Buddhism

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Zen and the Martial Arts

The priests of Shaolin Monastery were keeping a stale, orthodox regimen when Zen's formidable "Blue Eyed Demon" arrived from India. They were following the "polishing" way of inactivity and removal, the way which claims victory over bodily temptations by avoiding other bodies, which claims victory over contentious thoughts by erasing all thoughts. Too much sitting had numbed their brains and let their physical condition languish, yoked in the sluggish pace of spiritual ennui. They gave the stranger from the West plenty to work with.

Bodhidharma taught them how to be still with purpose and how to be active with meaning. Relentless, he sat before the whitewashed walls of Shaolin and demonstrated Ba Guan (wall gazing) meditation, the effective alpha-generating method psychologists today call the Ganzfeld Technique. As such, it became Zen's only original contribution to meditation's vast catalogue of methods. But it was a good one. And when Bodhidharma got up from his cushion he taught the monks how to put Mind into muscle: he taught them the choreographed combat callisthenics of Gong Fu. Or so legend has it.

Whatever the facts of origin are, one thing is certain: for centuries... from the Sixth to the Twentieth... in stunning proof that opposites attract, this unlikely pair, these two disciplines as counterpoised as peace and war, swayed together in a graceful embrace; and in every Asian country into which Chinese Zen Buddhism spread, generations of monks joined the spiritual dance in celebration of their union.

Nobody thought the dance would ever end. Nobody imagined that there could ever be a force strong enough to sto p the music and sunder the bond. There was. The cataclysm came in the form of the surrender of the largest American fighting force in the history of U.S. warfare. The fission-event had a name: Bataan. To understand the strange chronicle of union and dissolution we must retreat far into history and explore hidden places on the spiritual path.

You have been reading an introduction to a 12-part series on the relationship between Zen and the Martial Arts. This series of essays continues on the ZBOHY Web site where we explore the origins of Gong (Kung) Fu and discuss some of the physiology and psychology of the martial arts. We explore the reasons why the combined regimen of meditation and physical skill is able to produce true mastery. We examine the Code of Wushidao (Bushido) that was formulated to guide and to sustain the true martial artist; and we review the reasons why the martial arts were separated from Zen and suggest ways in which we might reunite the estranged pair.