Budō (武道) and Zen (禅)

Budō (武道) and Zen (禅)

Budō (武道) and Zen ()

In this article I will outline some thoughts that can relate to both Budō and Zen Buddhism. I will address the

intersection as well as their common grounds. This is done in order to elaborate on the essence of Zen Buddhism as means to and in order to understand the deeper meaning and practice of Budō, not only limited to training a set of techniques, but rather as a Way of life.

There are of course many interpretations of what the term Dō (道) implies and how it translates into practice. It is a cumbersome task to outline a straight answer, without being dogmatic. I will in this article draw upon my experience from more than 30 years of practicing Budō and also my 25 years of experience of Zen and more recently from being a lay practitioner within the Sōtō Zen tradition, and more specifically the Antaiji tradition. It should be noted that I am not a formal Zen teacher. I am not ordained as a Zen priest and therefor do not have the authority to teach. The thoughts that I develop here, in this article, do not represent any official statement and should only be seen as my own personal reflection on both Budō and Zen.

Budō (武道) is a term that comprises a variety of Japanese Martial Arts. The term Budō is written with two kanji (Japanese writing language) and literarily translate to “Martial Way” and also “Way of War”. Bu (武) meaning “martial” or “war” and Dō (道) mean “Way” or “Way of life”. It should be noted that Budō is somewhat different from Bujutsu (武術), as the former not only focus in the physical training (techniques (jutsu (術)), but also emphasize the attention to the mind and how one should/can develop oneself.

The term Dō (道) can be seen as as a translation of the Sanskrit Prajna Paramita (Sanskrit. Perfect wisdom or perfection of wisdom, jap. 般若波羅蜜多 ), which has two possible meanings. The first is “perfection”—the state and the practice—and the second is “to cross over”. Perfection of wisdom has a meaning of seeing the nature of reality and is generally associated with the doctrine of emptiness (Sanskrit: Shunyata) In Japanese terms associated with this could, for example, be Mu (empty) (無), Mushin (no mind or mind without mind) (無心) or Ku (emptiness) (空).

The term Mushin has a close relationship to Budō as it refers to a state of mind where the mind is not fixed on or occupied by any thought or emotion. The term Mu refers to an empty mind in the sense that distractions, preoccupations, fears, worries and other emotional expressions and interpretations are absent. Mushin cannot be grasped by the intellect or a state that can be achieved as a consequence of (logical) thinking. Rather, Mushin is action beyond thinking, and it is when we let go of thoughts, opening the hand of thoughts, deeply realizing the true nature of reality (as being empty).

It is often claimed that the term Dō implies a deeper meaning, practice and understanding of, and in, the Martial Art that is studied. With a deeper meaning I here imply that the Martial Arts practice goes beyond technical training only and take into account other aspects such as behavior, manners, interpersonal/ inter-sentient interactions not only as a code of conduct but rather as a Way of life to how we approach and relate to our self, other sentient beings, teaching, practice and the world, in a larger context.

The term Dō (道) is also often seen and stated as a part of several Japanese martial arts (e.g., Aikidō (合気道), Iaidō (居合道), Karate-dō (空手道), Kendō (剣道) and Kyudō (弓道家)). Within these Martial arts there is an emphasis on the Dō. It should however be noted that the use and interpretation of the term Dō differ in-between (and sometimes also within) different Martial Arts. For example, O Sensei Morehei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikidō, was a sincere and devote practitioner within the Ōmoto-kyō sect (Ueshiba, 1991: 10). The Ōmoto-kyō sect emphasis meditation but also take into account a different liturgy than, for example, Zen, Shingon and Tendai Buddhism. On the other hand, and for example Kyudō, and to some extent also Iaidō, have Zen Buddhism as a manifestation of the ethical aspect of respective art.

Still, and from a critical perspective, the majority of Budō that is practiced does not specifically articulate nor take into account a Zen Buddhist, or any other philosophical and/or religious, practice into their art. Rather, it is often claimed that there is a deeper practice, beyond the technical training, but seldom explained what this deeper practice consist of, and how it materialize in the specific Budō that is studied. Rather, a set of guiding principles often laid the foundation from which students are taught.

