Monday, June 29, 2009

Lessons from my Zafu: Relationships

Most of know, or at least are aware, that all things are inter-related. That true independence does not exist and that we are all interdependent, not independent beings.
One thing I learned sitting upon my zafu is that I am in relationship with it. Just like a friend, there are times when I like being with my zafu and there are moments I just can't bear sitting on it. Even though my zafu is an inanimate object, I still am in relations with it. We are interdependent. Sitting zen is less comfortable when not on my zafu.
This relationship concept extends to all things in our lives. Right now you are reading this on a computer screen...probably sitting in a a desk or table. You are in relationship with all these things.
Prior to sitting on the zafu, as well as the end of zazen...we bow to the zafu with a gassho. With this palm-to-palm motion we are signifying our oneness and acknowledging our intimate relationship with the zafu. I now find myself gasshoing to a lot of inanimate objects, like my computer, my chair, my desk, my clothes, my house, my get the picture. All of these things help support my life. I am in relationship with them just as I am with animate objects like humans, cat, dogs, birds, etc. With this simple motion I also give thanks and acknowledge our oneness.
Try gasshoing to everyone and everything.
This simple lesson has enriched my life...and has helped me as a martial artist as well.
Thanks for reading...
Hands palm to palm,

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Defining Moments

I was just reading Narda's blog, Harlan's Place, and she was writing about one of her defining moments in her life. This got me to thinking...(those damn monkeys are talking again)...about my own defining moments, especially as it relates to Karate and/or Zen.

I am interested in other people's defining moments as well. What inspired you or changed you in some shape or form that propelled you to Black Belt or even to start a martial art? Let us know. Stories are interesting.

My earliest defining moment in Karate that shaped me into a Black Belt was when I was about 15 years old. I had been studying Karate for about a year/year and a half, and as I was standing at attention in line Sensei Dean came over to me, grabbed my dirty white belt (we didnt' have yellow or orange belts back then) at the knot and said, "You are going to make a fine Black Belt some day." He then moved on. Those words 'hypnotized' me. At that moment I became a Black Belt in my head and seven years later it materialized. Those words rang through my head and deep into my spirit. It was the right thing at the right time. Simple words that turned into a powerful message and defining moment for me personally.
So how about you?

Looking forward to hearing some stories.

Hands palm to palm,


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Lessons from my Zafu: Monkeys are everywhere!

I have decided to write a series of insights that have passed through my head while sitting on my Zafu...and I invite readers who have a meditative practice to chime in as well.
For those new to Zen, a zafu simply means sitting cushion. In Soto Zen we sit on black zafu's. They are usually round and placed upon a zabuton, or sitting mat. When we sit down to meditate our focus is upon our breathing...and that's all we do.

Even though when you sit upon a zafu and look motionless in zazen, there is lots going least in my head there is. I tend to have a lot of mental chatter going on, typically called 'monkey mind' in Zen circles. Monkey mind loves to chatter endlessly.

The insights I will share are again my experiences and not eternal truths or to be taken too literally. Trying to describe what happens sometimes while sitting is truly at times trying to describe the describless. The real experience cannot truly be captured in words or pictures. As I have mentioned in other posts, you need your direct experiences. That is what counts. I am only sharing mine in the hopes they inspire you in your practice...and writing helps me keep the monkeys from taking over.

So, this is one of my first insights about zen practice. Don't try and get rid of the monkeys. This only makes them noisier and more mischievious. To quiet the monkeys, just watch them and allow them to quiet themselves down. You see, your monkey mind is like a spoiled child who screams and screams for what it wants...and if you give in to it you reinforce bad behavior. Best advice is to ignore or just note the monkeys exist as you are watching your breaths in zazen.

Over time, they do quiet down...but very rarely are they truly quiet for me. Even during intense moments of 'clarity' there is a subtle 'chatter' going on. Just part of the whole experience, neither to be sought after or gotten rid of. Just watch and see what happens. Regardless, monkeys are everywhere.

Take Care,


Saturday, June 20, 2009

Zen, Gyoji and Boredom

Gyoji is a term, like many Japanese words, with many meanings. On one level it means daily practice of your art. On a deeper level it means essential activity. So we have a word that tells us we need to practice 'essential activity' daily. What is essential activity? For now, let's say Kata practice is...or even better, Sanchin Kata. Sanchin is an essential activity for a martial artist to practice on a daily basis. Why? To state the obvious, it means you will get better and more skilled in Sanchin and Karate in general.

