View Full Version : zen combative mindset

25th January 2002, 22:27
Now I know that the samurai used Zen as a method to enhance there combat effectiveness, but is it the same as zen buddhism, or was it just the zen aspect of buddhism they practiced. Should I be posting this in another forum.

25th January 2002, 22:30


Greg Quaresma

26th January 2002, 02:29
Actually, I believe that esoteric Buddhism was a far greater influence on koryu arts than Zen...... except, perhaps, for the Yagyu. I could be wrong though....

Robert Fittro

26th January 2002, 07:06
I thought that the Samurai utilized zen training to become basically more combat effecient. Since zen and combat are both pragmatic endevours from my understanding. I also thougth buddhism is pretty much pacifistic, so there where some issues in regards to Samurai occupation of killing and buddhist religous doctrine. So I take it most Samurai where not good buddhist.

26th January 2002, 15:47
Buddhism espouses pacifism, but contrary to popular belief, pacifism itself is not the absence of violence, but the abstinence from violence.

Furthermore, religion is always twisted in favor of the pracicing group - hence the teutonic knights.

To put a finer point on it, Zen Buddhism is not Buddhism in its purest form. It's not so much a flavor of Buddhism, but rather a different approach to the whole spiritual path. You are correct in your ascertation that Zen itself is very pragmatic, but that has little to do with why the saurai took it up as a practice. It may be more accurate to say that the samurai took up Zen (as well as many other religious practices) not to augment their martial taining, but rather to balance and justify their martial career.

The extreme nature of the warrior path is one that forces introspection, and in so doing tends to lead one to a spiritual anchor. Zen is especially suited to this, for Zen does not point a finger at one's failing to adhere to the tennets of pacifism.

Sorry if this seems over simplistic, but I just woke up, so I'm not at my finest right now. If clarification or further commentary are required or desired, ask and ye shall recieve.


27th January 2002, 00:27
I was under the impression that Zen trained the Samurai to maintain emotional control and a clear mind when engaging in combat, and this was the motivation for there practicing of it. But if I understand you correctly then you are saying that the Samurai took up Zen to justify there occupation of taking life, basically saying "look I may kill people but I practice Zen so I am not a complete heathen", and not arming there psyche for the emotional confrontation of close combat. I didnt think that they used it for spiritualness instead for the benifits gained by training in it for combative confrontation.

Greg Quaresma

27th January 2002, 01:13
Hi Greg, I think you have taken Kyukage's post a bit too litarally. What I think he meant was that the samurai took up zen and other forms of buddhism was to help them accept the fact that death was always just around the corner. This too, is probably an oversimplified way of saying it, but when you really think about it, no human really wants to die, and most people will run from death as fast as they can. Being born into a warrior class like the samurai, you had no choice but to fight and die honourably, or bring shame onto your entire family, and then die anyway at your own hand.
Yes you were partially right when you said zen was used to help quiet the mind and therefore become more effective fighters, but as I said above, it was also used to develop a strong and peaceful spirit, ready to accept death at any time.
just my 2 cents

27th January 2002, 05:14
So let me see if I got this. Zen was used as a two fold endevour. Most of all it allowed the Samurai to have a peaceful acceptance of death, and it also allowed him to maintain emotional control in the face of danger and fear. So its similiar to the way Christianity armed the Knights of medeval times. Also can anyone recommend a book on the Samurai and his Zen training.

Greg Quaresma

27th January 2002, 10:23
Yes, I suppose thats a pretty close description of it. There are many books on the subject. Secrets of the Samurai has a section about the samurai and zen, as well as many other aspects of samurai life. One Arrow, One Life is also a good example of zen in the art of samurai archery. Theres plenty of others that I can't remember, any suggestions guys?

27th January 2002, 20:12
Originally posted by gquaresma
So let me see if I got this. Zen was used as a two fold endevour. Most of all it allowed the Samurai to have a peaceful acceptance of death, and it also allowed him to maintain emotional control in the face of danger and fear. So its similiar to the way Christianity armed the Knights of medeval times. Also can anyone recommend a book on the Samurai and his Zen training.
Greg Quaresma

YAMANTAKA : Dear Greg,

This is a very good book :

The other books listed there are also quite good.
Best :wave:

27th January 2002, 22:46
Thanks, I appreciate the information, and I will check out that book. Also how often did the Samurai train in Zen, Daily, Weekly, did they go to a temple and train once a year? Thanks

28th January 2002, 23:41
I would recommend The Unfettered Mind. It contains a couple of essays written by the Zen monk Takuan, which are addressed to a certain samurai.

