The esoteric heritage in …..

Henko

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Alright. I wanted to post this in a general thread since i wanted to include any (japanese) martial art. But if it does not belong here, please say so. :)

I have been reading Ellis Amdur ”Hidden in plain sight”, and i recommend it to everyone. Especially if you are interested in the esoteric part of martial arts. I have been interested in this ”magic” mind/spirit part of martial arts for a long time without knowing what it really was. Figuered a LOT of it was, excuse me, bulls*it. Thats primarily because all of the ”McDojo” videos out there and knowing that movielike magic is not real. Anyway, while reading Amdurs book and learning that the mind/spirit in many martial arts sort of have been lost, either because the lack of knowledge or simply because your school evolves and with it the ”old techniques” disappears. But a lot of it is still there, hidden in plain sight.

Sort of a brief explanation about what raises my question to all of you people.

What is the esoteric heritage in your martial art?
What is hidden in plain sight in your practice?

If you do not want to answer a question, feel free to just write about anything concerning the esoteric in martial arts.

Have a nice day

:)
 

Gyakuto

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I can only talk for Japanese martial arts as I’ve researched (which means ‘read’) quite deeply in this area. Shinto, Confucianism, Esoteric Buddhism (Shingon) and much more recently, Zen all influence Japanese arts.

Shinto features quite heavily in swordsmanship. Dojo have many rituals based on this type of animism from entering it, to various forms of showing reverence toward a Shinto shrine (kamidana) high on the opposite wall to the entrance (or where it would be located)
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The due regard we pay to our swords is based upon the idea that a ‘kami’ (‘spirit‘) resides within it. There is a kata called ‘Shiho Barai’ or four directional sweep in which the performer makes four stylised cuts in the four cardinal directional (or each corner of the dojo) to exorcise demons and malevolent spirits.


The honour we pay to our teachers and seniors comes directly from Confucianism, even down to the hierarchy in which they operate. ‘Analects’ is a wonderful read.

Kuji no In are a set of nine mudra (from Shingon) or finger weaving hand postures performed with a spoken incantations to gain the benevolence of nine Buddhist ‘deities’. They were sometimes performed by samurai before engaging in conflicts and battles. I’ve been known to recite them before important events (they don’t work).

Many old school’s densho (scrolls of complete transmission) contain references to Shingon ‘deities’ and practises. It’s extremely rare for Zen to be mentioned in these scrolls. In fact it’s been suggested the link between modern Japanese Budo and Zen is not much older than the hula hoop! (Lowry, D. (2002) ‘Traditions’ Tuttle p.68 - Ch. ‘Now and Zen’ part 1). Zen became popular with the ruling Shogunate because it’s priests were well-educated and literate (unlike most Samurai). So their advice was sort by the rulers and certain scholars have erroneously made the connection of Zen practise (a monastic tradition) with the samurai. The samurai were not that taken with Zen not least because it required a lot of sitting around on cushions (and only a tenuous promise of eventual salvation), time the warrior class simply didn’t have in their day. Zen priest Soho Takuan wrote a treatise for his friend and master swordsman Yagyu Munenori (1573-1645) using Zen as an analogy for martial strategy so they could both understand the ideas from their perspective of expertise. Munenori became teacher of swordsmanship to the Shogun and the link between Zen and the sword became further strengthened, but not practised. Herrigal’s ‘Zen and the way of Archery’ made a connection with Zen (it was actually Confucianism he was witnessing) and in post-war Japan, D. T. Suzuki wrote very successful books claiming a link between swordsmanship and Zen when he was not familiar with either discipline! Thus Zen and Budo became conflated. It’s fine if a practitioner wants to Zennise his brand of Budo, with old stories and Zen parables, but she shouldn’t do so thinking it’s part of a long tradition!

I hope this gets the debate going!
 

Gyakuto

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Having shed spiritual beliefs of any kind, I think much of these practises were devised to appease the transient and dangerous nature of life in the ‘olden days’. A samurai’s life as well as that of a peasant farmer was hard, often short and filled with discomfort and pain. Any sense of having influence or control over one’s lot brings a degree of contentment and indeed acceptance. If you’re fearful of what is about to happen in the coming war, then plead to deities/spirits/saints and angels for their clemency or even special protection. Weave your fingers and utter incantations, it might calm you and prepare for the horrors in which you are about to partake. Believe that your sword’s got a spirit in it that protects you. But we all know, deep down that just because we really believe something, it doesn’t make it true and the human psyche is usually adept at side stepping this thought.

Many years ago a certain bishop (of Durham, if I recall) developed pancreatic cancer and had a short and painful time to live. His fellow ecclesiastical colleagues were very sorrowful, supportive, kind and caring, naturally offering his family comfort in anyway they could. One day, his friend, another bishop (Lancaster) visited him and said, “You lucky sod! How I envy you, you bas*ard!” “What on earth are you saying?” asked the dying man, thinking his friend had taken leave of his senses. The bishop of Lancaster replied, “Don’t you see? Soon you’re going to be with God! You’re going to meet him, talk to him, know him in a way we won’t for many years!” 🥲
 

Gyakuto

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I’m really interested to hear about Chinese martial art esoteric practises if anyone’s willing to share.
 

isshinryuronin

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Too deep and abstract for me. Also, shallow and concrete. Much like the phrase, "Hidden in plain sight." There's a lot of things to see, but only a few are important. The trick is to recognize that importance. That's the hidden part. Also, a lot of times things are easy to see, but seeing the connections between them is hard.

link between Zen and the sword became further strengthened, but not practised.
I don't think esotericism has a strong place in the practice of karate. It may be useful when discussing some nuances that appear in the art (as illustrated in the quote below) but not in executing the art. For great execution one does need to be in a proper frame of mind, but IMO this falls short of "esoteric heritage." For me, these are peripheral, anecdotal things to the art itself.
Zen priest Soho Takuan wrote a treatise for his friend and master swordsman Yagyu Munenori (1573-1645) using Zen as an analogy for martial strategy so they could both understand the ideas from their perspective of expertise.
I think this sums up the value of MA esotericism. It aids in communication and understanding and, like TMA history, adds to the flavor of the art, but not necessary to the intrinsic art itself. Still, I think it's a nice accessory.
I’m really interested to hear about Chinese martial art esoteric practises
I believe that in the late Chinese Middle Ages, Daoism (and, earlier, Zen) affected some kung fu styles, making them softer and more flowing and had some of their esoteric beliefs imbedded in the art. This might be an example of what the OP was asking. But then, much of the time that art was taught in temples so this would not be surprising. A different history than karate which was less spiritual and more pragmatic.
 
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Gyakuto

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I don't think esotericism has a strong place in the practice of karate. It may be useful when discussing some nuances that appear in the art (as illustrated in the quote below) but not in executing the art. For great execution one does need to be in a proper frame of mind, but IMO this falls short of "esoteric heritage." For me, these are peripheral, anecdotal things to the art itself.
I think there are a few esoteric ideas that have crept into Karate. For example the concepts of mushin and zanshin. In fact I’ve just written an excellent article about these terms 😑 If it gets published, I’ll include a link here (shameless self-promotion) 😉
 

isshinryuronin

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I think there are a few esoteric ideas that have crept into Karate. For example the concepts of mushin and zanshin.

For great execution one does need to be in a proper frame of mind, but IMO this falls short of "esoteric heritage."

Perhaps I've been in this stuff so long, many concepts becoming second nature to me, my definition of esoteric may have a higher bar.
 

HighKick

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For great execution one does need to be in a proper frame of mind,
I have to disagree with this in part. Repetition to the point you don't have to actively think about the motion will result in great execution while your mind can be thinking about the next 2-3 moves.
 

Gyakuto

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Perhaps I've been in this stuff so long, many concepts becoming second nature to me, my definition of esoteric may have a higher bar.
That’s an interesting point too. I was brought up with ‘Eastern’ religious and philosophical ideas so much of the ritual and attitudes within the Japanese martial arts didn’t feel ‘out of place’ or strange (also wonder if my lack of culture shock when I visited Japan was down to this). But is the the case for those from a Judeo-Christian background which are now steeped in Western customs?
 

mograph

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I think that much that is seen as "magical" or "esoteric" in martial arts really stems from misunderstood metaphors.
 

Gyakuto

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I think that much that is seen as "magical" or "esoteric" in martial arts really stems from misunderstood metaphors.
Would you explain, please?
 

Gyakuto

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Most swordsman were functionally illiterate so those who wished to codify their complex ideas resorted to the most literate and articulate people in society - priests.