The struggle most of us have, and I include myself in this, is the struggle to keep our daily practice fresh and brand new. This can be especially difficult with a routine and simple Kata like Sanchin. At first you may be excited about practicing but after awhile it gets boring. The mind begins to think it knows Sanchin and begins to wander from its practice. The same goes for Zen meditation. At first it can seem very exciting, but after begin to ask why do you do this. There is nothing here.

To keep practice alive is the struggle with Gyoji. How do you do this? For myself, I tell myself this is the first time I have ever done Sanchin. In fact, every time I practice Sanchin, it is new. It is never the same. You can never ever really practice the same kata twice. The Sanchin you do on Monday is different from the one you do on Tuesday. They are not the same. You fool yourself if you think they are.

When you get bored it is the mind looking at its own rerun of the Kata...and not seeing the Kata now in it freshness of this moment. Your mind is looking at its memory impressions and judgements about the kata, not the kata now and here. This moment is here now and will never return. This Sanchin is here now and will never return. This is the Zen way of looking at practice and applying Gyoji. Maintaining the proverbial 'Beginner's Mind' is the key and central to our practice of Zen and Karate.

So, when you get bored with a kata or another essential activity, check yourself. You are not seeing the moment fresh as it is. You are seeing your mind's discriminations or what I like to call 'reruns' of the moment's essential activity, not the activity in its freshness and thusness. When this happens, be thankful for the is a messenger screaming at you to wake up and be here now with your essential activity. After awhile you begin to appreciate the live show in front of you.

Hands palm to palm,

Thursday, June 11, 2009

If you meet the Buddha...kill him!

Buddha taught self-reliance and non-attachment. His teachings are full of examples of being lamps unto ourselves and not relying on someone else's experience...and not hanging onto the ones we have.

He wanted for all people to have his experience of total awakening, but be our experience. We need to have the direct and immediate awakening inside ourselves.

Many Zen Masters, like Bankei, were chastised for not using the zen system of its day, with regimented routines and koans. He was a light unto himself. He had the experience and went around challenging others in their enlightenment experience like a samurai challenging another to determine their level of skill. Bankei did not lose.

One time during zazen I had a very high level of clarity and had a laser light pass into my third eye (area located between the eyes). I went to Nonin, my Zen teacher, and asked him about it. He basically told me to kill it. It is nothing to hang on to. It was a just another level of consciousness, no better or worse than another. This too shall pass. He was teaching me to not get attached to wonderful sensations and heightened levels of awareness. Just stay here and sit.

This is killing the Buddha. Do not hang onto the Buddha or Buddhism or any -ism or wonderful insights. They are passing and transient and can hook us into a false sense of confidence and spiritual egoism. This is just as dangerous as being addicted to a street drug like cocaine or heroin. It deludes us and keeps us in a trance. We are not free or awakened. We only think we are.

True freedom comes from killing the Buddha...every single day. This extends to my study of Karate as well. I am always killing my own insights. When I have one, it excites me. I play with it, give it thanks, and then kill it. I move on. To stay stuck on one interpretation or a set of interpretations of kata or strategies about fighting or self-defense is to not accord with the -do of Karate-do. I drive my students crazy some days because I am always changing things. Just when they think they have Sanchin Kata understood, I change it. Kill the Buddha.

This is so they understand there is no firm ground on which to stand. Karate is not is an active evolving art form and it is important to keep the mind bouyant and non-attached. Life is bouyant and non-attached. Kill the Buddha!

I hope this makes sense.

If it does.

Kill it.

Hands palm to palm,

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Why is a mouse when it spins?

Why is a mouse when it spins is one of my favorite Zen koans. Koans are those illogical riddles that send your intellect into a tizzy...or in martial art terms Kuzushi. We use Kuzushi in Zen Goshindo Karate alot.

Kuzushi is the art of unbalancing your opponent to take the advantage during conflict. Kuzushi can be a push, a pull, a combination of a push/pull or pull/push, a flick of the fingers to the eyes, a trip or even just screaming at the top of your lungs. Anything to make your attacker go 'oops.'

