Is “Nothing” Sacred?

Miyamoto Musashi lived in turbulent times. He sharpened his sword-fighting skills at the great battle of Sekigahara, in sixty duels and ceaseless training for single combat.  Later, living alone in a cave, he wrote the Book of Five Rings.

His story is legendary. His example of the traditional virtues of courage, skill and integrity retold in novels and films. The technical presentation in the Book of Five Rings has been studied, interpreted and quoted by martial artists for 400 years.

The first four chapters of Musashi’s book are called: Earth, Water, Fire and Wind. The last chapter is called Emptiness.

“Emptiness” is written in Japanese as “kara.” The same character now used to write “karate” – empty hand.

Musashi says that understanding emptiness is essential to “following the Way.” From what he writes we can see that for him this is the consummate achievement. Why does he think so? And what does it mean?

Musashi says: “When the clouds of delusion clear away, there is true Emptiness.” He says: “Taking emptiness as the way, see the way as emptiness.”

The word he uses for “the way” is “Tao” – “Do” in Japanese, as in “Karate-Do”.

Musashi highlights the importance of “Mushin,” No-Mind – a flow state, in which an experienced practitioner of martial arts has sufficient skill to respond spontaneously to the changing dynamics of a combative encounter, and turn them to advantage, without consciously thinking about them.

Musashi also uses the word Munen, No-thought, to describe this same flow state of spontaneous skillful action, familiar to experienced athletes, musicians, dancers, pilots, medics, and others.

The first syllable in these words, “Mu”, is a negative modifier in Japanese. It means ‘no’ or ‘is not’. It is like the ‘free’ in sugar-free. It is like kara in karate – it refers to the absence of something that might be there, but isn’t.

We perform optimally when we learn to delete distractions.  In a combative encounter we want the absence of any obstruction to the free flow of our movement and our will, whether that obstacle be mental or physical, in thought, feeling or perception.

That absence – of fixed ideas, strategies, negative emotions, physical limitations in range of motion or technique which may interfere with the connection between parts of the body, between the body and mind, perception and will, etc. – permits freedom of action.

The masters of every generation understood that training to a high level in martial arts is a matter of both adding skill and subtracting obstruction.

The long association of Bodhidharma with martial arts has confused people, because it conflates Indian Buddhism, East Asian Zen and martial arts.  As mentioned, the association was made up. In Ming and Ching era China, and as conveyed worldwide through the Zen martial traditions of Japan, the presumption that martial arts practice offers the potential for profound spiritual development, grew. It was faith in this assumption that made the Bodhidharma fabrication appealing and credible.

In the 17th century post-war culture of Japan the life of the samurai warrior class was reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose and a fresh rationale for the social role of the samurai. The need for victory in battle was replaced by a commitment to martial practice as a path to “spiritual awakening.” The samurai became the custodians of the means to the ultimate fulfillment of human potential.

This process, according to lore and teaching, would be consummated in liberating moments of insight, called kensho and satori.  These were personal experiences of freedom that arose through profound understanding.

What did practitioners in this tradition do with this transformative insight? One famous master said he would simply “Have a cup of tea.” In many of the stories samurai revealed their spiritual insight through martial mastery – victory in a match, a single combat, or through an aesthetic performance of poetry, calligraphy or painting.

The assumptions underlying the ideals, the obstacles and the signs of progress in this model of spiritual development is evident in Musashi and Takuan, and are elaborated by later proponents including Issai Chozan, Yamoka Tesshu, D.T. Suzuki and many others who, as described later in this chapter, have shaped attitudes toward traditional martial arts practice in the West.

This Japanese Zen influenced martial tradition is linked to the Indian Buddhist tradition tangentially. It derives some ideas from the Indian Buddhism that Bodhidharma taught, but extracts these ideas from their context and applies them to a different end.

The use of reason, the practice of analytical meditation applied to the full range of experience and aspiration, the complete philosophical and practical integration of the moral and metaphysical realms, the cultivation of a heart of love and a messianic commitment to taking personal responsibility for the salvation of all living things are not featured in the Zen martial arts tradition. They are central concerns and methods of the Indian Buddhist tradition that Bodhidharma taught.

The primary distinction between the four major tenet schools of Indian Buddhism, in Bodhidharma’s time and now, is their different understanding of emptiness. This bears on the understanding of emptiness in the Japanese martial tradition. It is why Musashi uses “Emptiness” as the subject of his final chapter in The Book of Five Rings.

