Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

» Posted by on Sep 22, 2019 in General | Comments Off on Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

In the sixth century, the monks of Shaolin practised martial arts. This is first recorded at the Shaolin Monastery in the Province of Henan in China. These schools still teach the skills today – 1500 years later. Unfortunately, the monasteries today play to the tourists and some are more guilty of showmanship than the teaching of quality martial arts.

As with the teachings of Buddha, the monks teach open-handed combat. The monks of Shaolin helped the Tang Dynasty in their battles and also fought off bandits and robbers and protected the monasteries wealth from greedy government officials and jealous landowners. They also defended the coast of Japan against pirates who raided coastal monasteries for their wealth. Although the Shaolin monks practised and taught Kung Fu, other monasteries did not necessarily follow suit. There were other schools to teach martial arts, but this was the choice of the particular monasteries.


Six hundred years after it was first recorded that the Shaolin practised, it reached Japan. The samurai started practising Zen and with it came the knowledge of the martial arts. They realized that Zen meditation sharpened the mind, and this aided them in the fields of war. The forms of their martial arts included archery and sword fighting. However, the Japanese were practising these forms before Zen helped with concentration.

It was the practice up to the late 1500s for monasteries to have trained monks, called Sohei, to protect their possessions and their properties. These Sohei did not necessarily practise the disciplines of Zen as the true monks did, so this allowed them to kill if necessary. The Zen samurai sought perfection in the martial arts, including jujutsu, Kenjutsu, karate and practised Zen, but only to improve their concentration, but called it Zazen.

The teachings of Buddhism taught them not to fear death but accept it as part of life and showed them that material possessions were not necessary for survival. Today’s martial arts are taught in the Western world but without the connection to Zen. Japanese proponents of martial arts believe that without Zen the martial arts just become another sport.

Martial Arts in Modern Warfare.

Many armies in the western world today have some form of hand to hand training, whether it is with or without a weapon. The US Marines, for example, receive some training as recruits, but only learn the more essential skills as they progress. During the war in Vietnam, the South Koreans fought with the USA against the North Vietnam communists. Their knowledge of hand to hand combat came to the fore in confined quarters and tunnels when bigger and heavier weapons hindered rather than aided the wielders. The USA soldiers themselves were most impressed (and a little intimidated!) by the South Koreans, and the North Vietnamese avoided combat with them if at all possible.