When you can get your attacker to go 'oops' in his mind you then have taken his focus and 'root'. He is more easily thrown, hit, kicked, or run from. We practice these things as they give us the advantage in a street situation, especially when you are the smaller person.

But what about when you get 'oopsed?' How do you recover? What does your mind do? Do you panic? What happened to your mind when you read the title of this post...Why is a mouse when it spins?

It is important to practice not only 'oopsing' your opponentt, but you yourself getting 'oopsed.' Why? Well, to state the it is not foreign territory when it happens to you. You want to have fast recovery time from losing your balance, especially your state of mind. Your state of body can still be off-balance, but your mind can stay on-balance...but just like any good martial technique, practice is essential.

A good training tip is to simply practice mindfulness throughout the day and be aware when your mind wanders away from what you are doing. When you are aware it has wandered, gently bring it back to what you are doing. Even before this, establish a daily meditation practice to discover and establish a good 'center of stability' so you can be more sensitive to your mind wandering away. This is what Zen practice can do for you as a martial artist. Zen practice can be about responding to why mice spin without engaging the intellect, which we all know, can get us screwed in a self-defense situation.

Even in the midst of the chaos of getting 'oopsed' you can pull your mind back faster and establish your center in a fashion fit for survival in an attack. Think of the times you have to deal with a disgruntled customer or an pain-in-the butt co-worker. This is a good time to maintain your calm and be aware how easy it is for these types of people to 'oops' you. As you practice in your daily life, if you ever have to stay focused in a self-defense situation, your chances of staying balanced or recovery from imbalance is increased.

Just some random thoughts from my corner of a cold and rainy day in Wisconsin.


Friday, June 5, 2009

Kusanku no Kun

At the Broken Bokken we have begun to play with the kata Kusanku, one of Karate's longest katas, as a Bo Kata. This kata has been an enigma for me for many years despite having a great number of bunkai.

As a lot of kata do, it made me question its effectiveness as an open hand kata. I am aware of the wide variety of bunkai, but when I began playing with it as a Bo Kata it began 'speaking to me'. Those damn voices again.

Anyone else out there practice Kusanku (Kushanku, Kwanku, Kanku) also as a Bo Kata? I am looking for some validation that others see this too, plus to create a dialog and share our findings of bunkai, etc. If you don't, but do know a variation of Kusanku (of which there are plenty), play along with us and share your findings. We love to play in our sandbox called Karate.

I know Isshin-ryu practices Kusanku with Sai. Some Isshin-ryu use the kicks and other don't when they practice Kusanku no Sai. We are going to experiment as well and again, play with Kusanku, but will keep intact the integrity of the Kata as we know it.

Kusanku is supposed to be the name of the artist the kata was named after. Anyone know of an English translation of Kusanku? It's probably Bill, but names are important. For instance, Oyama can be translated as Grand Mountain. Just curious.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Are you having fun yet?

I'm back. Book is into the publisher and I can once again blog without feeling guilty.

During this time of writing I kept asking myself, "Am I having fun yet?" and I have to admit, 'Yes, I am.' Even though writing can be extremely detailed and putzy...just like learning a new also is a wonderful journey.

At the Broken Bokken Dojo I encourage all of us to have a playful attitude. Research has shown we learn best and retain information better when we are having fun...and a tad bit irreverant. I tend to encourage mischieviousness. I believe it heightens our senses, keeps us more alert, plus it is just plain fun.

Now, this doesn't mean we just run around willy-nilly with no discipline. All the fun comes through sharing a common form of pain that comes to us as martial artists. Practicing Budo should be very physically rigorous and demand from us our total attention, focus and spirit. All of this is important, and can mixed in with a well-timed fart (if their is such a thing) to break up the seriousness of the action.

My Sensei also encouraged us to have a fun attitude. I believe this is one of the reasons I have stayed in the martial arts. The humor that is present and shared by many martial artists from many styles is contagious and at times only shared within the ranks of Budo. Someone from the outside might never get the joke.

So, are you having fun yet? If not, examine your motives in the arts. Be like a child once again. Be playfull. Smile. I have been at a conference this week and had the opportunity to partake in training for Spring Forest Qigong. Like all Qigong forms, one of the first things we were reminded to do while standing!

Have some fun.

Hands palm to palm,