Zen and the Martial Arts
The Zen Mirror
Martial Arts Initiation
By Jeff Brooks
Editor's Note: Jeff Brooks brings to this article his unique perspective -- a combination of police officer, karate instructor and Zen teacher.
The varieties of human experience are many but one thing all societies had in common until modern times was a way for boys to be initiated into adulthood. Sometimes this initiation is talked about in a quaint way, as if it were a ritual, as if it were something that was a mere formality to be gotten through on a special day. It was not.
Young boys looked up to the men around them and wanted to be like them. They recognized the inner qualities of strength of character and freedom, and the outer qualities of skill and physical strength. They could also sense the purpose and responsibility that these men had. The boys sensed that they could not have those qualities just by wanting to have them. They needed to develop them. That could only happen through the training and guidance of those men, and through testing under pressure.
The test would measure character and skill by placing the boy, when he was ready, in a situation that would make high demands on his strength, skill and courage, and would reveal if his determination to join the adult world – to be a man – was sufficient to get him through to complete the test without giving up or collapsing.
It was understood that if he did not pass he would not be a man.
This was a good thing. It set the standards high so the boys would grow strong, and become proud of themselves. High enough so that they would know they could meet a difficult challenge and succeed. That they could be depended upon by the community they were entering to willingly face danger, and have the courage and skill to prevail, if the community were threatened.
The boys had a chance to show that they were willing to prepare themselves and willing to risk their lives to meet the demands that life placed on them. There was no way a pre modern people could survive without developing those qualities in men. And it was implicit in the structure of the training for manhood, the administration of the test, and the motivation in the hearts of the boys who under took it, that it was a challenge they willingly undertook, and that they did it for the sake of becoming a part of the group.
This initiation was not designed to separate them from the people they lived with. It was not done to make them different from the members of their community, or to gain entry into an elite.
It validated the community as well as the individual. It was a way of saying to the group I admire you and I am now worthy of membership. I am dependable. I am strong. I am someone who will give everything I have, focus everything I have, make myself resolute and clear and strong as I have been trained to do, and dedicate myself to serving the well-being and safety of all of you.
To work, to serve the individual and the community, the initiation must be willingly undertaken, it must provide a genuine test that pushes the limits of the young man taking it, presenting him with real danger and the risk of failure. It must be a test of the effects of long and difficult training. That training must require the boy to change in order to meet the demands of a form required by the trainers. That form must be well-designed to foster the best qualities of the young man. The motivation of the boy taking the test has to be admission into the community, motivated by a desire to serve the people around him, accompanied by a willingness to face danger and to risk his life – to become a person that other people can depend on. That is how a genuine initiation into manhood works.
It was universal in pre modern times. It is rare now. And we see the results in weakness, decadence and confusion all around us.
Most work settings discourage initiation. Marx and Engels tried their best to valorize industrial labor, but significantly, neither had ever done any. A service job or a factory job which require little skill and provide little satisfaction degrade people and make them unhappy. They make few demands and provide no inner reward or outer accomplishment. Traditional artisan training offered many opportunities for true initiation and it still can. But most modern work does not.
The process of initiation is emulated in sports and in professional training. But it usually falls short in both arenas.
In professional training, in engineering, law, academics or medicine there is a demand made on the individuals who participate which asks them to conform to the requirements set by a group of leaders. But these trainees are entering an elite fraternity, they are not dedicated to the general well-being of the community (there may be some with that interest but through selection and training the rule is that ambition trumps kindness.)
The cultural trappings of entry into these worlds and the incentive systems in place which restrict entry and reward entry are all designed to separate the initiated from the rest of the community. These correspond to the formation of a priesthood in pre modern society. Where priesthood was conferred by merit on those who had come through the initiation process and had as its foundation selfless dedication to the well-being of the community it could work. When it was run as a separate track from the process of initiation it was doomed to cause self-serving manipulation and trouble. It still does.
The difficulties people face in these professional settings make good and powerful demands on them, and develop many good people. But they were never designed to turn boys into men and they do not.
