Thursday, November 12, 2009

Moving Zen

My iaido teacher, when asked, sometimes tells the story of how he got into the martial arts. He was originally drawn to Zen, but was unable to find a Zendo in the area, so he figured he'd start martial arts, thinking that they were kind of the same thing. Turns out he was right.

My sixth reason for "Why Somebody Might Study a Sword Art" was that it could be a type of moving Zen practice. I've been putting off writing this piece because I'm simply not qualified to say much about it. (I know being unqualified has never stopped me before...)

Of course, like everybody else out there, I've read some books on the topic, but I've also read opinions that the links between martial arts and Zen are overstated; that there really is no deep connection. People sometimes state that martial arts are much more closely connected to Shinto, Confucianism, or Shingon Buddhism. I can't comment intelligently on any of that, so instead, here are some random thoughts. (Hey, it's my blog, and I'll ramble if I want to...)

I think Zen has had such a deep and wide-ranging effect on Japanese culture as a whole that it is impossible to deny the influence of Zen on any Japanese art. To my mind, it would be almost like denying the influence of Christianity on Western culture. Historians of the future might argue, "Oh, so-and-so was an atheist, so his works were not influenced by Christianity." But that would show that they failed to recognize the extent to which the culture as a whole has been shaped by Christian beliefs, so even someone who was not specifically a believer, or who never went to church, would still have been educated and brought up surrounded by Christian values.

Moreover, I sometimes get the feeling that people who deny a historical connection between martial arts and Zen are just trying to be contrary, or stirring up controversy. But at the end of the day, I'm not a historian, so I just don't know.

What is clear is that in the modern era, martial arts have been imbued with a connection to Zen that may or may not have been there historically. Kendo and Iaido practices usually begin and end with a period of mokuso, or meditation. While it is often brief, it is a time to clear the mind and focus on the present.

When we are practicing, we are encouraged to remain in the present moment; not to intellectualize. Although questions during iai practice are fairly common in the West (in my experience) they aren't asked much in Japan. It's just "do it ... now do it again". You're not supposed to think about it too much, but let it seep into your bones through repetition.

Zen tells us that everything is one; there is no difference between "this" and "that". When we practice iai, there is no difference between our state of mind when we are sitting quietly and when we are slicing our imaginary opponent in half, nor when we are looking out over his bleeding corpse. When we practice kendo, we have to "become one" with our opponent - the ideal is not that we move in reaction to his movements - cause and effect, attack and defense - but rather that we move at the same time, or even slightly before he knows he is about to move.

Increasingly in the modern world, we are able to spend hours and hours in a purely intellectual world. We stare at computer screens, thinking about abstractions, writing to people who aren't present, while our legs fall asleep. Practicing the martial arts, we remember to breathe; we feel the pain in our knees and ankles, the floor beneath our feet, the sweat trickling into our eyes. We look into our partner's face, and when everything works right, we reach the end of a kata and realize, "Hold on ... What just happened? I must have done it correctly because he didn't split my head open, but ... I honestly don't remember the last 5 seconds at all!" It is as though we ceased to exist for an interval, before our brains slammed on the brakes and brought us screeching back to the present.

In "Opening the Hand of Thought", Uchiyama Roshi talks about how Zazen practice is not really the act of sitting there with an empty mind, but rather the act of stringing together short little intervals of "empty-mindedness", interrupted by random thoughts that bubble up from our brains like gas from a swamp. Zazen is exhausting because you have to constantly struggle to let go of those random thoughts, to obtain brief windows of silence - of nothingness. I believe I have experienced nothingness in the middle of kata practice.


Anonymous Petr said...

Jeff said:
"It is as though we ceased to exist for an interval, before our brains slammed on the brakes and brought us screeching back to the present."

Hello Jeff,
I don't know nothing about zen but I have the same feelings as you write :-) I don't know if it's associated with zen, but during iaido exercise and after is my thinking (mind) quiet. I try to use it in everyday life. When come to me some stress situation, so I'm trying to evoke a feeling as if I practice iaido kata. It influence to my alertness, breathing, and the result is ( sometimes not :-) ) that I am calmer. I am able to see things differently than before and react adequately. That is my experience. Sorry for my english, but I hope that you understand me...

7:33 AM  

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