In order to address the term Dō, it can be of importance to provide a foundation and brief understanding of the Japanese culture (cf. Suzuki, 1959). Japan is a highly complex culture, with multiple and complex layers, stipulating cultural expressions, rules, routines and enactment of institutional and hierarchical conditions for the society. From a cultural perspective it would be possible to claim that the Japanese culture scores high on masculinity, power distance, uncertainty avoidance and collectivism (cf. Hofstede, 2010).

In Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism are the two predominant religions, and both have had a significant impact of the Japanese society, both when it comes to interpersonal relationships, cultural expressions as well as discursive practices in society as a whole. Buddhism is one of the major world religions (even if some would not claim that it is a religion (in comparison to e.g., monothetic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and polythetic religions, such as Hinduism)) and there are three major streams within Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. I will not here make a specific distinction of these three, mere noting that there are differences in-between them, rather focusing on Zen Buddhism and its relation to Budō.

Zen Buddhism, as it has been developed in Japan, is located within the Mahayana tradition and can be said to have its origins in Chan Buddhism (Chan zong禪宗). The Chan Buddhism was developed in ancient China (approximately around 709 AD.) and later transferred to Japan by Eisai (who lived between 1141-1215). It can be noted that there are also other Buddhist traditions in Japan such as esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyo) where the two most dominant schools are Tendai and Shingon (that before Zen entered Japan was embraced by the military classes (Suzuki, 1959)). There are multiple schools within Japanese Zen Buddhism, for example, Sōtō, Rinzai and Obakū. In Japan, the Sōtō tradition is the largest by number of practitioners and has no branches, whereas in the early 1950s Rinzai (that have at least ten different branches) came to be quite popular in the West (e.g., USA). Obakū is by number of practitioners the smallest of the three.

Rinzai has become famous for its use of Kōan (公案) practice. Kōans can be seen as riddles that cannot be “solved” though logical thinking and deductive reasoning. Rather, Kōans are, to Rinzai practititoners, means to an end and a ‘tool’ for deepening the meditation practice.

The Sotō Zen tradition came to be developed by Eihei Dōgen (道元禅師, who lived between 1200-1253) and the central frame of reference is Dōgens collected writings (95 fascicles) that were published in his book Shōbōgenzō. There are multiple translations of and commentaries to Dōgens writings, where especially books by Shohaku Okumura Roshi are well-known for their depth and insight into the very core of Sotō Zen. Characteristic for the Sotō Zen tradition is the practice without Kōans, primarily focusing on Shinkantaza (只管打坐). Shinkantaza literally means” nothing but (shinkan) precisely (ta) sitting (za)”. Central to all Zen Buddhist traditions in Japan is the focus on Zazen, sitting meditation.

To explain what Zen is, or can be, is an almost impossible task. However, some basic principles and foundations can be outlined. Zen (禅) as a term can be translated into meditation, whereas Zazen (座禅) implies sitting/seated meditation (what Zen practitioners do in their daily practice.). A central aspect of the Zazen is to “Open the Hand of Thought” (Uchiyama, 2004), indicating that we often in both Zazen as well as in other situations have a tendency to grasp, for example, emotions, thoughts and feelings. In Zazen we let go, we open the hand that clench and hold on these emotions, thoughts and feelings.

In Zazen we sit in an upright posture, breathing abdominally, facing the wall, and let go of thoughts. We do not count breathing, we do not use mantras, and we do Zazen without toys. The only thing we do in Zazen is facing the wall, i.e. facing our selves.

“We wear the clothing of occupations such as doctor, lawyer, mechanic, priest, student, teacher. But when we sit facing the wall and let go of thought, including comparing ourselves with others, we take off all this clothing” (Okumura, 2010).

In Zazen I am not a Martial Arts teacher, nor a university scholar. In Zazen we are “neither rich nor poor, neither “Buddhist” or “Christian”” (ibid.). Terms like “man” or “woman” are only relevant when we compare ourselves with others. When we just sit facing the wall in Zazen, we are neither deluded living beings nor enlightened Buddhas, we are just as we are.

