Black Belt Topic:
Shortly after I last saw him, Sakiyama Sogen, Roshi of Kozenji Zendo, Shuri, Okinawa wrote to me. He communicated his understanding of karate to me. This is an excerpt:
Today many karate students, particularly karate teachers, neither know the difference between karate and karate-do, nor do they try to discover the difference. This I regret very much. True karate-do can be learned only when we have realized the mysteries of our heart and mind, and realized the mysteries of our body with all our heart and mind and strength. Otherwise karate will be nothing more than a little game, a way to show off. Ultimately it will degenerate into contests or street fighting. It is a shame.
“The essentials of karate-do can only be attained through profound practice. This means that in order to realize what is essential we must experience deep meditation. I am sure you fully understand what I am trying to say. It is most important for us, and for the younger generations, that we cultivate our heart and mind.
“The final hurdle for us is to be free from the limitations of our own ego. The disease of modern people is that they are slaves to money, power, fame, etc. They are enslaved by their own egos, and are unaware of it. You will become a true master when you become aware of it, and become free of it. There is no easy way, but it is the most important task, one worth devoting one’s life to accomplishing. This is the central task for anyone trying to master a true martial art.
“As I am writing to you I can vividly feel your sincerity and passion to pursue this and to master karate-do. ‘Do’ is an endless and severe way. Therefore we must endlessly exert ourselves to attain it. How wonderful the ‘Do’ is!”
Next Black Belt Topic:
Below is a translation by Zen Master Sakiyama Sogen, Roshi of a statement by Jeff Brooks written in 1995.
Sakiyama Roshi was a Goju Ryu karate practitioner, as well as the Zen teacher of Shoshin Nagamine, founder of Matsubayshi Ryu.
Sakiyama Roshi shared this message with members of the karate community in Okinawa at that time.
Here is the piece Sakiyama Roshi translated, as I wrote it, in 1995:
Many people feel they are missing their lives, that real life is going on somewhere out there. To fix this feeling they seek excitement, diversion, power, money, contention, or sink into passivity, waiting for the weekend, waiting for their ship to come in, or for their fortunes to change. But none of these strategies will relieve the deep feeling that something is missing.
The only course that will remedy this feeling of emptiness is dedication to a life of practice aimed at perfection.
The perfection we aim at in karate begins as a striving for perfection of technique. We focus our efforts on unifying our mind and body, bringing them under our control.
As we practice over weeks, months and years, our bodies grow stronger, more flexible, healthier. We overcome fear. Our minds become more focused. Our will becomes more resilient. Our emotions become more stable. We breathe more deeply. The flow of energy through our bodies becomes more harmonious.
Through relentless technical polishing we can manifest a deeper perfection. But our minds must be tuned toward it.
In the Buddhist tradition this is called “perfection of wisdom” and is practiced by means of six elements. We use these elements in our karate practice.
GIVING. Giving means having an attitude of generosity toward others, not withholding anything from them: not our knowledge, not our energy, not our kindness. A generous person is someone who generates energy, not someone who looks outward to others to provide it.
MORALITY. The word “morality” may seem to have an antique ring; it may sound like something repressive and restrictive. In our practice it is liberating. By morality we mean not exploiting others, not taking advantage of them for money, power, sex, fame and so on. By respecting others we create good conditions for practice, freeing ourselves and others from the distraction of vexation and contention.
EFFORT. Being nice is not enough. Neither is being tough or talented or tricky. We have received a precious human life – a body, a mind, our talents. We can use them to benefit ourselves and others only if we do not neglect them, only if we make the most of them. Relentless effort is required to do this, to avoid becoming distracted by trivialities, to avoid the fickleness, complacency, egotism and rigidity which can thwart fruitful practice of our or any art.
MEDITATION. This does not only mean seated meditation, and it is not sectarian. It is a recognition of the need for mindfulness in all the things we do, think and say. It is the practice of stability of mind, which yields deep insight into the nature of the practice of all the others.
