Black Belt Topic
For Whom The Bell Curves
When you first look at a dojo filled with people doing kata or kumite, in unison, solo or in pairs, it is hard to tell what they are doing. You know something interesting is going on. But the meaning of the movement is indecipherable.
If you look at a page of a book written in a foreign language, you know there is something there – there’s a pattern, some arrangement of lines and curves in black and white – but at first it is impossible to draw any meaning from it.
Walking through the woods a forester might notice trees good for timber and trees that are not. A botanist would recognize species and patterns of growth. A hunter would see signs of game; a herbalist might spot medicinal plants or places where mushrooms might grow. A woodpecker would overlook all of this and notice, with delight, only rotten branches where the good bugs are.
Without training, without experience, purpose or orientation, if we found ourselves deep in the woods, we would see mostly nothing. Some trees and leaves, but nothing we could make sense of or use. We would find it difficult, at first, to identify either the units of meaning, or the patterns they make.
Which is why sitting in meditation and just “watching your thoughts” fails to produce good results. If you know what you are looking at, what it means, and what to do or not do about it, you might get good results.
If you do not it will not.
This applies to all mind training – not just in sitting meditation – but to everything we do. Every misunderstanding, partial view, toxic mental state, and every benevolent thought, prayer, hope, and courageous action merits our attention. Everything is included in practice.
If you believe that beneath the turbulent stream of your mental events, thoughts, feelings, concepts and pictures, lies a pristine radiant awareness that is hidden by clouds of mental activity, then it would be reasonable to sit still, allow your thoughts to subside until your mind is completely placid. Then you would expect reality, your real nature, to appear to you. And that appearance will be nirvana.
But why would you believe that? There are many claims out there that are reasonable, made with conviction by persuasive, confident people. Many of those claims will not withstand scrutiny. Does this one?
It may be possible to just watch your thoughts, without attachment, without judgment, and pass the meditation period, or your whole life, like a kitty cat. What if, after the meditation period, all your habitual mental activity, misunderstandings, karmic formations, and sense engagement, comes rushing back in? What if the temporary peace vanishes?
Then the meditation practice can be just another worldly expedient, like a vacation, a drug or an amusement, providing temporary relief of the stress and pain of ordinary experience. Then meditation would be a substitute for transformative spiritual practice; a distraction from the real thing.
In the four-phase meditation practice listed previously – stabilization, concentration, analysis and love – we can single out each phase of practice for deeper development.
In “stabilization” we create a stable equilibrium state. When we begin to practice our mind enters an unstable equilibrium state. In this unstable equilibrium we can have what will feel like moments of stillness, moments of clarity, moments of peace. They are a momentary equilibrium.
If you take your bowl-shaped bell and turn it upside down you could place a marble on top of the inverted bowl, very carefully, and it might stay there, briefly. But any disturbance will set that marble rolling away from the top of the bowl. It will take some expenditure of energy to reset the equilibrium state – to replace the ball on top of the inverted bell. That is an unstable equilibrium.
If you take the same bowl-shaped bell and place a marble inside it, at the bottom of the bowl, it will sit there. If you push the marble it will move, but it will tend to move back to its still point, its equilibrium state, at the bottom of the bowl. It is a stable equilibrium because it will tend to recover equilibrium on its own, if it is disturbed.
That is not a rigid state, it is a tendency to return to stillness. For our minds to behave this way takes training, we cannot just do it. Techniques to produce this kind of stabilization include breath counting, mantra repetition, image visualization, and others. For us these are not ends in themselves.
Once we are habituated to a stable equilibrium condition of mind we can begin to go deeper – into concentration practice.
If we are unable to notice the condition of our mind we will be like a wanderer lost in a forest, with no way to get his bearings, just forced to wander and hope by chance to find a way out.
If we can distinguish mental states which are wholesome and unwholesome, furthering or disrupting, attached or equanimous, we can develop the ones we want. If we reject this, and simply not judge the events of our mind, maybe believing that since they are all ultimately of one nature then they are all the same, we will get lost.
To develop concentration we can use some of the same tools that we used in stabilization, but now in a deeper way. This corresponds to the traditional nine stages of concentration. I am dividing the nine steps into two main phases, stabilization and concentration. Analysis of reality and the cultivation of a loving heart are built on these and by the development of these faculties.
As a beginner musician you hit wrong notes. You hit a lot of them. Then, as you practice, you hit fewer. Playing is tense, labor intensive and fraught with error, and when you make an error you have to get yourself back on track, with effort and start again.
