Within this essay I will set out to explore what my martial arts was like when I first started as a Ju-jitsuka many years ago. It’s fair to say that, that I did not fully understand at the time there were multiple elements of ritual, mindfulness and aspects of Zen present that I appeared to overlook. As my martial arts have developed, I was inspired by many other disciplines, cultures and training methods. The most significant influence to date is my discovery of Zen Buddhism in 2008. From there I began to apply the principles of this to my Ju Jitsu. This essay seeks to assess how far I have been influenced as a martial artist by Zen Buddhism and how the principles of Zen Buddhism, translate, if at all to my martial arts.

I began training in martial arts at the age of 15 with my first passion being Japanese Ju-Jitsu and an art that I would continue to study for my entire life. I did not realise at the time how much “form” and  “ritual “ would become such a big part of my life.  In reality, my thirst for knowledge had only just began and  it is only now looking back that this element appears to be something I have  unconsciously searched for across the arts I have studied.

 

Again, in retrospect, I was always that student that asked questions but always felt that I never received the answers I needed.  It was as though there was a shroud of mystery that only the instructors could see through.  Questions like, “why did we have altars in the dojo?”, “What did they represent?” and, “why do we bow?” all went unanswered.   I saw the ritual, I liked the ritual and liked watching how my teachers conducted themselves not only when bowing but when performing techniques in general.  I didn’t realise at the time but it was this aspect of Zen as well as the combat side that attracted me.

I also noticed there was an element of Zen in the way instructors acted or in some cases, a lack thereof. I watched how they interacted with their students both in and out of the Dojo, some were extremely compassionate and caring and went out of their way to help their students, others were very distant and dismissive.  More questions arose: “Why was this so?”  Some appeared egoless and others confident, sometimes beyond their means.  I felt at the time that there had to be more than just the  physical side of  training embedded within the martial arts.  I was aware of terms like “Bushido” that supposedly encompassed all aspects of being a warrior and I supposed, or maybe hoped,  that maybe one day It would become like a scene from the Kung Fu TV show with David Carradine and I would have a teacher  who  will be willing to explain everything   to me,  and show me  how to link body mind and spirit  together, enabling me to become the best warrior I could be.

I didn’t realise back in the early days that the ritual aspects of Zen behaviour and the philosophical elements would creep in over time and with experience gained, shaping me daily as I learned to accept the good and bad events and people that I would experience over the following 3 decades.

The influence of all of my instructors has rubbed off on me in some way shape or form, whether it’s the technical, the ritualistic side or the philosophical side of the arts, I now see elements of those mentors in my own practice, performance and attitude.  And as I look back , I  would say that I have been very fortunate over the past thirty five years to train with some of the best  Ju-Jitsuka  the  UK  has to offer  each instructor having  their own style and approach to teaching; all of whom I am grateful for.

One of my first instructors was Professor Kenny Blundell, senior instructor and head coach  at Lowlands Ju-Jitsu Academy. This dojo was steeped in history and looking back it was a little intimidating with its blood stained mats , weapons hung on the walls and  an unusual Kamidana style shrine at the head of the dojo.   I spent many years training at the academy and this is where I first met another influential instructor in 1986, Mike Rowan, whom I have recently rekindled a connection with.    We began training again after many years and he has helped me link my Tai chi and Ju-Jitsu together and these sessions very much incorporate a “spiritual” aspect into our training.  Maybe it was this aspect of Zen that I subconsciously picked up on as I searched for answers back in the 80s.  In fact, as I consider it, I am sure that it was.

During my quest for learning and knowledge I have been blessed to learn Ju-jitsu, Muay Thai, Tai Chi, Aikido, Escrima, MMA and recently, Western Boxing.  One instructor  I was fortunate to cross paths with many years ago was Colin Heron, head coach and founder of Team Kaobon, who was instrumental in changing not only my training style but making me realise that through  hard work and dedication  I can achieve “whatever I put my mind to”.  I never really understood this statement until many years later and hopefully now, as a more rounded martial artist, after learning to understand  the use of mindset and emotions through  daily  zen meditation practice, I can appreciate the link between the physical and spiritual a little more.

