Is Zen an obvious part of Karate?
Has Zen Buddhism anything to offer karate practitioners (is it a prerequisite), and are we making the right connections if we choose to make Zen part of our training?
I will start by saying that I have nothing against people making the decision to study Zen or meditation alongside their karate practice, but perhaps this deserves to be looked at a little more carefully.
I’m sure that back in the early days of martial arts training in the west, particularly the 60’s and 70’s, everyone was keen to dress their martial arts training in Zen clothes. 60’s counter culture in Europe and America was very quick to pick up on the writings of Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki and Zen became ‘hip’.
To many people it was a breath of fresh air and within Japanese martial arts in the west the word ‘Zen’ seemed to legitimise our practice. Some western martial artists clearly found something in Zen which chimed with them and plunged headlong into Zazen (seated meditation).
In Wado Ryu training in the UK, Suzuki Sensei was very quick to introduce the training of ‘Mokuso’, a form of kneeling meditation, designed to settle the mind through controlling the breath, and he would often tell us about his own experiences meditating in Japan. (Incidentally, ‘Moku’ means ‘to silence’ and ‘So’ refers to ‘thoughts’).
It was only natural that Suzuki Sensei’s insistence on this practice endorsed the idea that Zen was part of the path into the deeper aspects of our karate training. But that was a conclusion that we in the west chose to arrive at; the Japanese Sensei actually said very little to contradict these ideas; in fact, I suspect they were happy that we were so keen to engage with the wider cultural aspects of the Japanese social fabric. This has to be a good thing, after all, it can’t do any damage.
Nothing material appeared to contradict this assumption, in fact, the opposite was true. For example, British writer C. W. Nicol wrote a book on his experience training in Shotokan karate in Japan in the 1960’s, titled, ‘Moving Zen – Karate as a Way to Gentleness’. Perhaps it was Nicol who put the idea in our heads that karate was ‘moving Zen’?
The Japanese attitude to religion is very different to how it is in the west. While it is true that some Japanese people might go heart and soul into one religion or sect, the majority of the population have a much more loose and eclectic approach.
In Japan there are multiple religions, including the nearest they have to a national religion, Shinto, a proudly indigenous tradition, while most of the others are imports.
The Japanese find it strange that we in the west have totally bought into the idea that you are supposed to stick to one religion, it doesn’t really work for them. In Japan, people have a mix and match attitude towards religious practice without a hint of being disrespectful or disloyal. For example, there is no contradiction for them with having a new born baby brought to a Shinto shrine for a blessing, then have a Christian style wedding and finally a Buddhist funeral. For them it’s about the ritual, the sense of occasion and the doctrine hardly gets a look in. Try the same thing in the west and you end up in all kinds of trouble.
It is this concept that is the key to understanding the relationship between the Japanese martial arts and religion.
Examples of religious influence in Japanese martial arts.
If you look hard enough you can find old style Japanese martial traditions tied to specific religions and sects. Sometimes this is because of the loyalty of the head of the school or system. Yamaoka Tesshu’s school of swordsmanship (Itto Shoden Muto-ryu) had a tie to Zen principles mostly because of the force of personality and the character of its founder – it was personal to him, not some old-established tradition. Yamaoka Tesshu clearly saw something in Zen that chimed with him.
Ueshiba Morihei (1883 – 1969) founder of Aikido was all wrapped up in his otherworldly spiritualism of the Shinto Gods and esoteric Shingon Buddhism – Ueshiba was as much a shaman as he was a martial artist, something that not all of his followers could comfortably go along with. The intriguing aspect of the Ueshiba story was that some of his abilities did indeed seem supernatural, he seemed to not only ‘talk the talk’ but he could also ‘walk the walk’; but as far as we know none of his followers were able to do it to the level that he did, he was almost literally on another planet.
Some of the older schools of Budo/Bujutsu define themselves by their relationship with certain shrines; e.g. the Katori Shinto Ryu. Whether it’s devotional or pragmatically based on sponsorship going back hundreds of years, or both, it’s still a key part of the identity of the Ryu.
And what about Wado?
Are there any hints as to how these contemplative practices, or spiritual ideas might manifest themselves within Wado karate?
Otsuka Sensei’s meditative training.
In my limited experience on this theme, the only Wado teacher I ever heard talk directly about Zen was Suzuki Tatsuo Sensei. Although I do remember Iwasaki Sensei leading us through a meditation session in a class in Wiltshire many years ago. The other Japanese Sensei would only talk about it if asked directly.
Otsuka Sensei, the founder of Wado, wrote a short piece endorsing a peculiar practice he claimed to follow, which he called ‘Lazy Zazen’ (Ouchaku-Zazen). He said he practiced this every day for around fifteen or sixteen years, but he was at pains to say that the religion of his family is Shinto, so he acknowledged that this was somewhat of a contradiction. He was keen to explain the benefits of the practice in terms of trying to achieve ‘a state of perfect selflessness’ and he connected this directly with actual in-the-moment action; specifically, when demonstrating his art. He said that sometimes he would go free-form without even being aware of it; someone would point it out to him afterwards and he only had a vague memory of doing it.
