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BOOK REVIEW: When Buddhists Attack by Jeffery K. Mann

When Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial ArtsWhen Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts by Jeffrey K. Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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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.

View all my reviews

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