In the early years of martial arts practice I  found myself simply consumed, some may say addicted to Ju-Jitsu study; I was travelling to other dojos in and around Merseyside  and was  training on the tatami  six days a week pushing hard towards achieving my goals.  I wanted to attain black belt level, teach my own classes and to eventually open my own Dojo, becoming recognised as a good martial artist practitioner.   I was now focused and driven to pushing myself to be the best martial artist I could be, but still something felt like it was missing, maybe this was the mindset that Colin had spoken about maybe something else? It is only now looking back that I realise it was the “Fudoshin Immovable Mind”, and I had in reality already begun my Buddhist path without realising.

In 2008 my world fell apart when my father passed away; everything stopped and I became lost.  This extended to all areas of my life and I even fell out of love with my training.  I was going through the most difficult time in both my personal and professional life.  I went to see my doctor and was diagnosed with depression, at the time he suggested either taking six months off work due to my emotional state of mind or taking counselling; I opted for the latter.

I was fortunate to have met someone who became a good friend; he was an ordained Monk and  also a martial artist.  I was fortunate that he offered to teach me  Sun Style Tai Chi. He also suggested that I take up a meditation and recommended a local  Buddhist Zen group based  in Hope Street, Liverpool. This is  where I met Rev Dr David Keizan Shoji Scott who is the founder and leader of the StoneWater Zen Sangha. He is an ordained Buddhist priest and lineage holder in the Soto Zen school, having received Shiho (Dharma transmission) from Tenshin Fletcher Roshi (Abbot of Yokoji Zen Mountain centre) in   October 2009.

Keizan is also a widely published writer on Japan, Zen Buddhism, religion and cookery. He travelled to Okinawa in 1974 where he studied karate with Master Kanei Uechi at the dojo in Futenma. On his return to Liverpool, he started his own dojo and founded the Uechi-Ryu Karate Association (Great Britain) and he taught his classes in the same Dojo, was this a sign to continue training? Had our paths crossed for a reason? I have no idea but today Sensei, now Roshi not only guides me on my Zen Buddhist practice but has also shown me how to relate Zen principles  such as daily meditation practice into martial arts.

 

In my first few years of Zen practice I noticed how the traditions of martial arts and zen were closely linked, Zen Buddhism  for me, as I can only speak from my point of view, is learning to attempt to understand the meaning of life directly , without being misled by language or thought.  It often seems paradoxical as it requires true discipline but if practiced whole heartedly it can make a person act freely, more spontaneous and break the shackles of our own conditioning.  Zen practice through zazen (seated meditation) makes me look at the bigger picture, as to what is really happening in a situation or life in general.  It gives me space  to really look at “this”  if I am sad or angry it allows me  to play with the emotion to find out what it really is really going on , as it is not always what we initially think. To quote Christmas Humphreys another leading pioneer on history of zen Buddhism in Britain, he said   “Zen is a subject extremely easy to misunderstand“ this comment really resonates with me as  in Zen practice there is  no safe place to stand, everything constantly changes, when I think I have grasped this  very moment, in a blink of an eye its gone.  I realise now, that after immersion in Zen and making it a daily part of my existence, these same principles, outlooks and practices have all been with me since my first day of martial arts training.  They have been alongside me, around me and have guided me, albeit via the guidance of others, without me realising.  As someone who strives to achieve the state of Zen, I see now it has permeated my daily living, martial practices and attitudes to life and others. I am beginning to understand the wisdom of the teachers of the importance of daily practice of the physical and spiritual aspects of Zen and Martial Arts.

Zen Buddhism has influenced martial arts such as Judo, Ju-Jitsu, Karate & Aikido to name just a few. We know it was the Rinzai school of Zen that was the “adopted” religion for the Samurai.  One of the historically more famous being Miyamoto Mushashi, also known by his Buddhist name Ninten Doraku  not only a renowned Swordsman,  but a Philosopher and founder of Niten Ichi Ryu sword school in Japan. His book, The book of Five rings was composed in 1643 and  is one of the most popular books for martial artists,  it  analyses the process of struggle and mastery over conflict and underlies every level of human interaction it not only teaches us how to master our surroundings, to become familiar, fully aware and observe everything we see and feel, form our posture, our breath and emotions, we must continue our quest for knowledge, the teachings are everywhere,  Musashi has influenced me greatly as he blended the martial and philosophical aspects of Zen to the point of mastery and still continues to teach others, centuries after his death,

The samurai cultivated the bushido codes as martial values; it became a way of life putting emphasis on composure, vigilance and tranquillity especially in the face of death.  Bushido teaches intimate awareness and not to become attached; these zen concepts became the very heart and soul of Bushido, the samurai code, and is the very values of traditional martial arts schools to this day including our own Dojo where I teach how these values can be brought in to everyday life and are not just for the dojo.

