Ken Zen Ichinyo

By: Andrea Ramberti – IOGKF Italy

published on International Newsletter IOGKF September 2010

The conclusion on the 17th Ken Zen Ichinyo Gasshuku saw many milestones in this fantastic event’s history. Combined in Rome for the first time was Goju-ryu, Zazen and Qui Gong under the watchful eye of Sensei Paolo Taigo Spongia, as Newsletter Italian translator Andrea Ramberti details…

After twelve times at Fudenji Zen Monastery and four in Holland, for first time in Rome, from the 18th to the 20th of June 2010, the 17th Ken Zen Ichinyo Gasshuku, under the guidance of Sensei Taigō Spongia was held. The meeting alternated Zazen, Qui Gong and Karate training.

Actually it’s productive separating all the different activities for this kind of Gasshuku, because the meaning of Ken Zen Ichinyo is “Karate and Zen are one thing” and one thing is what we put into practice. Meditation took harmonically turns with training, without betraying any change or theme of discontinuity.

The Way of the Martial Arts, through Zen, exceeds the limits of mere fitness. The influence which Zen had in Karate is evident since the birth of ideograms used to explain that art and by their meaning. At the beginning of the 20th century we started to draw a new ideogram related to a self-defence art using hands, empty hands.

The symbol for kara kara identifies “emptiness” and can be also pronounced “Ku” (vacuous) or “Sora” (sky). Here we find out one of the precepts of Zen: the spirit must be empty (Ku).

The kara ideogram does not only represent something  physical, it also refers to the metaphysical (“meta” =  beyond, “physical” = substance or nature). Kara has been always referred to in ancient Buddhist doctrines following detachment, spiritual emancipation and internalization (inner emptiness). Practicing Zazen the Karate-ka can experience the Mushin (no-mind) state which is the essential condition to reach the highest efficacy in a fight. Zen teaches to be aware of  our being in the present: past doesn’t exist but in our mind, just like a memory and future becomes only a personal expectation. It’s then necessary to live in the present, in the exact instant of breathing, our breath of life: the whole life lies here. The inner element of the way towards kara can be synthesized with a famous Latin expression hic et nunc1 which praises the full awareness and intensity of both our being and acting, perfectly located in time and space.

Breath is so an element that can't be disregarded during Zen meditation, Qi Gong exercises and Karate training. Breathing is not the only analogy and connection among these disciplines, between spiritual and physical.

In Zazen, just like in the practice of any other martial art, posture is fundamental; posture allows us to recover the harmonic integration and interaction with the natural world outside.

Our body acts as instrument of knowledge just as intellect does; a clear awareness of our own posture permits us to get the right balance we need in Karate.

During Zazen we should be free minded, light headed2, no thoughts, so in this way, it is easier for us to apply in Karate the teaching of “here and now” (of the action fully and totally consistent with the present moment) in order to get the highest benefit such as fighting in our daily life.

The passage from an activity to another is continuous: perception and meditation permeate practice; each activity is just training for the next one and completion of the previous. Each exercise is aimed at seeking of harmony, balance and efficiency. Karate and Zen blend together naturally and become symbiot’s enriching each other, favourably.

The correct Zen meditation, as taught and spread by Buddha, together with fighting and energetic techniques, restore the correct balance mind-body, turning this duality into a single expression: being clear minded, perfectly harmonized with the Universal Karmic action that flows into a fixed instant space-time.

Meditation is the irreplaceable base of action; it promotes the immediate understanding of the deep meaning of Budo through our body and it restores the primordial intuition lost by modern man, the same intuition which is intended to be recovered by Martial Arts.

One of the topics discussed in the meeting with Sensei Taigō concerned the attention we have to turn to the correct understanding and realization of each precept and to the perfect achievement of each specific attitude of mind and body; on the contrary, damages would be greater than benefits. It’s necessary; surely, that the disciple aims at being excellent, but the role of the Master is essential both in Budo and Zen, as indispensable presence that monitors the deshi’s (disciple-student) comprehension and realization of teaching.

During the opening lesson about Zazen, Sensei Spongia explained  the correct posture to assume during the Zen meditation (popularization of teaching); but if he had only done this, a few of us could have concentrated and got the real meaning of Zazen, especially  for beginners, as I am. Personally sitting in Zazen, I tried pain and many doubts about the correct application of teaching assailed me; these doubts can make the meditation approach fruitless. In those difficult moments the presence of Sensei Taigō was essential: his calm and regular voice led us to correct our posture and breathing (correct application of teaching) and to understand all the feelings rising during Zazen without omitting the suffering that somebody felt due to the contingent physical constriction.

Sensei Taigō explained the concept of teaching by the use of a metaphor: the hammer has been created for being used in specific tasks, but if we misrepresent them or if we use it in the wrong way, for example hitting our foot, this useful object will become dangerous. And this also happens for teachings. This is the reason why we have to follow exactly what has been explained.

Very incisive it’s the parable used by Buddha in the Sutra “The Best Way to Handle a Snake”: he compares teaching to a poisonous snake; if we know how to handle the snake, it can’t bite us and we can manage it as we like, but if we don’t know how to handle it then the snake will surely bite us.

Hence the need to comply strictly with the teacher’s instructions.

Previously, I wrote about “pain” when sitting in Zen meditation; now I’d like to explain what I meant, to all those who intend to approach meditation. The Lotus and half-Lotus positions are not so comfortable for beginners, as I am.  It seems that just few seconds in Zazen are sufficient to be pervaded with pain and doubts about the efficacy of Zen meditation, vanishing the reaching of “thinking without thinking”. To tell you the truth, I can witness that, at the end of Zazen there are not suffering left but concentration, harmony and balance with themselves, with others and everything surrounding.  In such a state Karate practice becomes excellent and reaches a better efficiency.

The Gasshuku was not only Zazen, Karate and Qi Gong; by practicing some ceremonials (such as communitarian meal and communitarian job) we discovered the spirit lying at the foundation of Budo and Zen tradition. Neither formalities nor contents of a ritual are separable from the practice of any martial art or from Zen meditation, if our aim is to understand and perform them in the best way possible.

This meeting allowed all of us to be perfectly on the same wavelength. This was essential for Samu (communitarian handmade job) and brought happiness during the breaks for the informal meals.

The Ken Zen Ichinyo Gasshuku is rich in practice, experience and emotions; it would be pretentious and restrictive trying to explain it only in few words.

If you want to have a real chance to understand  this kind of experience and the indissoluble communion between Martial Art and Zen, you need, with no doubt, to be there and live personally each moment of the event.

In my opinion, the one who doesn’t yearn for inner peace and harmony, will never go into martial arts thoroughly and, consequently, will never be really conscious of his life. Only through the knowledge and mastery of themselves, can the human being develop his potential and keep it in harmony with nature. The real power and wisdom come from inside and reflect outside. We can get this aim, firmly keeping together Karate and Zen.

By achieving peace of mind and inner harmony, we can make possible incommensurable personal conquests.

[1] The present instant does not come back again.
During Zazen, every inhalation and exhalation of ours is unique and never comes back.
Yesterday was yesterday and today is today.
I always say that we must focus “here and now ", create "here and now”.
Thus there is regenerated, there is renewed.

(Taisen Deshimaru, "Zen and Martial Arts)

[2] In reality during Zazen we think: it is our attitude in front of the thought that completely changes the perspective, which is in zazen. We can observe our thoughts and become fully aware of inconsistency of thought and of that which happens in the present and the thought becomes just one of the transitory phenomena that we test in the present.