Emptiness – as a principle and as the means to liberation – is the unique insight and the core doctrine of Buddhism. Emptiness in the Buddhist sense does not mean “nothing.” It does not mean “nothing is real” or that nothing matters. Quite the opposite.

In this tradition understanding emptiness is not all that is required for liberation from suffering but it is at the heart of liberative practice.

In Bodhidharma’s view, emptiness, as expressed in the Lankavatara Sutra’s “Mind Only” philosophy, is that subject and object and action are one thing. They arise as a unitary gestalt. They entail each other and, in a sense, bring each other into existence. That non-dualism is essential to the understanding of emptiness in the Mind Only school. No ‘thing’ can exist by itself without standing in relation to other things. There is much more that distinguishes Mind Only doctrine, but this is the component that is found at the center of Zen martial culture.

When you hear a Japanese kyudo sensei – traditional archery teacher – talk about becoming “one with the target,” and having “no intention” to release the arrow we can hear an instruction, applied to Japanese martial arts, that points to the non-duality of subject, object, action, will and technique. We can hear an echo of Bodhidharma’s message.

Eugen Herrigel’s account of his kyudo study in Japan in the 1920s, Zen in the Art of Archery, presents this explicitly as Zen practice.

Bodhidharma did not use combatives as a teaching example. But in the warrior traditions of East Asia, especially in the Japanese Zen presentation of his ideas, this example is common.

References in literature and in teacher-lectures to ‘becoming your opponent’ or to “becoming one with the target” or having “no intention to strike” can sound absurd unless you know this source material, and understand the phenomenological insight the language is intended to convey and to cultivate in the mind of the practitioner.  It can seem like word play, but doing the work to understand the conditional dependence of the conventional definitions we apply to our experience provides an insight that frees us from mental rigidity and misunderstanding. It makes us better practitioners and fighters.

The 18th century allegory of the art of the sword called Neko no Myojutsu, The Cat’s Subtle Art, by Issai Chozan, includes this:

Question: “What is meant by ‘There is neither subject nor object’?”

Answer: …Because of the self, there is the enemy; when there is no self, there is no enemy.

Issai Chozan’s text describes levels of martial accomplishment, indicating, in sequence, the limitations of technique, of spirit, of cunning and intention. It advises the cultivation of mushin – no thought, no mind and no will. This, he says, is the means to see through self-centered dualism, which by implication is fake and an impediment to acting freely. This cultivation leads to victory in combat and to satori or liberating insight – the consummation of human life and the proper object of the martial path, in this tradition.

The echo of the Mind Only school’s understanding of emptiness can be heard in this. In part in seeing through the illusion of dualism, but also in what is glimpsed in kensho and revealed in satori – one’s inherent Buddha Nature – another key doctrine of the Mind Only school.

The martial example was used by Zen monks in teaching samurai and others in medieval Japan who found the martial application more persuasive than abstract philosophy.  For them, familiar with Sun Tzu’s notion of “fluidity” on the battlefield as a frame of reference, the fact that the qualities we assign to the identities of persons, objects and phenomena are not something those things hold on their own, but are contingent on conditions and our relation to them, and are subject to change, was not a stretch.  That is a useful idea in training, in combat, in life, and in the practice of liberation.

The premise for the martial exponents who united Mind Only philosophy with martial prowess was that understanding reality yields skill-in-means within the conventions of this world, as well as liberation from suffering forever. This is appealing. (Whether, in the context of warrior training this is true, is a different question.)

Directing one’s mind to the nature of reality, to understanding emptiness – united for many serious practitioners their worldly objectives and their transcendent ones. This union infused everything they did with purpose. The mundane overflowed with meaning; the transcendent was near at hand.

Mind Only philosophy is a vast, exquisitely reasoned system of thought which may take a lifetime of study to master.  To try to encapsulate its doctrines in one line or a few phrases is not possible. To point to its essence with pithy epigrams is customary in martial arts and Zen.

The language of martial arts has mixed ideas and interpretations from many sources. It is not always clear what the words mean or what the writers who are using them want to say. This has confused many contemporary martial artists and has sent some off the road.


Martial arts literature is filled with the word “Emptiness.” “Emptiness” has been mystified and obscure. “Emptiness” can be clear and useful.