The sixth element is WISDOM, the culmination of the practice of all the others. To dedicate ones self to a practice aimed at perfection is an all-encompassing undertaking. This is the kind of life we can cultivate through karate. It offers us a way to live fully human lives. By consistently aiming at technical mastery we move deeper and deeper. Our karate practice must be vigorous and effective. But to stop there is to lose what is most valuable in our practice. By stopping there the real treasure of a karate life remains only a potentiality.
None of us need to stop short of the ultimate. We should just continue to train sincerely, every day. Then success is guaranteed. Success not measured externally, but achieved simply in living a life dedicated to the practice of perfection.
Northampton, Massachusetts, December, 1995
East Asian ideas and traditions relate to martial arts training because they formed the culture in which the modern martial arts developed. Buddha is a teacher, not a god or Deity. The Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian teachings below are a useful perspective; they are not offered here as a faith.
Drawing from the Source
The Okinawan island nation was a satellite of China for much of its history. Their wealth came from shipping – they moved goods between China and what is now the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The key route of travel was Naha to Fuzhou. They also had a permanent Okinawan community, serving as a diplomatic and trade mission, at Guangzhou.
From these ports they would travel overland to the centers of commerce and imperial power. The sons of the elite would stay in China for years, to study, preparing for official posts back home at Shuri.
The sailors, guards and traders would spend months or years at the ports, until they were called for. While they were there they learned martial arts like Shorin Ryu White Crane. They traveled, and they found new knowledge and new perspectives they never would have encountered at home.
Martial artists today travel from the west to Okinawa in the same spirit. There is a lot to discover that may be unavailable at home. There is new technical knowledge. There is a level of mastery that is high. There is a simple, unpretentious dedication to training.
Even now there are new worlds to encounter and new ways to experience martial arts.
One thing you may notice is that among the accomplished practitioners of martial arts on Okinawa there is mutual respect, and a genuine interest in one another’s art. The sharp delineation or enmity between styles is not prevalent there.
Over the years Sensei Brooks, while practicing in the Shorin Ryu White Crane style, trained closely, in person and through correspondence, with Sakiyama Sogen Roshi, a master of the Goju Ryu style of karate.
Over the years, Sakiyama Roshi presented Brooks with his hand drawn calligraphy pieces, marking various important points in the path of training.
While not religious in nature they do mark significant steps in martial arts, expressed from person to person, between teacher and student, expressed in light of the insights and culture of Japan, China and Okinawa.
Next Black Belt Forum Topic:
Don’t Talk. Just Train.
In this photo two accomplished karate practitioners – Kyoshi Glenn Cunningham, 7th degree black belt, and Hanshi Masaji Taira, 9th degree black belt – are holding a small framed print of a mural painted by Tarleton Brooks. It reads “Damatte Keiko.”
This is Sensei Brooks’ expression of the essence of his approach to karate: “Don’t talk. Just train.”
Our friends training under 10th degree black belt master Kensei Taba, at the Shogen-Ryu Ontario international seminar, appreciate this spirit too!
Sensei Brooks with original “Damatte Keiko” from his Northampton dojo.
(The following is from a talk given by Jeff Brooks at a conference at Smith College in Northampton, MA, on May 5, 2002.)
Service in Martial Arts
A Bodhisattva is a person whose life is aimed at saving all living beings from suffering. In order to have the skill, wisdom and the energy to accomplish their mission, Bodhisattvas engage in what are called the “six perfections of wisdom,” also known as “Bodhisattva action.” The six perfections include the perfection of generosity, the perfection of moral and ethical conduct, the perfection of not getting angry, the perfection of joyful effort in doing good, the perfection of meditation, and the perfection of wisdom.
Many years ago I found the karate of Shoshin Nagamine. He was the founder of Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, a traditional Okinawan style. As Chief of Police in Okinawa’s chaotic post-war period he was one of the pioneers of the public practice of karate, believing it ought to be available to anyone who wanted to improve his life not kept a secret, accessible only to an elite few. I went to see him.
