Can we be martial arts practitioners and Buddhists at the same time? Can these practices actually complement each other, in mindfulness? How do we reconcile Buddhist concepts like non-violence with a fighting practice like judo, karate or jiu jitsu? Long-standing martial arts instructor and meditator Jeff Eisenberg addresses these and other questions in his own inmitable style, employing autobiographical anecdotes, along with martial arts fighting strategies, koan and sutra teachings, and Buddhist folk stories.
Fighting Buddha outlines why the true test of a martial artist’s skill and of a Buddhist’s application of mindfulness is during a situation that is the least conducive for it – usually not inside the Dojo or Zendo. Challenging the belief that fighting martial arts styles are not conducive to a meditative practice, the book discusses the difference between violence and the use of force as it relates to the Buddha’s teaching of "cause no harm", exploring the common misunderstanding that meditative moments are exclusive to only select activities.
Further topics are the struggles of beginning training and practice, the importance of identifying goals, choosing a teacher and training I support of these goals. And far from being the often-perceived ending. Jeff concludes that enlightenment and the black belt are really only a beginning.
Like the author, one of my earliest childhood memories is of the Sunday ritual of watching kung-fu films with my father. I would flip-flop between watching intently and jumping about in the living room, mimicking the movements of the actors on the television. The sights and sounds of the martial arts mythical superheroes captivated my senses, while appealing to my enjoyment of the fantastic.
Because my father taught martial arts, I knew that it was a different story in the dojo. The movies were fake at best, blasphemous at worst, and my father always sternly made that clear. He often casually mocked showmanship, fancy body movements, and ultra-high kicks. He would tell me, "Shawn, I don't need to be able to kick above your knee to completely immobilize you. I can simply break your knee." His approach was minimalistic, coupled with Eastern philosophical musings.
I was taught that the martial arts are a lifelong journey to gain better understanding of ourselves and the world around us. In conjunction with this philosophy, I was also taught the tools for self-defense. Training at the dojo took up a good amount of time during my childhood. It was something I enjoyed, yet full-on sparring was brutal at times. I hadn't yet developed a tolerance for pain, which created fear and a desire to avoid the walls of the dojo.
I discovered skateboarding around the same time, which only helped accelerate my declining interest in the martial arts. Not long after being led to an abandoned and empty pool by my older cousin, where we could practice skateboarding, I found myself telling my father that I no longer wanted to train at the dojo; I wanted to focus on skateboarding. My father was upset, and as a father myself now, I can understand that pain. But it was time for me to step out from his shadow and push forward on my own path.
Soon after I fully dedicated myself to skateboarding I also started surfing. I enjoyed both, as they required my full focus and helped clear my increasingly turbulent mind, but surfing touched deeper elements inside me, creating an intimate bond with the ocean and nature.
At the time, I didn't understand that the joy I derived from these seemingly frivolous activities came as a result of being fully present in the moment. The same presence required of me in sparring—the same presence I ran away from—I now found myself experiencing in critical moments on the transitioned walls of the pool or upon the face of an open wave. It was while immersed in these crucial moments that I was finding both my peace and my joy.
"Presence," "present moment," and "awareness" are words we now hear often in our cultural lexicon in the West. Yet we may experience these states of being in different ways. For the martial artist, it may be found in the fire of a heated moment of altercation; for the surfer, it may come as a result of dropping into a large wave that will swiftly stand up vertical on the shallow sandbar beneath the water's surface. In each case, the situation calls upon clarity of mind and supreme focus.
It was over fresh organic juices and discussions on presence in extremely consequential situations that my friendship with Jeff Eisenberg was born. I was running a small vegan cafe and juice bar in downtown Asbury Park, New Jersey, where Jeff and his wife were regulars. The cafe was coupled with a yoga studio, and I taught group surf lessons to all the yogis in town.
One summer's morning, I took Jeff and his wife surfing, next to one of the numerous jetties that reach into the ocean from the coastline. Sometimes, depending on the student, surf lessons can become a discussion in philosophy and appreciating being with nature. The first half of the session went like this, until the tide dropped enough for the waves to break safely away from the shoreline. Then, after a few attempts at catching a wave, Jeff momentarily got to his feet on the board and found himself experiencing that similar presence he felt while engaged in martial arts.
Afterwards, we spoke about how there can be nothing else in those heavily demanding moments—that an uninterrupted, calm mental state is a requirement for success. I enjoyed the talk, as I fancied myself a student of martial arts philosophy and found myself applying it to my surfing.
As our discussion continued, Jeff expressed the view that philosophy and practice are nearly useless if they are never applied in a real-life situation. For me, this may mean charging into a ferociously large wave; in Jeffs case, it may manifest as facing an opponent on the mat or in the street. In either situation, routine and mechanics are set aside as spontaneity and intuitive flow are called upon. Knowledge must become wisdom through action. This is true on the mat, in the street, in our heads, and among the waves.
Having dedicated decades to the martial arts and Buddhist practice, Jeff Eisenberg has gained experiential knowledge of the successes and pitfalls of both paths. As he explains in this book, to be present in the here and now, opening to the eternal moment, by way of our path of choice, even when faced with chaotic situations, this is the spirit of the Fighting Buddha. Read on, and partake of this humble offering of spirit.