Here are four ways ‘emptiness’ has been interpreted in martial arts and elsewhere: 1. Vacuity, 2. Nihilism, 3. Non-obstruction, and 4. No-Self and Interdependence.

These categories can be described individually. In practice, in the minds of practitioners, as revealed in their actions, and in the language they use to define them, the boundaries are fluid. It seems that individual writers, practitioners and teachers cross these boundaries – during a lifetime of practice, in a moment of insight, sometimes within a single sentence.  The categories are useful to clarify our own understanding.

Interpretation 1: Emptiness as Vacuity

Musashi’s interpretation reflects Zen’s Chinese Taoist understanding of Buddhism. Musashi describes emptiness as “what is not there.”

This understanding compares philosophical emptiness to empty space; this interpretation is consistent with the five-elements division of The Book of Five Rings – Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Emptiness – a typology of the constituents of the natural world, reflecting Musashi’s intent to present a comprehensive description of the universe of martial application in his book.

The Japanese character he uses for Emptiness kara or “ku” also means sky. This reference to space, to unobstructed openness, is the way Musashi seems to understand Emptiness.

Lao Tzu, the early literary source of Taoism, in his book the Tao Te Ching, uses language that was later interpolated into Chinese Buddhism, and was transmitted over millennia to Japanese Zen.

This is an example of the use of the term “emptiness” in Taoism, a conception also used by Buddhists in China and Japan: “emptiness” as vacuity, a capacious, receptive “not there.” The Tao is translated as ‘The Way” as in “the path” but also as the metaphysical “way things are” or “the manner in which things exist”:

The Tao is empty like a bowl.

It is used but never filled.

Tao Te Ching Chapter 4

That suggests an understanding of emptiness as ‘vacuity’ in Taoism.  This is different from what was meant by ‘Emptiness’ or ‘Sunyatta’ in the Indian Buddhism that Bodhidharma taught.

Interpretation 2: Emptiness as Nihilism

In The World as Will and Representation, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote:

“…to those in whom the will to continue living has turned and has denied itself, this very real world of ours, with all its suns and Milky Ways is — nothing.” 

He added:

“This is also the Prajna–Paramita of the Buddhists, the ‘beyond all knowledge,’ in other words, the point where subject and object no longer exist.”

What Schopenhauer seems to be saying in these quotations is distinct from what Buddhism says.  There is a transitory meditative stage described in Buddhist texts as being like “water pouring into water” in which the subject-object distinction subsides; there is the Mind Only presentation of the non-dual contingency of phenomena, as mentioned above. But this is not what Schopenhauer seems to be referring to. “Nothing” and “No longer exist” are the terms he uses.

He refers to the Buddhist “Prajna paramita” transcendent wisdom teachings, a core presentation of Emptiness in the Indian Buddhist literature.

The Prajna paramita literature is vast. It is crystallized in a short text called the Heart Sutra, which is a source text for the Cittamatra or Mind Only doctrine that Bodhidharma taught.

In the best of all possible worlds Schopenhauer would have had access to precise Buddhist technical language that would have enabled him to understand what he was reading. He probably didn’t. So, like modern practitioners who chant the Heart Sutrawithout studying it, what he seems to do is default to accustomed usage of language and habits of thought and so misinterpret the message of the Prajna paramita. I use this example not to critique this thinker, which I cannot do, but because his words cogently express an error adopted by many contemporary readers of Buddhist texts.

The Heart Sutra is not saying things do not exist. But it is easy to see how philosophers and the rest of us might read it that way. The Heart Sutra says:

… Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form…

… therefore there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight… no realm of mind consciousness, no ignorance no end of ignorance… no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment…

The list of things negated are elements of the typologies of the constituents of reality – like Musashi’s “earth, air, water, fire and empty space” typology – which are used in Buddhist literature. None of these negations in the Heart Sutra mean ‘does not exist.’

This misinterpretation of emptiness as nihilism may account for why, when a retreat attendee was leaving the venue and her bag popped open on the steps and a stack of stolen hotel towels fell out, she could say: “It’s all empty any way so what’s the difference?” She was in error both morally and philosophically, inverting the meaning of all that she was studying.

In fact, because of “emptiness” we can understand that everything we do, think or say does matter, and will have consequences for us and for others.

