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Bodhisattva Action and Martial Arts

By Jeff Brooks

Author’s Note: Regarding Buddhist traditions, the discussion of Buddhism and its relationship to martial arts training in this article is a reflection on the Asian culture and history from which the modern martial arts have developed. It is understood that Buddha is a teacher, not a god or Deity, and the Buddhist teachings are offered here as philosophical ideas, not as religious beliefs, with no intent to conflict with the beliefs and faith of readers of any religion or viewpoint.

Martial arts and Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, have a long relationship, but the nature of that relationship – its limitations and its potential – has not been well understood. I believe a fully developed Buddhist martial art does not now exist and may never have existed before. The potential for a genuine Buddhist martial art is possible now, in our culture, and that is what I want to discuss today. I want to give a kind of field report, a report of the work we have been doing at our dojo, a description of some of the sources we have drawn on, the obstacles we have encountered and also some of the results we have been getting.

It is the intentional and informed application of the principles for bodhisattva action that I think has been missing from martial arts practice. There is good reason that these principals have generally not been a part of traditional Asian martial arts, given the cultural setting in which the Asian martial arts arose. But because of the way our modern culture has developed, this can be changed. To have a vigorous and meaningful martial arts practice – in this age of firearms and pervasive technology – I believe it is urgent that we do it.

First two definitions: 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.

I was interested in Buddhism when I was very young, and I was interested in martial arts too. The fact that they had something to do with each other was a bonus, but the connection was not clear to me. I heard about enlightenment, and understood that it was some kind of perfection of human life. While not knowing what that required or implied about a way of living or acting, I understood that it had something to do with peace, freedom and happiness. These were things I was sure I wanted.

I heard about martial arts. I saw that you could get strong from doing it. At some point I got the idea that in martial arts you could aim your life, make everything into practice, and that as a result every moment of your life would be fruitful, so that life would not slip by and no time, no effort, would be wasted.

I saw people practice meditation in a Zen meditation hall. It looked wonderful to me. Serene and strong.

What martial arts and Zen had to do with each other, at first, I could not tell. In the martial arts club I visited at my college, people were pushing one another over and twisting each other’s arms, grimacing and rolling around. As a new comer to the club, guys hollered at you and, with little skill or experience, it was hard for me to tell what they wanted me to do or what they considered good.

Then, about twenty 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 recognized how valuable the relationship between meditation and martial arts could be. But he was a product of his culture as much as we are under the influence of ours. His approach to Zen practice was strong but seemed to have the same one sidedness that you encounter everywhere that martial arts and Buddhist meditation are mingled. It seems to be as true in Asia as it is here in the west. Great martial artists and Zen practitioners have built the foundation. We are in a position to continue their work.

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 (or you or I) 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 suffering themselves, and enables them to be effective in helping others. The emphasis of Buddhist practice in martial arts has been almost exclusively on the wisdom side.

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, the compassion side of the equation, is not a part of the curriculum. It is important to note that Bodhisattva action is not something external to martial arts that I would like to see added. It is actually a matter of recovering something very much at the heart of martial arts that has been neglected.

Bodhisattva action has an important place in military life. 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 were not forced. They ran in. Ask police officers and firefighters why they did it that day and they will tell you it’s the same reason they do it every time, as a matter of course throughout their careers. They will say it’s what we do. It is what they get paid for. It is what gives them meaning in their lives. It is what makes their own lives matter, makes their own lives worth living. It makes them honorable in their own eyes and to each other. It is extraordinary. Yet it is an attitude you find in police and fire departments all over the country. 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 Zen 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 loosely here, not in a technical, doctrinal sense, but as someone whose life is dedicated to serving and saving beings.

In the classic 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 Zen meditation’s relevance to 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. We can see from the dignity in this actor’s portrayal that he understands that his sole reason for existing 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 the way a martial artist would 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.

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.

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 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.

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 nearly the ultimate use of samadhi in martial arts.

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 participating in Zen Buddhist practice. But it only uses the tools of Buddhism – deep 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.

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 to be consistent with Buddhist goals. 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 all beings. And third, they must aim to have correct view – 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 it never has the profound effects on them that it could have because it is missing from almost all martial arts training.

To understand why it is entirely natural that the ideal of Bodhisattva action 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. That was the boom time of commercial economy in China. As goods were accumulated and stored, they needed to be guarded. That is where the growth of public martial arts began. Before then martial arts were closely held formulas, often the private property of feudal families. 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 medical 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 very 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 under arms in police and sheriff’s departments or working privately in security. Their training varies widely. Some are given a uniform and a W-2 and poof, they’re security. Some are competently trained at police academies. Some are in elite units with special training, highly competitive entry requirements and big rewards for those few who make it through. That was the way it was then too. Most martial artists were farm boys seeking to move up a rung on the social ladder. 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 brave, 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 no doubt 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 (he’s a genius guitar player, and if you’ve never heard of him you ought to check him out). Most guitar players, as much as they’d enjoy it, don’t really need his advice. But the few who might go out of their way to seek him out just might find him and persuade him to offer his help. That was the way it was then, with martial artists. (It is that way now, too.)

