Martial Arts Enlightenment: Why the Samurai Warriors Practiced Zen, Part 2

Before you dig into this post, would you like to read Part 1? If so, go here now.

Regardless of specifics, from the time of the first Kamakura shogun, Zen Buddhism had found its foothold in ancient Japan, and its impact was imminent. One key point that Winston L. King brought up (see Bibliography) was that Zen monks did not enter into politics to advance in the imperial court. He gave three rather lengthy reasons for this lack of political striving:

Zen, by nature, was anti-institutional; its timing was such that it was not introduced during a warring period; and its monks already held top advisory positions in the shogun’s councils, so there was no need for further political striving. (31)

As stated above, the move to Kamakura put Zen monks in a position of close confidence with the military leaders of the day. Even though this relationship had humble beginnings and was probably mostly secular in nature (record keeping, political advising, etc.), it grew quickly as the employers of those monks realized there was more to be gained from Zen’s religious aspects than just sutra study and recitation.

The warrior class was quick to see the potential for “special spiritual and psychological strength from Zen, which contributed to the strength of character, firmness of will and imperviousness to suffering on which they prided themselves.” (Reischauer 1989, 53)

With similar prized characteristics as a goal of sorts, Zen meditation and martial arts training naturally complemented each other. The spiritual path of Zen was one that the samurai found most appealing. Truth, in the Zen tradition, was to be found within the deepest core of one’s visceral being, not in the intellect. This put the truth well within the range of the samurai’s awareness and emotional compatibility. (King 1993, 163)

Samurai Swordmanship Volume 2: Intermediate Sword Program comes from Masayuki Shimabukuro, Carl E. Long and the staff of Black Belt magazine. Order a copy of the DVD today on Amazon!

Zen offered the samurai what no amount of physical training or knowledge of military strategy could. The purpose of Zen meditation was to open this martial training to the subconscious, instinctive forces of his being that governed action without thought. (King 1993, 166) The techniques of swordsmanship were not inherently flawed, but the factor that was most open to imperfections was the mind of the practitioner. Zen offered what is called mushin, or no-mind.

Taisen Deshimaru likened mushin to “the body thinking.” (1991, 78) In D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, it is described thus: “[It is] going beyond the dualism of all forms of life and death, good and evil, being and non-being. … Hereby he becomes a kind of automation, so to speak, as far as his own consciousness is concerned.” (94)

Takuan Soho wrote about mushin in three letters to Yagyu Munenori, head of the Yagyu Shinkage school of swordsmanship. (King 1993, 167) A passage reads as follows:

“Mugaku meant that in wielding the sword, in the infinitesimal time it takes lightning to strike, there is neither mind nor thought. For the striking, there is no mind. For myself, who is about to be struck, there is no mind. The attacker is emptiness. His sword is emptiness. I, who am about to be struck, am emptiness. … Completely forget about the mind and you will do all things well.” (37)

To understand this is to understand the heart of Zen. Some might call this having a satori (realization of a profound truth). Zen, having in its nature a focus on the non-rational mind, is difficult to explain by merely defining theses. The best way to understand Zen thought is by illustration. One of the best illustrations of how one might benefit from Zen training comes from Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture:

“He who deliberates and moves his brush intent on making a picture, misses to a still greater extent the art of painting. Draw bamboo for 10 years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboo when you are drawing. In possession of an infallible technique, the individual places himself at the mercy of inspiration.

“To become a bamboo and to forget that you are one with it while drawing it — this is the Zen of the bamboo, this is the moving with the rhythmic movement of the spirit which resides in the bamboo as well as in the artist himself. What is now required of him is to have a firm hold on the spirit and yet not to be conscious of the fact.” (31)

This passage entails the entire essence of Zen and the martial arts. Through zazen, or seated meditation, one comes to know mushin. With the prerequisite of swordsmanship training, the practitioner then must forget that he has this library of knowledge and …

Martial Arts Enlightenment: Why the Samurai Warriors Practiced Zen, Part 1

People today may find it unusual to think of religious philosophy as the backbone of military training, yet that’s just what we find when we examine the military class of early Japan. Westerners are often confused by the term “religious philosophy” because in the West, those two subjects are distinct schools of thought. Until recently in Japan, however, there was no separation: They were connected in the sense that religion was philosophy acted out as a way of living.

