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The Role of Zen in Martial Arts

by Jeffrey M. Miller

In the ancient traditions of warriorship which found their way into Japan, we can find Buddhist influences and martial practices melding as if made for each other. This article focuses on the influence of Zen on the martial arts and presents a sample view of Zen Master Taisen Deshimaru who often wrote and spoke of Zen and the principles of bushido, "the way of the warrior," which grew,in part, out of Buddhist principles.

It's said that the roots of many of the Martial Arts is in India, with Buddhist monks. While many sources give conflicting data, it's known that in Japan, the only places that were large enough to allow for indoor training during inclement weather, were the huge Buddhist temples. In fact, much of what is done in Martial Arts schools with a Japanese background comes from, and can be traced back to this connection.

For example, white uniforms were the attire of Japanese Buddhist monks and lay-people alike. The kyu and dan "class" and "level" grade rankings were originally developed for and used as markers for how much a monk had learned and progressed through his training. And, much of the etiquette within dojos "training halls") is identical to those used in these same temples to show respect to all that has gone before me and to all that I aspire to become. In fact, the Japanese kanji characters used to write the word 'dojo' actually refer to "a place where enlightenment takes place."

Now, before you run out and scream about quitting for fear of being converted to Buddhism, Hinduism, or some other 'foreign', sacrilegious cult - don't panic. Buddhism, while often practiced like many conventional Western religions, is not really a religion at all - at least not the way most people define or practice a so-called 'religion'.

As developed by the founder Siddhartha Gautoma, refered to as the Buddha ("one who is awake"), and fine-tuned over the past two and a half - plus centuries, Buddhism is a philosophy of personal development whereby the practitioner works to understand his or her true nature and the immutable laws of the universe that govern the world and everything in it. It is not at all a belief system as are many religions today, but instead relies on the student coming to an intimate understanding of reality and truth through direct, personal experience.

One of the monks credited with developing martial Arts in the Buddhist temples of the time was known as Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen. This new training was readily adopted by the monks for many reasons. And while the monks may have been interested in defending themselves from unfriendly outsiders, it is also likely that they also wished to prepare themselves for the demands of their daily lives - lives which required that they sat unmoving for hours while in deep meditative practice. The Martial arts they practiced were a great means of physical exercise while still being based heavily on their philosophical beliefs of peace through "understanding conflict."

Zen, the most popular form of Buddhist thought known today, is directly related to the cross-cultural interchange between Martial Arts and the many philosophical systems that came together as these teachings travelled from India, across the Himalayas, through China and into Japan. Ironically, many Westerners have no idea that Zen is a form of Buddhist study and practice, nor is it usually seen as much more than "seated meditation" to most martial artists - both teachers and students.

Japanese Zen Master Taisen Deshimaru often wrote about Zen and the principles of Bushido, or "the way of the warrior," which grew, in part, out of Buddhist thought.

The principles of:

Gi: Having the right decision, right attitude, the truth
Yu: Bravery tinged with heroism
Jin: Universal love; compassion
Rei: Right action; courtesy
Makoto: Utter sincerity; truthfulness
Meiyo: Honor; high ethical character
Chugo: Devotion; loyalty

were the common ground between the monk and the warrior. In fact, there is no difference between the two.

Deshimaru emphasized that the learning and practice of these principles is a lifelong process, and needs to take place " the body, through the unconscious." The ancient tradition of the Martial Arts is an internal process, a gradual connection with one's own deep-seated intuition. Deshimaru explains: "In the spirit of Zen . . .everyday life becomes a contest. There must be an awareness at every moment: getting up in the morning, working, eating, going to bed. That is the place for the mastery of self."

About The Author

Jeffrey M. Miller is the founder and master instructor of Warrior Concepts International. A senior teacher in the Japanese warrior art of Ninjutsu, he specializes in teaching the ancient ways of self-protection and personal development lessons in a way that is easily understood and put to use by modern Western students and corporate clients. Through their martial arts training, his students and clients learn proven, time-tested lessons designed to help them create the life they've always dreamed of living, and the skills necessary for protecting that life from anything that might threaten it. To learn more about this and other subjects related to the martial arts, self-defense, personal development & self-improvement, visit his website at

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