THE ZEN MIRROR
Crippled By Comfort
By Jeff Brooks
Mas Oyama had tough hands. He routinely demonstrated his grip by crushing
stone. He would place his hand on an anvil and have his assistant hit
his hand with a hammer. It was not a trick. His hands were tough. He
hit makiwara with his knuckles and he slapped an oak pole with his palm
and the back of his hands day after day until they were tougher than
oak. He developed a crushing grip through training. There are a few people
around who can do this now. But very few.
Sometimes people will rationalize their weakness by saying that there
is more to martial arts than power. And of course that statement is true.
I suspect Mas Oyama himself would have agreed. But a weak body is not
an advantage. An unhealthy body is a disability. Yet we, like modern
people all over the world, without giving it much thought, accept this
as a natural state.
In pre-modern times people often suffered from want – from famine
and drought for example, and from inescapable danger – from floods
or attacks from wild animals. As modern people we are much more likely
to be crippled by comfort.
Ancient people found ways to overcome the dangers they faced. As martial
artists it is up to us to skillfully find ways to overcome the serious
threats to our lives and our health that we now face. While it may seem
less heroic to do battle with air conditioning or cars than it is to
battle marauders or wild animals, the threat to our lives is as grave
and as urgent.
Many of the techniques in martial arts are simple to execute if your
body is strong. They are daunting if you are weak. People do not know
it. In the days when many people spent their time in labor, strength
was a given. Those who wanted to excel in martial arts found ways to
increase their strength far above that of people who worked in the fields,
on ships or in trades. As they practiced, even in so-called internal
arts, they developed power, and while the quality of the power changed
from crude to subtle over the course of their career as martial artists,
the health and vigor of their body was presumed.
We sit at desks and consider it normal. We ride in cars to and from
our desks. After work we sit and watch TV, or read, or look at the computer.
For a special change of pace we go to a movie theatre and sit there,
watching others do things. Or we go to a beach and sit there.
And if that doesn’t describe you that is excellent. But it takes
work and an unusual degree of insight to see that there is something
unnatural and harmful in an inactive life. The statistic is that 66 per
cent of modern people get no exercise. Another 20 per cent get “very
So it is not unusual for people who do train to have low expectations
about what it means to be fit, or what it means to work hard, or what
real martial accomplishment consists of.
I feel sure that the new generation of practitioners has no less talent
than that of the great masters of the past. But they face some obstacles
that those old masters never could have. It is up to all of us to do
battle and not accept defeat from the harmful conditions we face. To
begin we cannot accept them as “normal.”
As modern people we accept the division of labor as normal. In pre-modern
times people had the skills they needed to keep themselves alive. When
they were thirsty they knew where to find water, and they brought some
home to their family. People knew where to find food or how to grow it,
how to hunt or fish or trap their food. They knew how to find or build
shelter, and they did all these things communally – sharing the
most important challenges of their lives with people who experienced
those challenges just as profoundly and met those challenges together
for mutual good. If and when the time came that they had to defend themselves,
for most of human history, people banded together to deal with the threat
and then, when the battle was over and the threat repelled, they returned
to their ordinary life.
Nowadays we tend to delegate everything. We do not have skills that
integrate us into the natural world, or engage us in necessary activity
for mutual benefit with our neighbors. It makes us isolated. And it makes
us arrogant. We assume that systems will all hold up forever. Food will
appear in the store. Water will flow. The heat will come on in the wintertime.
The a/c will come on when its hot. The TV will work. The hospitals will
be open. The police will take care of the mess and then they will disappear.
Maybe yes. Maybe no. How much can we afford to delegate? People don’t
sing much any more. Singing is left to professionals who are good at
it. To professionals who do it all the time. Who are almost freakish
in their ability to sing flawlessly. But singing is good for everyone,
for normal people, for amateurs, and it is good for people to do together.
Athletics are done by the elite. After a few years of playing many young
people are discouraged about pursuing life-long physical practice because
they feel they lack the talent to make it to the majors or to earn a
gold medal. So they don’t do it. But being physical, being fit,
having a healthy, strong, coordinated body makes life good. Without it
people feel bad. They become emotionally awkward and unstable. They suffer
and are unhappy. But it is accepted as “normal” to be out
Because of the material abundance of our time and place it is easy to
become complacent until it is too late. Too easy to go along heedlessly
until our bodies are so atrophied that a trip on the sidewalk becomes
a trip to the hospital. Until we appear to be an easy target to a mugger,
and we find the mugger’s judgment is true, and we find that we
are helpless under the pressure of a confrontation.
How much can we afford to delegate?
This is what I would say to all sincere martial artists in the modern
world, east or west: the world needs you. The world needs you strong
and able. The world does not need any more bullies or show-offs. The
world doesn’t need any more weak and dependent whiners, self-proclaimed
victims or slackers. We have enough of them. The world needs, desperately,
people who are strong enough to take care of themselves and the people
who depend on them, with enough energy left over to help even people
they don’t know. People with dignity and skill who teach effortlessly,
just by their example, just by the way they conduct themselves, without
any effort to influence anyone, yet whose effect is profound.
That is a worthy aspiration. I encourage you to take your martial arts
practice seriously and to pursue it sincerely. Do not let conventional
values or limited expectations stop you from fulfilling your dreams and
Don’t stop until you can crush stone with your hands. Don’t
stop until you can lift the heaviest burdens off the shoulders of the
people who need you.
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
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. Brooks’ column, “Zen
Mirror”, and other articles regularly appear on FightingArts.com.
FightingArts.com is pleased to announce its first
book: “Rhinoceros Zen –Zen
Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom,” by Jeffrey Brooks, a work
that portrays the dual paths and interplay between Zen and Karate-do.
and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding
read for any martial artist.
(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)