Zen and martial arts have become two main  passions in my life; I personally feel they have the same flavour and same spirit as without the foundation of zen practice in martial arts, I  feel that something is lost.  They are the two sides of one coin. Body, mind and spirit united, Zen Buddhism teaches us the correct mindset to grow as a true martial artist. In the Buddhist Gatha of the Heart Sutra  (translated as “the heart of perfect wisdom”;  it is a Mahayana Buddhist chat  teaching the two truths  that all Sunyata is  of empty and unchanging essence ) we chant the words “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. For me this is about dropping off the ego  to lose oneself  in the moment and being fully present to “what is”.  When in flow, Sue simply “isn’t there” at that moment and for example, my Kata becomes live and it embodies everything, excluding all external influences.

 

I try to bring my Zen and Buddhist  foundations in to the dojo on a daily basis , When I brush the tatami every morning (obviously this is necessary for cleanliness  but it is  also meditative); although many would see it as boring and mundane I find that it gives me an opportunity for peace, to practice, to be mindful in the activity this is the same as during Zen service.   I bow to the deity on the altar showing gratitude to all those that have gone before me and to all that I aspire to become.  This is the very same  as at the beginning of my Ju-Jitsu session,  when I bow in to the Dojo, like my instructors before me,  or formally Rei to a student, at this exact time I remember those teachers and those who have shared knowledge and helped me get to where I am today.  In that moment I feel a deep gratitude and respect that they have given me the skillset to pass on knowledge.  I am aware that there is just this one moment, I am simply bowing;  this is the same  as when performing  a technique  such as the  dynamic  judo throw  inside leg  sweep  also known as Uchi Mata;  I am present right here right now , whether it is sweeping the floor or sweeping an opponent, whether it is bowing to a student or bowing to a master.  I am living the martial arts and living Zen in every moment I can.

If I allow my to mind wander and lose concentration I could not only hurt myself but my training partner also, learning to combine martial and meditative mind is my  continued daily practice, goal and passion.

When I look deeper  at traditional systems such as Aikido, Karate  & Japanese Ju-Jitsu they incorporate the mindfulness technique of Mokuso at the beginning and the end of the session.  This is to help calm the mind and it allows us to put our daily thoughts to one side before we begin training.  Mokusu is   translated to “silent stillness”; a short form of meditation that mentally prepares us for the task ahead, which for me would be Ju-Jitsu.   It is a powerful exercise that is performed in most dojos in Japan and has been proven to help reduce stress.  This is something to which I now incorporate on a daily basis into my own training whilst instilling it to my practice also, hoping that it helps to give them a fuller understanding of martial arts.  I try to show them that practical application is not everything, and I encourage them all to explore this outside of the dojo.   Many have found it is the only quiet time they get throughout their busy days and are grateful for it.

I think that one of the hardest things that I have found in martial arts is to learn to cultivate the mind through practice, whatever that practice is, be it mediation, Karate Kata, or Uchi komi.  Sustained effort and right mindset is key; this should occur naturally through daily mediation.  In Buddhism we call it Zazen, to drop off body and mind, to lose the ego.  Tenshin Roshi abbot of Yokoji  Zen mountain centre  says your practice doesn’t have to look like anything,   I have always thought of that sentence  when I am training or performing service.   I do it with commitment and being present and  try to have the correct mindset.   This has allowed me to become driven and focused and have a  clear direction within my martial arts training.   Kosho Uchiyama, a Zen priest and  Abbot of Antai -Ji  monastery in Kyoto Japan,  emphasised the practice of the three minds: “Magnanimous mind, nurturing mind and joyful mind”.

