One of the many misconceptions that martial arts teachers have to dispel among their new students is the notion that Zen…and by this I mean the Westernized, California-ish, 1970s alternative hippie style Zen, not the Soto or Rinzai style garden-variety Zen you find in Japan…is the main bedrock of martial arts. Zen does have some influence on Japanese budo, but so do a lot of other Buddhist sects, Taoism, Confucianism, Japanese Shinto, and even (as one koryu teacher suggested) Christianity. Such religious and spiritual philosophies loaned a lot of their ideas, rituals and practices to budo training, but budo is budo, religiosity is religiosity. No more, no less. They are related, but different.
–And one of the main tenets of this kind of “California-ish” Zen is that the self-indulgent, selfish “do what you wanna do” attitude can be justified by Zen. This is another instance of people trying to stick their own attitudes on a different culture to justify their own predilections. The same goes for people’s attitudes about the supposedly exotic demure compliance of a “geisha,” which are mostly extensions of Western male dominance fantasies, I’d say. Or the notion that a martial artist is some kind of hulky tough guy like those found in ads on the back covers of old comic books. We’re looking at a funhouse mirror glass not at a different culture, but at ourselves, reflected and distorted back to us. It’s “orientalism” at its worst.
Anyway, let’s look at the notion that Zen and the “exotic” Asian martial arts stress a “don’t think about tomorrow” attitude. This notion is really a carryover of what I would call hippie Zen, popularized by folks like Alan Watts, which gave an excuse to all the excesses of that era: “if it feels good, do it,” “let it all hang out,” and so on. Don’t think about tomorrow. Live in the “now.” That was supposed to be sooo Zen. Remember that song with the refrain that goes, “Sha-la-lalala live for today…And don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, ba-aby…!”? Boy, it’s stuck in my head now.
However, what are left out are the antithesis and the counterbalance, also found in Zen and in other Buddhist sects. As much as Zen and budo try to get you to focus on the reality of your current situation, they also ask that you simultaneously meditate how you got there in the first place, and where you’re going to go afterwards. Maybe you live for today, but you also have to plan for tomorrow and think about how you got to where you are. Not so simple, is it?
In my opinion, Buddhism, after all, has one of the most nuanced, thoughtful attempts to explain the nature of our existence, and you don’t get to that point if your entire philosophy is based on “let’s party hearty and don’t worry about tomorrow.” The Four Noble Truths is a simplified, extremely logical theory of the nature of causation and interconnectivity expounded by the historical Gautama Buddha, and it clearly notes that the reasons for our immediate state of being is related to our past actions and how we can affect change to our future to cut through our “karma.” The Buddha did a heck of a of thinking, to the point where he finally exhausted his entire rational mind. He didn’t throw out his rationality, he drove it to the edge and then found something beyond it.
What? Do I mean to say that “spontaneous, natural” Zen isn’t all that spontaneous and natural? Well, it is and it isn’t, and this statement, in my opinion, is also true of martial arts.
Consider this: in order to become “natural” and “spontaneous,” acolytes of Zen spend hours and hours for many years undergoing zazen, a grueling ritual of meditation sitting in seiza, half-lotus or full lotus positions. This is not like lounging around in your stuffed couch eating potato chips and feeling “natural” and “spontaneous.” This is hard work getting to be “natural.” This is planning for the future, training and self-discipline, definitely NOT “let it all hang out.”
I liken it to the Japanese art of bonsai, miniature gardening. The little mini-trees and shrubbery look so much like natural landscapes scaled down. But to get that effect of “naturalness,” the gardener spends years binding the trunks and branches with wire and strings, to guide the “naturalness.”
That’s like budo training. To get “natural” in it, to become “spontaneous,” you need years of training getting your body and mind attuned to that “naturalness.” It’s a paradox, but there you have it. Being natural in a budo really means your body is trained to react in a particular way, which may be UN-natural to your original behavior.
