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The combination of martial arts training with ancient spiritual traditions—usually Zen, Taoism, or both, with a layer of Confucian hierarchical structure and organizational values—is a 20th Century phenomenon, consciously created to make traditional martial practice relevant and attractive to a modern intellectual society.

Orange-robed Buddhist monks training from dawn to darkness at the Shaolin Temple in the Yellow River Valley of China. Taoist immortals in the Wudang Mountains some 300 miles to the Southwest, performing exotic rituals that stretch the limits of human imagination and physical capability. Samurai warriors in feudal Japan performing solemn Buddhist meditation in preparation for a duel at first light. . .

These images are familiar to most martial artists. They appear in thousands of hours of film stock in movies from Hong Kong and Japan, millions of words of text in books from all over the world, and post-workout reveries and discussions by martial arts instructors and students who have even a passing interest in the origins of their practice.

Japanese troops wielding bows, halberds, swords, and other classical weapons

detail: Japanese troops wielding bows, halberds, swords, and other classical weapons

Like many idealized representations of ancient cultures, the content of these legends is suspect, to some degree or another, by the standards of modern historical inquiry. In other words, an historian in a college or university would have great difficulty confirming these stories with official documents, art and books that date from the historical period, or other standard methods of constructing a credible historical narrative. Instead, a significant body of martial arts research and history shows evidence that contradicts these stories, leaving either vague conflicting tales or nothing to fill the gap.

It’s certainly possible that some or all of these stories contain elements of verifiable history—or perhaps that aren’t verifiable by modern academic standards, but which nevertheless actually happened. Even when they contain people, events, and ideas that don’t qualify as “True” in an objective sense, myths and legends may be interpreted as the stories people tell to present themselves the way they’d like to be seen. Historically accurate or not, they describe aspirational values, ideals, processes, timelines, and other elements that provide context and structure for a group’s organizing principles.

The Myth of Buddhist Samurai

In the popular imagination, the Samurai (or other warrior from feudal Japan) is one of these legendary archetypes. Many people conceive of these real historical figures practicing Zen or other closely related meditative Buddhist methods. Historical evidence shows that this likely rarely happened, if ever. Here’s prolific martial arts writer Dave Lowry’s take on the matter, from a two-part essay “Now and Zen” found in his book, Traditions:

  1. The Samurai were never, in any large numbers at all, enthusiastic practitioners of Zen.
  2. The connection between Zen and the Japanese budo is not ancient; it is, in fact, not too much older than the Hula Hoop.

Students of River Valley Tae Kwon Do will read the two short essays in this book for a more thorough and nuanced unpacking of actual Samurai spirituality, including Lowry’s speculation about the roots of the Zen Samurai myth.

The idea of combining Zen with martial techniques is appealing to the modern practioner, possibly especially in the West, because it grafts a relevant spiritual framework onto the practical realities of sword and other weapons training—and, later, to empty-handed styles. In other words, the Zen Samurai archetype updates a physical practice that would otherwise resemble the training given to soldiers in a modern army, but with obsolete weapons.

Without this spiritual framework, modern martial arts training might resemble Civil War reenactment (quirky, harmless fun) or, as in some austerely traditional Budo schools in Japan, entirely authentic training in weapons that no longer serve their original purpose and are pursued out of some combination of fantasy and preservationist impulse. The combination of ancient spiritual traditions—usually Zen, Taoism, or both, with a layer of Confucian hierarchical structure and values—is a 20th Century phenomenon, consciously created to make traditional martial practice relevant and attractive to a modern intellectual society.

Shinto & Buddhist Practice in the Handscrolls

spiritual practice at the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

detail: spiritual practice at the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

So, all contemporary myths aside, what do the Handscrolls tell us about the relationship between spirituality and martial practice? Three main points, which we’ll discuss in greater detail at our visit to Smith College Museum of Art:

  • In contrast to the severe, internal, intellectual meditative practice of Zen, the events depicted in the narrative are spectacular and supernatural, including magical transformations and divine interventions. These resemble the fantastic events depicted in Taoist legend more than anything that has to do with the highly rational practice of Zen.
  • The Empress Jingu is aided at key moments by Hachiman, a Shinto diety who aided warriors, the imperial house, and the nation of Japan. Success in battle is attributable as much to deux ex machina as to feats of individual heroism, i.e. martial cultivation.
  • The second handscroll concerns the founding of a shrine to Hachiman as a result of his intervention on behalf of the Japanese campaign depicted in the first scroll. In this story, Hachiman is considered a manifestation of Buddha—a syncretistic conflation of two different religions traditions. For River Valley Tae Kwon Do students who attended our 2014 workshop at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, you may remember when Mu Soeng contrasted Buddhist traditions of meditative practice (which include the Zen/Chan/Sun traditions) with Buddhist religious practice, which includes a vast array of folk religions that often blend a region’s existing indigenous beliefs with some amalgam of Buddhist influences. Hachiman as manifestation of Buddha, as shown in this scroll, has roots in the latter spiritual approach.

Although the above may undermine widespread and cherished notions of martial arts history, its purpose is not to “ruin it for everyone.” Rather, it’s to describe the complex ways spiritual and martial practice combined at a particular place and time that is relevant to the continuum of martial arts training. Most practitioners are interested, to varying degrees, in both the technical training and the mental/spiritual/intellectual discipline structures that frame the physical practice. A broader and deeper cultural understanding may be useful as each of us forms a personal answer to the questions: why do I practice this martial art, what is it for, how can it help me?

Please consider the above when you come to the December 9 event, as you’re encouraged to ask questions to clarify or expand upon any of these ideas.

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