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Martial arts, zen, and modern life

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1989. Martial arts, zen, and modern life. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, March:13–15.

If this title didn't cause you to do a mental double take, then you possess either a remarkably resilient mind or a willingness to take anything that I say on faith. (In which latter case, I'm prepared to enter into negotiations over certain prime real estate near Wally Creek [a swampland drainage project in northern Ontario].) Yet I say unto you, hang on for a few more paragraphs and I'll show you how these three items relate to each other.

Martial arts: Most people have only encountered the martial arts in one form, the Saturday afternoon Bruce Lee movie. I have been told by several Chinese friends that these movies occupy the same niche in Oriental culture as the cowboy movie occupies in Occidental culture. That is, they represent some cherished myths about the people who wrote the stories, and there is some truth behind most myths. About martial arts, let me say only "minimal force" for the moment. We'll get back to this.

Zen: Most people have only encountered zen through the old standard question "What is the sound of one hand clapping?", and you've probably shrugged this off as meaningless "Oriental mysticism". (Another friend used the phrase "bullshinto" to state his opinion on the matter.) If so, you've thrown the baby out with the bath water. The sound of one hand clapping is, of course, that of silence. I'm told by a friend who has studied Zen in a Buddhist temple that the meaning of this question lies in the art of Zen meditation; if you're good at the meditation, you can concentrate well enough to hear the sound of one hand clapping. (If you think this is easy, let me challenge you for the umpteenth time: sit in a quiet room and try to really hear the sound of one hand clapping. Get back to me in a few years if and when you succeed.) There are many other aspects of Zen that bear investigation, but for the moment, let me say only "minimal force". We'll come back to this too in a moment.

Life: Most people have only encountered life... Wait. I just started off two paragraphs this way, and it's becoming an overused gimmick; besides, I did promise to tell you about how martial arts, Zen, and life relate to each other. The answer in the first two cases was "minimal force", but what, pray tell, does this have to do with life? Brace yourself, we'll be there in a few more paragraphs.

"Minimal force" was a doctrine developed by the first men who studied and later codified several of the various martial arts. Legend has it that these masters were small men, who could not hope to compete with larger, more violent men in the sort of age in which strength dictated all solutions. As is so often the case, these smaller men decided to use their minds, which is why the human race is where it is today—you can get more results with subtlety than with brute force. It may seem odd to you that any smaller man should be able to defeat a large and powerful man in a contest of force, but I've seen it first-hand; I don't expect you to buy any swampland this time, only an idea, so you can take this particular statement on faith. I've seen my 4-foot-11-inch sensei easily "overpower" (sic) a 6-foot-4-inch weightlifter. (Martial arts teachers are usually called sensei, which derives from the Japanese zen-sai = teacher or monk of zen. Starting to see a connection?) The idea behind minimal force, as it applies to martial arts, is to use only the amount of force (not one erg more or less) than is needed in any given situation; if you apply that force to a carefully chosen weak point of your opponent then, by definition, you have a greater chance of success.

"Minimal force" in the context of zen comes in relation to satori, which is described as a sudden enlightenment achieved through meditation. If one practices zen meditation, it's impossible to achieve this satori through mental effort. (This is a contradiction, if you think about it for a moment. Didn't I say that you had to be able to concentrate to succeed at zen meditation?) In fact, the hint I should have given you in the "one hand clapping" exercise is that the easiest of several difficult ways to succeed at this test is to exert the minimum effort possible. The theory of zen is that when you are able to meditate well enough to hear one hand clapping, then you have reached a state in which satori is not only possible, but inevitable. Many zen monks become masters of some martial art because they have understood this principle of minimum force well enough to apply it to physical reality; for example, in the case of martial arts, to a fight. Take the following aphorism for an example: "If an opponent cannot hit you, he cannot harm you."

This is an example of what logicians call a tautology: a conclusion that is inevitable because it is contained in the premise. The truth of the aphorism can again be seen (and I have seen it) in martial arts exercises called kata, patterns that are repeated because they imitate a perfect or near-perfect solution to some combat situation. One of the most satisfying achievements of my life was to get good enough at one Aikido kata to be able to perform the movements against a much stronger man (the same weightlifter) without having to think about the activity at all. The "minimum force" of mind and body was required and, in a very real sense, I became a convert to the idea of minimal force on that day.

Making all of the preceding rhetoric relate to life is a little more difficult, and despite any impression you have gained to the contrary, I am not even close to fully understanding zen, largely because I haven't devoted any great amount of time to it. The same statement applies to my very limited experience with the martial arts. But there are definite situations in which minimal force does apply to day to day life, and that, after all these words, is the point of my article. With all the frustrations and obstacles that life places in our paths, one learns quickly that brute force rarely offers the best solution. In this, I think we have a lot to learn from the zen masters and even from the martial artists. Three quick examples:

  1. If you're forced to wait to see (say) your doctor, you can spend a lot of mental effort fuming at the doctor for overbooking and significantly increasing your daily dose of stress, you can storm his office and demand satisfaction, or you can exert minimal force, pull out that paperback you've been intending to finish, and relax and make the best use of your time. (Although I must admit that I've been sorely tempted to choose the short-term solution, simply because of the satisfaction it would bring. This, incidentally, is proof that I'm far from mastering the self-control required of a zen or martial arts adept.)
  2. If you're out driving and someone else refuses to yield right-of-way to you, even though you're clearly in the right, you're better off to choose the minimal force solution and relinquish that right. If you exerted a little more force, you could probably run the other driver off the road or collide with them, but these are probably less satisfactory solutions. (This lesson applies particularly to pedestrians, even if they have mastered enough martial arts or zen to stop a charging car in its tracks.)
  3. If you're in the arena of public affairs, you can expend an awful lot of time and money making your point to the Press, to the TV news, and to your fellow citizens, and if enough of them agree with you and become equally vociferous, you may actually change something. On the other hand, you can use a little brain power, apply minimal force and convince the politicians who make the decisions, and that will certainly achieve your objective. (Incidentally, this is why some lobbyists earn more in a year than most of us earn in a lifetime: perhaps they've studied enough zen to understand how things really work and to sell that knowledge to you for every penny the market will bear.)

Minimal force: as with most apparently simple things, there's more here than meets the eye. You can learn a lot with a little pondering, and a minimal amount of force.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved