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Buddhism And The Martial Ideal: Part 2

By Jeff Brooks

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two part article(Part 1) that discusses how Buddhism and how historically it has been central to martial ideal.

After a long series of victories in war, the conduct of Genghis Khan and King Ashok changed. Theirs represents a very different model from that of the would-be conquerors of the modern era. And the implications for our own lives today are profound.

In both cases there was a shift from warfare, which brought them to power, to a policy of education and harmony during their reign. Contrast this with the example of the dictators of the last century who rose to power by means of violence. The leaders of the Soviet Union, for example, used mass murder as a technique of conquest and used it along with a policy of cultural repression as a means to hold on to power. Their empire collapsed. There are numerous recent examples of this.

Even with a machiavellian motive to retain a grip on power, the use of force as a means for doing it will fail. It will exhaust the resources of the conqueror as it destroys the empire. From recent examples we can see that evil, in power, will destroy itself as well as the good that it feeds on. Evil cannot survive on its own.

The need for a shift in mode from conquest to rule was well-observed through history. The British acknowledged it in their colonial period. In the philosophy of samurai era Japan, the principle was communicated with two kanji characters “Bun/Bu.”

On the wall of our dojo there are two pieces of calligraphy of these two characters. Each was a gift given to me by a great modern master. One was from Sensei Ryuhei Taneya, in 1987, when he was about 80 years old. Sensei Taneya at that time was the coach of the Japanese national Kendo (swordfighting) champion. The champion was a Tokyo policeman, a huge and powerfully built man, a Mr. Nishiyama. Nishiyama seemed effortlessly to defeat attack after attack, despite the fact that they were launched by a series of highly skilled opponents – Go Dan (fifth degree black belt) and up – in an international competition I attended. His power and speed, and his intimidating presence, were obvious. Even at rest he radiated calm power. Yet when Sensei Taneya counseled him, his bearing shifted, just slightly, as he leaned toward the older man half his size, and humbly took in the insights cultivated through his teacher’s long life of practice.

It is an honor to meet people of that level of accomplishment. Even more so to see them in action. Sensei Taneya had seen me bow on entering his training area at the beginning of the session. He asked me, through a translator, who I was and why I bowed. I told him. It was after that that he gave me the gift of his “Bun Bu” calligraphy that hangs now in our dojo.

Years later, on Okinawa, I trained with Sogen Sakiyama. He was a great goju ryu karate practitioner. When I practiced with him he was the senior Zen master on Okinawa, in his 70’s at that time. When I returned home we corresponded frequently, about issues of a life of practice. Following our next meeting, with a group of students gathered around, he brought out his ink and brushes, and with a dramatic Zen master’s flourish brought his brush down on the square of paper and wrote two bold characters: Bun Bu. That was his message to me at a critical moment in my practice life.

The mastery of both bun and bu were considered essential for the development of the individual – and for the health of society – in samurai era Japan.

Bu means war. In this context it refers to martial arts and the arts of war-making. The character itself includes a radical (a common component or sub-character within a larger compound Chinese character) representing the sheathed sword, not the drawn sword. Anyone who will have to use force in conducting his duties can confirm that implicit strength is a better way to keep order than deployed strength. For example the deterrent effect of a police department on crime is much greater than simply the number of arrests made.

Predatory forces will arise inside society and appear from without. They must be dealt with. Mastery of the arts of war, and the ability to use force skillfully when necessary, is needed. But they are ultimately not enough. As a martial artist, for personal security or for the security of a community or nation, the use of force is not sufficient to make life harmonious, peaceful, prosperous or stable.

Bun represents the arts of language, philosophy and law: the means by which a civil society is organized and regulated. Mastery of these was also considered essential for personal cultivation and for social harmony. It seems obvious that to have a harmonious group we ought to communicate with each other. We need to share ideas about what is good for people to do and what is good for people to avoid. We need to be able to convey why cooperation for the common good is in everyone’s interest, why those interests should be balanced with personal freedom and fulfillment, and then see how we can work together to rationalize these personal and social needs. By using convincing ideas and creating strong boundaries – enforceable laws – within which people have great freedom from harm and freedom to act, the greatest happiness will follow.

This is one implication of Bun and Bu. Overreliance on one or the other will lead to collapse. Balance the mastery of the two and you can hope for a stable and happy society, and mature and fulfilled individuals.

That is not a Buddhist idea. The two great early promulgators of Buddhism – Genghis Khan and King Ashok – both observed their version of Bun Bu. But the Buddhist version of the need for self-defense, personal and communal, goes deeper. It will not allow us the self-serving error of saying: first I will conquer everything and then I will make everyone behave nicely.

We can know that it is an error to try to remake the world according to our own utopian vision or our own self-interest (like the great dictators of the last century) because it is both an article of faith of Buddhism, and demonstrably true by logic, that (1) doing harm brings harm and doing virtue brings happiness; and (2) that since our world is created by our own actions (virtuous or non-virtuous), that we can infer that the best way to happiness is through kindness not force.

However it won’t work just because we suddenly decide to be nice. You can’t remake your world by wish or fantasy. It must be done via action, consistent and diligent action. In the short term, because of the karma we have accumulated in the past, violent people may approach us. We can and should vigorously protect ourselves and the people who depend on us. We have to do that with the proper motivation, of course. In the long term, through good conduct of body, speech and mind, we can transform our lives and our world to such a degree that violent forces will no longer approach. But we cannot fake that, or simply hope all will be well. The transformation is possible but it will be an arduous and long process.

So the question that comes to mind is: were these two great Buddhist emperors simply being skillful – consolidating their power and pacifying their empire through the use of benevolent philosophy? Or did each of them have a genuine religious conversion later in their career, honestly feeling repelled by violence, renouncing the use of force and deeply wanting to bestow happiness upon all the people of their empire? It is hard to answer that.

It is not hard to see the implication for our own choices. The creation, for example, of strong boundaries of acceptable behavior for our own lives, within which complete freedom is possible. The way in which we do our utmost to value and protect our own precious lives and the lives of the people who depend on us. And how we behave when the immediate threat is over, as we cultivate the qualities that will assure inner peace and interpersonal harmony.

The warrior ideal is never far from the religious ideal. To neglect the connection, or to confuse it, is perilous. To harmonize the two gives the best hope for happiness.

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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

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

Buddhism and the martial arts, Buddhism and warfare, Zen and the martial arts

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