As an accomplished musician “hitting wrong notes” is not an issue. You can play what you need to play, you can respond to the changing demands of the music, the other players, the environment and so on. You are concerned with more subtle and more profound aspects of making music, its subtle aesthetics and techniques of expression.
This is the same way in mind training. It takes time and skill to cultivate stable equilibrium of mind. And it takes practice to tune the mind to virtuous states. With a good foundation more advanced practice can begin. We can practice mind training all the time. It is not done only during a period of seated meditation. It is not a sectarian matter, or only for special people. Mind training is a life skill. It is for everyone.
Traditionally, mind training in meditation was not for beginners. Beginners observed and absorbed monastic life. They observed the behavior and manners of accomplished practitioners, people they wanted to emulate. They learned customs, rituals, ideas, prayers and books. They settled their minds and bodies and schedules in a stable, meaningful pattern. They tuned their values to the values of their school and teachers. They cultivated an interest in and dedication to self-mastery and the mastery of the material and mind of their tradition.
Post-modern morés: the rejection of technical mastery, rejection of beauty, rejection of reverence, of humility, dignity, virtue, fellowship and diligence, are a poor frame of reference for practitioners. Beauty, reverence, humility and diligence are countercultural now. You will be challenged. This is a good challenge to accept.
Some say that you are already perfect, but you just don’t know it. If you misunderstand what they mean by “you” or by “perfect” or by “already” then you will get seriously lost. If you have not studied and practiced deeply, if you interpret those words using their conventional meaning, and assume that you’ve got it, you are going to get lost.
If you have ever been lost in the woods you know it can be an unpleasant experience. Hunger, cold, heat, thirst, bugs, predators, panic, depression and fear – all the slings and arrows that body and mind are heir to – will assail you and they will not stop until you are rescued or escape or learn the ways of the world. The environment is not your friend if you do not know or understand it.
Having an untrained mind, being lost in samsara, is way worse. You need to know and understand your mind – to recognize rescue when it appears on the scene, or how to find your own way out. This is evident as you discover, in the analysis phase, that the only way out is to go all the way in. That is: to engage completely in training and service.
There are no work arounds, no short cuts, no special favors, credentials, memberships or status will apply. Everything and everyone counts, all the time. It is all within your training.
To do it we need to know what to do and what to avoid. We need to study and to practice. We train to recognize laxity and weakness, impulse and fear, and to recognize integrity and virtue. To avoid what is harmful and to pursue what is good. We will need to reconcile those dichotomies. We cannot pretend they are not there.
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There are Four Components of Good Meditation
They are practiced together. We focus on them individually to get familiar with them.
By “meditation” I mean “training the mind.” By “good” I mean leading to wholesome mental states, emotional maturity, and liberation. This is not a sectarian definition. It can be applied to all traditions.
Temporary Relief Meditation
There are forms of meditation which teach people to empty the mind of thought, or to enter special trance states. These provide temporary relief from ordinary stresses and confusion. Relief from the haste, shock, triviality, hunger and disorientation of modern life is needed. But these practices can reinforce negative mental states and harmful views. Long term practitioners of these practices feel lost.
The Four Components
The four components of good meditation are stabilization, concentration, analysis and love.
Settle the mind down. The agitation that comes from preoccupation with tasks and feelings subsides in calm. This can be done with breath counting, mantra, prayer, or other techniques.
Once our mind settles down we can focus. We train to direct our attention to an object and to hold it with clarity and stability for as long as we want. Objects of attention can be well-chosen ideas, words, feelings or images.
We learn what to analyze and what tools to use to do the analysis, and then we do it. We examine phenomena to understand them. One example: we might notice that taking things is burdensome and stressful and that being good to people makes you feel good. We might go further to notice that being generous dissolves clinging, artificial separation and arbitrary elaborations, and opens the doorway to comfort, joy and love. Topics for analysis are mainly centered on the nature of reality but there are many.
Cultivation of a loving heart makes you strong. Consideration for other people makes life worthwhile, makes people happy, and is a good antidote to the pathological alienation of modern life. Devoting your life to learning how to be of real help to others transforms us and the world. It is not merely a good idea, a sentimental wish or something that will happen by just being nice. Martial arts is one method of taking care of people.
The Ark of Practice
When God told Noah to build the ark, it was a bright, bright sunshiney day. But the flood was coming. The flood is coming now. For all of us. Our practice is our ark. We need to acquire the skills we need to build a sound practice, and we need to get to work on building it, today.
If we do, we will have what we need.
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Disorder is a now feature of daily life for millions of people who, until recently, took their safety for granted. This makes martial arts more relevant than ever. We need to address the defensive requirements of the people who come to train with us. Now, under pressure, the introduction to a new and interesting culture will take second place to the immediate need to overcome fear and increase competence.
