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Book Review

Rhinoceros Zen

Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom

By Jeffrey M. Brooks

"Rhinoceros Zen" is available from the FightingArts Estore

Reviewed by Michael Lushington

Maybe you’ve been studying Martial Arts for 5 or 10 years or even 15 and you feel good about it, feel like it is working out ok. Not only does it fit into your life; it’s part of your life and you love doing it, most of the time. But occasionally you have doubts and questions. You wonder am I doing it right? Am I being authentic? True to my style, true to the way, to “Do”? Is this all there is? What am I getting out of it? Have I become more peaceful? Stronger? More insightful?

Or maybe you work in a building in some city and you work hard at what you do. You practice at it, you study, you read the professional publications and all the latest articles on the latest techniques and best industry practices and you know you are grooming for that once in a lifetime shot. But you wonder, have I done it the right way? Am I working on the right things, at the right time and to the best of my abilities, or have I missed something?

Clearly the author of “Rhinoceros Zen”, Jeffrey M. Brooks, faced these questions when he set out to build an authentic martial arts and Zen practice in Northampton, Massachusetts 25 years ago. While the book’s sub-title “Zen Martial Arts and The Path to Freedom” gives some insight into its contents, it really provides much more than the author’s accumulated information on Zen, the Martial Arts or even the ‘Path to Freedom’ (which can be found elsewhere). This book is a guidepost we can use to understand our own path, where we’ve been, where we are now, where we want to go and how to get there using our own insight and reflection as stepping stones to find the way.

From a strictly chronological perspective the book reads as a journalistic collection of Mr. Brooks’ reflections and ruminations on his experiences as a child, young man and adult pursuing answers to the questions of life that he began asking as a young man:

“What is worth doing? We have one life; I don’t want to waste it. I want to dedicate it totally to…what exactly?”

But what this book really offers is insight on how to live well and how we come to know ourselves and how we can, through what he calls “a practice,” learn to live a more human life. As he says,

Having a practice provides us with an ideal toward which to strive and against which we can measure our lives. To change our condition in the right way we need a practice that allows us consistently to aim our lives toward perfection. We make our lives from what we do. Having a practice directs our energy instead of diffusing it. Giving us a way to polish our spirit for a lifetime instead of accumulating junk.

The idea of having a practice may be familiar to some martial art practitioners, artists and others dedicated to the pursuit of perfection in some aspect of their lives however Mr. Brooks gives the idea new life, insight and depth thru his examination of familiar martial arts concepts and his own introspections. As in his comments on Miyamoto Mushashi’s familiar remarks, “..that it takes a thousand days to forge the spirit and ten thousand days to polish it.” Mr. Brooks says.

“Some people interpret that as “a pretty long time” to forge the spirit and “a really long time” to polish it. But I do not think that’s what he was saying. 11,000 days. That’s thirty years of training along known paths. Then you’re on your own.”

This is a key point in Mr. Brooks’ book and a focal point in his career as a martial artist and Zen practitioner: The realization that sooner or later in our lives and in our practice we are on our own and must recognize that we need to make our own way.

In the author’s case he was a dedicated student of Shorin Ryu karate in New York for several years when he recognized that the circumstances of the dojo he was practicing in were beginning to take on some of the characteristics of a cult and creating a condition or state of being which he describes in retrospect as “Purgatory”. However, as he quickly points out, “…sometimes Purgatory, can be a step up.” And that, “…these purgatories hold a mirror up to the flaws in our own nature.” For Mr. Brooks it was this honest introspection on the circumstances he found himself in that convinced him that he needed to leave the school he had dedicated himself too and seek out his own direction.

“Rhinoceros Zen” is the story of Mr. Brook’s efforts to make his own way in developing what has been a thriving martial arts and Zen practice since 1988. His journey leads him to pursue Zen and Karate masters in Okinawa as well as several dedicated practitioners in the United States. Each interaction is described with clarity and depth and reveals a genuine caring and respect for all of these teachers, students and fellow practitioners. The reader gains not only wisdom from these accounts but also an understanding of the depth of effort required to make a journey such as this one.

Mr. Brooks is particularly good at describing his experiences at running the Northampton Karate Dojo and Zen Center and the different types of students he has had the opportunity to practice with over the years. Many of these interactions will seem familiar to those who have experienced teaching for any length of time, but the author adds a special depth to these accounts by sharing with us his process of reflection and his ability to identify the importance and meaning of each of these interactions. As in this description of an interaction he has with a student who has been injured by a guest instructor at his school,

It wasn’t her doing, she felt. … But she put herself in the position she was in in order to learn karate. Her intention, in training, was to change. Up until this moment the challenges to her body and mind had come in carefully calibrated increments and now here was a pressure that was not so carefully applied. It caused her pain. Here’s all I could say: I am sorry it hurt you. Do not expect the people you are faced off with to always be careful with you. They will make mistakes. They will misjudge. Sometimes they will be too soft, and you will be lulled into complacency.

They may be malicious sometimes for all I know. Be ready. Be aware of how little it takes to hurt someone. If you are ever attacked it will be valuable information. The guy did the wrong thing. I will let him know. But for you to carry around this rage with you for week after week does not hurt him. It hurts you. So heal up, don’t pass on the mistake to others, and keep your training strong.

Was I cold or kind? Both at once I guess.

The book bounces between a chronological, journalistic approach and a more introspective, memoir-like style that allows the author to connect such seemingly unrelated topics as the intended purpose and effect of media advertising and a trip to Okinawa to find a Zen teacher. This style is valuable and rewarding to the reader because it simulates experiences we all face when pursuing deep and lasting answers to the profound questions of life where the path is almost never straight and direct but winds around the many different twists and turns in our lives.

“Rhinoceros Zen” offers readers an opportunity to reflect upon their own practice whether it is Martial Arts, “…family life, gardening, tennis, music, or prayer” by considering the journey and efforts of its author. This is a rare opportunity to see clearly into the heart and soul of another human life and to identify for ourselves where our own path lies.


"Rhinoceros Zen" is available from the FightingArts Estore:

Buy It Here


About The Reviewer:

Michael Lushington is the director of the Castro Valley (California) Karate Dojo, marathoner and CEO of Virtual Consulting, a leading provider of information technology services.


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

Zen, do, martial arts training, martial arts philosophy, martial arts training, karate training


Read more articles by Michael Lushington

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