No Self, No Opponent

Are martial arts incompatible or in harmony with Zen? That depends, says Som Pourfarzaneh.

Som Pourfarzaneh
28 September 2023
Two figures bow towards each other

My interest in martial arts began as a small child when I had hopes of someday becoming a ninja turtle—a kick-ass creature dedicated to helping others.

Throughout my adolescence I dabbled in several different disciplines, and I eventually received my teaching certification in Japanese jujitsu while concurrently training in four other martial arts. I went on to run my own dojo for several years, training apprentices and incorporating what I perceived to be Zen principles of “emptiness” and “no mind” into my teaching.

In time, exploring the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhist traditions more deeply, I came to understand how Zen principles have become distorted in the martial arts world. Formally taking refuge through the Dharma Drum Mountain lineage of Chinese Chan (Japanese: Zen) founded by Master Sheng-yen, my studies led me, in typical Zen fashion, on a circular path. I discovered that the principles behind Zen and martial arts were simultaneously complementary and incompatible, depending on one’s approach.

Zen and East Asian martial arts have complex, interwoven histories. Although neither of the two traditions is static nor homogenous, both have often been coupled to one another. Recent scholarship has begun to unpack the history of how Zen was intentionally incorporated into martial arts in order to further various political aims, and how in time Zen became the lifeblood of martial arts training. Now, the centrality of Zen in martial arts manifests in many ways, including the fact that mokuso, a form of meditation, is often practiced before training sessions among certain disciplines.

Mokuso is the Japanese approximation of the Chinese mozhao, which translates to “silent illumination,” a term that was popularized in the twelfth century during the Song Dynasty period in mainland China. One of Zen’s central meditation methods, silent illumination is known as the “methodless method,” given that there is no object of meditation other than one’s experience of the mind itself. Rather than developing concentration to arrive at insight or focusing on a gong’an (Japanese: koan), a student of silent illumination first turns their awareness to the experience of sitting itself. Over time, and with diligent practice, they might then transition from focusing on sitting to just experiencing the mind and body fully engaged in the present moment without abiding in any one thought, emotion, or feeling.

This approach is described as “embodied experiencing,” as Guo Gu, the founding teacher at Tallahassee Chan Center, calls it. Eventually, that awareness of the body and mind experiencing can fall away, and the student is left with things as they truly are, unconditioned and without the false duality of the observer and the observed.

According to Buddhist teachings, all things are mutually dependent on one another, empty of an unchanging, independent self. It thus follows that an unnuanced martial arts practice that singularly positions a “self” versus an “opponent” is incompatible with the nondual ethos of Zen. Likewise, any aim to harm others, even if one learns to be “in the moment” to better respond to a variety of attacks, is antithetical to Zen. What seems like a quaint interpretation of emptiness to enhance one’s martial arts skills turns out to be just another way to aggrandize oneself in relation to a perceived other. For a martial artist to truly explore emptiness, there can be no notion of a static self that exists in opposition to an adversary, in a martial arts context or otherwise.

Instead, I’d propose harmonizing the spirit of Zen within every aspect of daily life, including martial arts training. One popular application of Zen practice is that of mindfulness in everyday activities, such as washing dishes, working out, doing laundry, and so forth. It trains the mind to focus on whatever the body is doing, making every activity an opportunity for meditation. Proficient martial artists tend to be skilled at this, developing single-pointed concentration by wholly engaging in rehearsing their kata, choreographed movements. Yet this single-minded focus, while beneficial for developing concentration, is not enough to fully bring Zen practice into one’s life. Rather, concern for the well-being of others must be brought to bear at any given moment, fulfilling both the essence and function of silent illumination in everyday activities.

A martial arts practice grounded in Zen methods must aim to help others. Developing your martial arts skills to cause harm, or as a means by which to benchmark yourself against opponents, is by default contrary to Zen practice. Yet, you can infuse martial arts training with the intention to be of benefit to others, inverting the traditional mode of opposition into one of active compassion. With this disposition of altruism, you engage in practice to improve your fitness, enhance your discipline and focus, and develop skills in defense and protection in order to help those around you. Your opponents, once perceived as aggressors, become intimate companions who are themselves controlled by emotions, such as anger, attachment, and delusion. No longer obsessed with the false dichotomy of “self” versus “other,” you’re better able to apply your skills to restore peace and harmony in a potentially violent situation, thus fulfilling the embodiment of silent illumination by using your expertise for the common good. Whether applying this disposition in martial arts, cooking, motorcycle maintenance, or other pursuits, you engage in a dynamic, embodied expression of benefiting others. This makes every activity an opportunity for practice.

Som Pourfarzaneh

Som Pourfarzaneh

Som Pourfarzaneh is an assistant professor of Islamic and Digital Media Studies at Starr King School for the Ministry.