As one of my teachers noted, if someone swings a stick at you, a “natural” reaction would be to cower, scream and put your hands up in fright and fall to pieces. Proper budo training, he said, tempers that “natural” movement and tries to make you react a slightly different way: instead of cowering, you sidestep to get out of the way, kiai and raise your hands up to slightly deflect and redirect the strike. It’s still “natural,” but in a disciplined, mannered way.
This was brought to mind the other night when I was trying to correct my students’ attempts at a technique meant to break a wrist grab and throw an attacker. The defending student kept turning into the wrong angle and distance. His main focus, it seemed, was on twisting his partner’s wrist to break the grip when he sidestepped. Then, in order to effect the throw, he stepped back right in front of the attacker.
“Whoa, hold on! You’re not thinking about what you’re doing!” I said. “If you step back there, you’re going to get your head clocked by the attacker’s free hand. When you break the grip, you also have to already disbalance the attacker, do kuzushi, to make it hard for him to react when you turn again. And when you pivot your body, don’t step right in front of him. That angle makes it easy for him to hit you even if he’s off balance. Plus, you want to throw him to his front. With you standing right there, you’re in the way. You have to think two or three steps ahead! Pivot so you’re on his other side, all the while keeping him disbalanced, so that when you do the throw (it was sort of like an aikido “Kote Gaeshi”), you’re not in the way of your own throw!”
Then, I continued: as you are throwing the guy, you already have to set up your own position. Don’t wait. While the attacker is doing his roll, start to move already into position so that when he hits the mat, you’re right there at his side, in proper position to apply a joint lock to his elbow and a strike to his temples. Think two or three steps ahead! That’s heiho (martial strategy).
I had a feeling that my students looked at me like I was speaking Swahili.
I had to explain the whole concept of thinking ahead of time. I suspect the students were raised on all this faux Zen pap about thinking “in the moment.” Yes, you have to be aware of what’s going on around you at the moment. But a part of your brain has to also be calculating trajectories and angles for the next move and the move after that. Good athletes do it all the time, subconsciously. A ballplayer fielding a fly ball has to judge where the ball will land, follow its trajectory, and plan on being at the right spot in the outfield to catch the ball. It’s very fast, but the ball player is actually therefore planning ahead of time.
The “now” after all, of “be here now” changes with each second since we constantly move forward in time. If all you are thinking of is the “now” now, then when it does happen, you’re living in the past, because the future has become the “now” and the old “now” became the past.
Hey, how’s THAT for a koan?
I then told my students the story of Miyamoto Musashi’s painting of the shrike on a branch (“Koboku Meikakuzu”). My jujutsu teacher has a copy of that scroll painting, and he once unfurled it and showed it to me and said, “This is considered a national treasure because it encapsulates Musashi’s budo philosophy. What do you think?”
I replied that I had seen the image in my Japanese art history class, and at the time, in an academic setting, all that my teacher discussed was Musashi’s masterful use of empty space versus the positive shapes. A thin branch rises vertically out of morning mist, and at the top tip of it sits a bird. All else is emptiness, but because of the design, the emptiness is “full” of potential, of things unseen but ready to appear out of the void. Or at least, that’s how my art teacher put it.
That’s okay, my sensei said, but that’s an art historian’s point of view. A martial artist who knew heiho would say this is an incredible image and deserves to be a national treasure because of what it SAYS, not just for its design.
Okay, I said. So what does it say?
He pointed to a squiggle on the lower part of the branch. I had never noticed it before.
“See this? That’s a caterpillar or worm.”
I had always thought it was just a squiggle, nothing more. But I played along.
“Ah! So the bird is looking down at the worm and is going to pounce on it and eat it, like a bird of prey!” I said.
“Like a martial artist attacking his enemy!” said another student.
“No. That’s shallow heiho,” my sensei said. “True heiho always looks two or three steps ahead, into the future, the unseeable, the void.”