In my opinion, if one is trying to use Zen to clear the mind, or to establish fudoshin, then it's not really Zen. In Zen, there are no ideas of gain.

I suspect that there is more legend about samurai practicing Zen than anything, although I am sure some did establish a sincere practice. Zen is about life and death, so it is reasonable to think it would appeal to a samurai. From the point of view of a Japanese Buddhist, you can look at your station in life and accept that as your karma. If your karma is to take over the family temple and be a Zen priest, then that's what you do. If your karma is to be a samurai and you need a way to kill and keep your conscience clean, there you go (you accept your place and do what you have to). In this way any Buddhist practice or beliefs could have been beneficial.

I remember hearing an Alan Watts lecture in which he said something like: When the brigands came to take over the temples, they were used to everyone fearing them. The monks just looked at them without fear, and this perplexed the brigands. They wanted to know how the monks could look death in the eye and not be afraid, and this is how the samurai came to study Zen.

I don't really buy this story, but it's kind of curious to think about.


Jeff Hamacher
29th January 2002, 02:46
Originally posted by cguzik
I would recommend The Unfettered Mind. It contains a couple of essays written by the Zen monk Takuan, which are addressed to a certain samurai.

In my opinion, if one is trying to use Zen to clear the mind, or to establish fudoshin, then it's not really Zen. In Zen, there are no ideas of gain.

I suspect that there is more legend about samurai practicing Zen than anything, although I am sure some did establish a sincere practice.

I remember hearing an Alan Watts lecture ...
thank you, Chris, for some excellent insights. the relationship between samurai and Zen has been exaggerated to quite some degree. most samurai adopted only vestiges of Zen that agreed with their social obligations but did not really practise Zen as such. i've read about Musashi devoting himself to Zen practice late in life and i'm certain that there were others, but the majority were not true followers of the sprititual path.

Gregory, get yourself a copy of Alan Watts' The Way of Zen. that's the best starting point for learning about the origins of Buddhism in india right through to Zen practice in japan. it will probably answer a lot of questions you have about Zen, but it will also serve to highlight just how little Zen training or the ultimate enlightenment had to do with combat. The Unfettered Mind i haven't read, but that sounds like excellent source material, too.

i admit that the "cloudless mental state" which Musashi describes as the identical result of training either in Zen or swordsmanship is probably ideal for combat. the combatant is completely unmindful of the outcome and its consequences, all energies focussed on each instant of contact with an opponent, total "living in the now". it's just that combat is undertaken for gain, and since, as Chris points out, Zen is totally unmindful of profit or loss it wouldn't have anything to do with combat.

29th January 2002, 05:00
Ok, so its more myth to thing of the samurai as being strong adherents to zen so as to develope mushin, and those sort of qualities. I wonder then why is so much attention given to this aspect of samurai training, as if it was a constant sort of thing he continually went through. I guess it might have to do with our society always wanting to make things out to be bigger then they really are. I actually do have a copy of Hakagure, but i guess i need to break it open and start reading. Also does training in zen develope better fighting skill, i.e. controling emotions, more intuitive, situationally aware, etc. Or is that kinda a myth as well. I know what the books say, but does anyone actually atest now a days to have those skills.

Jeff Hamacher
29th January 2002, 05:54

those are some points of discussion that you raise. if i might suggest something that i've found quite useful, run a search here at E-Budo for past threads on Hagakure, bushido, or other themes that interest you. there are heaps of good information (unfortunately buried amongst a lot of junk which is, in the main, stuff that i've posted:laugh: ) just waiting to be found. i will also highly recommend the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences website for great articles by some of the foremost scholars in japanese martial history. some of the articles on Hagakure in particular you will find quite eye-opening. happy reading!

29th January 2002, 16:38
Thanks, appreciate the discussion.

ben johanson
31st January 2002, 05:28
I think Jeff was on the right track when he said that the relationship between the samurai and zen has been greatly exaggerated. I believe the connection between the samurai and zen goes all the way back to the 13th-14th centuries, when zen buddhism started to gain considerable political acumen. But this relationship existed throughout the medieval period primarily at the upper levels of warrior society and was mostly(if not entirely)political in nature. High ranking warriors, including the shogun, often made considerable contributions to zen temples not normally out of religious piety, but out of a desire to appear devout and generous to their peers, and to gain political influence. That is not to say that there were no members of the samurai class who practiced zen, but the notion that the samurai were, in a sense, 'zen warriors' is not at all supported by the historical record.