However traditionally these are the various state of minds that are mentioned throughout training in martial arts and Buddhist practice :

Mushotaku means not to become attached to things or objects, the spirit does no longer seeks, there is just this very moment, for me  I would translate this to service during zen practice I am merely lighting incense, in a martial aspect it would be  perfect Kata  or a  flawless throw, being fully present to “just his “ with no judgement to simply lose myself in the very moment,

Hishiryo translates to drifting in and out of consciousness, sometimes we say drifting in and out of this world, to use Buddhist terms be partly in the relative and partly in the absolute, life is very real , but ultimately everything will be ok ,in 2017 i was forced to close my academy and find a new venue although a troubling time ,on one hand there was total chaos the other a kind of calmness i learned to trust the process that this wasn’t a situation  i could control, ultimately  it will be ok,

Zanshin   for me this reminds me to always  to be vigilant and aware not  to become  deluded or attached,  constant  when sitting zazen,  and keeping the ego in check, awareness  on all levels, do not put labels on things, If I am performing a judo style throw or Kata that’s all I am performing, if I add labels  it no longer becomes technique, i get caught up in the  good, bad, right, wrong, Dogen Zengi said  “a flower falls,  even though we love it, and a weed grows even though we do not love it “ why would you pick something that was so beautiful only for it to die ?

Fudoshin I  translate this to immovable mind, complete composure and fearless to show courage and determination during times when life is challenging,  for me this couldn’t be more prevalent in today’s world, i took  the chance and had the determination to follow my  goals and aspirations through and to finally put myself out there as a serious martial artist in 2019  showing students that we can  the triumph over adversity, all we need  constant awareness , dedication and complete focus to the task at hand

Mushin is the essence of zen in martial arts, translated to mind without mind, not fixed without thought, to simply just be is something I think every true martial artist seeks to attain but in that very seeking we are lost, this always makes me laugh, as when i aspire to become the best version of myself  but in the very trying i can lose what i set out to achieve, for me this is a daily battle

Satori translates to spiritual enlightenment, something a lot of people seek, however for me I feel that if I simply learn to cultivate the above to constantly be aware, the seeker will no longer remain and my  true spiritual journey will begin, to finally let go of all attachment and not drop off all life’s conditioning and labels, i can simply just be, no more labels or martial artist or Buddhist monk, I can find enlightenment in the simple thing, to trust that I am on the one path that is right for me

As I mentioned earlier zen practice seemed to be something to which I naturally fell in to  I loved the formality of form,  watching a zen service were everyone is in harmony is like a beautiful dance , everyone has their role and it all comes together effortlessly without any judgement or ego , for  or my ordination  as a Buddhist monk in 2014 I  wanted to look more  closely at the two passions in my life,  I would continually separate them and it has taken me many years to realise that for me I cannot have one without the other, both disciplines demand full commitment and whole hearted practice ,

I  was taken aback whilst reading  a passage from  Kosho Uchiyama he says “anyone who is planning to devote himself or herself to Buddhist practice has to have the power to overcome adversity. The power of life buried in your deepest parts will never arise until you have become convinced that you’re walking the only path open to you “

It made me look at my life through not only the Buddhist eight-fold noble path (  this is a path of Buddhist practices leading to liberation  from Samsara ( suffering)  and  the painful cycle of rebirth)   and  the budo values to which I try to adhere to on a daily basis, I began to realise how similar they actually were,

These Buddhist eight factors aim to promote the three Buddhist training and disciples, ethical conduct, mental discipline and wisdom and the Budo Values are a philosophical code for behaviour,

 

Japanese zen master  Taisen Deshimmaru   a zen  Soto priest who founded the association zen international in 1970,  often wrote about zen and the principles  of Bushido or the way of the warrior which  grew in partly out of Buddhist thought, these were common ground between the monk and the warrior , Deshimaru emphasized that the learning of these principles is a lifelong process in the body through the unconsciousness,  He explains that  “ in the spirit of zen  everyday life becomes a contest  there must be an awareness at every level”, for me this statement is really personal, i have been nicknamed the warrior monk, and being pushed as a public figure in my local community, constant awareness  and checking of the ego is needed on a daily basis, i know before zen practice i could have easily become complaisant and carried away with the situation , but  Buddhist practice has shown me how to aware of my ego and how to cultivate compassion and  better serve the community