Some pop literature about the “true nature of reality”, or “emptiness”, also uses “nothingness”, “non-existence”, “the void”, and “non-being” interchangeably and without good definitions. No wonder people get confused.

For some the definition of “emptiness” as “nothing” is supported by the famous claim that Zen is a transmission “beyond words” and “outside the scriptures.” That is: they conclude that because emptiness is declared to be expressible it must be incomprehensible, and therefore emptiness, and the vast literature referring to it, are devoid of meaning.

This claim had a natural appeal to people raised on Dr. Seuss, Bob Dylan, Camus, Sartre, James Joyce, Derrida and Foucault. It appealed to people trained via politics, entertainment and academic literature to devalue language as a reliable conveyor of meaning and to mistrust the validity of meaning in general.

This Zen language is prefigured in Lao Tzu. In the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1, he says:

The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.

Words can direct our attention to the things they refer to but cannot be them. Everyone knows that. We also know that language can be useful and meaningful, even as it helps us to see beyond the limits of language.

The Romantics and Existentialists also used the terms “the void”, “the abyss”, “nothing”, and “oblivion” as key descriptors of life in general and their experience of modern life in particular. No wonder some ardent deconstructionists and their disciples thought they were taking the next logical step by sitting down and doing Zen.

They may have misunderstood Zen, and even asked about it, but many of their Zen teachers rebuked for thinking, or guided them with “There is nothing to understand!” Followed by “Just sit!”

It is easy to get lost in the post-modernist’s epistemological swamp. It is good to find your way out.  Of the four interpretations listed here this one, nihilism, is philosophically incoherent and in practice harmful.

“Emptiness” does not mean “Does not exist.”

Interpretation 3: Emptiness as Non-obstruction

Takuan Soho was a Japanese Zen priest who lived around the same time as Musashi. Takuan advised one of the most influential sword masters serving the samurai military government of Japan.

Elite military advisors, then and today, are selected because they bring some critical quality of judgment, skill, innovation or insight that decision-makers can use.  Something that will contribute to victory.

Takuan’s advice on sword-fighting combined the spiritual and the tactical as one. This union was assumed in Japanese martial culture. From the first introduction of Zen to the samurai government in the 13th century by Zen monk Eisai, the congruence was recognized. After Takuan it became an integral part of Japanese martial culture.

This union continues as an ideal. It is expressed by the four-character aphorism “Ken Zen Ichi Nyo” – the fusion through martial practice of “Fist and Zen as One” or “Body and Mind as One.”

Takuan advised his client on the significance of an “empty” mind, in language recalling the negations of the Heart Sutra and the instruction of Lao Tzu:

“No-mind is the same as right mind. It neither hardens nor remains static. It is called no-mind when the mind has neither discrimination nor a single thought, but moves unimpeded through the whole body and extends through the entire self. 

“The no-mind is placed nowhere. Yet it is not like wood or stone.

“When this no-mind has been well-developed the mind does not come to rest on one thing nor does it miss anything….”

“No mind” has been sometimes misinterpreted as an instruction to “blank out your mind.”  That is not what Takuan taught. His advice was practical. It was a corrective to mental habits that obstructed high performance in battle.

Military training for combat in many times and places and cultures encouraged warriors to focus completely on one thing: attack and kill the enemy.

The idea of victory was fixed in their mind. This was evident for example in the ‘banzai charge,’ still used by the Japanese Imperial Army early in WWII, which focused on attacking and destroying the enemy without any other consideration. It was not an efficacious tactic in modern mechanized war, and it was not optimal long before.

Takuan advocated an alternative to this ‘fixation’ frame of mind. He counseled his clients and disciples to:

“See the whole tree at once, not just a single leaf.”

Takuan was saying that holding any fixed idea in the mind limited a fighter’s power because it made him rigid, limiting his awareness, impeding his freedom to respond to changing conditions. Anyone who has fought a kumite or boxing match knows that attack plans have a short useful life.

This was not abstract. It was not word play. It was sound practical advice. Here’s how:

Combat training creates conditions of high stress, in an attempt to simulate some aspects of combat.  It works that way now and it worked that way in Tokugawa era Japan. Under stress-induced hyper arousal we experience changes in sense perception and physical performance that can hinder our effectiveness:

Our field of vision contracts to a small circle right in front of our eyes, an effect known as tunnel vision. We tend to lock in on one target and one objective, while missing the rest of the environment, additional threats, and the changing dynamics of the fight.

