Zen and the Martial Arts

文徳武功 or “Bun Toku Bukou” can be translated as something like, “Literary/Cultural virtue and martial skill.”

As a kid, I had a fascination with martial arts movies.  I was enamored by the movie Kung Fu, with David Carradine, and how he was this martial artist who attempted to bring about justice, and to protect the weak.  To enter the martial arts training, the young martial artist must first prove himself by sitting outside the temple every day and waiting.  This is a mirror image of how one enters a Zen monastery in Japan, during training as a monk.  When I experienced “tangaryo”, I was certainly buoyed by memories of Kung Fu.  “Tanga-ryo” (literally “room for overnight guests”) refers to the practice of sitting outside the monastery waiting to enter.  It’s a test of one’s resolve to practice the rigors at a Zen temple. 


Star Wars, too, has a similar motif of the warrior-monk protecting the vulnerable, in the concept of the Jedi master.  As a child I pretended to play the role of a powerful Jedi wielding my light saber and learning the ways of the force.  Such warrior-monk types existed in the time of Dogen Zenji, though he was quite critical of them for neglecting the practice of meditation among other things.


When I entered the monastery at 23, I almost completely stopped watching movies, but my interest in martial arts was occasionally ignited upon hearing about and seeing Zen masters wield a sword in kendo, and my teacher referring to similarities between martial arts and Zen.  As an adult no longer training formally, I still love to see a good fight in a movie.

Zen has a long history with martial arts.  Shaolin Temple in China is said to be both where Bodhidharma, the first Indian Zen Ancestor, resided, and the birthplace of martial arts.  Emperor Wu was the epitome of Bun Toku Bukou, as he both spread the Dharma and built universities (Bun Toku), but also acted in several instances as a successful General (Bukou) in battle.


All the major religions of the world spread, in part, because of the practice of Bun Toku Bukou.  Various rulers achieved some degree of appreciation for the development of the intellect or of a cultured mind (Bun Toku) and acted in ways that served to protect (Bukou) that development.  The Prophet Muhammad exemplified this by being both a spiritual leader and a political leader.  Prophet Muhammad was so successful at both Bun Toku and Bukou that the entire Arabian peninsula converted to Islam within his lifetime.   


It wasn’t until the 4th century when Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire converted that Christianity achieved similar success and spread throughout Europe.  Constantine provided the protection that Christians needed to spread a particular culture.  For three centuries prior to his conversion, Christians were not protected by the state and were often unjustly killed by the whims of the authorities, preventing Christianity from having wide appeal.


We can find similar stories within the Hebrew Bible of leaders such as King David.  King David possessed the ability to lead with both military might and with spiritual fortitude.  His downfall was when he sees himself as above the law, neglecting the exhortations within the 10 Commandments, particularly around adultery and murder, reminding the reader that it’s not enough to be mighty, but that one needs also to continue to refine oneself through studying and practicing God’s precepts.


Confucianism, too, spread and helped to unify China once the ruling class saw the wisdom of  both refining the intellect or heart/mind AND protecting the state.  Prior to the unification of China the elite or ruling classes were lopsided in their thinking, thirsty for power, and ruthless.  They paid little attention to literary virtues or the pursuit of the intellect or virtue (Bun Toku).  It took centuries for Confucius’ aphorisms to be taken seriously, but once they were, they were embraced by the Chinese.


Buddhism, too, spread thanks to the Buddha growing up as the heir to his father’s throne.  As an insider into the kingdom of Magadha where he was raised and expected to take his father’s throne, he was groomed to understand the politics of  his time.  The neighboring kingdoms respected him in part because they knew he was formerly a prince.  It’s through this that knowledge of the warrior turned monk grew.  Shakyamuni Buddha was born into the Warrior Caste in India and was adept at the martial arts of his time and culture.  He understood the duty of protecting the kingdom (Bukou), yet he thwarted it for Bun Toku. 


King Ashoka, centuries later, spread the Buddha’s message beyond the confines of the Indian subcontinent, again, thanks to the awareness of Bun Toku Bukou.  Prince Shotoku of Japan, in the 7th century, included Buddhist principles in his governing and was responsible for facilitating the spread of the Dharma in Japan.  It’s because of the merging of religion and politics (Bun Toku Bukou) that Buddhism became a World Religion.  Literary pursuits, culture, the development of wisdom or virtue all require protection by the State.  In our times, our Constitution attempts to curtail the alliance of religion and politics, but it does protect religious freedom.  This protection is to our benefit.

In many liberal Buddhist circles the United States government is often rightly criticized not for having a strong military, but for exceeding the needs required to protect the country.  Some Buddhists like Joanna Macy point to the life-threatening proliferation of nuclear weapons as an example.  While this is an important point, it’s also thanks to adequate military protection that a certain degree of law and order persists at present in the United States and allows for freedom of religion, and for us to practice without feeling threatened for doing so.  (Even with protection by the State, still underlying prejudices, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, etc., make many religious practitioners feel unsafe and unprotected in the United States.) This is not the case in all countries.  There have been pogroms in China that destroyed Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist temples.  At present, in Burma, the lack of separation between religion and politics is a cause of corruption within Buddhism.

