A Blink of Zen

To the Chinese “Chan”, to the Japanese “Zen”. Whatever you  call it, there has been a tie between meditative method and martial  studies for over a thousand years. Ancient records indicate that at  least one style–Shaolin Kung Fu–was even instrumental in the birth  of Zen.

The stories about Zen and Kung Fu wrap around an irony.  The often  repeated legends state that Bodhidharma brought martial arts to  China; that he showed the monks a method of meditating developed in  India and that they were so weak he had to show them special  exercises to maintain their strength. These exercises were said to  become the foundation for Chinese martial arts.


mancuso_blink2The martial arts in China date back hundreds and hundreds of years before  the arrival of the Bodhidharma.  Turn-around may be closer to  the truth. In this scenario, Kung Fu is the mid-wife of Zen; mid-wife  because the parents are known. In fact it’s an old adage that Chinese  Chan (Zen) is the “child of Buddhism and Taoism”. Taoism–taken  at the level of method–is so similar to Buddhism that the Chinese  often thought they were the same religion. When emphasis shifted  from metaphysics and reading to that of method, the philosophical  differences of the two beliefs shrank in importance. Like the belief  in the efficacy of “good works” the philosophical subtleties take  second seat to the actuality of charity itself. Of course the Indian  method of Dhyana (called Chan in Chinese) was practiced long before  the Patriarch brought it to China. But in China it was coupled with  Taoist insights and developed a somewhat different face. This Chinese  version inspired an age of method-based meditative exploration that  was equivalent to geographical exploration. Chan made its way outward  to Korea and Japan. Often it went paired with martial experience and  experimentation.

The lone monk practicing in the pine forest still straightens his  back. He recalls the glare of his meditation teacher.  Posture,  posture, posture. This is the first taste of aligning yourself with  the infinite. Both martial arts and meditation put the frame, the  posture, forward as fundamental. Both also rely on direct  experience where “the teacher is the one who leads the student to  the field but its up to the student to practice.” And both attempt  to sit the student down on the thin edge of life and death.

The mind plays a major role in  Zen (Chan) methods. But it is a mind  stripped of some notions so inbred in Western consciousness that  their absence is a hunger in the bone.

Take the act of breathing. Just count n+1 for each successive breath.  There you have it. But who can count to 100 without boiler plate  resolution? The problem is a sort of structural slippage built into  human consciousness. Amazing amounts of energy might be spent just to  keep awareness alive for two whole minutes. And yet this slippage is  so constant, such a second nature, that we notice it as little as  fish are aware of the water around them. Inside this little slip,  this tiny nap, this nondescript eyelid flutter of the mind is a dark  kingdom of primeval life.

The book BLINK (a must-read for the martial enthusiast) explores the  eye blink rapid moment of recognition (or its opposite) as a source  of intuitive knowledge. It tells of people who identified forgeries  and fakes, laboriously planned and manufactured, when no one else  could, and all in a fraction of a second. It talks about unhappy  decisions made by cops who “misread” a crucial moment in time. .  But long before that book came out I often reminded my students of  what I called “the blink”. In my case  I referred to something  quite different: to that moment where the mind sneezes and the  consciousness hangs out a “gone fishing” sign. For my students  “the blink” was the little death that preceded action.

This snoozing right as the arrow is released is endemic to martial  artists. It is found everywhere and fought everywhere by good  instructors. It underlines, at least on one level, a real and  fruitful resonance between the martial and the meditative: the moment  is there, your partner signals you and you launch your thunderous  technique without hesitation… but you don’t quite make it because  there was a blink at the transition point. The wheels spun but no  traction–at least for a fatal instant.

mancuso_blink1The hardest thing about this break, this blip, is admitting it’s  there. We are almost constitutionally unable to see it. In other  words we blink about our blink.

When we were all living under the umbrella of Bruce Lee I would do an  experiment in Advanced Class. I would set up my partner with his  front arm held at about shoulder level parallel to the floor. Then,  just as Joe Lewis had taught us, I would launch a front hand strike  that was in and out face high before the other guy could raise his  protective forearm. My arm traveling over thirty inches would beat  his reaction of two inches.

Don’t ask me the mechanics, they don’t matter here. But the  foregoing just wasn’t enough. Next, I would continue to fire front  hands while glibly predicting which he would “catch” and which  would get through. The interesting thing was that the audience could  easily see those actions of mine which were telegraphed or not: in  other words, the “tell”. And the helper would block all the right  ones and miss all the others without being aware of his own method of  perception; in essence without knowing why he blocked some and not  others.

The are a lot of lessons in this demonstration. But it shows first  that you can control the “stutter” as I did on some of the  strikes. Secondly, I have watched students blocked over and over in the  same game without realizing at all that they were stuttering each  time they threw a punch. The funny thing there is that in this case  one student throws and the other successfully blocks and neither can  see why this is happening. But the blink never lies.

Of course one way to counter this tendency is to have a personal  trainer willing to stand there toe-to-toe with you can correct each  action.

Another way is to put your intent where the audience is standing: to  objectify and de-personalize the exercise. Even, if need be, to see  everything not from you or the opponent’s perspective but from that  of the audience. In all of these methods the audience could easily  see the slight stutter preceding the act. Developing that kind of  objectivity is called “Guan” and also lies in the realm of Zen.

Yet another way- one that links with our concerns-is to feel inside.  The blink always leaves some evidence if only a single track in the  mud. The state which detects and corrects is so like the state of  meditation that they share music and fragrance. This bring us square  into the paradox. Even if you can beat everyone else in the field,  the real skill lies in a state of self-monitoring so intense, so  truthful and so unrelated to beating the other guy that it can only  be called a bit of Zen. As my friends who meditate tell me, they  don’t do it because they want to deny the world. They are greedier  than that, they want to capture the world and take it in.

Marital arts can cover this up with shouts from the audience and your  team mates; fireworks; high fives; boom boxes and other distractions  but the core of the practice remains silence and sweat. There is  something very honest in this practice while being very personal yet  universal. It’s like the Zen world in a single petal.


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