I am reminded of something I read by Karl Friday either in another thread similar to this one or in his book Legacies of the Sword, which stated that the supposed connection between Japanese warriors and zen buddhism has its origins in the 20th century when, several years back, a number of Japanese historians wrote extensively about how much zen would have or should have appealed to the samurai, but they never provided any evidence that it actually did appeal especially to them. And the reason for that is that there really is no evidence to suggest that zen had any special appeal to the samurai or that it was ever at any time a significant aspect of their training. In fact, Confusianism probably played a much greater role in a samurai's life and especially his early education than zen buddhism ever did. So in other the words, the idea of the 'zen samurai' is basically a myth.

Ben Johanson

Kit LeBlanc
2nd February 2002, 02:04
ConfuSianism.......I have been known to practice that from time to time....

2nd February 2002, 04:19
never mind..... :smash:

5th February 2002, 16:15
From "The Way of Zen", by Alan Watts,

"...This Historical coincidence provided the military class, the samurai, with a type of Buddhism which appealed to them strongly because of its practical and earthy qualities and because of the directness and simplicity of its approach. Thus there arose that peculiar way of life called bushido, the Tao of the warrior, which is essentially the application of Zen to the arts of war. The association of the peace-loving doctrine of the Buddha with the military arts has always been a puzzle to Buddhists of other schools. It seems to involve the complete divorce of awakening from morality. But one must face the fact that, in its essence, the Buddhist experience is a liberation from conventions of every kind, including the moral conventions. On the other hand, Buddhism is not a revolt against convention, and in societies where military caste is an integral part of the convention structure and the warrior's role an accepted necessity Buddhism will make it possible for him to fulfill that role as a Buddhist. The medieval cult of chivalry should be no less of a puzzle to the peace-loving Christian."

Highly recommend this book

6th February 2002, 06:58
While there are values in Zen which would be consonant with the lifestyle of a professional warrior (e.g., clarity, discipline, etc.), the influence of Zen on the samurai appears to have been overstated.

IMHO professional warriors are eminently practical, pragmatic people: Recommending protracted zazen on a cushion in pursuit of enlightenment might not fly, but give them a mantra or a spell to calm the mind or inspire courage (as exist in Shingon and Tendai Buddhism)just might. Which is not to discount folks like Tesshu Yamaoka, sword and Zen luminary.
Just my two cents.

Of course, the Heart Sutra does say, "Far beyond deluded thoughts, *this* is nirvana" (emphasis mine) -- in other words, enlightenment is already here -- but that's another discussion. ;)

Sean M. Breheney
Pacific Grove, CA

9th February 2002, 03:15
Hi Greg,

There have been number of comments here but no one has really addressed the Zen issue from a Zen perspective. Since we cannot really say how many Samurai truly practiced Zen, let’s look at what Zen would provide the warrior. The reason I say this is because it was more than just the earthiness or the directness of Zen that was appealing. Zen is a method used to develop the ability to see directly into the true reality. This direct seeing is intended to eliminate preconceived ideas about what the true reality is. Therefore one perceives reality as it truly is and not colored by dogma so prevalent in organized religions. The mind that is free of illusion perceives phenomena as they truly are, unclouded by ego. This information is understood only by those with a deep understanding of Zen. Direct seeing provides information that would assist any warrior with his vocation. A warrior must sacrifice himself if necessary, yet he still seeks to prevail “and? survive. At the same time he must have the ability to fight on even when he knows that he will “in fact? be killed. Further his skills can only be honed so far. To gain any true advantage he must turn to the source of all action, which is the mind.

From a spiritual angle direct seeing provides the warrior with the knowledge, not theoretical knowledge or the repeated knowledge of “the experts?, but “direct knowledge“ that no one truly dies. Since no one truly dies it is not sin to kill. Where the sin lies is in killing for selfish purposes rather than for a higher calling.

I recall a story about a Samurai who was detailed to kill a man for some justifiable reason. I believe the man had killed the Samurai’s master or some such thing. When the Samurai trapped the man and was about to deal the death blow, the man spat in the Samurai’s face. The Samurai re-sheathed his sword and strode away without killing the man. When he was spat upon the Samurai became angry and the killing would not have been performed selflessly, but for selfish reasons. His motivation became anger and not duty.

