Buddhism And The Martial Ideal: Part 1
By Jeff Brooks
Editor’s Note: This is the first
in a two part article that discusses how Buddhism and how historically
it has been central to martial ideal.
The warrior ideal is a central metaphor in Buddhism. Although it is
not recognized now in the west, the warrior ideal and the influence of
warrior culture has been central to the practice tradition at the heart
of Buddhist doctrine. The loss of this understanding here and now is
due in part to the cultural prejudice of the westerners who were first
attracted to Buddhism. As western practitioners have matured they have
rediscovered this dimension of practice.
People are skeptical of the association of Buddhism with martial arts.
This is understandable. There have been instances in which some patina
of Asian culture and spirituality have been overlaid on martial arts,
in the hopes of giving a certain style or tradition an appearance of
There have been instances where powerful tools developed in the Buddhist
tradition for the purpose of bringing an end to suffering for all beings
have been appropriated by martial artists and put to distinctly non-Buddhist
ends. The tools I am referring too include the development of deep samadhi – single
pointed meditation which enables the experienced practitioner to place
his or her mind on any object and keep it there with clarity and stability
for as long as they want to.
Samadhi in the Buddhist practice tradition is cultivated to permit meditators
to observe the subtle working of their mind, and escape the confusion
of disturbed mental states. But single pointed concentration is a requirement
of many other highly developed activities with no spiritual objectives
at all: piloting a plane in a storm, hitting a baseball before 50,000
fans, trading stocks while watching markets move on half a dozen monitors
at once, fighting a deadly opponent, armed or unarmed – all these
demand deep concentration.
Many practitioners of martial arts have borrowed methods of mental cultivation
from Buddhist meditation. Some have misused them, or put their deep accomplishment
to harmful ends. The notorious cases of World War II-era Japanese Zen
masters participating in the war-hysteria are a good example.
So who could blame the casual observer, the first time visitor to a
Buddhist conference, or the middle-aged American dharma practitioner,
for being skeptical of the validity of the relationship between genuine
dharma practice and the martial arts?
Yet when you look closely the centrality of the warrior ideal in Buddhism
itself is evident. This is significant because from this perspective
we can discover how a truly Buddhist martial art might be practiced.
The historical Buddha was born (in India, 2500 years ago) into the Kshatriya
or warrior caste. He was the son of a king, at a time when warfare was
common, and military culture was a dominant cultural mode.
Robert Thurman, professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University,
“According to Buddhist scripture and oral tradition, many years
in the future, at a time when the human lifespan has again reached 80,000
years, the entire planet will be ruled by a single benevolent emperor.
At that time the next Buddha (in a long succession of Buddhas that have
and will continue to appear on this planet) will appear. He will be named
Maitreya. He will be born in the Brahmin caste – the religious
priestly caste, not the warrior caste like the historical of our age
Buddha Shakyamuni. Maitreya will reach enlightenment in one day, instead
of the six years of effort required of Shakyamuni. And Maitreya’s
teaching mission will be much more successful than Shakyamuni’s.
The liberative techniques of the two are the same. But in that far distant
future period human beings will be much more spiritually evolved. It
will not be as difficult for them to win release from their suffering
as it is for us, here on earth, in our era. Since Shakyamuni, born in
India 2500 years ago, whose teachings are still alive in the world now,
was born into a world of widespread violence and militarism, he had to
turn to teaching practical techniques of spiritual liberation which relied
upon the martial qualities of toughness, asceticism, and determination
in the pursuit of the goal of enlightenment…”
The Buddhist method was discovered, mastered, supported and disseminated
by people who were, at a formative stage of their careers, great warriors.
An example from ancient India was King Ashoka who, after a long and bloody
struggle for power conquered a vast empire on the Indian subcontinent.
When the period of expansion ended and the time for consolidation and
peace arose he searched for the best way to rule.
He searched India for a set of values and methods that would bring maximum
happiness to people and which in his judgment offered the best means
for civil order and individual liberation. He became the greatest proponent
of Buddhism in early Indian history. His legacy lives today in the hundreds
of “Rock Edicts,” carved bas relief stone pillars he had
erected all over his vast kingdom. The carvings include written advice
for personal conduct, and advocate human values that formed the moral
basis for early popular Buddhism in ancient India.
His contribution to Buddhist monasteries and universities deepened Buddhist
culture with an influence felt from his era in the 2nd century through
to the 11th, when the Moslem armies invaded, burning the libraries and
razing the monasteries, ending the Buddhist era in India.
The second great wave of Buddhist learning spread across Asia by means
of the greatest military conquest in history. Buddhism, once again, was
spread not by force, but by a great military leader who became Buddhist,
by conviction, after the military aspect of his career, was over. In
the 12th century the Mongols conquered most of the known world. Led by
Genghis Khan an army of mounted herdsmen from the steppes of central
Asia conquered by massacre, terror and intimidation an area from the
Pacific Ocean, across China, west across Europe, south into Vietnam.
In two generations this had become the Yuan Dynasty of China.
Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis, was Emperor. He searched the known
world for the right understanding of life, the clearest way to approach
the human condition, and the best solution to the problem of human happiness.
He chose Buddhism. Although his regime made no effort to suppress the
influential and competing forms of religion and philosophy – Confucianism,
Taoism and many others – it was Buddhism that became the de facto
state religion. It was his court that first bestowed the title on the
emperor’s favored dharma teacher: “Dalai Lama,” meaning
Ocean of Wisdom.
To understand the significance of the conversion of these military leaders,
and the profound appeal of Buddhism to them, it is useful to understand
something about their military life. There were several factors that
gave the Mongols such a huge military advantage over the peoples they
conquered. Until they began to range from central Asia they lived as
pastoral people. They herded animals, goats and sheep for food, as well
as horses for work. They were on horseback for most of their lives. It
was completely natural to them. They were used to herding animals – very
similar to herding enemy armies. They were used to working from horseback.
They were used to killing. There was not much land for them to cultivate
in the high, dry land they lived on. Mostly it was just arable enough
for grass for grazing.
Killing people was not something that required a whole new skill set.
They were used to hardship. They were used to camping and moving. At
a time when armies on the march were destroyed by disease as often as
enemies it was a huge advantage to have ingrained cultural habits, minds
and bodies which allowed people to stay healthy on the move. The method
Genghis used initially was effective. The Mongol army would arrive at
a town and demand submission. If it was not forthcoming, they would kill
everyone. They did this for a while, and soon word got around. After
a while towns capitulated without a fight. The armies kept advancing.
These guys were not spreading democracy. They had no interest in winning
hearts and minds. They wanted everything and would stop at nothing to
take it. And the boss of this outfit was the one who converted to Buddhism.
And promoted the spread of the dharma throughout China and southeast
Asia and beyond. How do you figure that one?
End of Part 1
About The Author:
Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, US Shorin Ryu
Karate, has been the director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton,
Massachusetts since 1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993.
He is author of The Rhinoceros Tale. His column Zen Mirror and other
articles 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)