The traditional martial arts (budō) of Japan boast a history that is centuries old. The samurai warriors applied themselves in the study of martial arts not only to master the techniques of killing, but also to develop their ‘spiritual armour’. The teachings of systemized martial schools from 14th century were simultaneously abstruse, mystical and practical in nature. They held the key to the ‘Holy Grail’ of combat ‒ a superlative combination of body, mind and technique which made the warrior invincible in battle both technically and spiritually through a supposed transcendence of concerns for life and death.
Although nobody fights with bows and arrows, swords or spears anymore, the martial arts have survived to the 21st century as popular international sports. However, there is something that sets them apart from other sports. The philosophical and spiritual underpinnings which remain an important feature of martial arts such as kyūdō, kendō and karate maintain a direct connection with the battlefields of old. The world of budō is a precious legacy left by samurai warriors who confronted their mortality every living moment, and practitioners gain fantastic insights into the beauty of life and how to live to their fullest potential.
Budō arts abound with old sayings and tenets of wisdom that provide a framework for life. One such concept is that of ‘zanshin’, or ‘left-over heart’. In battle, successful execution of a technique meant the death of one’s enemy. In modern budō arts it amounts to scoring a point against one’s opponent or hitting the target. However, making a successful attack is only half of the equation. The warrior must never let their physical or psychological guard down.
They must remain vigilant, calm and collected at all times, and somehow manage to subdue the intense emotional excitement and adrenalin surging through their veins. This is not only a matter of survival, but is also a sign of respect for their slain foe. If the warrior’s heart was equated with a cup of water, the enemy is doused with the contents when the attack is made with total integration of body, soul and weapon, and the drips that remain in the cup are the warrior’s zanshin.
What happens if there is no zanshin? Perhaps a straightforward analogy can be seen in movies. When the hero finally vanquishes the villain and is breathing a sigh of relief, we all prepare for the happy ending once again. But, just as we let our guard down, the villain typically makes one last dastardly assault, and it is the lack of zanshin in the hero and viewers that generates the entertainment and excitement. Another example of what can happen without zanshin can be found in mountaineering. Around 80% of climbing accidents happen not on the way up, but on the way down. The inexperienced climber reaches the summit and relaxes their guard on the descent, mistakenly thinking the battle is over.
Indeed, it is an emphasis on zanshin that distinguishes budō from other sports. If a goal is scored in soccer, the triumphant players dash around the pitch unabashedly congratulating each other with delirious enthusiasm. In budō, scoring a point is considered akin to taking a life. It is highly inappropriate to show pleasure, and throwing one’s arms up in the air with joy is clearly an act lacking zanshin. It is not only the point that matters in budō, but the practitioner’s deportment after the fact. In kyūdō, the emphasis on zanshin is so strong that it is impossible to tell just by looking at the archer whether or not the arrow hit the target. Hit or miss, the solemn facial expression stays exactly the same and each subsequent movement is tranquil and resolute.
Learning to stay focused, attentive and respectful regardless of the situation one is confronted with is at the crux of martial arts training. It is concepts such as zanshin that can be applied to one’s activities and demeanour outside the dōjō, and make the study of budō a lifelong spiritual journey.
Login or Sign Up
- Log in with Facebook