One of the more popular Eastern religions, Zen, concentrates on living life to the utmost in the here and now, as opposed to focusing on the afterlife. If Zen practitioners live in this very moment, all the rest — whatever else that may entail — will fall into place naturally. That includes the main concern of the samurai warriors: proper action in the midst of deadly combat.

Two major turning points affected the development of the samurai. The first was the Gempei War (1180-1185), which led to the rise of the official warrior class. The roots of this war began in the Heian period (794-1185), when the prominent imperial family names were the be-all and end-all of social status, as well as the key to the imperial court. The Fujiwara lineage was becoming too complicated and far-reaching for it to retain its prestigious air.

Thus, “excess members of the imperial line were cut off from it and given the family names of Minamoto (also known as Genji) or Taira (also called Heiki).” (Reischauer 1989, 40) These families then migrated to other areas of Japan and used their imperial heritage to form a new aristocracy over the descendants of the old provincial uji (small counties that were unified by the worship of the same god, usually an ancestor). (Reischauer 1989, 40)

Ready to start learning the way of the samurai? Order a copy of Samurai Swordmanship Volume 1: Basic Sword Program by Masayuki Shimabukuro, Carl E. Long and Black Belt magazine. On sale now on Amazon!

As these families established that new form of provincial aristocracy, the hunger for court positions remained as strong as ever. Beginning in the late 11th century and continuing until 1185, the clans of Minamoto and Taira fought desperately to gain a foothold in the imperial line.

Soon enough, a major battle ensued — and nearly wiped out the Minamoto clan except for two sons of a general named Yoshitomo: Yoritomo and Yoshitsune.

Reischauer wrote, “Yoritomo extended his control over the Kanto area, and his younger brother Yoshitsune then seized the capital area for him and pursued the Taira down the Inland Sea to its western end, where he finally annihilated them in 1185 at Dan-no-ura in a naval battle.” (1989, 43) That conflict became known as the Gempei War. In recognition of the Minamoto clan, in 1192 the emperor declared Yoritomo to be the realm’s shogun, thus beginning the reign of the warrior class. (King 1993, 44) That happened one year after the return of Eisai, founder of Japan’s first definitive Zen sect.

Those who appreciate the Japanese and Okinawan martial arts will love this online course featuring Black Belt Hall of Famer Fumio Demura. Learn the bo, nunchaku, sai, tonfa, kama and eku bo. Watch a video preview here.

The second important incident that contributed to the development of the samurai was the establishment of the reverence for the sword. Nearly a century after the battle at Dan-no-ura, Japan was threatened by an outside entity — the Mongols, who had already conquered China, Korea and parts of Europe. When the Mongols turned their attention to Japan, they conveyed their demands to the Japanese court in 1266. (Reischauer 1989, 47) Japan refused, and Mongol forces were dispatched for Kyushu. Had it not been for bad weather — which made the Mongols retreat — the Japanese surely would have lost to the Mongols’ superior archers.

A second Mongol attack was launched in 1281 with some 140,000 men, yet the invaders were held offshore by Japan’s coastal fortresses. (Reischauer 1989, 48) That gave the Japanese the upper hand by enabling them to use smaller boats to board the Mongol junks and fight at close range, thus demonstrating the superiority of the Japanese blade.

Following several such attacks by the Japanese, a typhoon — known as a kamikaze, or “divine wind” — destroyed the Mongol army. From this battle onward, the Japanese warrior class regarded the sword as the weapon of choice. Because great strength of will and concentration, as opposed to just technical skill, are needed to succeed in lightning-fast blade duels, the samurai turned to Zen.


