Tuesday, January 25, 2011

MUSASHI's Precepts

Miyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵) (1584–1645), also known as Shinmen Takezō, Miyamoto Bennosuke, or by his Buddhist name Niten Dōraku, famous for his duels and distinctive style. He was the founder of the Niten Ichi ryū style of swordsmanship (at the origin of Yoshukai Karate Iaido moves) and the author of The Book of Five Rings (五輪書 Go Rin No Sho).

Musashi was also an artist and has left us some very powerful paintings. 

He also practiced Zen under Master Takuan Soho (see my other post on this matter) who also trained Musashi's the other famous swordsman Yagyu Munenori. 

By the end of his life Musashi formulated a series of precepts he recorded under the title "Following the Solitary Path"

These precepts are fitted to the life of Ronin devoted to forging his mind and body. 

The emphasis on not being attached to possessions, ideas and persons is evident.

It is not possible to know whether Musashi was influenced by Buddhism in his formulation of his precepts, or if Zen was simply a perfect practice for someone who lived according to these precepts.

It is easy to understand however, how Zen with its emphasis on non attachment, perfectly fitted the Samurai way of life and why it was so quickly accepted by the ruling class of Japan.

MUSASHI's Precepts

1. Do not violate the laws of Society (Accept everything just the way it is)
2. Do not seek comfort for yourself.
3. Do not have preferences (be free of bias).
4. Think lightly of yourself and deeply about the affairs of the world.
5. Be detached from your desires throughout your whole life
6. Have no regrets regarding personal matters.
7. Never be jealous or envious of others.
8. Do not grieve over a separation from something or someone.
9. Do not hold grudges over yourself or others.
10. Do not let yourself be fooled by lust or love.
11. Do not get infatuated over physical objects
12. Do not wish to settle down.
13. Do not seek the taste of good food.
14. Do not hold on to the things you have.
15. Do not act following customary beliefs.
16. Do not become obsessed with having splendid weapons.
17. Do not fear death.

Horse by Myamoto Musashi

18. Do not seek to accumulate money or possessions for your old age.
19. Venerate Buddhas and the gods but do not rely on them.
20. Abandon self interest, do not seek fame or fortune.
21. Never stray from the Way.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

If you mimic someone else, your Zen is dead.

The Rinzai Roku is a collection of the teachings of Master Rinzai (Lin Ji in Chinese), who lived in China in the 9th century. He was the founder of what would be known in Japan as the Rinzai School of Zen.

One day a visitor asked to Yamaoka Tesshu to comment for him about the Rinzai Roku. Master Tesshu told him that an other Zen Master Kosen Roshi was lecturing on this regularly in Kamakura. The visitor told him that he wanted to hear his lecture.

Tesshu agreed and took his guest to the dojo. There he demonstrated Muto Ryu swordsmandhip with one of his disciples in front of the visitor. 

"So, what do you think of my lecture about the Records of Rinzai ?" Asked Tesshu.

The visitor, impressed by the demonstration - did not answer. 
Tesshu kept on : "Since I am a samurai and swordsman, I best can explain Master Rinzai's teachings through Kendo (literally "the Way of the Sword). No matter how powerful is your intellect, if you mimic someone else, your Zen is dead..."

I have read 2 versions of this story - This one in "The sword of no sword" by John Stevens. In the other in "An introduction to Zen training" by Omori Sogen, Tesshu invites his guest to a sword bout. No wonder the visitor was left speechless... Yamaoka Tesshu was considered the best swordsman of his era.

Compare this with the story of the Nun Shido who, when asked by the Abbott of the Enkakuji temple to discourse about the same Rinzai Roku, drew her Short sword and told him: "I am a woman of warrior lineage and I should only declare our teaching when really face to face with a drawn sword. What book should I need?"
It is very likely that Master Tesshu was aware of this story as it is part of a collection of Early Warrior Koans - of which he owned a sample.

This is important, and refreshing :

"If you mimic someone else, 
your Zen is dead..."