In the years since, he became well-known. Before his death in 1997 he was named a Japanese national treasure, and was featured in a National Geographic article and many other publications. At 90 years old, a pre-eminent spokesman for Okinawan lifestyle and Okinawan karate with a worldwide pulpit, he passed away. But when I first met him he was still practicing. In the front of his dojo in Okinawa hangs a scroll with the words Ken Zen Ichi Nyo (“Karate and Zen as one”). I was very hopeful that he would illuminate the relationship between how these two could be “as one”.
Zen meditation was practiced by Japanese martial artists, but it was rare on Okinawa. Nagamine’s approach to Zen practice seemed to have the same one sidedness that you encounter where martial arts and meditation are mingled. It seems to be as true in Asia as it is here in the west.
The “merit” or compassion side of Bodhisattva action has been neglected. To fulfill their mission to get out of suffering themselves and to save all beings from suffering, Bodhisattvas must pursue two “accumulations”: merit and wisdom. Without one or the other of these, their efforts will be incomplete and so will fail. The accumulation of merit refers to what Bodhisattvas do to take care of others. The accumulation of wisdom refers to Bodhisattvas’ deep insight, achieved through deep meditative concentration, into the way the world works. It is this understanding that frees them from error and its consequences – suffering – themselves, and enables them to be effective in helping others. The emphasis of spiritual practice in martial arts has been almost exclusively on the wisdom side. Spiritual practice in Japan and Okinawa have mingled Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian or Great Learning (“neo-Confucian”) ideas, although they are often called “Buddhist.” Bushi Matsumura, a central figure in Nagamine’s Matsubayashi karate lineage for example, conveyed his beliefs and ‘pursuit of the Way’ in neo-Confucian terms.
Zen practice in martial arts dojo emphasizes the development of samadhi. Samadhi is the ability to place one’s mind on an object of attention and leave it there, with clarity and stability, for as long as you want. It is essential in advanced practice of martial arts. But traditionally Bodhisattva action, compassion practice, is not a part of the curriculum.
Bodhisattva action has an important place in a life of service. Here are two examples. One can be seen in the actions of the firefighters and police officers on September 11. They ran into the buildings. They ran in. Ask them why and they will tell you it’s the same reason they always do it. They will say ‘It’s what we do.” It’s our job. It is honorable. It is extraordinary. Yet it is an attitude you find in police and fire departments all over the US. It is Bodhisattva action, of a kind. The ethos is conveyed in the context of the culture and training of heroic public service. It is not added on top of their training. It is built in.
Let me give you another example, with important implications for inner training in a martial arts context. It is a modern take on a kind of pre-modern martial Bodhisattva. I am using the word Bodhisattva broadly, not technically, to refer to one whose life is wholeheartedly dedicated to serving and saving beings.
In the film “The Seven Samurai” directed by the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, there is a single scene, at the heart of the film, where Kurosawa’s understanding of heroism and human striving is revealed. (This scene in the film is based on a traditional Japanese folk tale. The circumstances of the action are different in the folk tale, but the martial arts lesson is the same.) In the scene a Japanese cultural understanding of the relevance of the cultivation of character and clarity of mind in martial arts is presented simply and beautifully.
Poor farmers from a little village are being harassed, robbed, and humiliated by a roving gang. The villagers will be killed if they can’t come up with some kind of payoff for the gang. The villagers feel the only way out of this extortion is to hire some samurai, professional soldiers, to defend them. It’s a time of civil unrest in Japan, the 16th century, and there are many unemployed samurai available for hire. But every time the poor villagers admit that all they have to pay is a small bag of rice, the arrogant samurai they are trying to hire tell them to get lost.
Finally they meet one man who says he’ll take the job. He was once employed by a rich lord, but now in light of the hard times, he is willing to work for peanuts, i.e. rice. We can see in the dignity of this actor’s portrayal that he understands that his role in his society is to protect and serve his employer. If his employer happens to be a bunch of poor nobodies, well, that’s life. This man is calm and strong. “Well trained” would be a way to describe him.