To train two, three or more days a week matters urgently to people who never gave it much of a thought before. For most people, keeping up that pace of training is a challenge. Persisting despite the difficulties, as the imaginary end-point – of mastery, or of victory – yields to the reality of daily sweat and sore muscles. That is a challenge we can help them overcome.
But we are surrounded. There are non-human opponents in our environment hard at work to obstruct and destroy us. They need to be identified and defeated. They are not hiding. But they are sometimes not recognized. They are not mentioned.
How we live our lives outside the dojo matters to our success. To achieve our training goals, to make the most of our martial arts, to win, we need to defeat the non-human opponents which surround us: by withdrawing from their range or by confronting them.
We are not talking about moderation. We are not talking about fun. We are talking about soul-deadening addiction to poisons which destroy freedom and degrade everyone.
Author Michael Anton, from The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return:
The current porn-drug tsunami is an evil much too great and deliberate to be called a failure. Its purpose is to deaden you—to drain you of any sense of dignity, self-worth, fighting spirit, or inner belief that you are worthy of respect. Above all, it’s to render you unwilling to stand up and demand—to fight for—what you’re owed as a human being and citizen.
Those are two of many. They infiltrate. They seem harmless. They seem friendly or helpful or under control. They may be intimidating, threatening and demanding. They all have the power to destroy.
To train well, to take care of ourselves and the people who depend on us, requires more than skill. It takes a clear vision of what is possible, and the discipline and power to make it real.
We have all heard it a million times:
If you know your opponent and know yourself you need not fear a hundred battles.
But you have to want to know. Get the intel. Share it. Put it to work.
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From Terror to Transcendence, and Back
Dinosaurs, now extinct, had a brain about the size of a walnut. That brain let them eat, mate, fight, sleep and hang around. The descendent of their little brains lives on in ours. Our reptile brain, now as famous as dinosaurs, governs the same primitive impulses and functions in us.
But times have changed. Our primitive brain is surrounded.
For the last ten million years or so we have been evolving a big mammal brain which allows us to plan, test ideas and actions, and inhibit the impulses surging up from our reptile brain – until we can decide whether it is in our interest to act.
These planning and inhibitory functions did not develop because we wanted to be uptight, judgmental or unfun. They developed because they kept us from dying. Swamps and forests were dangerous places. They still are. We are descended from the people who survived.
It wasn’t just the physiological change that kept us alive.
Something else, something no one expected, happened a few thousand years ago. It was as transformative and unlikely as the rise of the mammals. After millions of years of human history, suddenly, within just a few centuries, a new understanding of how to live appeared in unconnected places, all over the world. This period, from about 800BCE to 200BCE, was named the Axial Age. What human beings discovered then has guided the course of human events until now.
All over the world the world was at war, and people searched for a way to peace. In China Confucius emphasized wholesome relationships and personal cultivation. Lao Tzu pointed to the Tao, the ineffable way of all things. Buddha, in India, taught the way to the end of suffering for all. The Hindu tradition was transformed as the Upanishads directed the devotee to moksha, personal liberation. In Persia, today’s Iran, Zoroaster taught the universal battle between good and evil, and its importance in every life. Into the desert of Egypt Moses brought the ten commandments. The Old Testament prophets extended their message through the Axial Age.
These philosophies and religions are not all the same. Their shared innovation was to recognize that people, as individuals, have the freedom to act for good or harm. And all recognized that there are personal consequences, as well as social consequences, that come from what we do. Our vast, arduously evolved, human intelligence was put to work.
That was new. In the great legends and epics that preceded the Axial Age you can feel hints of what is to come. You can see the seeds in Eden, and in the tales of heroes like Odysseus or Aeneas making choices, acting well or badly, enduring hardship or reward as a result, and sometimes learning as they go.
In those legends freedom and responsibility were for a few special people. The sailors, warriors, townspeople and traders had no such ability in those stories. And they had no individual significance either. They were defined mainly by their group membership – their ship, their army, their city, their empire, their nation, their tribe, their class, their race, their gender. Individuals could not escape the fate of their group, even if they personally had nothing to do with causing it, or if they had individual characteristics at variance with those believed by others to be the defining characteristics of the group by whose name they were labeled, and to which they were assigned as members.
The Axial Age discovery was that every person had that freedom to act, and that freedom came with the responsibility to use it well. Each person had the opportunity to triumph or fail in life, as a result of their choices and their actions. Not everyone thought this was great.