So not all the martial artists in 19th Century China were highly cultivated or well trained or even 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, when I worked for the military I would see guards from time to time with unbelievably rock solid unshakeable samadhi. On an off hour, if you crossed paths at the PX, and you made eye contact, you could feel their look cut right through to the back of your skull. They are not aggressive, angry, anything. It’s just military samadhi.

Back when people were making money in the stock market, I would see traders at their screens, five or six screens in front of them, who would not look up for hours. I mean no break, no bathroom, no look out the window, no phone calls, no nothing. Watching those screens, hitting the occasional key on their keyboards, and then right back to this unshakeable money samadhi. This capacity for sustained focused attention is important in martial arts. It is associated with Buddhist training, especially because it is so highly emphasized in meditation. Military samadhi, music samadhi, stock market samadhi are all similar in form to Buddhist meditation training, but the motivation, action itself and the results of its cultivation make this not necessarily Buddhist practice. It works the same way in the case of martial samadhi.

Our style of karate, the style I learned through the efforts of Shoshin Nagamine, 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 not only 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. No one knows.

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, but it is urgent for a different reason. If it were simply 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 truly Buddhist practice of the martial arts, we do have a door out of the global disaster toward which we seem to be heading. 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 that are ripped up by anxiety, depression, meaninglessness, loss and wanting.

Perhaps this weak body and disturbed mind represents a new human disease, created by new information age conditions. If so we need a new cure. To create a Buddhist martial art we will have to import parts of the Buddha’s teaching that were not emphasized in martial arts culture, but were present there in seed form. We need to create vigorous, powerful martial artists who are dedicated to saving all beings, not just the beings on our team, in our village, or those in our employer’s good graces.

Part of our vows in the Zen tradition are prohibitions. A number of the members of our karate dojo and Zen meditation group have taken the vows of moral and ethical conduct common to all Buddhists, and work with these vows daily. Partly they vow to observe to the 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 ignorant, and which therefore causes us to suffer. 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 is half the path to Buddhahood. It gives us the peace we need to enter deep samadhi.

The other half of the Mahayana path, the side of Bodhisattva action, is also necessary for us, not only to attain the complete fulfillment of the Bodhisattva ideal, but to have a deep, happy, whole life, integrated in the community of beings. It’s a necessary course for the fast track to spiritual progress. It is addressed in the first six of the 16 precepts that Zen practitioners take. To take refuge in the Buddha, the Buddha’s teaching and the community of fellow practitioners. That is to renounce dependence upon things that will not support us and to turn to where we can get what we need. To do good, to avoid evil and to do good for the sake of all beings. This is the Mahayana vow of Bodhisattva action.

How do you do that in a karate dojo? Is a karate dojo for that? Wouldn’t this care and helpfulness soften the practice and make it useless in self-defense? Wouldn’t the rough vigor of martial arts practice undermine the Bodhisattva 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. There are many examples of this.

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 even translated my essay about it into Japanese and circulated it among the Okinawan karate community. This was very gratifying to me, coming from one of the few people in the world who is an accomplished master in both Zen and karate.

It seems only by this means can we create a truly Buddhist martial art, one worthy of dedicating a whole human life to mastering and one which may hold the promise of saving us from our unrestrained selves.

I feel I should answer one last point. Why can this program be called Zen, in any meaningful, historically legitimate sense of the word? Here is why:In this moment of our lives, in this moment of practice, there is nothing extra, nothing lacking, only this. Sometimes, in the course of practice, this kind of statement can seem to fly utterly in the face of reason and all the evidence. Nothing extra? Nothing lacking? I am insufficient in accomplishment, I have many impediments to unhindered action, we might say, so what are you talking about? In language, in logic, it’s this: “Nothing extra, nothing lacking, only this” does not mean that everything is dandy, so realize it and cheer up. It means that all the universe is your karma (your past action of body, speech and mind, and the results of all those actions) exactly, right now, nothing added, nothing missing. If you want it to be different, act different. If you want to be happy, be kind. If you want to be strong, act courageously. If you want to be admired, admire. If you want to be a Buddha, strive diligently.

(This article is based on a talk and demonstration given at a Buddhist conference at Smith College on May 5, 2002.)

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About The Author:

Jeffrey M. Brooks holds a Go Dan Fifth Degree Black Belt in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, training in Okinawa, Japan and the USA, with Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of the style, Takayoshi Nagamine, his successor, as well as with numerous others in the Matsubayashi Ryu lineage and related Chinese traditions. His Buddhist study and practice is with Rev. Issho Fujita, resident director of Valley Zendo and Geshe Michael Roach of the Asian Classics Institute. He has an M.F.A. from NYU Film School and works as a speechwriter for public figures. He is founder and director of Northampton Karate and Northampton Zendo in Northampton, Massachusetts, offering classes daily for adults and children since 1988. (

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