Justified killing in the line of duty is permissible. This has been universally accepted in all cultures.

Since no one truly dies the warrior is merely an actor in a life drama that is unfolding before him. It is the attachment to life and his persona that will trap the warrior’s mind. A detached attitude allows the warrior’s mind to respond freely and spontaneously to the perceptions of his senses. He does not fear losing his life because he realizes it is all a game to begin with and there is “in fact? nothing to lose.

From a practical angle, the free mind allows the body to respond without the intervention of the thinking process which takes up valuable time when ones life is on the line. One then responds like an echo to the perceived threat. Or more accurately responds like a refection.

Zen was the perfect method for the warrior because it provided insight into the true reality and freed the mind to function without the preconceived notions and conventions of social conditioning. The warrior was able to transcend appearances and directly address the matter at hand with a dispassionate, detached attitude thereby enhancing the opportunity to survive in order to continue his service to his lord.


Scott R. Brown

9th February 2002, 07:38
How did the Samurai practice zen, by mediatating, thinking of nothing, clearing there mind, hoping to get enlightenment.

10th February 2002, 05:09
Hi Greg,

There are a number of methods Zen uses to direct the individual’s attention to the true reality. Two are popular in Japanese culture. One method uses the koan. The aspirant is asked a seemingly nonsensical question or riddle and ponders the solution. Periodically the aspirant seeks an audience with the master and proposes a solution to the koan. The master then either confirms the solution and gives a new koan or sends the aspirant away to continue pondering. The purpose of a koan is to be intentionally confusing in order to frustrate the aspirant into thinking in a new manner, to change the perspective with which he views the world, existence, himself. As the aspirant solves each koan, he theoretically begins to realize the true reality. This is one manner in which a Samurai might pursue Zen.

A second method is to sit and meditate. One may sit and meditate on a koan or on realizing his true face, or on nothingness, or on watching his own thoughts drift by his conscious mind, etc.

Neither of these two popular schools of Zen are actually required to practice Zen, however. They are merely methods used to achieve an end. They are not the end in and of themselves. As with other major religions many followers confuse the method with the goal. It is not necessary to follow any particular school to pursue Zen.

The tools of Zen are designed to point directly to the true reality. Zen is the actual “perceiving? of the true reality. As such any method that accomplishes that end will suffice. Some masters were noted for accommodating their teaching to each aspirant’s mental and emotional makeup, tailoring the teaching to each individual’s needs, abilities and personality.

The true reality is realized; it is not acquired, accomplished or learned. It is something that is already there right in front of us. We are simply not able to see it. When I say “see? I am not speaking of physical sight, but of intellectual understanding or mental perception. Realization is not based on intelligence, i.e. one’s IQ is not a factor. It is a function of the mind however. Think of the optical illusion almost everyone is familiar with, the vase that is also two faces gazing at one and other. Think of the first time you saw that optical illusion, you may have only perceived the vase. Someone perhaps said to you, “Look again?, or “Look carefully?, ?Do you see the two faces looking at each other?? Eventually, with practice, you changed your mental perspective and perceived the two faces. Now you have the ability to see the two faces or the vase at will. This is the same thing as perceiving the true reality. Once you realize it you can see it and not see it at the same time. No one can point to the two faces and say, “See it is here and here?. You can either see them or you can not. It was a matter of perspective, how you viewed the picture, which allowed you to realize the two faces. Your physical vision did not change, the mind changed the way it perceived. This is how one realizes the true reality. We change the manner or perspective with which we view reality. It is right here in front of us, we have but to perceive it properly.

I addressed your question in this manner because there are a great deal of misconceptions about Zen today and the misconceptions are not just a western anomaly. It is in the nature of man to complicate and distort simple understandings. All cultures, or many individuals in each culture, will misconstrue simple truths.

So, what has all this got to do with your original question…how did the Samurai practice Zen? The dilettantes followed whatever made them look good or made them feel good. Such is the case with dilettantes in every religion. The serious seekers followed the available schools or no particular school depending on their personalities. There is never enough historical evidence to make blanket statements about such a large number of individuals in any culture and the historical evidences accepted as valid vary from historian to historian. To say that the intention of the Samurai was this or that, or that they practiced Zen only this way or that way demonstrates ignorance of the individuality of each human being. Some Samurai played with Zen and attained nothing; others focused a great deal of their time on Zen and gained much. It takes no historical evidence to understand this, all it takes is an understanding of human nature.


Scott R. Brown

10th February 2002, 06:48
Very thought provoking. Is Zen compatible with other religions, like Christianity, I have heard that it is in some regard, but not in others. Do you recommend any books on Zen training.

11th February 2002, 05:17
Hi Greg,

Whether or not Zen is compatible with other religions is dependant upon how you view Zen and the other religion in question. As you know there are many fundamentalist Christian denominations. These would view Zen as incompatible. However, there are a number of Christian denominations that are more universal or Unitarian in focus. These would find Zen very compatible.

I have argued that Buddhism was never intended to be a religion, but merely a way to view or live life. By viewing life from the Buddhist perspective we are able to eliminate emotional suffering and perceive the true reality. I contend that Buddha did not address the existence of a deity and therefore is not a religion, that it was his followers over the centuries that put words in his mouth to support their own individual views, that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas replaced the deity and angels prevalent in other religions. Throughout history the fathers of religions have modified their religious dogma to accommodate the psychological needs of the laity. If we observe and study the development of Christianity over the centuries and the development of Buddhism over the centuries, we will discover certain motifs that are consistent. These motifs reflect the psychological need of humans to have certain emotional needs met by their religion. One glaring example would be the focus on the Virgin Mary in the Catholic religion and the focus on Kannon the goddess of mercy in the Buddhist religion. Both reflect the human need for a feminine aspect of the deity who bestows mercy, love and compassion. Neither religion began with the feminine aspect of worship, but church leaders either consciously or unconsciously accommodated this human psychological need as the religions developed.

Back to Zen and Christianity.

If one views Zen as a means to realize the true reality, there is no reason for it to conflict with Christian dogma or goals. The goal of Christianity is for the individual to conform to the will of God. This is accomplished first by accepting God’s grace which is a gift given to man by God. In Christianity, one cannot conform to God’s will by performing outward actions, often called works. He must be inwardly transformed by the grace of God. The Christian begins by accepting God’s grace and then allows the grace to transform him inwardly. The inward transformation then changes the outward actions. To attempt to changes oneself inwardly by conforming to outward, worldly actions does not accomplish the goal because it is possible to accomplish actions without an inward transformation. For example I can help the needy, but still carry anger or hatred in my heart, but I cannot have love in my heart and not help the needy. The actions are the same, but the motivations for the actions are different. In Christianity it is not what you do, but why you do it that counts.

The very same concept is illustrated in the story about Bodhidharma when he first visited the Chinese Emperor. The Emperor enumerated all the great things he did for Buddhism (works) and then asked Bodhidharma what merits he had earned. Bodhidharma replied, no merits whatsoever. Works do not transform the individual and are worthless. It is inner transformation that has meaning and value.

In Zen the goal is to perceive the true reality. One could also call the true reality the face of God. To perceive the face of God one must first conform to the will of God. We are to sit and practice viewing reality in its pristine state, as it truly is. To accomplish this we cannot project our own conventional views and opinions on what we think God (the true reality) should be. In Christianity it would be viewed as imposing our will on God.
We must accept the true reality as it is in order to perceive it clearly.

It should now be clear that Zen and Christianity indeed have similar goals, but use different means to accomplish it. Zen and Christianity have much in common when both are practiced as intended. Most people in religions practice on the surface as if swimming on the surface of the ocean. They confuse the surface practices with in depth knowledge. They mistake the surface for the depths and condemn those that plumb the depths for true meaning. At their deepest levels all major religions seek the same purpose. They may use different terminology and different tools, but the similarities are apparent to any who plumb the depths.


Scott Brown

11th February 2002, 20:01
Scott and Gregory,

It's been very interesting to follow the dialog so far. I think it's important to keep in mind that in describing and analyzing this stuff, something gets lost in the words. Or maybe a better way to say it is, the words add something that changes the meaning.

Scott said "In Zen the goal is to perceive the true reality."

From one point of view this is true, but there is another point of view, which is equally valid, that this approach misses the mark. I would rather put it this way:

Sincere Zen practice is perception of true reality.


In Zen the goal is sincere practice.

Now, for the question, Is Zen incompatible with Christianity? As Scott said, to a large extent it depends on your view of Zen and Christianity.

Here where I live in Oklahoma, there is a strong fundamentalist Christian influence, and most people here would say there is no way the two are compatible. But there are exceptions; some can be found in the Catholic denomination. Look for writings by Thomas Merton.

Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, once said to a group of American students who were making derogatory statements about the typical American approach to religion that they would not be able to be good Buddhists until they learned how to be good Christians. (This is from Crooked Cucumber by David Chadwick).

Some people define religion as which god you worship and how you go about it. If we accept this definition then since Buddhism is not concerned with the existence of a god, we should conclude that Buddhism is not a religion. Either way, though, the question of compatibility is not fully addressed. The reason is because some religions prohibit following any tradition (religious or not) that do not stem from that religion.

Interestingly enough, such prohibitions touch the truth that everything in life can be religious if we treat it as such. Different religions will place more emphasis on the "which god do you worship" part and others more on "how you go about it." Zen is all about how you go about it.

Whatever your religion, you have to decide what these two questions mean to you and what's important.

11th February 2002, 20:46
I'd be surprised if _most_ samurai/bushi/warrior class folks used Zen at all. I'm no roshi, (nor do I play one on TV ...), but I am an amateur, if serious, student of budo.

As far as I can tell, the spirituality of most samurai was based on Shinto with a liberal seasoning of Mikkyo and other esoteric Buddhist sects. Zen was sort of an afterthought, sometimes getting added pretty far down the line (towards the modern era).

I've heard one theory that Zen was encouraged to tone down the martial aspects of the warrior class (compare Zen thought with the ideology of, say, a follower of Marishiten).

Current conventional wisdom says the Japanese are born Shinto, get married Christian and die Buddhist ...

Personally, I think the whole Zen addition to the budo is highly overrated and overstated.

Chuck Gordon

12th February 2002, 04:59
I would tend to agree with you about the amount of influence zen had on the Samurai and his outlook on training. Its just funny how it is so written about how this had such an influence on the Samurai's mental training, and outlook. I would imagine if it was so useful in combat effectivness we might see more of it today in the military, or at least it, but called something else. But maybe we do in the sense that we put so much emphasis on self discipline. ( I am a active duty Marine). But I dont think we use the same training methods that Zen masters use. I would imagine that the samurai had to much time to really take zen training serious, espicially if they had to constantly keep there martial skills honed.

12th February 2002, 14:53
I too agree with Mr. Gordon, who echos Dr. Karl Friday and others in their opinion that Mikkyo Buddhism exerted a greater influence on the Samurai than Zen Buddhism.

This particular "misconception" about Zen (and I use "misconception" advisedly, because I'm a nice guy and I think it may be too strong a word) is really no surprise: *Much* more has been written, in both English and Japanese, about Zen than the Mikkyo sects. And Zen has loomed and continues to loom much larger in publishing, popular awareness, some academic discourse and in "coffee table discussion" generally than Mikkyo.

Lengthy, perhaps unrelated sidebar note: Early in my own encounter with Zen back in the early 80s folks used to talk about the days of what they called "Samurai" Zen -- lots of drama, shouting, breaking of keisakus and the like, right out of some of the old Zen stories, right out of D.T. Suzuki's books -- which had existed until just before that time in American Zen centers, the very antithesis of the "Beat Zen" portrayed by Kerouac et al. And *some* American Zen centers are still like that, and those methods *do* work for *some* people under the guidance of *some* teachers -- file it away under "upaya," or "skillful means."

And that boot camp atmosphere still prevails in some places in Japan, especially in the training monasteries, where one respected colleague of mine witnessed a shovel being used by a zendo monitor at Eiheiji to ensure that folks were sitting zazen in full lotus posture (by striking the "tan" or sitting platform between the monks' knees).

But I think it's interesting that of the folks in both Japan and elsewhere who describe themselves as Zen adherents, whether Rinzaishu, Sotoshu, Sanbo Kyodan or whatever, more folks *outside* Japan are actually sitting *zazen*, and that many in Japan actually look to the *West* as the salvation of Zen.

It's as though folks get hooked on the "Samurai" and forget the "Zen".

My two cents. And thanks to all for an interesting dialogue.

Sean M. Breheney
Pacific Grove, CA

14th February 2002, 17:56
I hear alot about zen, zen meditation, or zen buddism. What is zen? I haven't been studying martial arts for long. I will never claim to be an expert. I have heard the word zen alot lately. It seems that it has been represented a mystical power or magical. So, I asked my sensei what Zen was and he told me this.

