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.

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The 4% Rule, Yerkes-Dodson, and Finding the Sweet Spot in Martial Arts Training

I was watching one of Michio Kaku’s Big Think videos recently that addressed American science education. The question of interest was how America continues to do so well in science and technology given that the American (primary and secondary) educational system isn’t up to par in science and mathematics with its technological competitors. The bulk of his talk (re: the H-1B visa and importation of brain power) isn’t germane to this post. It’s Kaku’s mention of a second secret weapon that caught my attention, and that’s how America is able to do a better job than many of its competitors in identifying and nurturing top talent. While math and science education is better in many Asian countries, those countries (e.g. Japan, Korea, or China) don’t excel at skimming off the cream of the crop. Dr. Kaku explains that this is because Confucian values teach students to conform, and students are loathe to stand out–even for exceptional performance. Even if a student wanted to show their talent in hopes of having it fostered, the large classes, lecture-centric teaching, and testing of memorization and standardized processes doesn’t offer much opportunity to grow one’s individual strengths.

 

Kaku’s statement resonated with me because I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of traditional approaches to martial arts instruction. I’m particularly interested in the gulf between the traditional approach and what martial arts teaching would look like if one took advantage of the wealth of scientific knowledge about mind and body development. Most of the martial arts instruction I’ve received over the years is consistent with Confucian thinking. All the students are doing the same practice (or faking it to the best of each’s abilities if it’s beyond one’s current capacities), and each is trying to closely emulate the teacher-presented ideal as much as possible. There’s not much consideration of the individual student’s weaknesses or strengths. Emphasis is on trying to convey as high-fidelity a replica of the techniques that have been handed down through the ages. (While this may be a laudable goal, I’ll later offer explanations as to why I think it’s both death for retention of students and ultimately counterproductive.)

 

Let me first say that there are a number of advantages to the traditional approach to martial arts instruction. First, it’s easy to teach many students at once. This was probably a huge advantage when there were armies of men having to learn these skills. Second, [theoretically] it helps students reduce their egotism through discipline and conformity. The highly hierarchical nature of this approach means students spend years in a lowly position, with the hope that some humility may stick. (NOTE: I’m not certain that this works out in practice.) Third, it creates a disciplined learning environment that is conducive to helping a student keep his or her head in the game.

 

What the traditional approach isn’t so good at is producing students who all perform at the best of their abilities. I suspect that the traditional approach doesn’t do so well for student retention either. It’s a system in which new students are forced to drink through the fire-hose; while students who’ve been around for a while often feel like they’re stagnating.  As I’ll get to below, there’s good reason to believe that a proper match between the challenge of a task and the performer’s skill level is critical to creating an intrinsically rewarding activity and to helping students perform at their best.

 

My thoughts on this topic have been heavily influenced by learning and teaching yoga. While one’s vision of a yoga class may be rows of students doing the exact same posture (and huge classes and / or poor instructors may result in that condition),  but there’s often a degree of variation in a class. This variation results from two concepts that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately, namely modifications and capacity building.

 

Modifications are a two-way street. If the task at hand is beyond the student’s current abilities, he or she may be given an easier variant that allows him or her to work toward the fundamental form. On the other hand, if the task of the moment is old hat, a student might be offered a more challenging version on occasion. I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t drill the basics throughout one’s martial arts career. Repetition of fundamentals is key to drilling them down into one’s nervous system. However, the brain loves novelty and hates drudgery, and it will become harder and harder to remain engaged if the overall challenge level doesn’t rise. The science suggests that one needs to keep upping one’s game if one wants to perform at one’s best.

 

The nature of modifications in martial arts may not seem as clear as it is with respect to yoga postures. For randori, sparring, and other free-form training, it’s easy to envision how one can adapt the practice to reduce or increase the challenge to a level more apropos of the student’s skill level. One can practice a restricted form. For example, one may work only on sparring with boxing rules to kicks or grappling out of the equation until a student builds up his or her confidence and abilities with recognizing and responding to punches. Alternatively, an advanced student might be presented with armed or multiple attackers. There are some practices, such as specific techniques, for which modifications may not be an option, but that doesn’t necessarily let a teacher off the hook for helping a student who’s challenged by the technique. That may be where capacity building exercises come into play.

