By George Leonard

From the Book: The Zen Way to the Martial Arts.

“You must concentrate upon and consecrate yourself wholly to each day, as though a fire were raging in your hair.”
These words of instruction to a medieval samurai might be said to contain the essence of what Zen master Taisen Deshimaru would tell his Western reader. To practice Zen or the martial arts, you must live intensely, wholeheartedly, without reserves, as if you might die in the next instant. Lacking this sort of commitment, Zen becomes mere ritual and the martial arts devolve into mere sport.
To show the unbreakable connection between Zen and the martial arts, Deshimaru goes back to samurai times. Most samurai followed Japan’s national religion of Shinto, an extremely sophisticated form of animism, in which all of nature is imbued with spirit (shin). But they were also deeply attracted to Buddhism as expressed in Zen practice. The Zen emphasis on simplicity and selfcontrol, full awareness at every moment, and tranquility in the face of death set well with the samurai way of life, in which a duel was always possible and the difference between life and death lay in one swift stroke of the sword. Better yet for the samurai was the fact that Zen offered a specific daily practice: through zazen, an unadorned form of sitting meditation, the samurai could effectively still the restless mind, perceive the ultimate harmony beneath seeming discord, and achieve the oneness of intuition and action so necessary for kenjutsu (swordfighting). Indeed, as Deshimaru points out, Zen became known as “the religion of the samurai.”

Modern martial arts such as kendo, karate, judo, and aikido go back directly to the marriage of Zen and Bushido, the medieval chivalry code of the samurai. At best, they are Budo. To translate these two Japanese words is difficult. Literally, Bushido means “the way of the warrior” (bushi, “warrior”; do, “path” or “way”). Budo means “the way of war” (bu, “war”). But the Japanese character bu, as Deshimaru points out, also means to cease the struggle, to sheathe the sword. So the emphasis in Budo is not on bu but on do. Even do has a flavor, a deeper meaning, that is hard for the Westerner to grasp; for do, the way, is essentially goalless, and we of the West have long been seduced by goals, by getting ahead, by winning.

The difficulty in translating do is reflected in a question that sometimes comes up during my own workshop sessions with non-martial artists. When I speak of my practice of aikido, I am asked, “What are you practicing for?” I answer that, at the heart of it, I’m practicing because I’m practicing. Yes, I gain certain things: physical conditioning and grace, confidence, comradeship, a sense of harmony. But even these fade beside the simple and compelling power of do, the way. Aikido is my path, my way.

Master Deshimaru emphasizes that the true martial arts take their spirit from Budo rather than from sports:

I have nothing against sports, they train the body and develop
stamina and endurance. But the spirit of competition and power
that presides over them is not good, it reflects a distorted vision
of life. The root of the martial arts is not there….
In the spirit of Zen and Budo everyday life becomes the contest.
There must be awareness at every moment: getting up in the morning, working, eating, going to bed.
That is the place for the mastery of self.

Many people these days come to the martial arts as if to a sport or, worse, as if seeking an effective instrument of aggression and domination. And, unhappily, there are studios that cater to this clientele. Violent and exploitative martial arts movies contribute to the corruption of Budo, and we are offered, as well, the fiction of some cinematic James Bond going offwith a “master” for two weeks during which time he will become totally proficient in some particularly lethal form of the martial arts.

Knowing all this, I shouldn’t be surprised when a newcomer to our school asks, “How long will it take me to master aikido?” Still, the question leaves me speechless. I have practiced aikido for more than twelve years, during six of which I have also taught, and I feel considerably further from “mastering” the art than I did after my first six months. Perhaps I should simply respond as Master Deshimaru did when he was asked a similar question:

“How many years do I have to practice zazen?”
“Until you die.”

What I have discovered from my own practice is that Zen and the martial arts are not things that you learn or do. They are what you are.
Yet our Western impatience rises again and again. We pursue instant accomplishment, automatic reward. The commercials on television promise us Captain Cook’s travels at the drop of a credit card. During a recent evening class, I noticed a new student who was red of face and furious of countenance.

“I’m going to get this technique right,” this muscular young man told me, “if I have to stay here all night.”
I told him, as gently as I could, that he would be better off giving up all such ideas of quick perfection. I tried to think of a single technique that I’d ever done absolutely “right.” I recalled moments of grace, certain throws that seemed to build and break as if in rhythm with an ocean wave, revealing the inner perfection of all movement, all existence. But I could bring to mind no forced, external “perfection” based entirely on technique.

It is a blessing of the martial arts and of Zen that they permit us a mitigation if not a transformation of time. “Yesterday” and “tomorrow” become less important. We turn more of our attention to “the present moment” and “a lifetime.” Thus we are relieved of undue concern with certain urgencies of this culture: fast food, quick results, fast temporary relief, ten easy lessons .

Master Deshimaru tells us of three stages that are common to Zen and the martial arts. The first, shojin, is the period of training in which the will and conscious effort are involved, and which generally takes some three to five years of diligent practice. In Zen, this first period culminates with the shiho (“transmission”):

The second stage is the period of concentration without consciousness, after the shiho. The disciple is at peace. He can truly become an assistant to the master, and later he can become a master himself and teach others in his turn.

In the third stage, the spirit achieves true freedom.
“To a free spirit, a free world. “…

These three stages are identical in Zen and in Budo.

Throughout this lifelong process, there is an inexorable shift in emphasis in the martial arts: from technique and strength of body in the beginning to exquisite intuition and a realization of spirit in the end. Master Morihei Uyeshiba, the founder of modern aikido, realized the true potential of his art only after he turned seventy, when he could no longer count on the power of his body. Most of the films which show his seemingly miraculous feats were made in the 1960s, when he was between eighty and eighty-four-years-old.

But miraculous feats are only side effects, and “the mysteries of the East” are chimeras unworthy of the attention of dedicated students of Zen or the martial arts. What Master Deshimaru says about zazen is also true for Budo at its best:

…zazen does not mean ecstasy or the arousal of emotion or any particular condition of body and mind. It means returning, completely, to the pure, normal human condition. That condition is not something reserved for great masters and saints, there is nothing mysterious about it, it is within everyone’s reach.

Zazen means becoming intimate with oneself, finding the exact taste of inner unity, and harmonizing with universal life.

To be fully awake and alive, to return completely to the pure, normal human condition, might be easy, but, in this culture, it is also quite difficult. Perhaps only a few of us can attain such a condition all the time or most of the time. But Taisen Deshimaru, using simple language and a richness of story and lore, has raised a glowing picture before our eyes, an ideal that can illuminate every life.

George Leonard

GEORGE LEONARD holds a nidan (second-degree black belt) in aikido, and teaches at Aikido of Tamalpais in Mill Valley, California. He is the author of Education and Ecstasy, The Transformation, The UltimateAthlete, and The Silent Pulse. His latest book, The Erotic Connection (working title), is due for early 1983 publication. He has served as president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology.