyond speech and helplessly watched him laugh. Finally they cut me down. There were some good results from this experience. My headaches were gone and for a few days, since I was a few inches taller, my weight wasn't such an issue. But gravity being what it is, it didn't last. I learned many things from this experience. Before I begin any strange and mysterious exercises or operate any strange and mysterious equipment, I read the instructions. I am aware that my folly could have had fatal consequences.

As it is I feel foolish but that, at least, won't get me in any Law and Order episode. But the most important thing I learned is that there are no easy solutions.

Aristotle once went to Egypt to tutor the young Pharaoh. Geometry was the topic and the great Greek began to teach the axioms, laws, rules, theorems, and propositions and whatever else has to be memorized in the study. It was all too much for the young king who stamped his foot and shouted, "I am Pharaoh! Teach me a shortcut!" "Alas, Sire," answered Aristotle,"There is no royal road to geometry."

And there is no royal road to self-improvement. The lesson I'd most like to pass on is that the journey to meditation or a slimmer gut shouldn't be seen as a sequence of instructions: do this, then that, beginning to end, and get an image of the results in your mind. This way is telescopic and gives a person that kind of false impressions that we are warned about in rear view mirrors, "things are closer than they appear to be." We think about the finished product - as if it came into being automatically, traipsing down the royal road. Each step is a final step and when completed lays the foundation for the next. The real discipline is to take little steps on solid ground, not looking ahead to the destination of promised results, but confining our gaze to the step that is immediately in front of us. Just that step.

It is a "pratyahara" exercise to conquer the senses by doing battle with one "weakness" at a time. I conquered the donut with coffee every morning in the office. Remembering my near shortcut to disaster, I next tried walking up a few flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator. I've dropped fifteen pounds. When I stop huffing and puffing at the top of three flights, I'll master another skill. I don't know what that will be. That's the beauty of not being goal-oriented and just trying to maintain verticality, right side up.

Humming Bird
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