 

Capacity building goes beyond offering an easier modification to suggesting exercises to help the student build the physical capacity to do the technique repetitively WITHOUT INJURY. I emphasized those last two words for a reason. In some martial arts, the need for capacity building exercises maybe clear because of the acrobatic insanity involved. However, practitioners of more pragmatic martial arts may say, “We don’t do all those fancy spinning back kicks, so we don’t need capacity building. Anybody can do our techniques because they’re simple and direct.” Maybe that’s true, but if multiple members of your school have the same (or similar) repetitive stress injuries, it’s not true at all.

 

What kind of capacity building are we talking about?  If the technique involves jumping or leaping and the individual is gravitationally-challenged, then plyometrics might be the prescription. On the other hand, if the problem is the inability of the student’s joints to withstand the technique, there might be need for exercises that build up stabilizing muscles, help him / her to cut weight, or both. If a student can’t do a throw without risk of injury, maybe that individual needs to spend time practicing with elastic bands or inner tubes or working on their balance.

 

RiseOfSupermanWhat is this 4% rule? I read about it in Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman. As background, there’s a state of mind called “Flow” that’s associated with performing at one’s best. In this state of mind, which some call “the zone” and others probably once called satori or samadhi, one’s concentration on the task at hand is at its greatest, unnecessary features like sense of time and sense of self fall away, one’s inner critic shuts the hell up, and–at least afterwards–there’s a blissful state. Flow can be described as the shutting down of specific elements of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC)–largely involved with the consciousness mind. It can also be defined neuro-chemically by the hormones released (i.e. Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine, Anandamide, and Norepinephrine) and neuro-electrically in terms of one’s brainwaves (around 8 Hz.)

 

There are conditions that favor achievement of Flow, notably: 1.) clear goals, 2.) immediate feedback, and 3.) a good match between the level of the challenge and the level of one’s skill. Flow is a key factor in why some activities are intrinsically rewarding (whether or not they are rewarding in other ways) and why almost any activity can be intrinsically rewarding if it’s sufficiently challenging relative to one’s abilities. What’s sufficiently challenging? That’s where 4% comes into the picture. While it’s by no means an exact or universal value, it turns out that when a task presents a challenge that is roughly 4% above one’s present skill-level is when this state of mind is most accessible. This is why one may see students drop out if they find the level of challenge stagnant. On the other hand, one may not keep new students either if the challenge is constantly beyond their abilities.

 

How about that Yerkes-Dodson? The two early 20th century scientists for whom the Yerkes-Dodson Law are named discovered that performance increases with arousal (one might do best to think of this as anxiety level rather than the colloquial use of that word) up to a certain point, beyond which performance either levels off or plummets–depending upon the nature of the objective.  The point is that keeping the training environment too sterile has it’s disadvantages. In free-form practices like sparring, a little nerves can be a good thing, but being overwhelmed can be detrimental.

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

Adjusting one’s instruction to the abilities of one’s students is challenging. Traditionalists may hold that it’s far more important to keep the tradition intact than it is to cater to the individual needs of students.  That is, said teachers may prefer to focus on the aforementioned high-fidelity transmission of the teachings of the lineage. There was a time during which I probably would have echoed that sentiment. However, it increasingly occurs to me that producing the best and most engaged students is the best way to keep a tradition alive.

Blinders (Literal and Figurative) in the Martial Arts

IMG_2553Many years ago I was training at a dōjō that had a practitioner who was a teacher for the blind. He requested that we put together a self-defense workshop for his students.  (If you’re wondering what kind of evil jackass would attack a blind person, rest assured that—sadly–such a level of jackassitude exists in the world.) The request presented an intriguing challenge. How does one adapt techniques that are premised on being able to see what the opponent is doing? Or maybe one shouldn’t adapt existing techniques but rather start from square one?

 

In preparation for working up a lesson plan, the person that asked for the workshop briefed the black belts. We learned that very few of the blind students lived in complete darkness. Instead, they displayed a wide range of different visual impairments. He even brought a large bag of goggles that simulated various impairments so that we could train in them to better understand what would or wouldn’t work with different types of impairment.