My teacher continued to explain:
What a bugeisha sees is that the shrike already knows about the worm. But he knows the bird is thinking beyond the worm. That’s why the shrike is not going after it. The bird has noticed a fish in the pond below, about to jump up to swallow the worm when it loses its balance on the branch. The shrike therefore isn’t planning to eat the worm. It’s looking down at the fish; as soon as the fish leaps, the shrike is going to snatch up the fish that is going after the worm. THAT’S the bigger prize for the shrike.
“But…uh…I don’t see the fish?” I said.
If Musashi spelled it out for everyone, it wouldn’t have been an okuden (secret transmission) only to bugeisha, said my sensei. That’s why the “emptiness” is really full; you have to imagine what is really in that empty area in the painting. Musashi is saying, don’t just look at the immediate gains, the short-term victory. Be like the shrike and plan two, three, four steps ahead of your opponent.
In Western martial terms, it might be like saying, don’t just think of the immediate battle. Think strategically as well as tactically. What benefits you in the long term?
For example, a student might say, “Hey, sensei, will this technique work if I end up in an alley after I had a bit too much to drink at a bar in Hotel Street and I’m facing a gang of thugs that wants my wallet?”
Well, first of all, I’d say that you’d need to practice a heck of a lot more to make sure the techniques really worked. But ideally, don’t go into that alley. Better yet, don’t go to that bar on Hotel Street if you think the alley next to it is dangerous. Even better, stay home and don’t get plastered. Think ahead of time. Think two or three steps ahead. Think strategically, not just tactically. Learning to physically defend yourself is what Musashi would call “little heiho.” But learning to avoid a fight entirely by not going into that alley is what he would call “big heiho.”
Thinking about the consequences of one’s actions is particularly hard for young men, I would wager, since I was once young myself and know how impulsive I was (my wife would argue that I’m still pretty impulsive, a bane that afflicts all us men, she would say). But proper budo training should temper spontaneity with forethought, in equal amounts.
People who don’t have enough prefrontal lobe brain development are also the bane of law enforcement officers. Most of the criminals arrested in the local police blotter here aren’t masterminds of some elaborate criminal activity, like you see in the television series “Law and Order” or in the bad guys of some James Bond movie. Most of them act impulsively without thinking, “Is this going to get me in jail or what?” So most petty criminals and psychopaths are extreme cases of lack of forethought.
On a lesser level, I used to shake my head in bewilderment at some of the antisocial, anti-authoritarian actions of teenage students when I taught high school. They were so lame, I used to wonder if they thought of the consequences of some of their actions. In most cases, no, they weren’t thinking about future repercussions at all. So when hauled before their parents, their mom and dad would scream, “What were you THINKING???!!!” Actually, they might not have been “thinking” at all, and that’s the problem.
To be fair, the prefrontal lobes of boys, educational psychologists told me, develop a little slower than girls and don’t catch up until they are in their mid to late twenties. So while bad girls are already learning to think two or three steps ahead to annoy their rivals or figure out how to manipulate each other, the boys at the same age often are still thinking about bashing their toy cars or Transformer toys together or reacting with “fight or flight” attitudes to each other. Or their raging hormones will pop their tops and they’ll take out their immediate negative reactions on the closest adult authority figure, which was often their schoolteacher, namely me. Our society does them no favors, either, by allowing them to act up as “adolescents will” in an extended childhood that goes past their twenties. In some societies, boys as young as eight are already working at jobs such as mechanics or child soldiers, forced to forego their childhood and live in a harsh, unforgiving world.
Anyway, in the case of my budo students, they were having so much problems with simple, immediate issues of angling, disbalancing and movement that their brains were on overload, and couldn’t seem to fathom the forethought that had to also be part of the technique.
However, to make the kata truly work, to make it more than just rote step-by-step, means thinking a couple of steps ahead of your opponent. You can’t see it, but that mental attitude has to be there, because it affects why and how you move a certain way, where you place your feet, and how you set yourself in relationship to your opponent. Once you manage to go beyond the basics of rote step-by-step and proper distance, angling, timing and speed, forethought has to be part of your mental arsenal. The future had to be part of your present. Only then, as Musashi revealed, would your martial methods become an art.