Our hearing turns off, known as auditory exclusion. Footsteps, shouts and even gunfire become inaudible.

Our fine motor skills, especially in our hands, are reduced as blood flows to the internal organs to support vital functions at the core of the body.

To perform optimally we train to recognize and overcome the symptoms of mental and physical rigidity that arise as a result of combat induced stress.

Takuan advised warriors to cultivate what he called an “empty” mind.

In light of that we can understand Takuan’s superb advice. We can also understand that he used the negation-prefix form familiar in Buddhist literature but that he was using it differently – he was negating fixation and obstruction. This is not the same object of negation that the Indian Buddhist sources were pointing to.

The Zen advice to cultivate “No-mind” is consistent with what warriors need in the heat of conflict. But this is the critical distinction: the martial Zen understanding of the advice diverged from the liberative, religious purpose of the older, non-martial application of Buddhist ideas. (“Not fixing on an object of attention” is different from searching for a self-nature and not finding it. Both are distinguishable from reducing mental disturbance and error until one’s own “Buddha nature” appears.)

Before the samurai applied this “No-mind” technique to fighting, before Buddhist terminology and ideas were embraced by samurai era Japan, “No-mind” had been a highly developed component of the mind-training techniques which Buddhist monks practiced. They used it in an effort to “see reality as it is,” that is: without mental distortion, without designating objects with labels that artificially define and limit them in time and space, without imputing characteristics to things and to people which they do not possess in themselves – as a means to become free from suffering – and to help others do the same.

Regardless of our judgment of the truth claims of their worldview or of the efficacy of their practice method, neither their goals, their motives nor their means were the same as those of the Tokugawa era fighters.

The martial application advised by Takuan took a piece of insight from the Buddhist toolkit and applied it to war training.  It is a powerful tool. We can still use it for that purpose.

The efficacy of the re-interpolation of this piece of practical, fighting advice – the cultivation of “No-mind,” from martial arts back to the religious, liberative application of inner cultivation, so that martial practice could function as complete spiritual practice – is a fundamental assumption of the Zen martial tradition.

Practicing open, non-fixated, live awareness is essential for high performance in any demanding field, as any NASCAR driver or figure skater could tell you.

Non-obstruction as a single-practice path has been used in the Zen influenced martial traditions as an interpretation of “emptiness.”

Interpretation 4: Emptiness as No-Self and Interdependence

This fourth way that “Emptiness” has been interpreted diverges most from our ordinary way of thinking.  When the Heart Sutra says “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” it doesn’t seem to communicate anything until you have understood this fourth interpretation of emptiness. Here is a martial allusion:

Ming era mathematician, scholar and military expert Tang Shunzhi (1507 – 1560) wrote this:

“The reason for postures in the martial arts is to facilitate transformations. Forms contain static positions, but in actual practice there are none. When applied they become fluid, but still maintain their structural characteristics.”

(Translated by Doug Wile in Tai Chi’s Ancestors and quoted by Meir Shahar in The Shaolin Monastery.)

Things change. Things take shape, and shift. They are real. But they come into existence, vanish and become something else.

What is it that changes? What makes things change? We can see a form – Where does it come from and where does it go when it has vanished? Is change predictable? Is it meaningful?

How do we initiate change within ourselves and how does that affect the world around us?  Given that we and the world around us are changing all the time, how do we make the best of it?

What if change and impermanence are not fundamentally about losing the things we like? What if they offer a way to have what we want?

These questions point to the cause and effect premise of martial arts: If we train well we will get results.

How far can we take that premise?

The mark of achievement of a fully accomplished martial artist goes beyond experiencing the immanence of every moment, beyond responding to the opportunities and dangers in every permutation of reality as they emerge, to the ability to get ahead of the event horizon itself – to catalyze the sequence of actions that are most propitious for them and the cause they serve.

That level of achievement is an ideal. To approach it requires an understanding of emptiness as “no-self-nature” and “interdependence” at once.

In practice this is a highly technical, intellectually challenging method for changing your mind and your world. The intellectual effort in this tradition is cultivated in the crucible of a loving heart – you learn to see clearly that beings are suffering, you are so moved that you take personal responsibility to help them, you realize that you are unable to do it with your current skills and capacity, and you vow to do whatever you need to do to get the ability you need to help them. It is not an intellectual exercise, but it makes use of reason and insight to reach its goal.

