Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom
By Jeffrey M.
"Rhinoceros Zen" is available from the
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
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
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
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:
is the director of the Castro Valley (California) Karate Dojo, marathoner
and CEO of Virtual Consulting, a leading provider of information technology