Thursday, December 01, 2011

Zen is kind of like the martial art I'm studying - and not - and vice versa...

Over at Jake Adelstein's site,  Stephanie Nakajima reviews a Japanese-English Introduction to Zen.  And she says:


The cover boasts that this text conveys the content’s “difficult ideas” clearly  (むずがしい考えがスッキリ分かる!); though if this leads you to expect something other than the usual interpretation of Zen – non-linear, meandering, parabolic explanations- you will be disappointed. My western brain still struggles to grasp the style typical of Zen masters, their purportedly didactic riddles often leaving me with more questions than answers.
Often, it’s a confusing read. In the beginning, Priest Ozeki devotes a chapter to the importance of maintaining “a pure heart”, without bothering to explain what a pure heart looks like, or the nature of the maintenance required. This is just one of many vague instructions listed for living a Zen life; others include “being present in the moment” and keeping a “free mind, one which is not influenced by anything”. Ozeki further complicates things a few chapters later when he decides to mention that “Zen is not a thing to think about but is training. You can not attain enlightenment even if you read many books and study hard.” Resisting the urge to question why I am reading a book about a subject the author himself has just declared *actually* requires field study, I decide to remain open to his attempts to explain the concept of Enlightenment ...
It only after finishing the entire text that I gleaned what might be the unstated assumption: like a religion, there are values by which Zen abides. However, practitioners believe these values can only be discovered through the practice of Zen, rather than the study.
 The martial art I'm studying is so counter-intuitive - it can't be read about either ; it can really only be practiced to be understood.  I cannot think of a more perfect expression of non-duality in the form of human movement.  To even write these words is somehow to distort its expression, to even write these words reminds me that I'm not actually doing it,  and therefore in a significant way, a distortion and dishonoring of that practice.

But maybe I digress. Maybe not.  I don't really have great skill by any means at the martial art I'm studying- at least not yet.  But...but...how is something so potentially brutal so profoundly elegant at the same time? How is something essentially evolved from Shaolin-influenced Southern Chinese street fighting so compact and adamantine, and at the same time completely informed by knowledge of the mechanics (i.e., mechanical physics) of the human body?  And, the big question a guy like me continues to ask myself: how come such a practice which requires so pitifully little strength is not more widely known? And, is everyone I know, even with my relatively comfortable and  laid-back lifestyle as tense as I am? (Trust me, yoga practitioners, you're tense.)

I have and continue to have the same questions about Zen, without which I'd be completely hopeless in my martial arts study. 

I've been doing Zen for decades now, studying under the same teacher for about 15 years, and only now am I able to do 経行 (kinhin), at least the way in which it's done in the school of Rinzai Zen in which I'm practicing.

Do you know where your feet are? Right now?  Are you relaxed but aware?  Where's your mind at this moment?  Can you maintain equanimity as the feces hits the fan?

Zen and martial arts at their best is kind of like that.

2 comments:

Petteri Sulonen said...

I envy you, a little.

I used to practice aikido (ki no kenkyukai), but a knee problem put an end to that. Can't do anything that involves rotation or risk of rotation to the join, without risking damage that would seriously limit what I can do.

Mumon said...

Luckily my knees aren't all that bad, and most of the stress anyway is on the heels of the feet. Like I said, it's almost completely counter-intuitive until you start to think of the physics behind it, and then you're left thinking "Who the hell were these people who perfected this - street-fighting physicists?"