In Zazen we realize that we are deluded. Deluded as when we practice, we are interrupted by our emotions, thoughts and feelings. Maybe “there is a desire to drive these thoughts away, an irresistible to which our complete effort is added. Those who don’t do Zazen know nothing about this. Why is it that when we practice deluded thoughts continues to surface one after another? The reason, which we learn from Zazen, is that each one of us, from prince to beggar, is an ordinary (deluded) person. […] When we actually practice Zazen and look carefully at all the deluded ideas that keep popping up, we realize how ordinary we are and how little we have to be proud of or to brag about.” (Braverman, 2003: 44f).

Delusions, in a Buddhist perspective, arise as a consequence of the fact that we fill our five Skandhas (Sanskrit). In Buddhism the term Skandhas refers to the five aggregates concept that asserts five factors to constitute and completely explain a sentient being’s mental and physical existence. These five aggregates are related to form (or matter or body), sensations (or feelings received from form), perceptions, formation and consciousness. In other words, how we become aware, form, formulate, perceive, experience and feel in various situations and also relate to other people, perceive, explain and understand situations and react to various stimuli.

We have a tendency to fill these Skandahs with various content, providing a deluded self, and such delusion causes suffering. A deluded self-hinders our self in action. It is when we do Zazen and let go of thought, and we come to realize that these Skandhas are empty; we become able to realize our true self. And when we realize our true self, we are able to act without obstacles, freely, without interceptions, interruptions and limitations.

So, you might ask, what does this has to do with Budō? A relevant question!

First, it should be noted that some martial arts practitioners argue that there is a connection between the Martial Art and Zen. On the other hand, some scholars and Zen practitioners do not necessarily make the same connection. Various Budō (e.g., Shorinji Kempo (少林寺拳法), Kyudō and Iaidō) have, to some extent, come to incorporate Zen in its practice, with a specific emphasis on meditation. I would however claim, that irrespective of the emphasis on meditation in their practice it is rather seldom that Budō practitioners study Zen Buddhist texts (sutras) in their practice and the fact that very few teachers within Budō are ordained (having the right to teach) within a Zen tradition. It can also be noted that very few Zen temples have incorporated Budō in their practice.

Second, and I argue, that there are good reasons to study Zen in order to study Budō. The Zen Buddhist practice can enable practitioners, through the practice of Zazen, to let go of thoughts. Through and in Zazen practitioners face the self and by dropping of body and mind we will be able to view the reality in a totally different way. If we can agree upon that there are multiple similarities in-between Zen and Budō (even if the practice in-between the two are different) there are some common grounds that are interesting to reflect upon. For example, the core of Zen is Zazen and more specifically Shinkantaza (just sitting meditation) and the core of Budō is Kihōn (basic techniques). In Zazen, we sit in an upright position, letting go of thoughts and in Budō we practice Kihōn, and Kihōn only.

Third, irrespective of what Budō that is studied, Kihōn (基本) (basic techniques) will be of outmost importance. Kihōn is essential in all its aspects, when it comes to, for example, kamae (stances) (構), ma-ai (distancing 間合い) and timing. Also, to study Kihōn provides an endless practice. We can continue to refine, develop, gain deeper understanding, and become better in executing various techniques (such as Taijutsu (体術), Dakentaijutsu (打拳体術) and Jutaijutsu (柔体術). We have always more to learn and more to develop.

When we begin to study Budō, we begin with Kihōn. We learn movements and techniques, at the beginning mechanically and later on in application and adoption to variations of situations. When we learn Kihōn mechanically, we are given instructions from the teacher, and we try to imitate the teacher. We are very much aware of what we are doing, trying to remember all the details and points as addressed by the teacher. We are training with our mind. From multiple repetitions movements and Kihōn become more and more natural to us, and it becomes an integrated part of our training and our practice.

Kihōn takes time and is nothing that can be learned over a short period of time. I would claim that there are no advanced techniques. There is just Kihōn. That is what we practice, when we practice Budō. Of course, we put together and apply techniques to a huge variety of situations and conditions. Henka (變化) are variations or applications, of Kihōn. We can make training advanced and more complex. However, the foundation for being able to conduct advanced or more complex training, we as Budō practitioners must have a strong foundation in Kihōn.

In practice and in fighting we want our movements, techniques and mind to be free, natural and without obstacles, without interceptions, interruptions and limitations. In order to be able to reach such level in practice, we must (1.) Practice a lot – and continue the endless practice, (2.) To let go of thoughts – opening the hand of thoughts.

