Book Review: Zen in the Martial Arts

So when I finally got back into the focused study of Kenpo Karate, I was quick to engage my teacher in conversations about these purported mystical masters, revealing just how little I understood about the meaning of true mastery. He recommended the book, Zen in the Martial Arts, by Joe Hyams, to explain to me the more spiritual elements of combat training.

The book is a small, seemingly innocuous piece of literature. It is very light at a mere 135 pages, and full of some of the most thought-provoking ideas you could hope to find in a book.

The Sweet Art

Zen in the Martial Arts is a book about the most esoteric and spiritual aspects of a discipline that deals with the most visceral aspects of life: violence, brutality, killing, and self-preservation. Make no mistake, real martial arts are about fighting, but it is the fact that they deal with ultimate competition - winning and losing are often equivalent to living and dying - that encourages martial arts masters to develop inner focus.

Hyams' book is a collection of short essays on lessons he has learned after many years of studying a number of martial arts. Each essay is self-contained, and I was usually only able to read one or two at a time before I had to put the book down to mull over what I had read. Hyams explains the very deep and complex ideas of Zen using the concrete examples of the martial arts, illustrating in easy-to-grasp terms concepts that usually escape most of us.

A common problem with the image of the martial arts is that the true masters are people with abilities that defy common experience. Hyams shows that this is not really the case. Zen in the Martial Arts avoids the trap of depicting martial arts masters as supernatural beings, and instead manages to show the people in the examples as real, flawed, but incredibly disciplined individuals. Bruce Lee, revered by many as a paragon both of physical and mental prowess, is shown at the height of his skill as well as a simple conversational companion to the author, exchanging ideas and learning a thing or two himself. Lee, as well as many other of the martial arts greats, are depicted as very human, but no less impressive for that.

Small Book, Big Ideas

Each chapter deals with a particular lesson learned by the author in the context of martial arts, and ends with an example of how the author applied the lessons learned to other areas of his life. The result is that we see how the vague and ethereal concept of 'no mind' can be applied to everyday living and conflict resolution in the workplace.

The book is not quite as esoteric as its name implies. There is no discussion of rituals, deep philosophy, or outlandish practices. Instead, Hyams limits his anecdotes to the pragmatic and concrete, which is what makes them valuable. Every lesson he learned was in the context of something tangible. Some of these include:

There is no need to respond to shows of force from those with no power to actually threaten you. Bruce Lee demonstrated this by preparing to attack the author when he was far outside his reach. The author applied this lesson to a confrontation at his workplace with a superior who had no real power to impact the author's career.

If you try to think about what you are doing, you aren't doing it. Instead, the action you are engaged in is thinking of what you should be doing. You should not think, simply act. The author learned this through sparring because he spent so much time thinking of the details of how to fight instead of actually getting in hits.

The breath is the key to inner balance. The author learned this during a meditation session, and applied it to save his life by regulating his heartbeat during an acute onset disease that is normally fatal.

Real World Benefit

Where many Zen books do a decent job of explaining the concepts, they do not always show how these concepts arise from real world experience, nor how they can be be put to use in everyday life. Sure, we'd all like to achieve inner enlightenment, but when we are so busy just keeping our schedules in order, that seems like a goal of minor importance. By showing how Zen concepts play a role in the martial arts, and how he put them to use outside of the martial arts, Hyams is able to show both how they arise and how they can be useful to us.

The book's biggest flaw is its brevity. I wish there had been more to it, but like so much in Zen and martial arts, there is often very little to be said and much to be done. Ironically, I think Hyams actually puts in too many Zen lessons, because by the end of the book, many of the distinctions between one essay and another become fairly minor. Nevertheless, it is inspiring to hear stories about training with Bruce Lee and other martial arts greats, and encouraging to learn that these men and women were also regular people, willing to sit for a glass of juice with the author and just shoot the breeze.

To be fair, many of the lessons conveyed will make little sense to people who are not at least slightly familiar with the martial arts. The movie The Karate Kid did a good job of conveying many of the more subtle elements of the martial arts. Similarly, Zen in the Martial Arts will probably get the idea across. But to truly appreciate what Hyams is writing about, you must see how the ideas can be applied in your own life, either through martial arts themselves, or though some other endeavor that requires focus and excellence from its practitioners, where the state of mind is as or more important than the state of body. In truth, Zen concepts can be derived from and applied to any aspect of life, but I think there must be some reason the martial arts especially seem to cultivate harmony and focus, not only in performance of the art, but in the rest of life as well.

Perhaps being acquainted with the frailty of life encourages real martial arts masters to carry the lessons learned in their sport to outside arenas. Or perhaps when you are dealing with the art of self-preservation, there is no distinction between the sport and other areas of life.

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