What was the actual practice?
For him it came out of practicality. He admitted that long periods of kneeling (Seiza) didn’t suit him, so his solution was to do it laying on his back, with a blanket over his middle in the colder months, silently counting his breaths. I must admit I have tried this myself, but had to give up, as my family complained about the noise.
Does Shinto perhaps contribute something to Wado karate?
As I am sure regular readers will know, Otsuka Sensei’s root art was Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu. In the main surviving line of this Ryu, the Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu there is a heavy structural, philosophical acknowledgment of Shinto, which for them is an indispensable framework without which the system loses its integrity, even its identity.
Otsuka Sensei’s branch of SYR differs in many ways from the Takamura-ha branch (also he was influenced by other related systems), but you would struggle to see any overt Shinto influence in today’s Wado, outside of aspects that are an inevitable part of the Japanese ways of doing things.
Culturally, I would say that Otsuka Sensei’s system has a more obvious link to Neo-Confucianism, certainly that appears in his writings, but of course that is not a religion, it’s a philosophical way of looking at the world and society, wrapped in with ideas of self-perfection that seem very close to what the Stoics were all about. The otherworldliness of Shinto and the practicalities of Neo-Confucianism are not incompatible. The importance of ritual in both allows practitioners to derive meaning in all aspects of their practice. The actions involved in Dojo etiquette are a clear example. I often wonder what individual students and trainees think about during bowing? Mokuso is a good example; I find myself curious as to why students sometimes choose to adopt hand positions normally associated with Buddhist Zazen? Is this a statement?
How Mokuso fits into Dojo training today.
In my opinion, the practice of Mokuso in its current form loses much of its meaning because there is too much focus on discomfort. For many people it is something to be endured rather engaged with. Yes, it adds an element of ritual and its stated aim (to calm and settle the mind) is laudable, but not everybody gets that.
Writer and martial artist Dave Lowry has a section on Mokuso in his book, ‘In the Dojo’. For Lowry Mokuso signifies a transition period, like the turning over of a fresh page, almost a buffer zone between the outside world and its cares and worries and the ‘here and now’ of the Dojo. Lowry describes Mokuso as happening at the beginning and the end of training; it is very rare in Wado to see an end of training Mokuso. Lowry also distances the practice away from any ideas of Zen enlightenment. For myself, I would agree with that sentiment. In terms of my own approach, I just think of it as trying to achieve some form of settled stillness, allow my brain to clear out the trash.
If you read around the subject online you find that ideas fall into two camps; those who are quite happy for the established opinions to remain in place and feel that Zen presents a kind of backdoor through to the deeper aspects of karate training (dare I say, the ‘spiritual’ side?). And those who maybe want to untangle the weeds of Japanese history and challenge the orthodoxy. I am more inclined to listen to the views of this second group, partly because their opinions are backed up by some heavyweight research and a good understanding of the complexities of Japanese thought, and partly because, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Japanese Budo, it’s that things are never quite as straightforward as they seem.
The current thinking is that the idea of Zen being a Samurai thing may well be a modern invention. It certainly got itself wrapped up in pre-war nationalism and authors like Nitobe didn’t really help to clarify things, he was too busy ploughing his own furrow.
In conclusion, my feeling is that the discipline of meditation has gained more and more currency recently; hardly surprising given the times we are going through. Look at it objectively; a quiet space, a regular regime, a pride in taking control of your daily routine (and your life), the draining of tension, the quietening of the ‘chattering monkey mind’, mindful breathing, all of that is fabulous and majorly empowering – what’s not to like?
Image credit courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Wooden statue of a Luohan. A Chan (Zen) Buddhist monk who has achieved enlightenment and acts as a kind of guardian. 1400 to 1500.
I have changed my views on this several times. Currently I have my hands relaxed on my thighs. I found myself influenced by the example and ideas of Okada Takehiko (1908 – 2004) a Confucian scholar who was unusual in that he lived the principles he studied. He said that the act of meditation in Seiza actually got in the way of the objective of the practice. Instead, he turned it into something he called ‘Kotsuza’; difficult to translate directly but it suggests ‘just sitting’. It is both passive and active at the same time.
As an afterthought, I cannot speak highly enough of the discipline of Mindfulness. I know it has been a bit of a trendy buzzword and has somewhat been hijacked by the corporate types, but at its core it is rock solid and non-religious. If you have a hankering for self-improvement and getting your head together, seek out a properly qualified Mindfulness teacher (beware, there are a lot of people out there saying they are doing it but don’t have the credentials, they are just cowboys).