Sunday, January 16, 2011


The two basic principles of Buddhism were formulated around 600 BC by Gautama Buddha. They are the Four Noble Truth and the Noble Eightfold Path. Over the centuries different interpretations and practices developed . This may at times be confusing. This article tries to clarify the place of Zen within the great family of Buddhism,


Buddhism acknowledges the basic teachings of the Buddha : The 4 Noble truth:
  1. Life is suffering
  2. Suffering comes from our attachments
  3. It is possible to stop suffering by getting rid of these attachments
  4. The way to cessation of suffering known as the Noble Eightfold path.
       The Noble Eightfold path is a practical guideline to ethical and mental development. Its  goal is to free the individual from attachments and delusions and finally lead him to understanding the truth about all things. It includes : right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

        Basically, if you deny the validity of the 4 Noble Truth and the Noble Eightfold Path, you are not practicing Buddhism. 

       The practice of the Noble Eightfold Path varies from one Buddhist school to another. Depending on the school, it may be practiced as a whole, only in part, or it may even have been modified. Each Buddhist lineage claims to implement the path in the manner most conducive to the development of its students.


Around 500 AD Bodhidharma came from India to China and this was the beginning of Zen.

       The Zen school places great emphasis on the Practice of Meditation during which all activities of the individual mind come to a stop - This state is called "Samadhi"
       When in a state of Samadhi, one may one day experience a flash of intuitive knowledge about the nature of reality. (the right view of the Noble Eightfold path). This is called "Prajna".

       Prajna is knowledge or wisdom that does not come from the usual modes of perception, intellectual speculation or outside authority (books or other individuals). It is always correct.

This last part is tricky... We all have heard of various prophets who claimed - and believed - they had received a sacred knowledge of some kind. Some of them are inside mental institutions, and some others account for some of the worst atrocities ever committed in the world. 
      This is why another important aspect of the Zen school is the "direct transmission from heart to heart" between Master and Disciple. This means that for one part while on his path, the disciple receives guidance from a Master, and for the other part, that if the Disciple ever realizes Prajna, the Master formally acknowledges it. The light has been transmitted to the Disciple who has now become a Master.

There is an uninterrupted chain of Masters from Gautama Buddha to present day Zen Masters.

I hope this clarifies the situation...

By the way, Bodhidharma is also credited with having taught the Shaolin Monks the Martial Art of the Indian Princes. Of course, this is another story, but this is why I really like this guy...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hojo Tokimune - 1

Hojo Tokimune (北条 時宗, 1251 - 1284) was 23 when the Mongols tried to invade Japan in 1274 for the first time. They tried again in 1281. In both occasions, the invaders were repelled. This was the first time they were vanquished. So these were dramatic times for Japan. Tokimune had to take hard decisions and numerous people died under his command - but Japan stayed free, and this was the beginning of the end for the Mongol empire who had never before been vanquished.  

Tokimune apparently was afraid of his own fearfulness and to fight it practiced Zen under Master Bukko Kokushi (仏光国師) - also known as Mugaku Sogen and Wuxue Zuyuan (Chinese). Tokimune founded the Enkakuji Temple in Kamakura in 1282 to honor those who had died during the Invasions.

When Tokimune died, Bukko said he had been a bodhisattva, looked at people's welfare, betrayed no signs of joy or anger and studied Zen so that he reached enlightenment.

Tokimune's widow Kakusan-ni founded Tokei-Ji in 1285 after her husband’s death. She dedicated it to her him and made it a refuge for abused women. She is also known as the Nun Shido who when the Abbott of Engakuji challenged her about her ability to comment on a Classic of Zen, drew her 10 inch blade Tanto and answered him : "I am a woman of the warrior line and I should only declare our teaching when really face to face with a drawn sword. What book should I need?'

       These events and guys were almost contemporary with Master Dogen (1200 - 1253) - founder of Soto Zen in Japan. They were living very difficult times and facing very significant challenges. These guys had responsibilities and guts. Still, they were practicing Zen, for they were finding in It the strength and determination they needed to be up to these lethal challenges. 