"Zen is the Japanes form of Chan. Which means meditation."

I said that's it?:confused:

I expected much more. I don't know why. So, as far as the samuri using zen or meditation. I would assume that it was to have a clear mind during combat and to improve their technique.

"Peace in the middle of caos"

Shaun Carpenter
Houston, TX

Jon S.
15th February 2002, 00:34
I think your sensei is right Shaun. It's my understanding that zen most simply means "meditation". Too many people connect religion when speaking of zen, which is okay because it can work with religion. Christians in prayer are experiencing meditation, IMO. Yet many people fail to understand the distinction between religion and the practice, so lots of misconceptions occur.

I think most samurai practiced zen, whether with conscious intent or not. Their martial training, by its repetitive nature, is zen. How many samurai took it to a religious level, particularly in connection with Buddhism, is a matter of speculation.

I believe meditation can be quite valuable in ways already listed, and therefore beneficial to the study of martial arts and to the living of life. Meditation is widely known as a stress management technique, and as such, teaches one to relax in a stressful situation. If one is facing the stress of a life or death struggle, I think that most would agree that it would be preferable to stay as calm and relaxed (in both mind and body) as possible.

I don't claim to be an expert on zen, just someone who believes it is beneficial and relevant to martial training.

Jon Small

Harry Cook
15th February 2002, 01:15
Dear Mr. Carpenter,
you might find the following works of interest:-
1. Zen Buddhism A History India and China Heinrich Dumoulin Macmillan Publishing Company, 1994.
2. Zen Buddhism A History Japan Heinrich Dumoulin Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990.
3. Trevor Leggett The Warrior Koans Early Zen in Japan Arkana1985.
4. Trevor Leggett Zen and the Ways Routledge and Kegan Paul 1978.
5. Arthur Braverman Warrior of Zen The Diamond-hard Wisdom of Suzuki Shosan Kodansha International 1994.
6. Kaiten Nukariya The Religion of the Samurai originally published in 1913 republished Luzac & Co. Ltd, London 1973.
This last book is obviously well dated but it has some points of interest, especially as he looks at Confucianism as well as Zen.
The works of D. T. Suzuki are also worth a look.
Harry Cook

Jeff Hamacher
15th February 2002, 06:21
looks like this thread really grew legs! thanks to everyone for all the various comments and insights thus far. here are a few thoughts i've had in response.

Mark Monkman posted a little Watts clip that rather pokes a few holes in my "Zen is quite unrelated to combat" line of argument.:eek: what i might say in response is that at least part of the information in that quote has not held up to the research of the 45 years since The Way of Zen was first published (BTW, Shaun, i would recommend this book as your first read on Zen). the one obvious example is the concept of bushido; there are a number of sources (including posts here at E-Budo) which convincingly argue against the existence of a uniform code of samurai behaviour and etiquette. thus it seems a stretch to claim that bushido is Zen applied to the arts of war, a Tao of the warrior.

i won't argue with Watts's statement that Buddhism or Zen are quite beyond the bounds of morality, that Zen is essentially not moralistic, and that the life of the samurai would not contradict what Zen had to offer him. as Scott Brown has pointed out, the clear and cloudless mental state that a samurai might realize through Zen training could be invaluable in combat. still, if you accept that the essential goal of combat is profit or gain, it seems hard to reconcile that with the detached, unmindful state of enlightenment. if you find yourself motivated by personal gain are you not still allowing yourself to be deceived by illusions that will prevent your enlightenment?

as to this perfection of the warrior's mental abilities, stop to consider what Musashi had to say. true, historical reports about him state that in his later years he devoted himself very seriously to Zen practice. but even he said, "i respect the Buddha and the gods, but i have never relied upon them." his writings on swordsmanship claim that both Zen and swordsmanship offer a path to the clear and cloudless mental state that i mentioned above; Zen and swordsmanship are not equivalent, but their perfect state of mental clarity were identical. if a samurai could achieve such combat-prepared clarity of thought with training in swordsmanship alone, what need had he of Zen, apart from getting over his fear of death?

i'm only trying to encourage further exchange on this topic and not pass myself off as an expert. i look forward to further responses.