Before the Axial Age social customs and religion revolved around maintaining cosmic order. Religious life was ritual practice, and ritual practice was a way for people to do their part to make sure that the harvest was bountiful, that children were healthy, that the sun would rise each morning, and that floods and droughts, famines, plagues and pestilence all remained in check.
This was accomplished through precise ritual in sacred spaces, with special words, sounds, actions, gestures and sacrifices, at first human and then animal, which were believed to please the gods, or to feed the gods; for people it was a means to give up something cherished to receive something necessary, and to create a meaningful connection between human beings, human action and the universe.
In the pre-Axial world, by means of rituals properly performed, the cosmic order could be preserved, and life would continue.
In the Axial Age life changed character. People began to see that one’s own character and actions governed one’s relationship to the divine. The transition from legalistic religion to a religion of love in the middle east, both upholding the same Axial Age ten commandments, is an example of this change. The Axial Age figure Shakyamuni Buddha, as a young boy before he was the Buddha, describes a time when he sat under a tree in the springtime and watched his father plow the first furrow in a fallow field.
The boy was watching his father, a Hindu King, fulfill his religious obligation, performing this annual order-maintaining ritual, of a type that was common throughout the world. The boy, according to the story, was not very interested by the ritual, and had other things to think about. Later in life the Buddha set aside the primacy of ritual, with its reliance on professional religious experts and its communal consequences, set aside its rigid caste distinctions and those of class and race and sex, and taught a universal approach to freedom that applied to everyone and could be applied by anyone. These are two examples of many analogous transformations in the Axial Age which recognized individual responsibility for moral choice and personal action as the key to future or eternal happiness.
The Axial Age insight was that every life is precious, everyone is loved, every life is meaningful, everyone matters. Because that is true our lives are good when we dedicate ourselves to the well-being of others. That way of life requires more than a herd mentality. It requires more than fighting, mating, power, eating, intoxication and idleness. It requires personal responsibility, self-restraint, planning, hard work, kindness and love. It forms the seed of civilized life. That seed will grow if it is nourished. It will dry out if it is neglected.
In light of the insights of the Axial Age, and the evidence in the world around us, we know that history does not run on a track. There is no arc of history because history is the lives of billions of people, each encountering difficulties and opportunities, each making choices, each getting results. The lives of nations are complex, and are mostly hidden. The lives of individuals may ascend or descend, turn sharply or go straight ahead, as inner and outer conditions change, and we make our choices about what to do and what to avoid.
We are free to act as individuals. We collect consequences as individuals. We have access to good guidance. Throughout the Axial Age innovations, as diverse as they were, it was agreed that to have a good life you should avoid killing people, stealing their stuff, lying, using intoxicants, and misusing sex.
There is abundant advice on these issues now which contradict the Axial insights – advice which seems appealing and liberating, at first. But which leads to slavery and death.
We are trapped if we jettison our personal freedom and regress into the helplessness of impulsivity, hedonism, group identity and the madness of crowds. The concerted effort of free human beings is powerful and can be good. The torrent of convention cannot.
There is a little piece of dinosaur in the incandescent arc of every Molotov cocktail that flies across the evening skies.
If there were no more to life than the life of this world it might be wise, as a game-theory calculation, to hide under the bed like a mouse, hoard cheese and watch TV till the whole thing blows over. Maybe the timid will inherit the earth. But there is no reason to think they will. What if there is infinite extension in time and space for all of us? Who knows what dreams may come?
We all know people who need our help here and now. They are more important than pleasure, position, ideas or programs.
Reptiles have access to terror. People do too. People also have access to transcendence. We are equipped to choose.
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…When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think. He thinks like the showers coming down from the sky; he thinks like the waves rolling on the ocean; he thinks like the stars illuminating the nightly heavens; he thinks like the green foliage shooting forth in the relaxing spring breeze. Indeed, he is the showers, the ocean, stars, the foliage…
-鈴木 大拙 貞太郎 Suzuki Daisetsu Teitarō (1870-1966)
His words are clear. A consummate scholar, he wrote and practiced throughout his life. He lived through the greatest period of cataclysm in human history. He was not a bystander. He understood something about suffering and liberation. For us, as practitioners, reading his words, it is useful to ask ‘What does he mean by “this”?’
The quoted section above by D.T. Suzuki is from his introduction, written in May, 1953, to Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel.
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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!”
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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.
PATIENCE. This means patience in the active sense – the patience required to continue to practice despite all the inevitable obstacles we all face again and again. It is the willingness to persevere, to rededicate ourselves day to day, moment to moment, to practice. Patience also means not getting angry.
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.
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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.