Oct 12, 2022Liked by Tim Shaw

Dear Tim,

The topic you raised is very interesting as far as I am concerned. Whether someone values a true 'Zen' attitude, or a true profession of that teaching, is obviously very personal. There are dozens of types of meditation and Zazen is just one of them, the most 'trendy' version of it being contemporary 'Mindfullness', which has taken off especially in therapeutic circles.

Before we get into this, it is perhaps useful to define that the kind of meditation common in Zen circles actually involves 'attention exercises', which, among other things, seek to draw consciousness together into a single point (often also called " Tanden" or Hara or, say, breathing from hara). For example, renowned Aikido master Kochi Tohei took this as the premise of his "Ki Breathing" and attributed almost super-normal properties to this narrowing of consciousness:

"As one tries to keep his one point in daily life, one should be able to maintain a perpetually relaxed state of mind and body. One will develop a mind which is immovable even when the world around collapses, and a mind which is as vast as the ocean which can engulf everything and remain unpolluted."

In monastic Zen circles, people even strive to dissolve from this sole remaining focus of attention and retain from consciousness -for a few seconds or minutes at least- only purely sensory impressions. An ultimate 'here and now moment' as it were, without annoying thoughts that are always busy making abstractions. One experiencing this as a timeless moment which would thereby raise his consciousness to a higher level of awareness and develop an 'enlightened', liberated vision of common reality. So much for the esotericism of Zen, as it is probably also familiar to you

As for myself, I started practising martial arts in the mid-1970s, more specifically Aikido which I practised for a year. I then pretty soon moved on to Wado training under a Japanese master that I followed for years. Like you, I then came under the influence of Zen Buddhist thought as published in books by Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki and not at least Eugene Herrigel's booklet "Zen in the art of Archery". As for my Wado-sensei, he was a Shinto practitioner, but as you yourself noted, as a Japanese, he was very eclectically oriented in terms of religion. In the dojo itself, he only used a few minutes of 'zazen' before and after training, albeit out of pure protocol. Otherwise, as an intellectual, he released little of his confessional thoughts. What he was afflicted with, however, was the development and formation of the ego as well as the energy generated by cosmic will in living beings. So it should come as no surprise that one day I was in questioning with him about my deficient will, when he advised me to read from Arthur Schopenhauer's masterpiece, "The World as Will and Imagination". I started doing so then and still consult this work regularly. (For those familiar with this work, it will be no secret that Schopenhauer had very deep knowledge of Vedanta and deeper Buddhist philosophy.)

Anyway, yours truly continued to follow his zazen exercises very faithfully. I was somewhat influenced by what the Zen scholar and zazen expert Takuan Soho had once written down:

""In the case of the swordsman, it means death.  When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy's sword movements.  He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man's subconscious that strikes." 

Indeed, I wanted to learn to make use of the 'subconscious'. For I had already experienced myself that sometimes, very sometimes, during jyu-kumite practice, snatches of body action appeared out of 'nothing', without any 'premeditation' involved. I also became more aware of my somatic 'memories', such that the way was open to accepting the then fairly recent theory of 'neuro-dynamic patterns'. That is to say that constantly repeated and systematically refined movement patterns (kata so to speak), are engraved and stored in the subconscious, so to speak until the moment they can be used. The intuitive foreknowledge of this had long been stored in the ancient doctrines of Chinese 'neijia' 內家, the internal Chinese martial arts like Taijiquan, Bagua Zhang, Xingyi and others. Now, 'neijia' means nothing more than the study of the 'internal' body processes that underlie outer movement. The course and esoteric studies especially of the energy flows within the body that were sometimes very complex and given past times were also quite often based on pure superstition (an important aspect of Chinese culture). Anyway, the most recent branch of 'neijia' has developed a method of studying endogenous 'relaxation' on the one hand, and 'explosive strength' on the other, which can enrich the study of Eastern martial arts and some other 'power sports'. One calls the method Yiquan and it is capable of significantly influencing some aspects of martial arts through standing meditation, introspection, visualisation and controlled thought flows. One can continue to practise the method of Yiquan alongside one's personal martial arts and actually improve the 'external' benefits of health, relaxation and strength with it. In this sense, I set aside all further meditation methods for me personally.


Jan Houblon (BE)

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Thanks for checking out my substack. I agree, we definitely have a lot of overlap in our writings. I enjoyed this article very much, too.

One thought:

Perhaps much of the confusion around is Karate Zen or not Zen comes from a disconnect in how Eastern and Western cultures view methods of attaining enlightenment and deeper realization. We tend to take the view that various states of consciousness and being are achieved through corresponding practices, sort of like religious rites (say the words, perform the motions, get the result). Many internal martial arts schools have similar views and concern themselves with how accurately you can replicate the movements in order to improve your qi flow, embody deities, etc.

But there's also another school that says that the higher states can be achieved no matter what you are doing, so long as you do it with the right mindset. Hence, people getting enlightened while chopping wood or going on a stroll or practicing katas. The Chuang Tzu, while not strictly a Zen text, is often referred to by Zen masters, and contains the story of Ding, who despite being a butcher clearly attained a kind of enlightenment through the practice of butchery. From what I gather, the Zen community is split on this question of whether you can achieve ultimate zen states doing un-zen things, but it stands to reason that if you can attain enlightenment carving up a cow, you can almost certainly do it practicing karate--so long as you practice with a zen mind.

The fact that both Zen and Karate are Japanese cultural artifacts which arrived in close proximity to one another in the West has linked them in ways that the Japanese themselves likely never intended. To many Japanese, Karate is just as zen as making pizza or western boxing, it's all in the approach.

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Oct 13, 2022Liked by Tim Shaw

Thank you for appreciating my views. Of course, in the martial arts, the study of neuromotor and its interactions between body and mind play an important role in fighting arts conditioning. Entire treatises could be written on this and the new scientific insights brought forward are abundant. Personally, I continue to work on this in the knowledge that to me cannot be dismissed as an essential part of budo. So I also look forward to other essays by you, as they undoubtedly contribute to my personal insights in this area. I have no doubt that there will be an opportunity to raise the glasses again.

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