15th February 2002, 14:59
Originally posted by carp0501
I hear alot about zen, zen meditation, or zen buddism. What is zen? I haven't been studying martial arts for long. I will never claim to be an expert. I have heard the word zen alot lately. It seems that it has been represented a mystical power or magical. So, I asked my sensei what Zen was and he told me this.

"Zen is the Japanes form of Chan. Which means meditation."

"Zen" is the Japanese translation of the Chinese "Chan" which is a translation of the Sanskrit "Dhyana", which means "meditation".

However, that was the origin of the word over 2,500 years ago. In today's use, Zen has come to mean specifically that type of Buddhist practice which is based on meditation. You could argue that the Buddhists don't have exclusive claim to the word, but it would be enough out of modern context for someone who does, say, trancendental meditation, to claim they practice Zen that it would pretty much be a mistake.

So, in my opinion, while the liguistic origin of the word "zen" is "meditation" I think in today's world a proper description would be a particular method of Buddhist practice. If you want to meditate but not practice Buddhism, in my opinion it would be a mistake to say you are doing Zen.

That said, there's definitely nothing mystical about Buddhism in general or Zen in particular. Many people might think there is, but many people also think there's something mystical about the martial arts...

15th February 2002, 17:37
Thanks all for an interesting and hopefully continuing dialogue.

Much of this thread has been speculative and/or historical, the latter exemplified by recommendations of some excellent *academic* texts on Zen.

But what about *practice*, about actually sitting zazen? That's really where the rubber meets the road, or where the butt meets the cushion, so to speak.

One book I like a lot and recommend to beginning students is Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken, Northpoint Press, ISBN 0865470804. Some might find Aitken Roshi's writing style a little dry at times, but there's a lot of grist for the mill in that little book. And as always your mileage may vary.

Sean M. Breheney
Pacific Grove, CA

Jon S.
15th February 2002, 21:13
Originally posted by cguzik

So, in my opinion, while the liguistic origin of the word "zen" is "meditation" I think in today's world a proper description would be a particular method of Buddhist practice. If you want to meditate but not practice Buddhism, in my opinion it would be a mistake to say you are doing Zen.

Certainly you and I hold two different opinions on the matter, and I imagine we will always continue to do so. Personally, I think "zen" functions as an independent concept from any sort of religion, even in todays world. Entirely contrary to you, I believe that if one meditates, but does not practice Buddhism, it would be a mistake to say that they are not doing zen, regardless of the type of meditation.

To me, zen, by itself, is more like a philosophy. Though I think to describe it as a philosophy would not be entirely correct either because it would imply something complicated.

Jon Small

16th February 2002, 21:08
Originally posted by Jon S.

Certainly you and I hold two different opinions on the matter, and I imagine we will always continue to do so. Personally, I think "zen" functions as an independent concept from any sort of religion, even in todays world. Entirely contrary to you, I believe that if one meditates, but does not practice Buddhism, it would be a mistake to say that they are not doing zen, regardless of the type of meditation.

To me, zen, by itself, is more like a philosophy. Though I think to describe it as a philosophy would not be entirely correct either because it would imply something complicated.

Jon Small


I must concede that there are many circumstances in which meditation without the label of Buddhism would indeed qualify as Zen, but I cannot agree that just any type of meditation would. There are certain aspects of practice which I believe are necessary for such qualification.

One of these is the absence of any "gaining idea" or attempt at attainment of some self-oriented goal. Someone who meditates with the goal of becoming enlightened is not practicing Zen. Neither is someone who meditates for purposes of relaxation or even learning to levitate.

One reason why I believe that Zen and Buddhism are so intimately related is that the teachings of the Buddha derive directly from the practice of Zen. If you practice meditation with your whole heart and mind, with no purpose other than just sitting in oneness, you will come to realize the teachings of the Buddha, even if you never read a sutra in your whole life.

Whether you call such realization Buddhism, religion, philosophy, or a way of living life really does not matter, because all these terms touch on some important aspects of the practice and miss others.

But in the end, the realization that comes from such practice does coincide with what the Buddha taught. My conjecture is that if such practice does not come to the same realization, then it was not true Zen practice to begin with.

I am not one to promote dogma or religion, and I certainly would not try to impose arbitrary labels on anyone or their activities. On the other hand, though, I think if there is one thing that is truly integral to Zen practice it is selflessness. Unfortunately I see many people who want to say they do Zen primarily because of their own ego. It is for this reason that I am quick to voice the kinds of cautions I do.

Best wishes,