So, I'm sitting here in seiza and my legs are killing me. It's my first time to zazen and I’m trying to observe the pain, but just can’t understand how people can mediate through this kind of torture. “Stop thinking Krista… concentrate on your breathing… Surely it’s been half an hour already… I wonder if the monks would notice if I try to wiggle my toes back to life… where is the pain coming from when I can’t feel my legs...?” I steal a quick glimpse of Yamashiro-Sensei. He’s sitting across the room from me poised in lotus position, his long hakama pants draped around him. He looks so peaceful and dignified, just like the monks sitting on either side. I don’t know how they do it. To be honest, this isn’t exactly what I had in mind when Sensei first invited me to come to Zazen…
For Higaonna Sensei, getting up at 5am to get to zazen meditation is just part of his weekly routine. Over the years he has become close friends with Grand Master, Roshi Sogen Sakiyama – the head monk at Naha’s Kozenji temple. The two of them share a love of traditional karate and have had such engaging conversations on the topic, Sensei explains that at times he’s been left sitting in seiza for up to 2 to 3 hours straight.
Above: Portrait of Bodhidharma – the Indian Monk credited with bringing martial arts and Zen to China
He explains that zen meditation offers the perfect balance for martial arts students – quiet, internal training of the mind to compliment the hard, physical training of the body – yet another beautiful metaphor for go and ju. Perhaps this is why most regular zazen students (who aren’t monks), are martial artists from one style or another - “Like a zazen karate club” Sensei jokes.
Zen and the preservation of traditional karate are clearly topics close to Sensei’s heart. While sports karate has its merits, Goju-Ryu is primarily about traditional training and a commitment to upholding the techniques, etiquette and ideals of karate as it was originally taught back in the days of Kanyro Higaonna and Chojun Miyagi’s garden dojos.
Above: Enso – The symbol of Japanese Zen Buddhism
Today, while certificates, competition and tournaments are good goals for students in training (especially when they start out), the pursuit of traditional karate requires that one’s motives progress beyond these things. In sports karate, students often retire young. Traditional martial arts by contrast are a life-long pursuit and you can continuing training until the day you die. “Some karate masters” says Sensei, “come back as ghosts and keep training”.
In karate this kind of practice is referred to as keiko 稽古. Unlike the Japanese word for practice in other sports (練習 Renshuu), the characters for keiko carry a slightly different meaning. Kei 稽 (to think or consider) and ko/furui 古 (old or ancient) also carry a meaning of tradition and respect (tracing or considering the old) – the practice and study of ancient teaching through transference from teacher to student.
For me, traditional karate is also about training with an open mind, humble attitude, eagerness to learn, and determination to always do your best. Through it we learn self-discipline, modesty and respect for others. But perhaps most importantly, we learn a little about ourselves.
As Sensei once said in an interview with Dragon Times:
“Physical training is just the gateway to mastery of the mind. That's why you must strive to achieve true humility through training. If you don't, it's difficult if not impossible to rise above the purely physical because your mind is forever clouded by thoughts of material things, pride and scorn for others, and similar negative feelings”
While some of you may be happy to leave ‘mastery of the mind’ to the monks, it’s still worth remembering that the idea of zen in martial arts doesn’t have to be something mystical. On the contrary, it may just be simplicity itself that best defines it – simple, hard training for training’s sake. Learning to push our bodies and our spirits through exhaustion, pain and even boredom in the hope we might grow a little as human beings.
The Japanese Zen Master Taisen Deshimaru frequently wrote about the principals of Zen and Bushido noting that for the monk and the warrior there was no difference between the two. In the West, there’s a tendency to often think of karate simply as a fitness or self-defense thing. When in reality, we might not even realize the deeper meaning behind much of what we do - the short meditation (moksoi) at the beginning and end of each class; the emphasis on tanden and breathing; whole body awareness, concentration and ‘presentness’ at every moment; zanshin; even the use of pain as a tool for increasing focus, overcoming ego and learning humility and respect. Perhaps even the simple pursuit of self-improvement – the constant striving to better ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually.
In any case, the next time you catch yourself going through the motions, it's worth being mindful of the significance of these actions. This is the 'stuff' traditional martial arts are made of.