He needs to recruit some samurai to help. He will have to pick a few good men. How to test them? He sits in a room, visible from the busy street where many unemployed samurai are walking by. He stations his young assistant just behind the threshold, invisible to anyone approaching the door. The young assistant holds a wooden sword, a bokken, above his head ready to strike down on the head of anyone entering. The older samurai sitting there gestures to a strong young guy walking by. The guy comes over and as he enters, the young assistant brings the bokken crashing down on the entering guy. He’s just about had his head broken – only a parry at the last second kept him in one piece. Furious at the deception the entering guy curses these two and runs off. The older samurai sits, still visible from the street. This level of response is called ‘go no sen.’
Another, better dressed samurai comes walking down the street. The older samurai gestures to this fellow to come in. The fellow approaches. As he crosses the threshold the bokken comes slashing down toward him, but before it can hit him he deftly parries and steps back, muttering, angry that he has to deal with this kind of affront. The older samurai waves him away. This level of response is called ‘sen no sen.’
A minute later a third samurai comes walking down the street. His bearing is also well-trained. Calm and dignified. The older samurai catches his eye and gestures him to come into the room. The young assistant with the bokken is standing hidden behind the threshold, ready to strike. The samurai approaches the doorway but before he enters he stops, sensing the presence of someone concealed just behind it.
He looks at the older samurai, and a little smile crosses his face, as if to say hey, what’s with the guy hidden behind the door. Seeing this reaction the older samurai seated there gets up, delighted, bows to this third samurai, calls the young assistant away from the door and invites the third samurai in. He has found his first qualified recruit. That high level of awareness is called ‘sen sen no sen’ in traditional Japanese martial arts.
The older samurai feels compassion for the poor villagers and knows his path is one of service. The three samurai that he tested represent three levels of accomplishment in martial samadhi (the mental clarity that permits a skilled, spontaneous response in the moment of confrontation). The first man, the one who parries at the last second, is a good technician and can react quickly. The second can feel the intention of the attack before it is physically executed and can pre-empt the strike with one of his own. The third in a state of hishiryo (beyond thought), can grasp the whole situation, not just perceiving it from a limited subjective point of view, but globally.
Because of this he can sense the hidden potential in the moment. He is not caught in conflict precipitated by the opponent, but foils it without opposition and without having to act consciously. That is very advanced martial arts attainment. It represents what is a use of samadhi in martial arts. That is the threshold of cultivation that opens to deep insight that goes beyond practical martial application.
What is often misunderstood is that it is not a Buddhist attainment, and has little to do with Buddhism. It may be attained as a result of Zen Buddhist practice. But it only uses the tools of Buddhism – samadhi – to attain an objective that may have nothing to do with the Buddhist objectives of saving beings from suffering and the direct perception of the nature of reality. It is in this respect that Zen appears to be a Taoist tradition not a Buddhist one.
Mahayana Buddhism – the Northern Asian Buddhist traditions of Tibet, China and Japan that use the ideal of the Bodhisattva to define their objectives and their methods of achieving them – requires three elements to be present in the mind stream of a practitioner. First, the practitioner must have renunciation. That is an understanding of what kinds of action will be helpful and which kinds will be harmful, and then to act on that understanding. Second they must attain bodhicitta – the wholehearted wish to save anyone and everyone. And third, they must aim to have correct understanding – undistorted insight into the nature of reality itself. These are present in seed form in the motivations of many people who are practicing martial arts, but the seeds are not cultivated, because it is missing from almost all martial arts training.
To understand why it is entirely natural that this ideal would be neglected in martial arts training, we can look at the early history of the modern Asian martial arts, in the early 19th century in China. Commerce was growing. As goods were accumulated and stored, they needed to be guarded. That led to the growth of public martial arts. Before then martial arts were closely held, often the private property of feudal families, of government power, often based in ‘monasteries.’
