Zen and Martial Arts

Martial arts and Zen seem like diametrically opposed practices. The martial arts seem to promote a warrior mentality while Zen encapsulates a peacekeeping one. When we think of martial arts, we think of kickboxing, karate, Jackie Chan movies, Hong Kong films, and Bruce Lee. We think of breaking things, hurting people, and the samurai spirit. So what do Zen and the martial arts have in common? And how did the two ever meet?

The Legend versus the Truth

It is said that the monks of Shaolin monastery were in feeble condition. They were not eating well and were in terrible physical shape. The monks were sitting without engaging in any physical activity and they had become languid, sluggish, and stupefied. But Bodhidharma arrived, took stock of the situation, and immediately set out to invigorate the practice of the stultified monks. He soon had them practicing kung fu and shortly turned them around into invigorated, aware, and energized practitioners.

While martial arts seems to be most commonly related to warriors and kung fu films, the art actually places a greater emphasis on discipline, awareness, and unity than it does on fighting. If you have ever seen one of the Karate Kid movies, you have seen a very simple portrayal of the ethics of martial arts fighting.

Mental Training

When you practice any of the martial arts, you try to become the movement. The real connection with Zen and the martial arts is in the mental training. In karate, tae kwon do, tai chi chuan, and other martial arts, the mind must become as disciplined as the body. Although much time is spent on physical training, such as kicking, sit-ups, push-ups, arm thrusts, punching, and so on, martial arts are also a form of moving meditation. It is equally important (if not more so) to get the mind trained so the movements can become natural and your mind, body, and spirit can find union in the movement.

Amazing things can happen in martial arts studios. We went to a kung fu exhibition to see a friend, a petite, lightweight woman, break a brick with her hand. We knew she was no Incredible Hulk (no magic involved), and we also knew they were not holding her baby hostage at knifepoint (no incredible surge of adrenaline was likely). Her mental training—along with the momentum of her movement— gave her the ability to slice through the bricks with what looked to us like great ease (though we are sure the bruises didn't feel very good afterward).


People who practice the martial arts know that the awareness they train for is about unity and flow.

Most of us imagine “focus” to mean narrowing in on one thing and losing the ability to notice anything else. For instance, if you were playing the piano and were totally focused, you might not hear the phone ring. This is not what we mean when we speak of awareness in Zen or the martial arts. If you were fighting an opponent in martial arts and you were completely focused on the arms of your opponent as he came quickly toward you, you might miss the kick that swept your feet out from under you.

Similarly, when we practice zazen, we do not lose awareness of our environment just because we are focused on our breath or our koan. We are, in fact, completely aware of our environment and have reached a mental focus that allows us to be present with the unity of all things. We are aware that everything is fluid—all things change.

To focus on one thing—such as the hands of your opponent in a karate match—is to ignore the fluidity of things. If you ignore the fluidity of something, the flow of it, you freeze it. And if you freeze something in an effort to capture it, it is lost to you forever.

The Samurai

An essential part of martial arts training, therefore, is the meditation practice necessary to develop the concentration to become a good fighter. Although we might think of the martial arts as attracting a warrior class of people who indulge in a lust for violence, the ethics a samurai lives with are not what one might think. An ideal samurai practices both mental and physical discipline, staying away from pollutants such as alcohol. A samurai practices meditation and compassion, striving to be of service to his community. Samurais are open-minded, resourceful, and nonviolent, using violence only when absolutely necessary.

Zen was intricately associated with the life of the samurai class in Japan. The mental discipline that can be found in Zen practice was of great use to the samurai class. If you think of a soldier in battle, you realize that a soldier has to act immediately. He cannot plan his every next move but must move from action to action in order to stay alive. Zen can help the soldier as he comes aware of the flowing nature of things and moves without thought, one with his actions and his environment. If a soldier stops to weigh the consequences of his actions, he can find himself on his back on the ground in seconds. So while our immediate thought is that the peaceful ways of the Zen practitioner and the warring ways of the samurai are diametrically opposed to one another, there are places where the two meet in harmony.

For a student of the martial arts today, Zen practice is an invaluable tool for becoming proficient in any of the arts, from karate to kung fu, to tai chi, to aikido.

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