Zen began in India. Around 440 to 520, a priest named Bodhidharma taught that one could attain nirvana through meditation, not just through rigorous study of the sutra

Thomas LaPuppet: Remembering a Pioneer of American Karate and Fighter From the Legendary Tong Dojo

On March 23, 1999, shotokan stylist Thomas LaPuppet — often called the greatest karate fighter to come out of New York City — lost his four-year battle with cancer. His passing marked the end of a stellar career in the martial arts.

Born Thomas Carroll on February 7, 1938, he earned the nickname “La Puppet” (the puppet) because of his superb ability to mimic other stylists, his wife Marie Carroll-LaPuppet said. He was born in South Carolina but grew up in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served four years on active duty and 16 years in the Reserve. He retired at the rank of first sergeant.

In 1962 LaPuppet became one of “New York’s Bravest,” a firefighter who ran into burning buildings and risked his own life to save others, standing in the eye of the hurricane during almost every disaster that befell the city. After having served at Brooklyn’s famous Tin House Fire Station, he retired in 1982.

Thomas LaPuppet, left

LaPuppet began his journey down the martial path as a jujitsu stylist in 1959. Soon afterward, he started training in shotokan under George Cofield at the Tong Dojo in Brooklyn. LaPuppet earned his black belt in karate in 1965.

At a time when martial arts greats such as Joe Lewis and Mike Stone were making a name for themselves, LaPuppet was busy winning tournaments, helping to create curiosity and raise interest in the New York martial arts community. One of his most impressive victories came in 1965 when he was named the undisputed winner of the All-American Championship at Madison Square Garden.

The following year, in addition to defending his title and winning many local and regional tournaments, LaPuppet accumulated three major championship titles: the Canadian International Tournament in Toronto, the Greater New York Metropolitan Championships and the Boston Invitational. He remained a tournament favorite for years and was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame in 1969 as Karate Player of the Year.

Silat for the Street is the title of a new online course from Black Belt Hall of Famer Burton Richardson and Black Belt magazine. Now you can learn the most functional silat techniques whenever and wherever you want on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Get more info here!

LaPuppet was a formidable opponent for many contenders and up-and-coming champs. Two of them were Chuck Merriman and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace. “When I was competing back in the ’60s, if you had any hopes of winning, you knew you had to go through Tom LaPuppet,” Merriman said. “I will never forget fighting him — and losing, of course — because he always had this big smile on his face.”

Wallace has different recollections of the champion: “LaPuppet wasn’t smiling at me when I fought him at the first Battle of Atlanta in 1969. When the center referee said, “Hajime!” (begin), here was this traditional shotokan guy moving around the ring like a non-traditional fighter. All of a sudden — wham — LaPuppet nailed me with a reverse punch. Here I was, behind in points, and everyone knows that kickers like me hate having to play catch up, especially in those days when a kick to the head was worth only one point.

“Then my luck seemed to change when LaPuppet started working his way in to finish me off with another reverse punch. I tagged him with a hook kick to the head. When time ran out, we were tied at one point apiece. Now we were in overtime, and LaPuppet must have changed his strategy a little bit because instead of him coming to me, I was now trying to edge myself into range. I really wanted to win that tournament. But it wasn’t to be, as LaPuppet cracked me right in the ribs with a rear-leg front kick. That was it — my day was over. I have to say, after giving me that sparring lesson, LaPuppet was always extremely nice to me. He was a great person.”

Left to right: Gregory Hines, Thomas LaPuppet and Ron Van Clief (Photo Courtesy of Marie Carroll-LaPuppet)

Steve “Nasty” Anderson was one of LaPuppet’s biggest fans. “I heard about LaPuppet before I heard about Bruce Lee,” Anderson said. “I don’t want my comments to seem racist, but LaPuppet came from an era when it was really, really hard to be black. Young black fighters like Billy Blanks, myself and other members of the Atlantic Team — we used to follow Thomas LaPuppet around and listen to what he had to say, hanging onto every word. I know I speak for the others when I say that LaPuppet set a path for us to follow. Indirectly, he was probably our greatest mentor and …

Mulan: The Real Lady General, the Live-Action Film Character and the Disney Cartoon Hero

Most Westerners — martial artists and non-martial artists alike — know the name Hua Mulan because of a hit Disney film from 1998, which was titled, appropriately enough, Mulan.