I think the place for mastery itself or enlightenment if that is what you wish to call it is in mundane routine, making a cup of tea, washing the dishes, when I practice Kobudo ( Okinawan weapon work)  I put my heart and soul in to it, to the very point of losing myself in the  form, to make the kata live and flow with energy  we can do this  in each action on a daily basis to bring a fresh view to something we do every day, to become present in our lives moment to moment, not comparing it to others or being judgemental to simply live our lives wholeheartedly  with constant awareness of unconditional love.

this is my personal translation  of how I think the budo values and eightfold Buddhist path are linked, we know they fall in to three brackets, Ethical, Mental & wisdom, the first being every action has a consequence, second is mindset and the third for me would translate to simply compassion

Budo Virtues

Ethical

Rei/Respect (all living things, treat others how you wish to be treated and respect their thoughts and opinions, mine is not the only opinion)

Gi/honesty (speaking and doing being the same action, you are what you practice do it wholeheartedly with constant awareness)

Mental discipline

Makoto/ integrity (be fully committed to your actions, see it through to the end)

Chugo/ Loyalty (show up not only to your life and support others who come in to your sphere)

Wisdom

Yu/courage (always move forward and learn to face your fears for  what we feel today will pass, we have the courage to  triumph over adversity)

Jin/compassion ( be kind to yourself and  open your heart to others, remember that a little compassion goes a long way)

Meiyo/honour (do not hide from yourself embrace all that is)

 

Eight-Fold Path

Ethical conduct

Right speech (Realise self and other as one, think of what you are about to say )

Right action (think before you act it out, do not act on emotion)

Right livelihood, (trust that you have all you truly need, do not me greedy)

Mental discipline

Right effort (Do not indulge in anger, do what needs to be done with attitude)

Right mindfulness (Be clear and compassionate in your actions)

Wisdom

Right understanding (do not become fixed on views others may think differently and that is ok)

Right thought (think of other feelings and emotions)

right concentration (be fully present in the moment do not become deluded, dedication to the task ahead )

in Zen Buddhism “The foundation of our practice is not to harm others or ourselves and to help benefit others as much as we can, to serve our community,  For that purpose, I shave my head and wear robes, which is the easy way to practice Buddhism.”  The hardest part is to reach out and support the people associated with my life in the spirit of the Buddha, no matter what I am wearing.  Understanding the, sometimes, harsh realities of unconditional love is the true challenge of being ordained. The ability to give the whole of one’s life to realizing Enlightenment, to widening one’s heart, and to serving the Dharma is a rare and auspicious opportunity and I embrace it, knowing that I will sometimes stumble but will always continue forward.

The paragraph above translates perfectly to me,  as I said earlier there is no separation between zen & martial arts , the past few weeks I have spoken to other traditional  martial artists and found that a followers of Budo say that their practice is ever changing and evolving, they continually strive to become the best version of themselves, through practice they naturally become more compassionate, trusting and want to  “pay something back “ to their communities and to those who have been students for a long time , to freely  share knowledge,  many martial artists in my sphere nowadays incorporate meditation in to their daily routine,  and admit loosing themselves in the midst of chaos when competing or performing Kata attaining mind set of Mushin or having glimpses of Satori this is something that has over the years began to naturally occur for myself,   i have developed a strong willingness to share and empower those around me to look at how i can serve the  local community through  using martial arts  and zen practice as a tool to reach out  and change lives.

Before I began  to study Zen Buddhisum and learning  meditation I did not understand how pragmatic a turn it would take in developing me as a martial artist , I personally feel I have grown both spiritually  mentally, it has  made me to engage with life at a higher level that I never thought possible , I feel my relationships with those around me friends, students and teachers have become more enriched,  and I understand how to serve my local  community and  the accepting that I may never become enlightened, and that is fine ,I know now  and understand how small a cog I am in the great wheel of life, but without playing my part the wheel will not turn, it is safe to say that Zen Buddhism has totally changed my  mindset and way of  not only physical training for myself a in  martial arts  but teaching students  also, it has also encouraged me to try new experiences and continually look at my daily life with the courage and compassion to move forward.

Eido /Sue King