This stands in contrast to martial applications that use some of the same language, but with a different understanding of the terms and with different objectives.

(These observations are consistent with the core texts of the traditions, the practice environments of the traditions, and are supported by the statements, training practices and conduct of people following them.)

The Heart Sutra is one text used to facilitate the transformation of the practitioner, to enable him or her to fulfill their vow to save all beings from suffering. It is chanted in temples and shrines daily. In part it works by means of knowledge and reason, not by merely by magical sounds, an inspiring mood, or by lulling the discursive activity of the mind. As mentioned, its core doctrinal presentation is a series of negations.

To use the Heart Sutra as a mnemonic mind-training tool – allowing you to concisely review all the constituents of reality and one by one recognize their no-self-nature and their interdependence – you would need to know that the negations point to the fact that something that we customarily suppose is there in all those categories and things which are negated is in fact not there at all. The thing negated is an intrinsic self-nature that is permanent, unchanging, self-standing and independent of causes, conditions, parts and perceptions. There is no such thing.

Here is an example from the “Little Rascals,” a black & white short film series from the early 20th century, the depression era, when many people were poor and hungry. In one episode Stymie, a hungry boy, is looking for something to eat. A nice lady hands him an artichoke. He does not know what to do with it. He sits down to eat it. He thinks maybe this is like corn, which you have to open by peeling back it’s leaves, to get to the part you can eat.

He begins to pull back the leaves. Little by little, deeper and deeper, he explores the perplexing vegetable. The further he goes the more dismayed he becomes. He pauses for a moment when he gets to the artichoke heart, but looking more closely he sees it too is made of leaves, and continues to peel them back until he finds… nothing!  He throws the artichoke away.

He does not know that all the leaves, all the parts of the artichoke, were the artichoke. It was real. There was no denying that. It would have functioned as food. But he did not know that. There was no little artichoke in it. There was no essence of artichoke in there. The artichoke was the parts of the artichoke.  There it was – all it needed to become usable food was to add his own understanding of it. It would then, based on its parts and his knowledge, become nourishing. That is one way of seeing the no-self nature or emptiness of an object.

A person who knew what he was looking at would see it. A person who relied on uninformed assumption – i.e. ignorance – and past mental habits could never find an artichoke inside the artichoke; there was none in there to find.

Just the way there is no homunculus inside a person, no separate ‘driver’ or ‘pilot’ inside our mind – nothing other than the constituents, causes and labelling of a thing that constitute it. People are real, people change, we have hearts that function and souls that matter. That is a way of describing the emptiness of a person.

Another example of this kind of description of emptiness is the instruction given by the Indian monk Nagasena in the second century BCE to the Greek King Menander of Bactria – the area of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan now.

Instead of Stymie’s artichoke Nagasena used the example of a chariot to make his point – a real thing which exists but only as a collection of parts plus the understanding of an observer. The parts of the chariot were crafted. They were brought together. They function as an integrated group in relation to one another and in relation to their environment, purpose, conditions and minds of the people who use it.

Our idea of what the collection of parts is allows us to use it. The parts will wear out.  They will separate. The parts or the parts of the parts will go their separate ways when they wear out, are cast aside, are destroyed or whenever the time and conditions are right for them to rot or break or rust or fall off, burn up or be used to make something else.  No ‘self-nature’ of a chariot will remain once the constituents disperse. The chariot was there. A separate self-nature was not.

This insight is at the center of Buddhist philosophical systems. The presumption that things have a fixed nature, a free-standing “self” somewhere within them, is called “ignorance” or “misknowledge” in this philosophy. This error in our mind is the cause of our suffering. Eliminating the error eliminates suffering.

Since everything is empty of ‘inherent self-nature’ everything exists in concert with other things. Everything changes as conditions change.

The ‘self-nature’ of things and beings is what is negated in the Heart Sutra list.

This truth of the claim from the Heart Sutra that form is emptiness and emptiness is form is evident in the transitory but real function of our postures in kata or combat. These body postures are real and they continually change, like our minds, from moment to moment, for as long as we exist. It is not a religious claim. It is a description. It is consistent with science and with personal experience.

