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Holding Hands With Zen: The Martial Arts Connection

An Interview with Jeff Brooks

By Anna-Maria Goossens

Try this: Scan through the martial arts films you’ve seen, and try to remember how you were introduced to the lead head-cracker. Chances are, he was probably meditating or going through some Buddhist ritual. Do you believe he was sincere? Since such images are the extent of many people’s experience with martial arts or Buddhism, it’s no surprise that there is a lot of misinformation about how the two relate to one another. People could reasonably wonder if they have anything to do with each other at all.

“Karate and Zen as one”
-- Shoshin Nagamine

“I have heard some people with the facile idea that Zen and the martial arts have nothing to do with each other because they suppose that one is about peace and the other is about fighting — or, conversely, that Zen and the martial arts are related mainly in their belief that if they meditate, they can kick ass better,” summarizes Sensei Jeffrey Tesshin Brooks, Director of the Northampton Karate Dojo and Zendo (a hall, building or area for Zen mediatation).

Neither view gets at the true relationship between the two, which is for Brooks a real, complex, rewarding and key tenet of his instruction at the dojo.

It’s obvious the minute you set foot inside the dojo. Pictures of Bodhidharma, who brought meditative Buddhism to China, and photos of important figures in Shorin Ryu Okinawan karate, the style he teaches, hold equal pride of place on the dojo walls. Calligraphy about karate and Buddhism also hang next to each other. This pairing was inspired in large part by the founder of Shorin Ryu Karate, Shoshin Nagamine, a proponent of “Ken Zen Icho Nyo” (meaning “Karate and Zen as one”).

Recently, Sensei Brooks and I discussed how he feels about Zen and karate being connected.

AMG: How are Zen and karate connected?

Brooks: Zen and martial arts share the development of Samadhi: one-pointed concentration (a state of consciousness beyond waking or sleep in which conscious mental activity ceases so to allow total absorption with the object of concentration).

In Buddhism, it’s a tool — not an end in itself — that is applied to achieve insight into reality. You can take that same tool and apply it to karate. It will increase your skill, but it doesn’t necessarily help you have a better human life unless it’s done with the correct motivation. To have deep samadhi we have to allow all mental disturbances to cease – disturbances including anger, hatred, greed and so on.

AMG: Right — people who don’t know karate often assume you’re picturing a certain person you’re mad at when you’re doing punches, say. And one of the things I learned fairly quickly through my practice of karate is that using anger like that isn’t effective at all. I get distracted and then pretty soon I’m doing the wrong technique…

“Spontaneity is only possible after you get rid of hindrances and become free of the disturbances”

Brooks: But, significantly I think, anger is what brought you in the door. There are lots of martial arts programs that do encourage students to use negative emotions. It hurts the students. On a personal level, they become irritable and thin skinned, and from a purely performance point of view, they become stiff in their movements and they tend to burn out quickly. You may start out your martial arts career with negative emotions, but you don’t want to perpetuate that. At the same time you can’t fake it -- you don’t have to banish or ignore your negative emotions. You use them, and then you can let them go. Negative emotions may work like kindling. To stay warm for a whole winter, you can’t depend just on birch bark — but you can’t do without it to start the fire. There is some kindling there at the outset of a student’s training — fear or anger very often — and if a teacher leads the student skillfully, it can ignite a deeper fire. But to perpetuate fear or anger is very unhealthy.

AMG: So to reach the right mindset, you have to learn to drop the anger and fear, or whatever emotion, and transform that emotion into energy you can use to refine your life in the heat and pressure of regular practice.

Brooks: Your action in practice ought to be natural and spontaneous. Spontaneity is a word that is closely associated with Zen and with advanced practice of martial arts. The word was a favorite of the beat poets and Zen hipsters and Bruce Lee, but I think it’s often misunderstood. People sometimes take it to mean impulse. In reality, spontaneity is only possible after you get rid of hindrances [such as negative emotions and become free of the disturbances they cause. Spontaneous action is not a matter of untrained impulse.

AMG: In other words, it’s that idea of having to know the rules to be able to go beyond them, and not have to be thinking about them every minute.

Brooks: Yes, and not just to know them, but to make the techniques and principles of action not something appended to you, but things that in a sense are you – they have become deeply your own from long practice. As a student, or as a teacher, you can’t skip steps. Masterful teaching, I think, is the ability to show people the appropriate next step in technical development as you give them the opportunity to develop deep samadhi (one-pointed concentration). At the same time a skillful teacher will also encourage the students to develop healthy motivations for both. It takes experience to accomplish this, because all three variables – technique, samadhi and motivation — are different for each person in each moment.

You can’t hand them a formula — you can only point them in the right direction.

“The ability to not know is an essential quality in learning anything”

In a demonstration by advanced practitioners, the newer students know they’re seeing something breathtaking. What they don’t know is that what they’re seeing in the performance of the advanced practitioners is not only skill in movement, but also of samadhi. Advanced practitioners have assimilated all the technical advice into their bodies and minds, and in a sense are now able to act spontaneously. That’s apparent when you see someone who’s really good.

AMG: It seems to me that one of the predictors of whether someone is going to be successful in the practice of karate is how well they deal with the times when they’re confused and not in control. If you're attached to the idea of always being in control, of having to understand every new technique or training exercise immediately, and sort of check it off, thinking, “I'm done with that” then practice becomes frustrating – there are times when you will not be in total control. If you can apply the Buddhist idea of non-attachment to karate practice you'll do much better.

Brooks: The ability to not know (your "negative capability") is an essential quality in learning anything. The more secure you are, the more easily you can accept the awkwardness that necessarily comes at the beginning of any new enterprise — a job, a relationship, taking up a new sport — and the more quickly you can progress at every stage. In some ways, it is easier for a teenager to be a beginner in the dojo than it is for an adult. Adults are often used to having competence and status in their professional life, their home life, etc. Kids are used to being new at things. In general, you could say that success comes from handling difficulty -- even failure -- with equanimity, yet never losing your desire to succeed. After all there is no such thing as always getting it right. Some people learn this point of view at five, some at fifty. Some never do.

AMG: Do you ever find that people object to having Buddhist ideas brought up in karate class? Is there a conflict for people who practice a different religion?

Brooks: I’m not presenting doctrine — I’m not asking them to believe anything contrary to their religion. I talk about being hardworking, respectful, and generous to other people. We have members of our dojo who are devoted to their own religious traditions, who feel the spiritual experience they have in the dojo to be very much in harmony with their religious beliefs.

AMG: Do you think that Buddhist elements can be combined with physical disciplines besides karate?

Brooks: Yes. People talk about “the zone” or “flow.” The mastery of technique and unity of body and mind are a kind of samadhi (one-pointed concentration). The difference in sports (or dance, music, whatever) and in our karate may be the motivation and objectives of the practitioners. If our objective is simply to perform well, that is an athletic or personal aspiration, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. If the objective is to put an end to suffering, then that is a Buddhist aspiration.


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About The Interviewer & Interviewee:

Anna-Maria Goossens is a member of the Northampton Karate Dojo and Northampton Zendo and a freelance writer.

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 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). Brooks’ column, “Zen Mirror”, and other articles regularly appear on FightingArts.com.


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Zen, Samadhi, meditation, concentration, martial training, Zen and the martial arts, Buddhism and the martial arts


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