 

There were goggles that had funnels over the eyes such that one could see two little circles clearly while the rest of the world was black. There were others that had a complete field of view, but had translucent tape over the lenses so that everything was reduced to fuzzy blobs—as if one were looking through Vaseline. There were lenses that had a crackle effect such that one could only see veins of area clearly. There were goggles with no peripheral vision, and ones with only peripheral vision. He also had some goggles that blacked out the world entirely. Completely blind individuals may not be as common as one would think, but they certainly exist. Putting on any of the goggles was disorienting at first. A couple of the black belts even got vertigo or nausea when they moved around too quickly.

 

Now imagine what it would be like if one had always had the goggles on, that it was the only worldview one had ever known. Furthermore, imagine that everyone you interacted with on a daily basis all wore the same variety of goggles. You wouldn’t see it as an affliction or a limitation. To you, your view of the world would be full and complete. You would engage in behaviors that might seem odd to an outsider with unobstructed vision (e.g. sweeping your hands around in big arcs, turning your head at unusual angles, or calling out into the “darkness”), but these behaviors wouldn’t seem odd to you because you’d know it as natural behavior for someone who experienced the world as you did.  Because everyone you dealt with would see the world in the same way, it wouldn’t occur to you to think about whether there was another way to behave.

 

The preceding paragraph serves as an analogy for culture. One’s own culture is often invisible, especially if you don’t get outside of it much. All the people around you confirm your belief that you’re seeing the world as it is and behaving in the only natural and normal way imaginable. Sure, you may notice other people’s cultures—their skewed worldviews and the anomalous behaviors that result– but that’s because they do “strange things.” Still, some individuals will maintain that their culture doesn’t display any of the “odd” ways of behaving that more “exotic” cultures do.

 

But it does. Every culture is a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly of how a people goes about living in the world given their cultural blind spots and skews. It includes collective coping mechanism for dealing with fears of uncertainty, and those are often the ugly side of culture. They encourage ingroup / outgroup separation, as well as primitive and superstitious approaches to dealing with those events, people, and behaviors that are out of the ordinary.

 

It’s easy to display double standards when one is blind to culture. I will give an example from my own life. It’s only been since I’ve been living in India (and traveling in Asia) that I’ve become aware of how many people are upset by Westerner’s secularization of Eastern religious / spiritual symbols and imagery. That’s a mouthful; so let me explain what I mean by “secularization of Eastern symbols and imagery.” I’m talking about “OM” T-shirts / pendants, bronze Buddhas, Tibetan thanka paintings, mandalas  (on T-shirts or posters), miniature shrines, or tattoos that are purchased because they are trendy, aesthetically pleasing, or vaguely conceptually pleasing without any real understanding of the tradition from which they came or intention of honoring it.

 

Granted it’s easy to miss the above issue if you’re a tourist because: a.) Many of said Eastern traditions practice a live-and-let-live lifestyle that make their practitioners unlikely to be confrontational about such things (in contrast to  practitioners of Abrahamic traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.)) b.) There are merchants in every country who are willing to sell anything to anybody for a buck, and so there are vast markets for tourists that offer up these symbols and images in droves.

 

It still intrigues me that it once caught me off guard that there were Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc. who were dismayed by the secularization of their traditions. I’m agnostic, but I was raised in a Christian household. Therefore, I can imagine the animosity aroused by the following conversation.

 

A: [Wearing a simple crucifix [or Star of David or crescent & star] pendant on a chain.]

B: Hey, A, I didn’t know you were Christian [or Jewish or Muslim]?

A: Because I’m not.

B: But you’re wearing a crucifix [or other Abrahamic symbol] pendant?

A: Oh, yeah, that. That doesn’t mean anything. It just looks cool. It’s kind of like the Nike swoosh.

B: [Jaw slackens.]

 

Now replace the crucifix with an “OM” shirt, and an inquiry about whether “A” is Hindu. Does it feel the same? If it doesn’t, why shouldn’t it?

 

Every martial art represents a subculture embedded in the culture of the place from which it came.  [Sometimes this becomes a mélange, as when a Japanese martial art is practiced in America. In such cases the dōjō usually reflects elements of Japanese culture (e.g. ritualized and formal practice), elements of American culture (e.g. 40+ belt ranks so that students can get a new rank at least once a year so they don’t quit), and elements of the martial art’s culture (e.g. harder or softer approaches to engaging the opponent.)]

 

The way that culture plays into a country’s martial arts may not become clear until one has practiced the martial arts of different countries—particularly in their nation of origin. While my own experience is limited, I have practiced Japanese kobudō in America (and extremely briefly in Japan), Muaythai in Thailand, and Kalaripayattu in India. I’ll leave Muaythai out of the discussion for the time being because I can most easily make my point by contrasting Japanese and Indian martial arts.  The Japanese and Indian martial arts I’ve practiced each reflects the nature of its respective culture, and they couldn’t be more different.

 

IMG_4525What are the differences between the Japanese and Indian martial arts I’ve studied? I’ve been known to answer that by saying that the Japanese martial art rarely uses kicks above waist level, while in Kalaripayattu if you’re only kicking at the height of your opponent’s head you’ll be urged to get your kick up a couple of feet higher.  What does that mean? The Japanese are expert at stripping out the needless and they work by paring away excess rather than building difficulty. The impulse of the Japanese is to avoid being showy. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) appeals to the Japanese mind. (Except for the “Stupid” part, which would be considered needlessly confrontational and gratuitously mean-spirited.) There’s a reason why Japanese martial arts don’t feature prominently in global martial arts cinema. They don’t wow with their physicality; efficiency is at the fore.

 

IMG_2246On the other hand, Indians are a vastly more flamboyant bunch, and Kalaripayattu is extremely impressive to watch and in terms of the physicality required to perform the techniques.  The Indian art isn’t about simplifying or cutting away the unnecessary. One has to get in progressively better shape as one advances to be able to perform techniques that require one leap higher, move faster, and be stronger. The Indian art isn’t about paring away excess, it’s about making such an impressive physical display that the opponent wonders whether one is just a man, or whether one might not be part bird or lion.

 

It might sound like I’m saying that the Japanese martial art is more realistic than the Indian one. Not really. Each of them is unrealistic in its own way. It’s often pointed out that the Japanese trained left-handedness out of their swordsmen, but that’s only one way in which Japanese martial arts counter individuation.  Given what we see in terms of how “southpaws” are often more successful in boxing, MMA, and street fighting, eliminating left-handedness seems like an unsound tactic at the individual level. There are undoubtedly many practitioners of traditional Japanese martial arts who can dominate most opponents who fight in an orthodox manner, but who would be thrown into complete disarray by an attacker who used chaotic heathen tactics. Consider that the only thing that kept the Japanese from being routed (and ruled) by the Mongolians was two fortuitous monsoons. The samurai were tremendously skilled as individual combatants, but the Mongolians could—literally—ride circles around them in warfare between armies. Perhaps, a more relevant question is whether Miyamoto Musashi would have defeated Sasaki Kojirō if the former had followed all the formal protocols of Japanese dueling instead of showing up late, carving his bokken from a boat oar, and generally presenting a f*@# you attitude. Who knows? But as the story is generally told, Musashi’s disrespectful and unorthodox behavior threw Sasaki off his game, and it was by no means a given that Musashi would win. Some believed Sasaki to be the more technically proficient swordsman.

 

All martial arts are models of combative activity apropos to the needs of a particular time, place, culture, and use.  And—as I used to frequently hear in academia—all models are wrong, though many are useful. (Sometimes, it’s written: “All models are lies, but many are useful.”)

 

[FYI: to the readers who say, “The martial art I practice is completely realistic.” My reply: “You must go through a lot of body-bags. Good for you? I guess?”]

Tsukahara Bokuden Defeats a Braggart

[Note: There are many versions of this story, and these events have even been attributed to other warriors. The tale was likely passed around orally before it was written down myriad times in myriad different ways (most famously in the Kōyō Gunkan.) The details of the story aren’t important; it’s the overall moral of the story and that remains the same from one version to the next.]

Bokuden Boat

Tsukahara Bokuden listened to the braggart nauseating the ferry passengers with graphic details of his “exploits.” Bokuden would have happily ignored the young samurai, but the cocky youth seemed eager to take offense at the lack of interest in his tales of hacking people to bits and was looking for a fight. The other passengers on the boat were all commoners: an elderly man who was probably a craftsman or a small business merchant, and a mother with her young child.

“Do you doubt me? Do you have the audacity to call me a liar,” The young man said, having not received a suitably enthusiastic response to his stories. And he stood, one hand on his scabbard and the other brushing his sword’s hilt.

Tsukahara Bokuden said, “Easy, young man. No one is calling you a liar. These good people are just not used to such bloody stories.”

