While I tell people that I don’t really watch a lot of Mixed Martial Arts professional and semi-pro fights because I think they’re just too violent for my delicate, Emily Dickensonian sensibilities, one of the most amusing, and instructive, lessons about zanshin I learned came from observing one of those fights.
I was flipping through the channels, going between reality shows about truckers, fashion design contestants throwing hissy fits, and Hollywood reruns ad nauseum when I came across a channel featuring MMA fighting in all its gory glory. I paused my itchy fingers over the remote to see the end of the fight, wherein a fighter was being beaten unmercifully to a stereotypical bloody pulp. Why won’t the referee stop the fight, I thought? It’s obvious this guy is going to suffer long-term brain damage, besides getting his face disfigured something awful. But like being as mesmerized as a gawker at a train wreck, I kept watching.
His opponent slammed an uppercut into the fighter’s side, sending shock waves across the ring and putting him down, knees on the mat, back against the rope, clutching his side. Still the referee wouldn’t call the fight off. I thought, for sure this guy had a couple of ribs cracked with that punch.
His opponent smiled triumphantly through his blood-stained mouthpiece. He dropped his guard. He pulled one hand way, way back to land a final haymaker on the fighter’s face, his other hand down low at his waist, a sign of disdain for the fallen fighter. He stepped in, cranked his arm…
And at the last moment, the fallen fighter leapt from his knees, extended his arm, and slammed a punch straight into the face of the attacker using the whole weight of his body. The punch rocked the opponent off his heels and knocked him flat out cold on the mat. The crowd went wild. The fighter had his hand raised in victory, and then he, too, collapsed on the mat in pain due to his broken ribs.
Good lesson, I thought. Never drop your guard even when you think you have the opponent down and literally against the ropes. I bring that example up frequently in my own koryu classes as an example of real world zanshin. Sometimes I think my diatribes have an effect on my students. Other times I wonder if they really get it. Maybe it may take getting knocked flat out to get it. I don’t know.
Zanshin is the Japanese budo term for “lingering spirit,” literally translated. I don’t like to translate it like that, however, because it reminds me of malingering spirit, which is not a positive concept. Maybe a better translation would be “remaining spirit.”
In any case, what it means is that you maintain concentration and focus even after you think the battle or fight is over. It’s never over until you’re completely safe and secure and out of danger. And thinking that the opponent is dead with one blow of your kung-fu poison-palm strike learned from a discounted paperback book is not a good idea. He may just rise up from the dead to lash out at you one final time, like that slasher guy from the Halloween movie series, always rising from the dead over and over again.
Or, as the great O-sensei of baseball, Yogi Berra, once said, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”
The founders of the koryu knew that extricating oneself from the zone of combat posed great risk, so in the kata they formulated, they paid a lot of attention to developing the sense of zanshin by inculcating attitudes, distancing and body stances at the end. You meet the attacker, execute the kata, do the final cut, strike or finishing technique. In some modern budo, that’s it. Some folks just turn their backs and walk away to do another kata or demo. I’ve seen countless examples on YouTube videos of people who strut away like that. With koryu teachers, or modern budo teachers who really know what zanshin is all about, after the last movement, there is a careful extrication away from the “fallen” uke, just in case he still has some fight left.
Of course, it’s not kosher in practice for uke to retort back with an impromptu strike. But if you ignore paying attention in practice, you will ignore it in actual performance.
For example, I’m told by a professional trainer of law enforcement officers that the following story is apocryphal. It’s an urban legend, but it’s a good one nonetheless, that had its round in some books on modern combatives. Supposedly, a police officer had been training diligently to take away a pistol pointed at him at close range. He got really good at it, and was able to snatch a pistol out of someone’s hands without it discharging. The problem, though, was that he didn’t practice zanshin. So one day on patrol, he encountered a criminal, the criminal pointed a pistol at him, and he reacted through instinct, snatching the pistol out of the surprised criminal’s hand. Then, still operating on adranaline and rote training, he turned the pistol around and gave it back to the criminal, just as he did over and over again in practice! Luckily, he then managed to wrestle the pistol away and arrest the perpetrator.
