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Buddhist Alchemy In The Martial Arts

3:4 Buddha

“I don’t like any of that religious stuff in my martial arts…”

You may not, but Buddhism is inextricably linked to the Martial Arts and it’s not religious in the formal sense.  Buddhism is simple, logical thinking in search of the truth – and that is in line with martial arts study.  A Buddhist is required to challenge what he is taught and to discover the truth for himself.  The term ‘Buddha’ means the ‘awakened one’, one who is awake to the truth.

It’s often referred to as the ‘atheist religion’ as it has no gods or deities, it doesn’t even refer to an afterlife of any kind.  For the Martial Artist it provides the perfect mental and emotional toolbox required to develop a sustainable method of training.

It always seems strange to me when martial artists spend ages listening to the latest business or lifestyle ‘guru’ – their discs and seminars cost a fortune and yet even the most progressive guru has yet to match the wisdom and mental toolbox of the Buddha.

The Buddha was a great martial artist, he was a Prince who had the best instruction in everything and he excelled at martial arts training.  He was a large person for his race and won many tournaments.  He was married with a child and set to become King with the passing of his father, but he became troubled by the idea of old age, sickness and death and decided to leave family and kingdom behind to find the answer to suffering.

He studied under many masters before deciding to sit under a tree and not move until he became enlightened.  When he did, the answers were simple, so simple in fact that many people miss the point and get caught in the peripheries.

After his ‘enlightenment’ he went to Benares Park where he spoke to some of his old friends from other methods of meditation study and this teaching is where he gave the Four Noble Truths that were the essence of his teaching from thereon and is often called the ‘first turning of the wheel of dharma’.  You can liken the Four Noble Truths to a modern medical diagnosis and treatment.

The Four Noble Truths are the diagnosis of suffering, finding its cause, finding its cure and applying it.  They are given as:

  • There is suffering
  • There is a cause of suffering
  • There is an end to suffering
  • The Eightfold path

‘Suffering’ and its causes have to be understood.  We all understand ‘stick a needle in your eye’ suffering, but there is also emotional suffering, dis-ease and dissatisfaction.  You can be suffering because you don’t have something, or because you have it and you don’t want it to age or lose it.  You can suffer because you’re not good looking and then suffer because you are good looking and don’t want to age or lose your looks.

The oft-used word ‘attachment’ also needs clarifying.  In the past many people have said to me in the past when hurt that they are going to ‘be a Buddhist’ and ‘not be attached to anything anymore’… the problem with that is its aversion, another form of attachment to not being attached!  The cause of suffering is attaching yourself to that which is impermanent, trying to grasp on to something that as always changing is bound to be unsatisfactory, developing the wisdom to see this is a way of releasing your suffering and the way forward is the essence of Buddhism.  I remember someone explaining to me that you can ‘let go’ by dropping something, he used a stone to demonstrate it by dropping it on the floor, then he turned his palm upwards and let go, allowing the stone to rest in the palm of his hand.

The point he was making is that a good Buddhist fully engages in life, savouring every moment but not trying to own, possess or hold on to it, enjoy it while it’s there with the full knowledge that it will pass.

The three characteristics of existence that the Buddha gave were:

  • All things are impermanent
  • Unsatisfactory
  • And not self

‘Impermanent’ and ‘unsatisfactory’ are not too difficult to grasp, but the ‘not self’ is never too easy.  ‘There is no self’ is a hard truth for the ego to grasp and at the heart of mushin or ‘no mind’.  The meditation process I explained last month is a route towards understanding this idea.  It lies at the heart of interdependence as opposed to independence.  We are bought up to believe that we are born into this world when in fact we are born out of it.  We are an essential part of the evolution of this universe and are interdependent with it, we only exist as we are because everything else is ‘as it is’, conversely everything else is ‘as it is’ because we are like we are.

We are not separate from all around us; the potential for our existence was in the development of the universe from the ‘big bang’ onwards – and our effect will still be there forever afterwards.  Our ‘self’ is the entire universe, in the same way that the waves of the sea are made up of the sea and always attached to it, coming from and returning to the ocean in different content each time.  You cannot alleviate suffering without fully understanding what ‘no self’ really means; because it’s only at that point that you grasp the full meaning of interdependence.

The end of suffering arises from this realisation and the Buddha gave the Eightfold Path as guidance to get there.  The Eightfold Path is divided into three parts; the first is wisdom, the second, ethical conduct and the third, mental development.

Under wisdom we have right (the word ‘right’ is put before each stage of the Eightfold Path and intimates the ‘Middle Path’ or ‘balanced’) understanding and aspiration, for ethical conduct we have right speech, conduct and livelihood and mental development we have right effort, mindfulness and concentration.

The eight points are shown as spokes in a wheel, this is called a ‘dharma’ (dhamma) wheel and is depicted as such because no point stands alone, ‘dharma’ means ‘path of truth’, the path is not linear as each point contains the other seven.

The Eightfold Path is the perfect code of behaviour for a martial artist.  Not something to ‘aspire’ to but to live by and study on a daily basis.  It is not religious, but practical, mushin can only be achieved by following this path and developing the wisdom attached to it.

Our mental view and understanding is paramount, we have to aspire to do the right thing, this is through our speech, conduct and livelihood, after all, we can’t be a martial artist if we behave like a thug or earn our living in a way that harms others, in our training and meditation is right effort, mindfulness and concentration means that we don’t try too hard or too little, but practice in a sustainable way with the right mental awareness and focus.

Training in the Martial Arts means learning to deal with violence, aggression and confrontation.  The danger is in becoming like the thug that we abhor instead of developing the skills of wisdom, strategy and technique, overcoming our fear of injury and ultimately death to have a pristine, engaged mind ‘in the moment’ to be able to deal spontaneously with whatever arises.

The Buddha was probably the greatest meditation master of all time and left us with a practical method of dealing with our minds and emotions, enabling us to fulfill our potential as a human being and live a full, engaged life without all the unnecessary fears and mental garbage that would otherwise drag us down on a daily basis.

The Martial Arts are traditionally a method of holistic training that involve the development of health, skill and ‘boxing’ applications, the reason that Buddhism fitted in so well was that it was essentially a diagnostic, healing art that catered for the mind and body in a way that naturally empowered the art.

The training produces an alchemy in a person that makes them what in ‘South London’ speak we would say is a ‘proper person’ with integrity and the power to resolve any problems in their path taking the cacophony of life in their stride.

Surely, THAT’S worth studying?

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