Lessons on Practice from the Martial Arts

imageOne of the principle attributes of a martial artist is Fudo Shin. This means to have the immovable spirit of Fudo Myo-o, who is one of the protector gods within the popular Japanese Shingon school of  Buddhism. At the gates of hell he waits to assist those who have strayed from the path.  He assists them with the rope of truth and his sword cuts through delusion to help those in need of enlightenment.

He is also known as Ācala in Vajrayana and “Ācala is the name of the eighth of the ten stages of the path to become a bodhisattva.”

Martial arts is something that has been an interest of mine for several decades. Shotokan Karate, that’s a traditional Japanese hard form, was my principle training method but occasionally teachers from other schools gave seminars incorporating things from such diverse practices as Kung Fu, Judo and even Tai Chi. My Sensei even took ballet classes to improve his flexibility and strength.  He could do jumping kicks higher than anyone I’d ever seen, so perhaps it’s best not to taunt a guy in tights!

Every martial arts teacher I’ve encountered has emphasized that training is more than just learning a series of movements. Attitudes, ethics, character, psychology, strategy are all important. For centuries the martial arts in Asia have developed and used short aphorisms or statements to encompass these ideas.

Since these martial arts developed within a Buddhist influenced milieu there is significant input from the Buddhist perspective. In Japan, with the addition of Confucian philosophy,  this even developed into a codified system of social conduct called Bushido and it was followed by the Samurai or warrior classes.

The Bushidō code is typified by seven virtues:

  • Rectitude (義, gi?)
  • Courage (勇, yuu?)
  • Benevolence (仁, jin?)
  • Respect (礼, rei?)
  • Honesty (誠, makoto or 信 shin?)
  • Honour (誉, yo?)
  • Loyalty (忠, chuu?)
  • -from Wikipedia

One of the things that is emphasized as well is the state of mind of the martial arts practitioner. It is summarized as:

Mushin (empty mind) this is the state of “nothingness”. The mind must be free of distraction and bias so it can focus on the moment. This refers to the mind’s ability to respond to any stimulus and reacting automatically without clouded thinking. It is effortless effort. It is often referred to as a “detached” mind. An example would be when facing an opponent in a karate contest and having the mind full of fear, doubt, and anger. The mind is overcrowded with emotions and is unable to properly direct the fighter. In a state of mushin, the fighter is free to respond and move about while focused only on the moment. This state of mind can be carried over into everyday life, as can all of the martial arts philosophies, such as when at work, or a student taking a test, or even in your personnel relationships.  from http://ukashotokan.com/maxim.htm

This may sound familiar, especially to Zen practitioners. It is the same state one comes to in Zazen in the “dropping of body and mind” after one has practiced for some time. I find the terms “nothingness” and “detached”  to be somewhat misleading in both the martial arts and the Zen contexts in that one is full of the moment instead of themselves and fully immersed rather than “detached”.  One is not separate from events, surroundings or anything in these moments. The clarity is of the moment and that moment consists entirely of unobstructed movement.

So I’ve gathered a collection of these maxims from a variety of martial arts traditions (Ohhh a list!) and put them into categories that relate to Buddhist practice. Since attention spans are so short these days perhaps one or two of these will remain memorable.

On Mind

  • The mind is the same with heaven and earth.
  • The mind is free of distractions and the mood is bright.
  • The eyes and the mind travel together.
  • Strive to remain calm in the midst of motion. Loosen up the muscles and relax the mind.

On Mindfulness

  • The eyes do not miss even the slightest change.
    The ears listen well in all directions.
  • Strive to remain calm in the midst of motion; loosen up the muscles and relax the mind.
  • Being alert and adapting to the situation allows maximum results for minimum effort.
  • Each movement must be clear and crisp. Timing must be observed.

On Meditation

  • The circulatory rhythm of the body is similar to the sun and the moon.
  • The Way is centered in posture. Strive to maintain correct posture at all times.
  • A strong attitude and posture gives an advantage.
  • Form a pyramid with the center of gravity in the center.
  • Hold the head and neck straight and keep the spirit alert.

On Effort

  • Following the Way is like scaling a cliff. Continue upwards without rest. It demands absolute and unflattering devotion to the task at hand.
  • A weak body must start with strength improvement.
  • The Way begins with one thousand days and is mastered after ten thousand days of training.
  • The true essence can only be realized through experience. Knowing this, learn never to fear its demand.

On Practice

  • Develop a good foundation for advanced techniques.
  • Practice once a day, although more will cause no harm.
  • Progress will occur when a void is found.
  • Have confidence and your calmness will handle the situation.
  • Upon achieving the highest level of proficiency, the application of techniques will vary according to the situation. [skillful means]
  • Always see contemplation of your actions as an opportunity to improve.

On Ethics

  • The place of money cannot be ignored. Yet one should be careful never to become attached to it.
  • All selfish desires should be roasted in the tempering fires of hard training.
  • Do not keep any bad habit.
  • Limit your desires and pursuit of bodily pleasures – Preserve the proper spirit.

On Comportment

  • The Way begins and ends with courtesy. Therefore, be properly and genuinely courteous at all times.
  • The rewards of a confidence and gratitude are truly abundant.
  • Practice courtesy and righteousness – Serve the society and respect your elders.
  • Love your fellow students – Be united and avoid conflicts.
  • Learn to develop spiritual tranquility – Abstain from arguments and fights.
  • Participate in society – Be moderate and gentle in your manners.
  • Help the weak and the very young – Use martial skills for the good of humanity.
  • Pass on the tradition – Preserve this Way and rules of conduct.
  • Act in accordance with time and change.
  • Strive to seize the initiative in all things, all the time guarding against actions stemming from selfish animosity or thoughtlessness.

On Learning and Teachers

  • Be humble to request your teacher for guidance.
  • Learning the usual ways will allow later variations.
  • Understand the principles for your training.
  • Improvement cannot be predicted.
  • Retain what comes in, send off what retreats.
  • There is no difference in who started to study first; the one who achieves accomplishment is first.
  • Students from the same teacher will differ in their skills.
  • Fancy techniques should not be used.
  • Unknown techniques are not suitable for training practice.
  • There are one hundred and eight moves, all practical and real; Thousands of variations can be used, aiming for practical use and not beauty.
  • Those who completely master the system are among the very few.
  • There are not many sets of exercises. They are easy to learn but to master them requires determination.

image Samurai encountering Fudo Myo-o at a graveyard by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳) (1797–1861)

Image source Wikimedia

Here is part of another set of these aphorisms. These are a little longer but encompass a couple of different aspects.

Shu Ha Ri.

Shu. Observe the old without straying. The student directly studies the teacher’s way.

Ha. Break strict observation and adapt different teachings. This is the stage of experimentation and research.

Ri. Leave, advancing beyond both former stages. The student goes beyond the teachings to develop a style within a style. This does not mean a new style is created; rather, that the student now places a new emphasis on his favorite teachings. Not new; however, view and perhaps taught from a new perspective. This new/old perspective is an enlightenment to the student.

Shin Ken Hyaku Ja Futsu.

Eliminate all evils through  sword
or With a real (god’s) sword, dispel self-evil.

Strong training brings self-attainment. Literally it means 100 trainings, self-attainment. After severe training 100 times (100 is equivalent to meaning infinity) you will receive attainment (understanding or enlightenment) by yourself.

Ryu Gan Go Do.

Flowing perspiration is the road to enlightenment.

Shin Gi Tai.

Spirit, Technique, Body. The three inseparable entities which create the whole martial artists. If one element is de-emphasized in the least, the person becomes unbalanced.

Shin Gyo.

Action of the heart. Do things through the heart.

Hei Jo Shin.

Normal state of mind. Maintain one’s state of mind or composure without being affected by the environment. Unaffected spirit.

Hei Jo Shin no Michi.

The Way of the composed mind.

Rei Gi Shin Chi Jin.

Courtesy, Obligation, Belief, Knowledge, Virtue. These are called the Go Jo, or Five Ordinaries (Confucian) and are considered the beginning of budo (budo no hajime). Without these five Confucian ethics the martial arts devolve into brutish brawling.

Sen Shin.

Clean the mind/spirit. In Japanese shin means heart; however, heart is translated as mind or spirit and should not be confused with the physiological heart (shinzo). Heart/mind/mentality should not be thought of three separate ideas, but one all-encompassing thought.


Image source

5 comments on “Lessons on Practice from the Martial Arts

  1. Pingback: Lessons on Practice from the Martial Arts « Smiling Buddha Cabaret « Martial Arts Workout

  2. Thank you for the wonderful post. You listed what makes the flat surface the artwork that revives its viewer.
    … Emancipate yourself from mental slavery…. Wow! that is essential for painter to become the bearer of the light.
    While reading your post I felt myself as if riding the sunbeam. Thank you.

    • Welcome Tomas. Thanks for your kind words. I went to your website and very much like your artwork. I agree with the words you have there that read:

      “The spiritual healing by the fine arts starts with the recognition of oneself in other”

      Art is a very healing process.

      Thanks for your comment.

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