The Chinese and Japanese Taoist-influenced Zen martial arts seems not to be using this interpretation of “Emptiness” or “no-self-nature” as the object of negation when they talk about Mushin, Munen or Karate – as the examples above in the sections on Interpretation 1. Vacuity, 2. Nihilism, and 3. Non-Obstruction, above, show.

What is the implication of this fourth understanding of emptiness?  With it you know for sure that every time you do some good some good comes from it. And if you were to do harm then harm would come to you. Knowing this you would be free to act fearlessly, with ardor and skill, on behalf of anyone who needed your help.

If there are people who are applying this understanding to martial arts training, if they are using “No-mind” and “No-thought” and Empty-hand” in this way, that would be worth sharing.

Concluding Note

The tributary streams that form our practice flowed through the era of General Sun Tzu and Taoist patriarch Lao Tzu in 500BCE China to the time of Bodhidharma’s mission to China from India about 500CE, a thousand years later.

The stream flowed for another thousand years to Japan – carrying with it Chinese Ch’an imported by Eisai and Dogen as Zen, and applied to budo by Zen monk Takuan Soho and sword master Musashi Miyamoto and many others.

For hundreds of years since their time the stream flowed on, through Japan and Okinawa, to us.  It flowed on because generations of practitioners were serious about their objectives, recognized the obstacles they faced, did the work and took risks they believed were worth taking.

Their choices created our traditions.

When they trained in martial arts, in meditation and in rigorous intellectual study, they were not just practicing ‘focus’ or ‘stress reduction.’

Since their day the effect of their work has appeared in hundreds of styles, embodied in millions of lives. The greatest among them strove to unite metaphysics, tactics, ethics and the ultimate human achievement.

That work continues. It can be our work.


Post by Jeff Brooks, author of the influential book True Karate Dō, instructor, Yamabayashi Ryu, Mountain Karate, Saluda, NC




Miyamoto Musashi – from Book of Five Rings, Go Rin No Sho, translations consulted:: A Book of Five Rings: A Guide to Strategy translated by Victor Harris (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 1974) The Book of Five Rings translated by Thomas Cleary (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1993) The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings: The Definitive Interpretation of Miyamoto Musashi’s Classic Book of Strategy translated by Steve Kaufman (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1999)

Lankavatara Sutra references D.T. Suzuki’s translation The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mind Only Text, Jeffrey Hopkins Emptiness in the Mind Only School, the three volume Tantra in Tibet series and others

Tsong-Kha-Pa. The Great Treatise On The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment Vol 1 Snow Lion/Shambhala Publications, 2000, ISBN 1-55939-152-9. Used by permission.

Bodhidharma’s appearance in the Chan lineage in the Song dynasty: How Zen Became Zen, page 15, Morten Schlütter, University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 978-0-8248-3255-1, used by permission.

Herrigel, Eugen, Zen in the Art of Archery, first published in 1948, in English in 1953

The Cat’s Subtle Art, Issai Chosan, rendered from multiple translations at the Matheson Trust and Terebess, Budapest

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching, rendered from multiple sources available at Terebess, Budapest

Arthur Schopenhauer, World as Will and Representation. Translator: Haldane, In: Mémoires de l’Académie impériale des sciences de St. Pétersbourg, VI, 4, 1836, 145–149;].)

Takuan Soho, letter, translation from sources including Unfettered Mind, Shambhala Publications, ISBN: 9781590309865 William Scott Wilson and others

Force Science Institute – “Human Factors Affecting Perception and Memory”

Catechism of the Catholic Church: Legitimate Defense, paragraph 2265

Reliance of the Traveler, 978-0-915957-72-9; o9 Justice

Tang Shunzhi, Wile translation cited by Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawaii Press. Note 47. Wile, T’ai-chi’s Ancestors, p. 12. Sweet Chi Press, US, ISBN 10:0912059044 – out of print; The original is Tang Shunzhi, Wu bian, qianji; 5.37a.

Reference the Our Gang – Little Rascals 1922-1944, short films, MGM, Hal Roach director

Nagasena and Menander from the Milinda Panha, 1st century BCE

Heart Sutra with reference to English translations of Donald Lopez, the 14th Dalai Lama, Edward Conze, Thich Nhat Hanh and others

This article is excerpted from The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts by Jeffrey M. Brooks, Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey M. Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, L.L.C.


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