A Different Ken Zen 拳禅

The expression Ken Zen Ichi Nyo – 拳禅一如 – Fist and Zen as One – was derived from Ken Zen Ichi Nyo – Sword and Zen as One 剣禅一如.

The Fist version was adopted by Shoshin Nagamine (1907-1997) as his motto. The Sword version was famously used by Zen priest Takuan Soho (1573-1645) while teaching Zen or swordsmanship or both to the officials of the Japanese samurai government and military leaders.

This new adaptation of the old yojijukugo, four-character idiom, can be interpreted in several ways. It may be that a profound way of understanding it has been overlooked. 

Karate, as interpreted in Japan, was a kind of empty hand kendo. Kendo was the elite martial art; it was regarded as the ultimate budo. The well-marked path to the complete fusion of mind and body, of tactics and practice, with transcendent potential.

It was natural for early Japanese adopters of karate, a hundred years ago, to import kendo’s tactics, values and ideology into karate. This innovation eventually influenced karate on Okinawa.

Although this made karate more accessible and comprehensible, something was lost in the translation. The fact that karate is fundamentally an anti-grappling art was set aside. (Look at every kata, from the very first move, for evidence.) There is little remaining of this in modern karate kumite. The innovation had its merits, but there was a trade-off: the understanding of the movement encoded in the kata, the application of the techniques in practice, the understanding of the body’s powers and vulnerabilities, and the lethal dynamics of practical combatives faded. Although practicing with empty hands, the inherent mutability of postures and hands deployed at close range was replaced by a combative approach suited to the use of a long, edged weapon.

Neither the full scope of application of karate nor that of Zen budo can be realized with that modification. 

We should not overlook the wisdom we are being offered.  The implications of the four-character phrase, Ken Zen Ichi Nyo, “Fist and Zen as One”, are profound – and inspiring – in an unexpected way.

A fist 拳 is not the same as a hand 手 (the character te in karate 空手.) 

A fist is closed. It cannot grasp. It cannot cling. It is free to move. It can penetrate and withdraw, deflect and dart, rise and fall. Grasping and clinging to changing things is the habit, based on craving, that manifests as dissatisfaction and suffering. When we practice not grasping and not clinging then craving subsides, and disatisfaction and suffering subside. This observation is a pointer, it is a metaphor we can put into practice.

The character Zen 禅in this four-character motto might refer to the religious movement imported to Japan from China in the 12th century; it might refer to the Zen institution that flourished in Japan the centuries that followed; but there is more to 禅 than the Zen school.

“Zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Indian word jhana (in Pali), or dhyana (in Sanskrit). Dhyana refers to a state of deep concentration and clarity. Through the cultivation of dhyana, we can use the power of our mind to scrutinize experience, to examine phenomena, and to act – with superhuman acuity. Dhyana, zen in this broader sense, is the foundational skill which makes liberative insight possible. 

Then “拳禅一如”can mean “non-clinging – freedom of action – and dhyana – profound clarity – are to be practiced as one.” This is why some feel such a close affinity to this four-character motto. It is represented on the calligraphy Sakiyama Sogen gave to me. It is the motto appearing behind Nagamine Shoshin, founder of Matsubayashi ryu, in his famous meditation portrait. 

This insight, and its implication in practice, are available to all of us. Regardless of style or art, each of us has a chance to realize its truth.


Post by Jeffrey M. Brooks, Yamabayashi Ryu, Mountain Karate Dojo, author of The Rhinoceros Tale and The Good Fight, available on Amazon.

Featured Image by Tarleton Brooks

Post and Photo Copyright © 2021 Mountain Karate Dojo LLC

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