Runcible Blog

zen in martial arts

I recently judged a book by its cover and bought Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyams, thinking it might contain some insight into a particular way of thinking about fighting, and I thought it might be able to put words to the kinds of feelings I've been having in my own practice. Wrong! The book, written in 1979, oozes with a kind of superficial understanding of zen common in America at that time. The instructors quoted in the book all sound like David Carradine from Kung Fu or some caricature of a zen master. The author, a student of Bruce Lee, holds his martial arts masters in high esteem, sometimes to the point of worship. He writes about his experiences struggling to learn techniques and overcome his fear or anger, and invariably, an all-knowing master takes him aside to philosophize and show him the way to the truth. It's amazing that there are so many detailed quotes from these conversations with the masters, but I suppose they're not too hard to remember when they're mostly clichés.

I shouldn't trash the book so much. It's obvious that the author was serious and respectful of all sorts of martial arts and was a curious and dedicated student for many years. But I take issue with the sentiment that puts zen and martial arts up on an exotic pedestal, as if these concepts were precious jewels that only intense masters can ever understand. There are descriptions of almost super-human abilities — a Karate master's miraculous capacity to heal his broken hand by visualizing little construction workers fixing him, a Karate match where the master defeated a burly man only by looking at him intensely and screaming, a Tae Kwon Do man's ability to pummel a metal surface until his hand turned to pulp, Bruce Lee's magical one inch punch. The power of visualization may work wonders for some people, and imagining being somewhere else to distract the mind from pain might just do the trick, but it's not zen. Zen is about being present in this moment, not about fooling the mind or believing that one can fly if only he thinks hard enough.

Those who glorify the exotic aspects of zen and martial arts do a disservice to both because they elevate the ideas far from reality and make them seem unobtainable by us normal American slobs. But it just ain't so! There are tons of books that bolster this misconception, turning zen into an object to purchase and show off. It's all around us: buy the yoga mat and yoga pants to do yoga; buy the zazen pillow to do zazen; buy the karate uniform to do karate. And each time, put on your yoga face to do yoga, your zen face to do zen, and your karate face to do karate. When you get home, put on your T.V. face for the rest of the day. Throw them all out!

Much of the book deals with karate and kung fu, which I mostly have experience with as a viewer of "Karate Kid" and other great classics. But I wonder if the fact that there's such a focus on mastering forms and the seemingly mystical philosophy of "qi" makes it easy for people to become caught up in this delusion where they might start to believe that invisible lightning bolts can shoot out of the eyes or cause an opponent's head to explode just by focusing on it. While reading the book, I was especially skeptical because of the stuff that I've been learning recently about jiu-jitsu, particularly Gracie jiu-jitsu. The Gracie family showed up and demolished seasoned martial artists because their jiu-jitsu is so much more of a science than a ceremony. They started off in bare-knuckle fights in Rio, fighting for their lives, not for points. I think those life and death situations point closer to the truth of zen than a board breaking demonstration does.

So, what is zen in the martial arts? Well, no thanks to this damn book, I still have to figure that out. What I can say so far is that zen is a perfectly-executed roundhouse kick, following through the target and pivoting the standing leg to at least 270º. Zen is also the moment when you completely miss the target, swing around, and fall flat on your face. Zen is about getting thrown to the ground by a 14 year old, and it's about choking a girl, despite her gender, because she will definitely choke you if given the chance. Zen is being mounted by someone twice your size — nowhere and no strength to escape. Zen is breathing. Zen is letting the other guy get tired. Zen is the effortless technique that comes after countless repetitions. But zen is also the lack of progress despite effort, the natural plateau in experience. Zen is a pulled muscle. Zen is the congratulatory smile on your face after your opponent has clobbered you with a flawless arm bar.

Most of all, zen isn't special. But it's the most important thing because it's happening right now. It is this moment. And although the truth may not make for a best selling book, zen in the martial arts is the same as zen in knitting or zen in taking a dump. Be present in the moment, and incinerate yourself in the activity. If you're taking a dump, then just take a dump. If you're escaping from someone's guard, then just escape. If you're punching straight, cross, hook, then just punch straight, cross, and hook. There's no violence or anger in this action because it is only action. Dogen compared compassion to a hand reaching back to adjust a pillow in the night. Zen in the martial arts means employing that same kind of automatic compassion whether you're punching someone in the face or being choked to submission.


That's all I've got so far.