Some dedicated and gifted individuals applied Taoist exercises to martial practices, for example directing the flow of energy skillfully through the body by physical and mental exercises, using herbs and other approaches to strengthen and unblock the body’s natural potential. They undertook these practices in an effort to harmonize their body and mind with the phenomenal world, for the sake of victory in battle, for longevity and health or for all these reasons. The exceptional practices of these few adepts were the ones recorded in stories we hear about great Asian martial artists, but these people were rare.
Today in the United States, to give an analogy, there are about two million active duty personnel in the military. There are two to three times that number in sworn law enforcement, and many more working privately in security.
Their training varies widely. Some are given a uniform and a task and poof, they’re security. Some are trained at police academies, and continue to learn and train over the course of their careers. Some are in elite units with rigorous selection, intense training, high prestige and great rewards for the few who make it through. That was the way it was then too. Most martial artists were boys wanting to do something besides farm work, wanting to move up in the world. They were tough, and they wanted to learn a few things that would help keep them alive while they were guarding a caravan on a trade route or doing sentry duty at a warehouse in a port filled with impulsive, drunk, armed strangers.
They went to the established martial arts teachers for training. Sometimes teachers were hired by rich families to train their guards. Sometimes the young men, through family connections, were sent to study at the home of a teacher. Often they picked up a little here and a little there, and after a while a talented practitioner with a few years of training in a few styles would develop his own unique approach. There were some virtuoso practitioners. They had a following. But they were as rare then as they are now.
For example, nowadays anyone who wants to learn to play the guitar can learn to play the guitar, in pretty much any town. Almost no one is studying with Eric Clapton or Mark Knopfler. Most guitar players, as much as they’d enjoy it, don’t really need advice from geniuses. But the few who might, who have achieved a level where they could benefit from geniuses, might seek them out and meet them. That was the way it was then, with martial artists. (It is that way now, too.)
Not all the martial artists in 19th Century China were cultivated or well-trained or interested in becoming those things. It is true that some degree of samadhi is not only an advantage in martial arts, it is a necessity. If a punch comes toward your nose and you are distracted by how you feel about the punch, you are in trouble. If you are easily distracted by outer stimulation, distractions, or inner events like fear, hope, hatred, or planned technical responses, you are in trouble. If your mind seeps outside the present moment – if you anticipate the results of your next move, if you dwell on a solid punch you just landed, or a missed opportunity, even for a fraction of a second – you get smashed. Samadhi is developed in training, with or without meditation, with or without calling it samadhi.
Samadhi is a tool used in Buddhism, but it is not Buddhist necessarily. That depends on the person’s motivation, and the results of his use of his samadhi. For example, Marine guards have rock solid samadhi. They look like they can see to the back of your skull. They are focused. It’s military samadhi.
You can observe stock traders at their screens who do not look up for hours. I mean no break, no look out the window, no phone calls, no nothing. Watching those screens, hitting their keyboards, and then right back to this unshakeable financial pixel samadhi. This capacity for sustained focused attention is important in martial arts. It has been associated with Zen meditation. Military samadhi, music samadhi, stock market samadhi are all similar in some respects to meditation training, but the motivation, action itself, the mental states and the results of cultivation are not spiritual practice. They are worldly applications of focus. It may be exactly the same in the case of martial samadhi.
Our style of karate is called Shorin Ryu (meaning Shaolin style). The name is intended to draw a connection to one of the three main streams of Chinese martial arts, and trace its roots to the Shaolin Temple in Honan province. The Shaolin Temple is associated with the Indian Buddhist meditation master Bodhidharma. He is the legendary founder of our stream of martial arts, he is the first patriarch of Chinese Zen. Why? There are many legends. These include stories of Bodhidharma instituting martial arts practice so the monks could defend the monastery, and some stories about him developing a chi kung/restorative movement system that somehow was related to enabling the monks to meet the demands of Zen practice.