Few know that the animated feature was based on a real historical figure and that she had been depicted on film a number of times.

The Real Hua Mulan

Mulan is believed to have been born in Henan province during the Wei dynasty (386-534 A.D.). She was reportedly an excellent seamstress and a skilled martial artist who was renowned for her archery expertise. At one point in her life, her infirm father was called to duty to help fight invaders from the Mongol Empire, and Mulan, fearing for her dad’s safety, donned men’s clothing and joined the army in his place.

(Photo Courtesy of National Taiwan Museum)

The defining moment in her military career came one night when she was on guard duty. Mulan observed crows flying at night and noted that the birds should be resting at that hour. She immediately suspected an ambush and alerted her superior. Then she devised a plan and proposed it to him.

When the Mongols attacked, Mulan sustained an arrow wound to the shoulder, yet she was still able to defeat the leader of the invasion force in hand-to-hand combat. Afterward, she refused treatment out of fear her brothers-in-arms would discover that she was a woman.

Mulan on Film

A proud soldier is shown riding atop a spirited steed as it gallops across the misty moors in a bygone era. The mare skids to a halt and rockets its warrior master toward the heavens. Still in flight, the hero loads a body-length bow with three arrows. Landing in her patented si liu bu stance, Hua Mulan — played by Nancy Chan — uses her famous three-fingered arrow release to impale three charging Mongol warriors.

That scene comes from a black-and-white film called Mulan Joins the Army. Made in Shanghai and released in 1939, it was actually the third movie to focus on Mulan’s exploits. Directed by Bu Wancang, it came from the Orphan Island period. The name refers to film production that took place in Shanghai’s foreign concessions, which were not occupied by the Japanese.

Despite its historical connection — China really was threatened by the Mongols — Mulan Joins the Army was intended to rouse patriotic sentiments with respect to how modern China was being threatened by the Japanese. Those circumstances led to Nancy Chan becoming the first Hong Kong actress to be catapulted to fame by the Shanghai film industry.

A more famous film adaptation of Mulan’s life came in 1964. Released by the Shaw Brothers, it was an opera titled Lady General Hua Mulan or Woman General Hua Mulan. It starred Ivy Ling Po as the famed female fighter.

(Photo Courtesy of Celestial Pictures)

Mulan by Disney

When Disney announced that it was planning its own version of the Mulan story, the project bore the title The Legend of Fa Mulan. Note the spelling of the surname — Fa instead of Hua. Disney execs said they were under the impression that “Fa Mulan” was the Cantonese spelling of her name. I contacted the production office and advised them that Fa is Cantonese but Mulan is Mandarin. I then suggested that the filmmakers should render her name as either “Fa Moklan” (Cantonese) or “Hua Mulan” (Mandarin). In the end, they opted to change the movie’s title to Mulan.

Would you like a free guide titled “Kung Fu TV Series Flashback: Behind the Scenes With David Carradine (Kwai Chang Caine)”? Just click here.

There were other major changes, as well, the most obvious being the addition of Mushu, the dragon spirit (voiced by Eddie Murphy), and the pet cricket. Sadly, the script eliminated all references to Mulan’s renowned archery ability.

The Next Mulan?

Disney appears to be on a roll with live-action versions of its classics. For example, we were given Alice in Wonderland in 2010, Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty) in 2014 and Cinderella in 2015. Beauty and the Beast is next, with a release planned for 2017.

The rumor mill has it that a live-action version of Mulan may be in the works. Rila Fukushima, who co-starred in Wolverine (2013) and appears in the CW television series Arrow, is reportedly being considered to bring the title character to life.

Go here to order Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors.