This type of professional training does not make physical demands, develop high physical skill or deep mental focus, or place young men in physical jeopardy. As a result – in the lab, in the courtroom, in the consulting room, at home, with their friends, on the ski slopes or tennis courts – no matter how high their status, how great their wealth or how significant their achievements, these professionals generally do not form a reliable foundation of confidence in their manhood.
Athletics emulates initiation. It is necessary for boys. Like training the mind in the professions or trades it is a great thing. And like them it cannot offer a complete initiation into adulthood for most young men.
Martial arts can be used to begin the process, and it has been since the beginning of time. It can still go pretty far along the path. The reason the Marines have incorporate martial arts in the training for every Marine is not because there is a great call for hand to hand combat on the modern battlefield. It is because it creates an intelligent body and a strong mind. Martial arts training can push the body to its limit, and put people consistently under high stress.
Properly done martial arts demands a willingness to confront interpersonal human aggression directly, developing the habit of taking the initiative when confronted, not being intimidated, and the habit of meeting the challenge presented by a committed aggressor with the determination to prevail.
There are opportunities for civilian martial arts training that are like this. But they are hard to come by. It is rare to find a martial arts dojo which will push its members to the limit in training, consistently, over the long haul. It is rare – but not unheard of – to find a martial arts dojo which will make demands on the members that will be deeply transformative. It is very unusual to find one in which the leaders care about their trainees selflessly enough to push them hard with both devotion to their maturity and the skill to achieve it.
That is because in most martial arts dojos, even ones which are run by sincere and capable instructors, with serious, devoted students, our social norms of comfort and our expectation of praise for limited achievement compromise the training environment so that if you push too hard or demand too much people cry, quit, sue or go somewhere where it is easier to get a rank.
Martial arts has a close connection to the few subcultures within our post-modern culture which retain the process of male initiation.
Military training is one of them. Law enforcement is another. These are treated as marginal subcultures in the modern world, and in many places as suspect ones. But they preserve an ethos of mental and physical training, of service and personal responsibility which were until recently accepted by all people of good will as self evident virtues and social necessities.
These ideals are indispensible and good for young men. This is an unusual idea now so I want to answer one objection in advance: military and police training do not turn boys into mindless killers. Drugs and gangs and television and envy do.
Many boys are raised without men in their lives. The older people they know may never have been initiated into adulthood. They are raised by pop media. They come of age by partying, i.e., using illegal drugs and having sex. Their anti-social and anti-authoritarian posture is a reflex. Their minds are disturbed by desire and anger. They feel weak. They do not know what to do.
If children are not initiated into adulthood they will stay children. They will make demands on others. They will not have the ability or the inclination to take care of others. They will indulge themselves when they can. They will ask other people to take on the role of adults and provide for their needs and their happiness. However as lifelong children their needs will never be fulfilled and they will remain unhappy. This is how our culture has been crippled by comfort.
Women in pre modern cultures also willingly took on danger and sacrificed their safety and comfort for the sake of the community. Their initiation was through childbirth and they entered the world of adult responsibility, just as warriors did, as life was placed in their hands.
The world around us has arisen as it has for reasons we may never fully know. But we do not have to leave it as it is. We can do our part by taking our responsibility seriously. By cultivating our lives – by being decent, by developing sharp awareness and clearly seeing how the lives of the people around us are unfolding. By creating the conditions in which we task ourselves with meeting the demands of a mature and fulfilled life, and by placing healthy, positive demands on the people we care for.
We all have the freedom and the power to do that. Freedom and power will come only from that.
Copyright Jeff Brooks and FightingArts.com
About The Author:
Jeff Brooks is detective with the criminal investigations division of a mid size law enforcement agency in the southeastern US. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor, and as a task force officer. He has taught martial arts and Zen throughout his career, and studied in the US and on Okinawa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a seventh Degree Black Belt in Shorin Ryu Karate who was founder and director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton, Massachusetts from 1987 to 2009, and director of Mountain Zendo from 1993 to 2009 before moving to the Southeast of the US. Brooks is a regular contributor to FightingArts.com.