Buddhism And The Martial Ideal: Part 2
By Jeff Brooks
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two part
1) that discusses how Buddhism and how historically it has
been central to martial ideal.
After a long series of victories in war, the conduct of Genghis Khan
and King Ashok changed. Theirs represents a very different model from
that of the would-be conquerors of the modern era. And the implications
for our own lives today are profound.
In both cases there was a shift from warfare, which brought them to
power, to a policy of education and harmony during their reign. Contrast
this with the example of the dictators of the last century who rose to
power by means of violence. The leaders of the Soviet Union, for example,
used mass murder as a technique of conquest and used it along with a
policy of cultural repression as a means to hold on to power. Their empire
collapsed. There are numerous recent examples of this.
Even with a machiavellian motive to retain a grip on power, the use
of force as a means for doing it will fail. It will exhaust the resources
of the conqueror as it destroys the empire. From recent examples we can
see that evil, in power, will destroy itself as well as the good that
it feeds on. Evil cannot survive on its own.
The need for a shift in mode from conquest to rule was well-observed
through history. The British acknowledged it in their colonial period.
In the philosophy of samurai era Japan, the principle was communicated
with two kanji characters “Bun/Bu.”
On the wall of our dojo there are two pieces of calligraphy of these
two characters. Each was a gift given to me by a great modern master.
One was from Sensei Ryuhei Taneya, in 1987, when he was about 80 years
old. Sensei Taneya at that time was the coach of the Japanese national
Kendo (swordfighting) champion. The champion was a Tokyo policeman, a
huge and powerfully built man, a Mr. Nishiyama. Nishiyama seemed effortlessly
to defeat attack after attack, despite the fact that they were launched
by a series of highly skilled opponents – Go Dan (fifth degree
black belt) and up – in an international competition I attended.
His power and speed, and his intimidating presence, were obvious. Even
at rest he radiated calm power. Yet when Sensei Taneya counseled him,
his bearing shifted, just slightly, as he leaned toward the older man
half his size, and humbly took in the insights cultivated through his
teacher’s long life of practice.
It is an honor to meet people of that level of accomplishment. Even
more so to see them in action. Sensei Taneya had seen me bow on entering
his training area at the beginning of the session. He asked me, through
a translator, who I was and why I bowed. I told him. It was after that
that he gave me the gift of his “Bun Bu” calligraphy that
hangs now in our dojo.
Years later, on Okinawa, I trained with Sogen Sakiyama. He was a great
goju ryu karate practitioner. When I practiced with him he was the senior
Zen master on Okinawa, in his 70’s at that time. When I returned
home we corresponded frequently, about issues of a life of practice.
Following our next meeting, with a group of students gathered around,
he brought out his ink and brushes, and with a dramatic Zen master’s
flourish brought his brush down on the square of paper and wrote two
bold characters: Bun Bu. That was his message to me at a critical moment
in my practice life.
The mastery of both bun and bu were considered essential for the development
of the individual – and for the health of society – in samurai
Bu means war. In this context it refers to martial arts and the arts
of war-making. The character itself includes a radical (a common component
or sub-character within a larger compound Chinese character) representing
the sheathed sword, not the drawn sword. Anyone who will have to use
force in conducting his duties can confirm that implicit strength is
a better way to keep order than deployed strength. For example the deterrent
effect of a police department on crime is much greater than simply the
number of arrests made.
Predatory forces will arise inside society and appear from without.
They must be dealt with. Mastery of the arts of war, and the ability
to use force skillfully when necessary, is needed. But they are ultimately
not enough. As a martial artist, for personal security or for the security
of a community or nation, the use of force is not sufficient to make
life harmonious, peaceful, prosperous or stable.
Bun represents the arts of language, philosophy and law: the means by
which a civil society is organized and regulated. Mastery of these was
also considered essential for personal cultivation and for social harmony.
It seems obvious that to have a harmonious group we ought to communicate
with each other. We need to share ideas about what is good for people
to do and what is good for people to avoid. We need to be able to convey
why cooperation for the common good is in everyone’s interest,
why those interests should be balanced with personal freedom and fulfillment,
and then see how we can work together to rationalize these personal and
social needs. By using convincing ideas and creating strong boundaries – enforceable
laws – within which people have great freedom from harm and freedom
to act, the greatest happiness will follow.
This is one implication of Bun and Bu. Overreliance on one or the other
will lead to collapse. Balance the mastery of the two and you can hope
for a stable and happy society, and mature and fulfilled individuals.
That is not a Buddhist idea. The two great early promulgators of Buddhism – Genghis
Khan and King Ashok – both observed their version of Bun Bu. But
the Buddhist version of the need for self-defense, personal and communal,
goes deeper. It will not allow us the self-serving error of saying: first
I will conquer everything and then I will make everyone behave nicely.
We can know that it is an error to try to remake the world according
to our own utopian vision or our own self-interest (like the great dictators
of the last century) because it is both an article of faith of Buddhism,
and demonstrably true by logic, that (1) doing harm brings harm and doing
virtue brings happiness; and (2) that since our world is created by our
own actions (virtuous or non-virtuous), that we can infer that the best
way to happiness is through kindness not force.
However it won’t work just because we suddenly decide to be nice.
You can’t remake your world by wish or fantasy. It must be done
via action, consistent and diligent action. In the short term, because
of the karma we have accumulated in the past, violent people may approach
us. We can and should vigorously protect ourselves and the people who
depend on us. We have to do that with the proper motivation, of course.
In the long term, through good conduct of body, speech and mind, we can
transform our lives and our world to such a degree that violent forces
will no longer approach. But we cannot fake that, or simply hope all
will be well. The transformation is possible but it will be an arduous
and long process.
So the question that comes to mind is: were these two great Buddhist
emperors simply being skillful – consolidating their power and
pacifying their empire through the use of benevolent philosophy? Or did
each of them have a genuine religious conversion later in their career,
honestly feeling repelled by violence, renouncing the use of force and
deeply wanting to bestow happiness upon all the people of their empire?
It is hard to answer that.
It is not hard to see the implication for our own choices. The creation,
for example, of strong boundaries of acceptable behavior for our own
lives, within which complete freedom is possible. The way in which we
do our utmost to value and protect our own precious lives and the lives
of the people who depend on us. And how we behave when the immediate
threat is over, as we cultivate the qualities that will assure inner
peace and interpersonal harmony.
The warrior ideal is never far from the religious ideal. To neglect
the connection, or to confuse it, is perilous. To harmonize the two gives
the best hope for happiness.
About The Author:
Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, US Shorin Ryu
Karate, has been the director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton,
Massachusetts since 1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993.
He is author of The Rhinoceros Tale. His column Zen Mirror and other
articles appear on FightingArts.com.