Contemplation of the Body for martial artists

An intruder in your home. Chaos on the street. An escalating confrontation on the road. An assault, a raid, a kumite match, or a quiet conversation that could determine the path of your life all demand intense focus. In the course of daily life, under seige by threats and promises, cons and seduction, we need clarity, stability and power to stay on course. No one has that unless they have cultivated it. In the heat of the moment, it is too late to train. Warriors, competitors and performers all cultivate it in training. It is fundamental to success in any serious undertaking.

In The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts, I mention Shantideva’s (9th century CE) use of the simile of the bowl of oil, in his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Shantideva is showing that intense presence of mind in practice is essential. 

The simile of the bowl of oil appears earlier, in the Samyutta Nikaya, a collection of discourses of the Buddha, spoken in the 5th century BCE.

The significance of this metaphor is analyzed by Bikkhu Analayo in his book Satipatthãna: The Direct Path to Realization (2003.)

Analayo describes the transformative potency of contemplation of the body in our training:

The discourses illustrate the practice and benefits of contemplating the body with a variety of similes. One of these similes depicts a man carrying a bowl brimming with oil on his head through a crowd watching a beautiful girl singing and dancing. He is followed by another man with a drawn sword, ready to cut off his head if even one drop of oil is spilled. To preserve his life, the man carrying the oil has to apply his full attention to each step and movement, without allowing the commotion around the girl to distract him. The careful behaviour of the man carrying the oil exemplifies the circumspect behaviour of a practitioner well established in present moment awareness of the body. The image of carrying an object on the head in particular points to the balance and centredness that accompany bodily activities carried out with sati (mindfulness). Another important aspect of this simile is that it relates sustained awareness of the body’s activities to sense-restraint. In this way it vividly illustrates the importance of developing awareness grounded in the body, since in the situation depicted in this simile, restraint of the senses through being grounded in the body constitutes the means to preserve one’s life in the midst of commotion and danger.


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

Copyright © 2021 Jeffrey Brooks, Mountain Karate Dojo

Photo by cottonbro via Pexels

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