We have little control of what happens on the national level, where we can see the presence or absence of Bun Toku Bukou.  Nonetheless, this way of being infiltrates Zen practice and thought.  My teacher often said, “You have to study.”  Zen is about learning Buddhist principles like the precepts (virtue) and ways of meditating and then putting this learning into practice.  The very first aphorism in The Analects of Confucius reads:

“Having studied, to then repeatedly apply what you have learned – is this not a source of pleasure.”


My teacher also said regarding study, “It won’t do you any good.”  In other words, we need to let go of prior knowledge if we want to continue to advance in our practice.  We can’t rely on previous experiences as our sole guide.  We must be open to continually learning.  This could be referred to as “beginner’s mind.”  “In the expert’s mind there are few possibilities, but in the beginner’s there are many.” (Suzuki Shunryu, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind.)  One of her teachers, Narasaki Ikko Roshi, said, “Never Cease Cultivating.”  The spirit of this is that we are never done with practice.

Yet, this kind of constant cultivation warrants some degree of protection beyond the walls of a monastery.  If there is fighting, such as internal warfare, how can one concentrate deeply, relax, or even think of studying the self?  Thus, in Japan, martial arts have served as a means of protecting the development of the spirit.

My teacher’s first Zen teacher, Omori Sogen Roshi, was renowned in Japan for his high degree of presence.  My teacher said when Omori Sogen Roshi practiced martial arts that his eyes seemed to be looking everywhere, yet he was perfectly still.  He could take on and defeat many men simultaneously while wielding the sword.  Yet he was also an adept calligrapher, studying culture and virtue.  He was the epitome of 文徳武功. 

Also, Noda Daito Roshi, my teacher’s root teacher, was both a practitioner of martial arts and a promoter of education.  He constructed a school on the temple grounds of Kappa Dojo.  This school is dedicated to disadvantaged children not able to make it in mainstream schools due to bullying.  He teaches the kids how to protect themselves, and how to fight.

If we widen our definition of martial arts to include all sorts of physical activity, then 文徳武功 is also valued in our own country.  When we witness well-educated students that also excel in athletic performance that is a kind of Bun Toku Bukou.  The A student who studies engineering in college but is also competitive in football or basketball, or other activities that require physical strength and dexterity similar to that of those that yield the sword in former times, is such an example.

It’s not enough to study and refine our mind.  We also need to involve our physical body through practical and concrete actions that serve others in some fashion.  Likewise, brute strength and might is not enough.  We need to be able to think intelligently before acting.  文徳武功,if employed in balance, leads to success in life’s pursuits.

I’d like to offer some caution before fully embracing martial arts (Bukou) as a part of cultivating the spirit (Bun Toku) in Zen.  Martial artist and Zen practitioner Som Pourfarzaneh, has the following to share regarding contradictions between martial arts and Zen:


According to Buddhist teachings, all things are mutually dependent on one another, empty of an unchanging, independent self. It thus follows that an unnuanced martial arts practice that singularly positions a “self” versus an “opponent” is incompatible with the nondual ethos of Zen. Likewise, any aim to harm others, even if one learns to be “in the moment” to better respond to a variety of attacks, is antithetical to Zen.

Purfarzaneh, Som. “No Self, No Opponent.” In Lion’s Roar Magazine, September, 2023

This seems very important to keep in mind.  In correcting this, Purfarzaneh further states:

“A martial arts practice grounded in Zen methods must aim to help others. Developing your martial arts skills to cause harm, or as a means by which to benchmark yourself against opponents, is by default contrary to Zen practice. Yet, you can infuse martial arts training with the intention to be of benefit to others, inverting the traditional mode of opposition into one of active compassion. With this disposition of altruism, you engage in practice to improve your fitness, enhance your discipline and focus, and develop skills in defense and protection in order to help those around you. Your opponents, once perceived as aggressors, become intimate companions who are themselves controlled by emotions, such as anger, attachment, and delusion. No longer obsessed with the false dichotomy of “self” versus “other,” you’re better able to apply your skills to restore peace and harmony in a potentially violent situation, thus fulfilling the embodiment of silent illumination by using your expertise for the common good.”

I’d like to conclude this by inviting Zen practitioners to think of “Bukou” or martial skill more broadly.  If we think of Bukou as activity that is a form of “protection,” many activities may count as “protection” in a sense.  Cooking, cleaning, sports, gardening and other physical activities can serve to protect both our mental and physical wellbeing.  In this sense, Bun Toku Bukou can serve to remind us of the importance of balancing our more intellectual and spiritual parts with life’s physical demands.  Zen is not just a practice sitting on the cushion.  It’s our whole life in balance.

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