Thus a swordsman might say to the amanuensis , “Err it’s like...err…a feeling like when you know everything and stuff in front of you and like but like you can pay attention to one thing and stuff, yeah, without any hesitation like and stuff. Are you written it down with the squiggles on that paper, like and stuff?“ The scribe draws breath to suppress his irritation, thinks for a moment and writes the glyphs for ‘Mushin’! Thus the state of mind the swordsman has falteringly described will forever be associated with the Zen principle of mushin and eventually be erroneously thought of as ‘not thinking’ and ‘automatic reaction to an attack’ (which it is not). Swordsmanship begins it’s journey to ‘Zennification’ and it’s associated credibility.
 

isshinryuronin

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That’s an interesting point too. I was brought up with ‘Eastern’ religious and philosophical ideas so much of the ritual and attitudes within the Japanese martial arts didn’t feel ‘out of place’ or strange (also wonder if my lack of culture shock when I visited Japan was down to this). But is the the case for those from a Judeo-Christian background which are now steeped in Western customs?
Mushin and zanshin aren't just ideas - they can be experienced, no matter what cultural background one has. So, for me, they are not abstractly esoteric as I have experienced them, turning them in empirical fact.

Feeling "out of place" is the result of living in a small (mental) place to some extent. Having broad horizons and accepting there are other views and cultures that can strike some chord within us can lessen this feeling.
Practicing and studying TMA can offer some frame of reference to make it easier for Westerners to accept and understand (not necessarily agree with) Oriental ideas. But there are some limits - I can't ever be "Japanese" in the fuller sense of the word, no matter how much sushi I eat.
 

isshinryuronin

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I think that much that is seen as "magical" or "esoteric" in martial arts really stems from misunderstood metaphors.
I can't ever be "Japanese" in the fuller sense of the word, no matter how much sushi I eat. (A metaphor) ;)
 

Gyakuto

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Mushin and zanshin aren't just ideas - they can be experienced, no matter what cultural background one has. So, for me, they are not esoteric as I have experienced them, turning them in empirical fact.
Yes, a good point.
Feeling "out of place" is the result of living in a small (mental) place to some extent. Having broad horizons and accepting there are other views and cultures that can strike some chord within us can lessen this feeling.
I agree. I know some people who object to bowing to the teacher and their training partners in classes. On asking why, they say “I only bow to one person.” I don’t pursue this line of reasoning any further.
I can't ever be "Japanese" in the fuller sense of the word, no matter how much sushi I eat.
😄 It’s fun trying, though! 🤢
 

isshinryuronin

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Thus the state of mind the swordsman has falteringly described will forever be associated with the Zen principle of mushin and eventually be erroneously thought of as ‘not thinking’ and ‘automatic reaction to an attack’ (which it is not).
Perhaps a better definition of mushin than "not thinking" is no particular thinking, which takes in a lot of possibilities? You may have a better handle on this than me.
Swordsmanship begins it’s journey to ‘Zennification’ and it’s associated credibility.
The Butterfly Effect?
 

Gyakuto

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Perhaps a better definition of mushin than "not thinking" is no particular thinking, which takes in a lot of possibilities? You may have a better handle on this than me.
Yes I think that’s a good definition, isshinryuronin. The Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen (Shambala, 1991 edition) defines mushin as – ‘colloquial, lit. “innocence”; in Zen an expression of detachment of mind, a state of complete naturalness and freedom from dualistic thinking and feeling (also moshōseki)’.
 

mograph

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Gyakuto

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It's probably covered by implicit, rather than explicit processes. In other words, I think we're talking about movement automaticity, which happens after athletes and musicians (for example) learn and practice motor skills. The explicit becomes implicit.

The misunderstanding that many have about the concept of mushin is clearly expressed by Bruce Lee’s comment (Joe Hyams ‘Zen and the Martial Arts- Chapter-Mushin) ‘If I were ever taken to court for having killed or injured an attacker, I would say I didn’t kill him…’it’ killed him.’ By ‘it’, he was referring to ‘mushin’ and Lee was wrong in his interpretation of it. In a state of mushin you are still in full control of your decisions and that includes not killing or severely injuring an attacker.
 

dunc

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In the traditions that I study there is a deep connection between the physical training and spiritual aspects
For example many of the forms start with rituals, mudra, etc and these serve to create (& communicate) a certain mindset which has practical value
However, I don't think I can articulate clearly what this is (like trying to explain a taste or smell) - apologies

I believe that you cannot fully master the physical without mastering the spiritual, particularly in the context of traditional weapons where a slight psychological gap is enough to decide the outcome (much less so for jujutsu)
Having said that it seems to me that the people who try to master the esoteric aspects almost always fail to master both sides
I think that understanding of the esoteric/spiritual comes over time from the training, exposure to a master and a little nurturing as opposed to intellectual study

In that regard it is a deep secret that is hidden in plain sight and only accessible to people with a direct and ongoing connection with a true master
 
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