My intention in writing this book was to provide Buddhist practitioners with martial arts fighting strategies that support a realistic application of the Buddha's teachings, to show martial artists how they could utilize Buddhist concepts in the development of the mental discipline needed for technique application, and to articulate to practitioners of both disciplines what to look for and avoid in both practices, using examples drawn from my own experiences.
This is not to say that I'm proposing that my way is the only way, or the best way; nor is it my intention to cast any Buddhist practice or martial art in a negative light. On the contrary, my objective was to present a truthful, albeit sometimes critical look at Buddhism and martial arts as they pertain to the evolution of my own Buddhist practice and martial arts training. I hope to help other practitioners with similar goals avoid the mistakes I have made and avoid wasting the time I have wasted.
The general premise of this book is that martial arts techniques done in the controlled environment of the dojo and meditative experiences that depend on the environment of the zendo for their effectiveness will never have an appropriate application unless trained, practiced, and tested under real-life circumstances. For the martial artist, this prompts the question of whether traditional training in the dojo can actually be utilized in a real situation, and for the Buddhist practitioner, whether the rituals, scholarly study, and meditative experience of the zendo can translate into skillful action outside it.
These issues are not semantics or hyperbole. They are the result of my experiences as a bodyguard and as the director of crisis response in the emergency room and psychiatric ward of a major hospital, where in both instances, I quickly came to the sad realization that most of what I had learned and thought applicable over many years of martial arts training was not. Likewise, I had a similar experience when I found that much of what I was focusing on in my Buddhist studies had little bearing on how I was actually living. In both instances, this was not due to a lack of effort but rather, due to inadequate material that failed my effort.
These questions are a running theme throughout this book, in which I address the struggles of beginning martial arts training and Buddhist practice, the importance of identifying goals and choosing a teacher and training in support of them, and most importantly, how to determine whether the training can be assimilated into real-life application.
Prior books have been written about martial arts and spiritual practice, but what makes my book completely different is that other books focus on only the "art" or practice aspect and not the "martial" or realistic application of martial arts. A common belief about martial arts that has become synonymous with spiritual practice is that only the "soft" styles—those trained slowly with a mandate that they never actually be used—can be considered meditative practice, while "hard" styles, which emphasize fighting, are not only non-conducive to meditative practice but are nothing more than mindless violence.
I address these assumptions in the following ways: by discussing the difference between violence and the use of martial arts as it relates to the Buddha's teaching of "cause no harm"; by exploring the common misunderstanding that meditative moments are exclusive to only select activities; and by explaining why the true test of a martial artist's skill and of a Buddhist's application of mindfulness is during a situation that is least conducive to it.
Building upon this discussion, I then describe how I myself apply Buddhist teachings in my own daily life. I conclude the book by offering definitions of enlightenment and the black belt and correcting common misconceptions about them, i.e., that they are not the end results of one's practice but the beginning.
As this is a book about my modern take on practicing ancient teachings, I'm aware that my writing style and tone at times does not fit the common perception of how a "Buddhist" or "martial arts master" sounds. But to be anything other than true to myself in the way I write would contradict the central message of this book. Sometimes irreverence and rebellion are needed in order to sharpen the sword and cut through delusion. I hope my use of humor and self-deprecation tempers that blade enough to show that I unsheathe it motivated only by compassion, in a quest to "save all beings."
In closing I'd like to remind the reader that in his time, the Buddha was the most radical, anti-establishment progressive the world had ever seen. My intention in writing this book is that in some small way, I am keeping his spirit alive!
As I began to demonstrate an alternative application of a technique, my young student Henry raised his hand. "Sir," he said, with his trademark seriousness and unwavering conviction, "realistically, in a perfect world, we wouldn't need to protect ourselves."
He was right. In a perfect world there would be no need to train, no need to protect ourselves, no need for dharma practice, no need to liberate ourselves. But it isn't a perfect world, and here lies the root of our suffering. Our struggle is that we are drawn to martial arts training and Buddhist practice, thinking that we can create our perfect world. We mistakenly think that the result of our work will be the elimination of experiences that cause us pain and suffering rather than understanding that practice and training teach us to develop new skills and strategies for when we have painful experiences.
Martial arts students think they will reach some special, high level of training that will make them invincible fighting machines that are always safe. Buddhist newbies think that they will reach some special, high level of practice that will give them a state of permanent bliss. The truth is that the best a martial artist can hope for is to be able to assess and evacuate a threat scenario and, at worst, to survive it with the least amount of injury. The best a dharma practitioner can hope for is to respond to painful experiences with new, helpful behavior that is free of attachment, and at worst, break attachment and not turn pain into suffering.
Practice and training should turn us toward these realizations and have us face and accept them. If they turn us away from these truths, then we are wasting our time with harmful delusion. Not to sound like a crazy Zen master, but the world isn't perfect, but it is also not ... not perfect.
We must accept things just as they are and deal with them! There will always be a scary dude in the shadows waiting to kick our ass, and life will never, ever go exactly the way we think it should! So we must train as though every day is the day that we will come face to face with that scary dude in the shadows, and we must practice the dharma every day as though everything that can go wrong will!
**Contents and Sample Pages**
Language & Literature (440)
Sacred Sites (102)
Tantric Buddhism (87)
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