The young samurai turned to eye Bokuden, who had appeared to be napping in the back earlier. The braggart asked, “And who are you to challenge me?”

“I didn’t challenge you. I merely explained these people’s lack of enthusiasm for your yarns. But if you must know, I am Tsukahara Bokuden,” he replied, hoping his name might give the bragging samurai pause. Bokuden was well-known, having traversed Japan in musha shugyō (sometimes related to the European “knights errantry,”musha shugyō was a time in a samurai’s life–particularly in times of relative peace–when he traveled the land engaging in matches with individuals from other schools to increase his skill and notoriety–i.e. if he didn’t get killed, which was not uncommon, even when the fight was with wooden swords.)

“I’ve never heard of you. What’s your style?” the cocky samurai asked.

“Mine is the School of No-Sword,” replied Bokuden.

“I’ve never heard of that school, but it sounds weak,” the braggart said.

“I assure you, the technique is quite powerful,” Bokuden said.

“Are you suggesting that you could defeat me with this so-called ‘no sword’ technique?” the braggart said, his hand tightening on his scabbard.

“I said nothing of the sort. I would just like to enjoy the remainder of the ferry ride in peace,” said Bokuden.

“Are you scared to have a match to see who’s style is better?” the cocky youth asked.

“Not in the least, but I see no benefit in it either,” Bokuden replied.

“I’ve had enough of your lip, old man, prepare to defend yourself,” said the young samurai.

Bokuden sighed, “If you insist upon a match, let us at least do so where these good people’s lives will not be in peril. Surely you’ll agree that it would do no great honor to the samurai class if we were to injure or kill innocent bystanders.”

At this the braggart just harrumphed, “Who cares, but I’ll take you on wherever you wish.”

Tsukahara Bokuden said to the oarsman, “Sorry to trouble you, but would you mind diverting to drop us on that outcrop so that we can spare these people the swinging blades.”

The oarsman was readily agreeable. He didn’t want two samurai fighting on his ferryboat any more than Bokuden did.

He rowed them to a stony outcrop that jutted up out of the water. The uneven rocky ground wasn’t ideal for a match, but it would spare the other passengers and would provide a challenge.

When the boat’s bow ground up against the rock, the young samurai jumped out, twisting around in air, and landed on the rock. The braggart held his scabbard and hilt at the ready for a swift draw. The young man was eager to do battle, and it was clear that he was annoyed with Tsukahara Bokuden’s slow movement. The older swordsman took out both of his swords and asked one of the passengers to hold the swords. The oarsman and the passengers were surprised by this disarming behavior, but they’d heard him call his school the “school of no-sword.”

Tsukahara Bokuden then moved up to the boat’s bow as if preparing to move ashore.

“Might I borrow your oar, young man?” Bokuden said to the oarsman. The oarsman nodded and handed Bokuden the long oar with two hands, and with his head bowed. The general assumption was that the older samurai wanted to stabilize the boat against the rock so he could pass ashore smoothly.

Taking the oar, Bokuden drove one end into the outcrop, and grabbed the other pushing the boat away from the rock. The boat glided out from the rock in an accelerating fashion.

Lunging toward the water’s edge, the perplexed braggart called out, “What on earth are you doing, old man?”

To which Bokuden replied, “I’m defeating you with the school of no sword.”

By the time the young samurai could remove his swords and tug away his outer garment, Bokuden had rowed out to deep waters and returned the oar to the oarsman.

 

Haiku no Gyokko-ryū Jōryaku no Maki

throw open the gate
mindless herds will charge headlong
into the stockyard



prolong each journey
show the Emperor the sights
drop his palanquin



the guitarist’s hand
bounds chord to chord on the dot
no beat is missed



the slug ricochets
yet always finds its mark
burrowing deeply



waves washing ashore
within a rocky inlet
turn about strongly



gulls flap into flight
slowly lifting skyward in
an unrushed climb



sparks pop from the fire
with impeccable timing
uncapturable



topple the gatepost
with a splintering impact
but start with a sting



the pinky finger
of a raging wild-eyed brute
snaps like a pea-pod



once the snake constricts
all is hopelessly lost
sting first and sting deep



bears don’t crush stout trees
stout trees sometimes crush a bear
falling in tree’s time



the bull’s hoof clomps down
a statement made decisive
not to be wrangled