Just back from Rajasthan with tons of photos from Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Pushkar.
Mann’s book considers one of Asian history’s intriguing little questions: How is it that one of the most pacifistic of world religions, i.e. Buddhism, came to be integrally connected to some of the world’s most fearsome and devastatingly effective warriors? Specifically, the author looks at the connection of Zen Buddhism to warrior traditions like the samurai of Japan and—to a lesser extent—the Shaolin monks of China. It should be noted that while Zen was one of the most firmly established intersects of Buddhism and martial arts; it’s not the only one. Branches of Vajrayana (esoteric) Buddhism had their own warrior-monk traditions—which he mentions as well as Shugendō’s (combines Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist elements) warrior connection. The book is heavily weighted toward the Japanese martial arts. This may be in part owing to the author’s particular background, but also because many of the works that establish this firm connection between Zen and martial arts are Japanese (e.g. works by Takuan Sōhō, Yagyū Munenori, and even Miyamoto Musashi.)
It’s worth noting that both Buddhists and modern martial artists have tried to downplay or outright deny the connection between these traditions. However, Mann suggests the connection is undeniable in the face of historical evidence, and that it even has a logic that belies the apparent contradiction. (Note: Presumably many Buddhists deny this connection because they want to distance themselves from the taint of violence, and many modern martial artists deny it so their religious students won’t ditch the art because it isn’t 100% secular [or based entirely in the student’s religious belief structure.])
The book consists of eight chapters as well as front matter and an Epilogue that explores the question of whether the Zen of samurai lore is truly Zen Buddhism. The first couple chapters give the reader an introduction to Buddhism and, specifically Zen. There are then chapters that show the linkage between Zen and the martial arts of East Asia. The book then considers the nature of the advantages offered by Zen to martial artists that made it so appealing to warriors like the samurai. It also considers the interpretation of violence that allows for the dichotomy under discussion, and explores the degree to which the connection between Zen Buddhism and martial arts is relevant in the modern era. The book is a mix of history, religious studies, philosophy, and the art and science of fighting systems. So if one’s interests are eclectic, there’s a lot to take away from this book. If you have narrow interests, you’ll want to make sure they include the aforementioned central question (i.e. Why pacifistic Buddhism has helped produce some of the world’s greatest fighting systems.)
The book is well-researched and documented. There are many interesting and informative stories throughout the book. For example, I’d never read about the 19th century jujutsu murders until this book. This is a fascinating case in which several experienced students of one particular school of jujutsu were found dead with the exact same wound. While the murderer wasn’t captured, investigators quickly discerned his (or her) method. That is, the killer knew the trained responses of this school and made a feint to draw a certain defense and then exploited a vulnerability the response presented. How is this story relevant? It speaks to the perceived advantages of Zen, which emphasizes avoiding habituation and residing in the moment.
I’d recommend this book for martial artists who are interested in the history and cultural context of their arts [and of the martial arts in general.] There’s a class of martial arts student who may want to avoid the book. If you’re a devout adherent of a Western religion who practices a traditional style of East Asian martial art and think that there isn’t an imprint of the local religion on that art, your delusions may be shattered by this book. Buddhists may find the discussion of the less absolutist interpretation of ahimsa (non-violence) to be illuminating (or—for all I know—infuriating.) It’s a short book, coming in at around 200 pages, but is end-noted and referenced in the manner of a scholarly work. It has a glossary and bibliography, but no graphics.
This young adult (YA) novel is set in the Central Highlands of Vietnam during the last few years of the war. The lead character, Y’tin, is an adolescent whose life ambition is to be an elephant handler, a dream which he’s well on the way to achieving and which he’d be a shoo-in for if he didn’t live in war-torn times. His life is complicated by the fact that his father has worked for the American Special Forces (as a tracker), and the war is turning in the favor of the North.
When US forces withdraw and South Vietnamese forces are overrun, Y’tin escapes into the jungle with a couple of other boys and their elephants. Almost immediately a fault line freezes out Y’tin. The three boys had been close friends in the village, but under the stress of jungle life, the other two resent that Y’tin’s father worked for US Special Forces and that Y’tin, himself, had once gone on mission with the Americans. They believe that this is what has brought the war to their village. On the other hand, they recognize that Y’tin is more gifted in jungle craft than they, especially tracking, because of the education of his father.
Because of these skills, Y’tin is chosen to go back on a mission to reconnoiter their village, and he finds it’s been bombed out and nobody is to be seen. This leaves it unclear how many of the villagers escaped versus being executed by the North Vietnamese forces—but he does know many were killed. [Incidentally, the title comes from Y’tin’s view of the jungle after seeing the remnants of his village—i.e. instead of being a million shades of green, all he can see is gray.]
Besides telling the story of Y’tin’s adventures in surviving the war, the novel pivots on Y’tin’s role as a mahout—and ultimately as a protector of the elephants. Y’tin finds himself in a position in which his dream is no longer tenable, and he must decide whether take a heroic risk to save the elephants or hold on to his dream in the face of unfavorable odds.
The book is only a little over 200 pages arranged into 14 chapters, and—as would be expected of YA fiction—is readable. The book’s strength is in building a lead character who’s interesting by virtue of his mix of worldly naiveté and jungle [local] wisdom and giving him intense challenges and dilemmas. Weakness? The strict chronological progression results in a slow start in which the author spends a chapter establishing that the lead character loves elephants without anything interesting happening. However, if one gives the book til the second chapter, things start happening.
I’d recommend this book for readers of fiction, and particularly those interested in YA fiction and stories of war.
This row of street food stalls is located across the street from Flora Fountain in Mumbai. They don’t all sell Vada Pav, but the most popular one does. (Alternative spellings: wada pav, vada paav, or vada pao)
FYI: Vada Pav is a delicious deep-fried, spiced potato ball served as a sandwich on a fluffy dinner roll style bun. It’s a Maharashtra specialty. There’s a video below if you’d like to see how they’re made or to make your own.
This is a parade procession that we passed as we were walking out to a couple of the Eastern Group of Temples at Khajuraho.
It was pretty typical, a tractor with a squawky loudspeaker playing music at about 100db beyond the speaker’s rating, pulling a trailer with a figure. There was color throwing and garlands. The works.
Manikarnika is the main ghat for cremation on the Ganges in the city of Varanasi. It’s noted by its vast stacks of firewood and steady flame. In Hindu mythology, it’s said to be where Mata Sati’s ear ring fell when Shiva was carrying her to the Himalayas and it’s an important Hindu site for reasons beyond the burial rights conducted there.
[When the caste system was legal] one of India’s wealthiest untouchables ran operations at the ghat. Untouchables being the only caste considered suitable to do this work, but it being a lucrative operation.
Travelers beware, sadly, this area attracts con-artists as well as mourners.