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