       Some have the impression that Zen - and/or any spiritual endeavour - are a way to escape reality. Actually a number of us come to it to find "peace of mind". There is nothing wrong about that. 

       In a similar way, lots of us came to Martial Arts to learn self defense. Again, nothing wrong about this. But after a few years (20, 30) you really can't keep practicing with the only goal of becoming a better meaner fighter. If at 50 you feel the need to go Saturday night to a Country bar to pick a fight in order to test your abilities, you are missing something - notwithstanding the fact that you will eventually get your ass kicked - if not this time, then the next... Martial Arts really are about fighting the real enemy inside us.

       Same for Zen. We get to it for various reasons. Usually the need to find a place where we're at peace. Sitting will give us that. But if we keep practicing with the only intent to escape the tumults of the world, we are missing the point. Zen is not about escaping. Zen is about being here, in the middle of the mess, crawling under a floor to find a water leak and not finding it, helping a loved one going through disease, cooking for your kids, or deciding how to organize your troops in order to minimize the number of dead soldiers when repelling the invader. 

Joseph Campbell coined a beautiful description of what Zen is about : "Joyful participation in the Sorrows of the World"

Now one last point...

       Even if you practice Martial Arts to become a better person, you should train to always be ready to answer a challenge, to be ready to fight and actually not lose. If you do not have this spirit, you are not practicing Martial Arts. 

       In the same way, in Zen "joyful participation in the sorrows of the World" is achieved through sitting. You may decide your time is better spent trying to help others than "selfishly" sit in Lotus; and immerse yourself in noble and useful endeavors to make a difference in your environment. But if you don't sit, this is not Zen.

Nobody said it would be easy.

A Basic Breathing Exercise : The Brick

Babies don't breathe using their chests but their bellies. When we grow up, we gradually learn how to use our chest rather than our abdomen to breathe. The reasons why this happens are mostly cultural. It is important to re-learn how to breathe with our abdomen rather than our chest. The Brick is the first in a series of exercises designed to develop the practice of abdominal breathing

There are 3 goals to this exercise :

  • Teach you an easy way to breathe with your abdomen rather than your chest.
  • Train you to focus your mind in the tanden area (Bring your mind there
  • Teach you to pay attention to the sensations in that area (Listen to your mind there)


Lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground and your legs bent with your knees in the air. Place an object the size of a brick, a woodblock or a phone book on your belly. The weight needs to be enough that you feel it, but not so much that you feel uncomfortable.

As you breathe in, make sure the brick rises.

When you breathe out, let the brick go down.

Avoid any chest moves when breathing in, avoid any contraction of the abdominal muscles when you breathe out.

Focus your mind on your Tanden : an area 1 or 2 inches under your belly button, and concentrate on how you feel when your abdomen expands during inhalation (breathing in) and collapses as a balloon emptying itself when you exhale (breathing out).

The Tanden is an area localized 1 to 2 inches under the belly button, and 3 or 4 inches inside. It is approximately the center of gravity of your body.

There are actually several Tanden in the body, the Lower Tanden is the important one for our exercise. Unless otherwise specified, when we mention the Tanden, it is the lower Tanden.

Important points:

Avoid any chest moves when breathing in.
Avoid contraction of the abdominal muscles when breathing out.
Keep your mind focused on your Tanden 2” below the belly button.
Avoid muscular tension, try to keep your overall body relaxed. This will help you only concentrate on what you feel in the Tanden area.

Tips :

You may practice on your bed or a couch, however, it is better to practice on a firm floor or exercise mat. This helps better sense what is happening in your tanden area.

During breathing in, it may be helpful to visualize the air flowing from your nose up to the tip of your skull and then back all the way down through your spine to your sacrum (the tail bone) to then fill up your lower abdomen.

When you breathe out, visualize the air flowing up through your sternum (breastplate) toward your nose.

(Although in this above drawing, the subject is sitting in the lotus position, this visualization can be practiced in any position)