Learn the Lesson of Compassion From Japanese Swordsman Miyamoto Musashi

Some legends are so wonderful you want them to be true. The legend of bo specialist Muso Gonnosuke’s two meetings with Miyamoto Musashi is a good example. As a young man, Muso wandered around Japan, challenging other martial artists to duels — both to make a name for himself and to perfect his art. Despite the risk of serious injury or worse, he bested a number of skilled warriors with his staff.

While visiting the capital city of Edo (Tokyo), Muso found Musashi, a renowned swordsman whose reputation was rapidly growing. Musashi was an unconventional fighter whose training in a formal ryu was rudimentary, but he used cunning, strategy and bravado to overcome his opponents. Indeed, in his duel with Muso, Musashi didn’t use a steel sword or even a wooden training weapon. Instead, he employed a tree limb to thoroughly and convincingly defeat his opponent — but he spared Muso’s life.

Muso retreated to a mountaintop in Kyushu, where he trained furiously and meditated on his art and his loss. He was eventually rewarded with what he took to be a divine vision that compelled him to shorten his 6-foot-long staff. The modification enabled him to manipulate the weapon like a sword and a spear while retaining its use as a pole arm.

Once again, he sought out Musashi and requested a rematch. Musashi obliged. This time, however, Muso was able to defeat his opponent. But just as Musashi had spared his life in their initial encounter, Muso let Musashi live, handing him — if the story is true — his only defeat.

Download “Miyamoto Musashi: Samurai Weapons Legend, Creator of Niten Ichi-Ryu and Author of The Book of Five Rings” today. It’s free. Click here.

More than four centuries later, Muso’s descendants still practice the stick techniques he devised, which constitute part of the curriculum of shindo muso ryu, or jojutsu (art of the stick). Within the kata of the school are a range of lethal methods, as well as a good example of hodoku, or compassion, as shown by the founder of the ryu.

Whenever I hear people’s petty arguments that Japanese terminology in the dojo should be replaced with English or another language, I think of terms like hodoku. I wonder what non-Japanese equivalent they would use because the concept and its application would require pages of explanation to describe adequately.

Classical martial arts kata — nearly always an exchange between two participants and not the solo sequences with which most karateka are familiar — teach a variety of combative strategies. Some are long and complex, while others involve only a single attack and counter. No matter their length, once the forms are finished, both participants are left in potentially mortal situations. For example, your weapon is pointed directly at my throat, and mine is set to break your wrist. How do we resolve the standoff? We turn to an unlikely source: the terminology of Buddhism.

In Buddhism, the word ko is defined as being one moment longer than the longest stretch of time any human can comprehend. Perhaps our standoff wouldn’t last that long; but in our positions and our attitude, we must be in a technical state of ko. I’m willing to try to keep my advantage, just as you’re willing to try to keep yours.

In the dojo, the combative ko is broken when one participant voluntarily moves his weapon into a nonthreatening posture. Even though he may still be in position to continue fighting, he shows a willingness to promote charity to his partner. (Of course, he would not do this if the situation were real. In that case, ko is broken when one participant stops breathing.) This attitude of compassion is hodoku.

Go here to buy the paper or digital version of Samurai Swordsmanship: The Batto, Kenjutsu and Tameshigiri of Eishin-Ryu, by Masayuki Shimabukuro and Carl E. Long.

In shindo muso ryu, one trainee is armed with a stick, and the other wields a bokken, or wooden practice sword. At the conclusion of the kata, the swordsman slowly moves his weapon slightly off to his side, lowering it. This posture is called hodoku kamae. Slowly and carefully and without losing his concentration, the person with the stick slides his weapon back to his side, responding in an equally humane way to the swordsman’s charity. Both partners then retreat to take up positions to begin practicing the next kata.

On one level, the process of hodoku is purely mechanical. The swordsman’s lowering of his blade is a way to bring the kata to a technically safe conclusion. Even though the forms are precisely ritualized, they expose both practitioners to extreme danger. Weapons are swung with full force and stopped only at the last second, a fraction of an inch from a …