We can practice Budō for many and different reasons, such as, we want to learn to fight, learn to protect oneself, develop the self, to attain grades, to receive a title and so on. But Budō, from a Zen Buddhist perspective, is not about learning to fight, self-protection, self-development or wearing a fancy belt. Such practice would be practice with a gaining mind, because “we” or “I” “want” “to have”. When we grasp, intend to gain and stretch for something, compare our self with other, such as fighting skills or that fancy belt (or title), we lose track of our sincere and deep practice.

This might sound harsh, blunt, and even provocative, but given the deep essence as found within the Zen Buddhist tradition (and as realized through Zazen), there is nothing such as the self (as in relation to another person), and there is nothing to attain. It is just practice. As Eihei Dōgen state it in Genjōkōan (cf. Okumura, 2010: 10):

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

I would like to put an emphasis on that the Buddha Way (e.g., Zen) could imply that the Buddha Way is similar to Budō. Within Zen the very core is Zazen, meditation without toys. Therefor it could also be relevant to claim that, in the context of Budō that Kihōn equals Zazen. In essence and to rephrase Dōgen, Budō is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. With such claim we are given by hand a serious challenge in how we address our Budō practice, when we go beyond the technical practice, stop training with a gaining mind, and practice beyond practice. Because there is only practice, and practice only, without a gaining mind.

In order to broaden the discussion with an ambition to take into account how both Zen and Budō could materialize in daily life, outside the Zendō (禅堂) or Dojō (道場) As a Zen practitioner we make vows from which we live our lives. These vows are like guidelines from which we try to live our lives. These vows or precepts include (but are not only limited to), for example (cf. Okumura, 2012):

  1. The Precept of not killing.
  2. The Precept of not stealing.
  3. The Precept of not indulging in sexual greed.
  4. The Precept of not speaking falsehood.
  5. The Precept of not selling intoxicating liquor.
  6. The Precept of not talking of the faults of others.
  7. The Precept of not praising oneself or slandering others.
  8. The Precept of not begrudging the Dharma or material things.
  9. The Precept of not giving rise to anger.
  10. The Precept of not ignorantly slandering the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha).

Such vows are also possible to relate to the guiding principles/virtues of Bushidō (武士道):

  • Righteousness ( gi)
  • Heroic courage ( yū)
  • Benevolence, Compassion ( jin)
  • Respect ( rei)
  • Honesty ( makoto)
  • Honor (名誉 meiyo)
  • Duty and Loylaty (忠義 chūgi)
  • Self-control (自制 jisei)

I argue, to practice Budō in its deeper meaning, imply choosing a way of life that attain to guiding principles as outlined above and here Zazen become an important vehicle in order to study and also forget the self. By acknowledging and taking our Budō practice seriously, going beyond training techniques only we are likely to address questions and guiding principles for how we can or want to live our lives. Here, Zen in general and Zazen in particular can help us to understand and deepen our Budō practice and the examples of vows and guiding principles/virtues can assist us as a guiding compass for how we chose to live our lives.

References and suggested selection of reading:

Braverman, A. (2003) Living and Dying in Zazen Five Zen Masters of Modern Japan. Weatherhill

Dōgen, E. (1997) Bendōwa. The Wholehearted Way. Tuttle Publishing

Nitobe, I. (1969) Bushido. The Soul of Japan. Tuttle Publishing

Okumura, S. (2010) Realizing Genjōkōan. The Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō. Wisdom Publishing

Okumura, S. (2012) Living by Vow. A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Wisdom Publishing

Okumura, S. (2018) Sansuikyo. The Mountains and Waters Sutra. Wisdom Publishing.

Pirzig, R. M (1977) Zen and the Art of Motorcycling Maintenance. Alba

Suzuki. D. T. (1959) Zen and the Japanese Culture. Princeton Bollingen

Uchiyama, K. (2004) Opening the Hand of Thought. Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice. Wisdom Publishing.

Uchiyama, K (2018) Deepest Practice. Deepest Wisdom. Three Fascicles from Shōbōgenzō with Commentaries. Wisdom Publishing.

Ueshiba, M. (1991) Budō. Teaching of the Founder of Aikidō. Kodansha International.





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