That connection appeared suddenly in the Ming Dynasty, more than a thousand years after Bodhidharma came from India to China as a missionary. (More on this in a fascinating article, coming soon.)
There are connections at Shaolin to the esoteric yogic traditions that were developing in India at this time. The main devotional focus there was Vajrapani, a Buddhist deity venerated in tantra. We can speculate about the transformation of Yogachara tenet school as presented in the Lanakavatara Sutra in combination with tantric deity mandala practice translated into Taoist ontology and language, but its hard to tell, and there were many streams flowing together and separating over time and in the course of many lives.
We do know that centuries later the monasteries including the strategically located Shaolin, accumulated wealth and land, became political tools for warlords and Emperors, and which were funded, fortified and filled with young men who were trained there as soldiers.
We do know that the Northern Shaolin White Crane style, the ancestor of Nagamine’s Shorin Ryu, was predominant in Fuchow, the Chinese port frequented by Okinawan ships making the trip to the mainland. That is where many of the Okinawans learned at least some of their martial arts. At that time, the 1790’s to the 1870’s, empty hand martial skill still was a requisite for commercial sailors.
Martial arts skill was urgent for them. It is no less urgent for us. If it were a matter of importing a cultural artifact and imitating a foreign way of doing things, pursuing it might be an interesting diversion. But in a deep practice of the martial arts, we do have a door out of the global disaster. A disaster driven by desire, in which our technical skill, deployed in the service of our desire and our frustration, is producing weak bodies, and minds tormented by anxiety, depression, meaninglessness, loss and wanting.
Perhaps this weak body and disturbed mind represents a new human disease, created by new conditions. If so we need a new cure. To create a deep martial art can use parts of the Buddha’s teaching that were not emphasized in martial arts culture, but were present there in seed form. We need vigorous, skillful martial artists who are dedicated to taking care of themselves, each other and everyone else.
The vows taken in the Zen tradition include ten prohibitions: not killing, not stealing, not lying, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not using intoxicants, not gossiping, not using harsh and divisive speech, not being greedy, not being angry and not having wrong views.
These prohibitions have a particular function. They are restraints on behavior which is based on misunderstanding, and which therefore causes suffering. If we take these vows seriously – not just take them – they provide a kind of spiritual kata or form to which we can continually compare our behavior, and which, because the vows are an enlightened form, will require us to reform and restrain our behavior to remain congruent with the vows. That way our life settles down and becomes free from suffering.
Following these ten prohibitions produces the cessation of disturbing thoughts. It gives us the peace we need to enter deep samadhi.
The other vows form the positive aspect of the path: to work for the benefit of everyone we can help.
How do you do that in a karate dojo? Is a karate dojo for that? Is that a distraction? Wouldn’t this soften the practice and make it useless in self-defense? Wouldn’t the rough vigor of martial arts practice undermine the vow? No. Putting people under pressure skillfully, incrementally, so they grow, is what a teacher does. That pressure and demand, though not always pleasant, is kind. And it takes a more profound understanding of kindness to impose healthy deliberate discipline and demand on people, than one that permits irresolute license and laxity.
On one visit to Okinawa in 1995 I met and trained with Sogen Sakiyama Roshi, a Zen Master whose temple sits next to Shuri Castle at the top of the highest hill in the area, looking down on the Pacific Ocean far below. He was about 75 years old then and the Zen teacher of Shoshin Nagamine. Sakiyama Roshi has been a practitioner of Goju Ryu karate for about 50 years, and he was a direct student of one of the great karate men in the modern era – Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju Ryu.
I discussed the idea of explicitly making the six Bodhisattva actions a part of the modern martial arts curriculum. I wondered if he would find this strange, but he took it very much to heart. He translated my essay about it into Japanese and circulated it among the Okinawan karate community. This was very gratifying. Although he liked the ideas he did not care for its implications and did not support what I am proposing here.
There is good work for each of us to do to create a deep martial art which will allow us to take care of the people who are depending on us.