Martials arts and Zen

In his famous interview the legendary Bruce Lee advised to “empty your mind, become formless, shapeless, like water”.

Emptiness of mind is a foundation of Zen Buddhism. In this way there is a clear connection between the teachings of Zen Buddhism and the practice of martial arts.

In this regard I cannot but mention another legendary person – the 17th century Zen master Takuan Soho (1573–1645) – and his famous book The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman. This book was written as a guide for the samurai Yagyu Munenori, who was a great swordsman and rival to the legendary Miyamoto Musashi. Although it is intended for a swordsman, the recommendations it contains apply as well to any other martial arts.

Let me give just one quote from The Unfettered Mind here that illustrates vividly the connection between Zen and martial arts.

(translated from Russian)

“Let’s assume now you can see a sword moving towards you, but your consciousness is not fixed upon it, but rather follows the movement of the sword. You don’t think how to defeat your opponent. There are no thoughts or judgements whatsoever in your mind. If you mind is not fettered with anything, when an opponent makes a strike with his sword, you can approach the opponent swiftly and take the sword out of his hands. In this case not only will you take away the sword than has nearly hit you; you can use it to defeat the opponent.

In Zen this is described as follows: “He intercepted the spear and lanced the enemy with it”… The idea is that the sword you take away from an enemy becomes a sword that defeats him. Such sword is called a non-sword.

Bruce Lee used a similar philosophy in his jeet kune do, “the way of the intercepting fist”. In the classical movie “Enter the dragon” Bruce Lee tells “not to concentrate on the finger, or you will miss the heavenly glory”.

So from two great masters – both from zen and martial arts – we get the same recommendation: don’t concentrate on the sword / finger / fist / leg, or you will miss the action.


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