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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 depth.

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, explains:

“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

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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

New! 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. Fast paced and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding read for any martial artist.

(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)


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

Zen, meditation, concentration, martial training, Zen and the martial arts, mediation and fighting, Buddhism and the martial arts

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