Zen

Zen is Meditation

An old friend with whom I started my karate training many years ago recently contacted me on Facebook to ask about the actual definition of Zen. So I thought that it might be useful to review it for my current students.

The simple answer is that “Zen” is how the Japanese pronounced the Chinese word “Ch’an”. That was short for “Ch’anna”, which was how the Chinese pronounced the Sanskrit “dhyana”, which means “meditation”.

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Training Paradoxes

Sometimes in your training you're going to hear contradictory things. Maybe I tell you to do a certain stance one way, and then a few weeks later I tell you to do it a different way, or you go take your promotion test and Sei Shihan Kate tells you something different.

Now, sometimes that's because I was just wrong the first time! It does happen.

Or sometimes there's more than one way to do something. A few weeks ago we went over two different ways to do ushiro mawashi geri, the back spin kick. So if I like one way and another instructor likes a different way, sometimes that's ok, we could both be right.

And sometimes you'll be doing something differently at two different times. So maybe one day I'll tell you to make your jodan uke higher, and another day tell you to not make your jodan uke so high -- maybe it was too low one day and too high the other. Or maybe we're drilling different aspects at different times, so I tell you that you need to kick faster one day, then next week I'm making you do it slowly, to emphasize different parts of the skill.

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Everything Is Contingent

A few weeks ago I attended the 40th anniversary celebration of the World Seido Karate Organization. One evening featured a Seido history roundtable with our founder, Kaicho (Chairman) Tadashi Nakamura and some of his senior students, people who had been there since the start, or nearly so -- or before the start, in some cases, people who had started training with Kaicho Nakamura when he was still part of his old organization, the Kyokushin-kai.

One story that came up is a dramatic event that happened shortly after Nakamura left the Kyokushin-kai. His autobiography tells how he was shot, probably by a Mafia hitman -- I've always gotten a bit of a black humor chuckle of the way the book jacket says he was "gunned down in a Manhattan parking lot" in contrast to the way the calm way the story is told in the book, how he and a few students were trying to fix a flat tire on Nakamura's car (in retrospect, an apparent trap) when they heard a loud noise, and he only realized he'd been shot in the leg when he went to chase after the shooter (!) and his leg started to hurt. Fortunately the bullet had passed cleanly through the muscle. Many of us assumed that the shooter had been trying to "kneecap" him, to end his martial arts career with a crippling injury.

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Don't Follow Your Bliss -- Confront Your Desires

Over at his blog "Hardcore Zen", Zen teacher (and punk rock bassist) Brad Warner has a very good piece on the Buddhist concept of "desire" as the origin of suffering:

This is why meditation is such a brilliant solution. It forces us to confront our desires head-on, over and over and over again. When you sit in non-goal-seeking meditation you are forced into direct confrontation with some very basic desires such as the desire to not be sitting there facing a blank wall, the desire to be doing something productive or at least interesting, the desire to not be bored…

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Busted Back to White Belt

For the past few weeks, I've been showing up to my sensei's class in white belt. No, it's not because I committed some great offense and was stripped of rank, nor because she's finally decided that I'm just hopeless on anything more advanced. It's because she's gone through with her hints from a few months ago and recommended me for promotion to godan, fifth degree black belt. And as part of the dan testing process in Seido Karate, students go back to white belt for a while.

The hope is that this will remind us of the importance of shoshin, "beginner's mind". Shoshin is an important idea in both Zen and in the martial arts. The idea was perhaps most famously summarized by the Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." (Suzuki Roshi is not related to D.T. Suzuki, the famous popularizer of Zen.)

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