Now, again, a professional LEO trainer told me this story is a myth. But it does highlight the fault in training in any kind of martial art or self-defense tactics without thinking about preparedness and finishing attitude, without thinking of the pregame and endgame to an encounter with violence. What you do in practice, you will mindlessly repeat in reality, to very, very bad results.
So there I was, the other night, watching my students go through basic sword kata and it’s driving me nuts that even my longer-term students didn’t remember about zanshin. I repeated my patented zanshin lecture. I go over it again and again. Pay attention to distancing, pay attention to the opponent, pay attention to how he and you move, pay attention to the way you stand, how the opponent stands, don’t break concentration. Don’t slouch.
The kata isn’t over with the last cut, I said. It’s over when you get back to where you started from, meet swords again, and then mutually move to gedan. And even at that, there are kata in our style that symbolizes what happens when an opponent tries to attack you from a stylized “finish” and “rei.” It may sound paranoid, but in a combative situation, paranoia is good.
This notion of zanshin carries over well past koryu and modern budo grappling or sword arts per se. I remember learning Western style archery as a kid. Our instructor used to always tell us never to let go of our stance or focus after we released the arrow until we could see the arrow hit the target. That way, we wouldn’t accidentally lower our bow arm too soon after the initial release and cause the arrow to shoot crooked. It looked nice, sort of like how kyudo archers shoot, but practically speaking, it helped our accuracy. It also aided in our group’s winning the state youth archery title several years in a row, even with simple, unadorned bows without dampeners or sights.
In tea ceremony, when we place a utensil down, we don’t just let it drop. We carefully move the fingers away, mindful of the object as if it were (and could be) a precious heirloom. My iai teacher used to say that part of zanshin at the end of a sword kata was to let go of one’s sword handle slowly, like a lover leaving his beloved at the end of a romantic date. Reluctantly, lingering, mindful of a possible final attack. In doing so, you create a beautiful, artistic movement, but one that is also practical in terms of being cautious and watchful.
Thinking you have zanshin alone doesn’t cut it. It has to be practiced physically, so the movements embody the mental attitude, and vice versa. That’s the only way you can actually practice for a combative reality. And even if you don’t meet someone in a swordfight while shopping for groceries, it’s the attitude that counts. You will have inculcated a sense of zanshin while doing swordwork, say, or staff work, or grappling, that will carry over to other encounters or actions, from martial arts to woodworking (watch that table saw blade even when you cut the power!) to flower arrangement.
When I first started learning the short dagger methods of the Takeuchi-ryu, sometimes my seniors, who would be the “uke,” would point out my lack of physical zanshin by sweeping their dagger around to tap my foot or arm if I didn’t move away properly. It was a reminder that I might have “won” the contest, but I had to still be careful of a last ditch, dying effort that might get me on my way out and away from the opponent. Never put my guard down.
In fact, zanshin should be evident throughout the entire kata, not just at the end. This was a point brought up by one of my teachers once. We were working through a kata and I asked, “How does the zanshin work at the end?” He demonstrated, then he said, “Actually, in our ryu, we have no zanshin per se.”
My face must have shown amazement at his statement. Surely every other koryu I studied had something to say about zanshin. We didn’t have zanshin?
But he explained: “To say that there is a zanshin at the end other and apart from the rest of the kata is to not understand zanshin. The kind of focus you place at the end should be the same and evident throughout the whole kata, from before the attack, through the encounter and the combat, to the end and to the time when you separate from the opponent. There is no ending zanshin, in that case. The whole kata is full of zanshin like water is to a fish. It’s all around, all the time, in the kata, so you don’t really need to speak of a zanshin at the end apart from the entire zanshin of the kata, necessarily.”
In other words, mindfulness doesn’t start at the end of a kata, it starts even before it begins, works through the entire kata, and continues past the end. In other words, pay attention to what’s happening all the time. That’s true zanshin.