Six years ago almost to the day, I was sitting in the Budo Dojo at Chozen-ji for zazen (seated meditation). 

But, I was not counting my breaths. 

Nor was I breathing slowly, lengthening my exhales and letting my low abdomen expand and contract with each breath. The action was instead up in my chest, and my shoulders were scrunched up toward my ears. 

Despite much instruction, I was not paying attention to my posture, or pushing the back of my head up toward the ceiling so that my spine would be straight, like a marionetteʻs hanging by a string.

And I was not seeing 180 degrees in every direction, seeing, hearing, and feeling everything.

So, perhaps I wasn’t actually doing zazen. 

I was thinking so hard. Thinking, thinking, thinking. Until, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. 

What I was doing was ruminating. My mind had been consumed for the whole day, in fact, and for the better part of several weeks by a difficult situation I was dealing with at a nonprofit whose board I sat on. I was caught in a loop of frustration and anger, imagining better, more clever ways I could’ve responded to the last negative communique I’d received. 

I was thinking so hard. Thinking, thinking, thinking. Until, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. 

In a way that I had never experienced before, the bramble of regrets and recriminations Iʻd been stuck in suddenly fell apart, as if it had been cleaved cleanly in two. In short order, all of my thinking and all of the emotions that accompanied it fell away. 

Able to see the room again, I found myself back on my cushion, sitting in the Budo Dojo on the island of Oʻahu, which was thousands of miles away from the conflict that had been consuming me. I felt free. Free to resume counting my breaths. Free to squeeze all of the air out of my diaphragm on each long exhale until it was just a little uncomfortable. Free to be exactly where I was, doing what I had sat down to do.

A few months earlier, I had come to Chozen-ji, a Rinzai Zen temple and martial arts dojo in Honolulu, to train in what I considered to be “warrior Zen”. Part of that training included learning Kendo, which translates to The Way of the Sword and is often referred to as Japanese fencing. 

Twice a week, I participated in formal classes, yelling, leaping, and swinging a bamboo sword called a shinai over my head. I also practiced sword cuts and other aspects of Kendo on my own during the days, and the head priest taught me another sword form called the Hojo one or two nights a week.

Iʻd recently donned the bogu, or protective armor worn in Kendo, including a men, a helmet made of stiff layers of cotton and a metal grate that protects the face. Once I put on the bogu, I was able to do keiko, or sparring practice, with the other students and the Kendo sensei. 

Keiko consisted of facing off with an opponent, trying to provoke or anticipate an exchange. I would try my best to quickly raise my sword, then synchronize leaping forward, bringing my sword down on my opponentʻs head, and yelling, “Mennnn!!!” at the top of my lungs. (Men means face or helmet in Japanese, and in Kendo we call out what body part weʻre aiming to hit—helmet, wrist, or torso—as we strike.) Then, I would run straight past my opponent until I was almost to the other side of the room. Only at that point would I turn around, ready to strike again.

Much of the feedback I received those first few months had to do with standing up tall, cutting straight, running directly towards my opponent rather than around, and bringing more kiai, or energy, out with each strike. I discovered that I had a tendency to get small in keiko, scrunching my shoulders and bowing my head down as my opponentʻs sword flew toward my men. The folly of this response was quickly made clear—not just by the corrections from the sensei, but also from the fact that the men offers little protection on the top or toward the back of the wearer’s head. Face the strike head on, and I would just feel a thump on the metal grate in front of my face, but after ducking enough times, the top of my head began to throb as a tender lump formed under my men.

Repeating the same motions again and again, with consistent feedback to correct this habit to get small, I learned to keep my head up and face the hit as it came down. There were no defensive maneuvers in response—only attacking back. Over the weeks, months, and then years of training in Kendo, it would become deeply ingrained in me to face conflict and challenges this way: head on and belly button forward.

Over the weeks, months, and then years of training in Kendo, it would become deeply ingrained in me to face conflict and challenges this way: head on and belly button forward.

There’s a scene in one of my favorite movies, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, where the protagonist, Beatrix Kiddo, is training at a remote mountain monastery with a supernaturally powerful martial arts teacher named Pai Mei. She’s exhausted every day and her body is beyond sore. One early morning, she’s curled up sleeping, facing the wall next to her bed and we as the viewers can tell she’s dreaming about the repetitive punching drills she does every day, driving her fist into a wooden board. Still asleep, Beatrix propels her fist forward in the same motion and is jolted awake as her knuckles hit the stone wall.

When I was (supposed to be) sitting zazen that day in the Budo Dojo, my mind racing and focused on everything except what I was supposed to be doing, I experienced a similar reflex. But it wasn’t the same as Kiddo’s muscle memory. I didn’t actually move a muscle. What I felt play out was in my mind and, in a way, in my spirit. It was similarly uncontrived, spontaneous and direct, however. My teacher called it a psychophysical memory, or kiai memory.

This kiai memory is not necessarily the purpose of training in Zen or in incorporating the martial arts into Zen training, but it points to Chozen-ji founder Tanouye Tenshin Rotaishi’s motivation in making martial arts a core part of our training. 

The kiai, discipline, yielding, rhythm, strength, and sensitivity one can learn in the martial arts can have an accelerating effect on Zen training and self development. They bring liveliness and vigor to what can otherwise turn into a slow and sedate occupation—what some historical Zen teachers have derisively referred to as “dead monks sitting in a cave”.

In the Budo Dojo that day sitting zazen, despite more than 12 years of prior meditation experience, I was able to cut through at least one or two of my delusions and attachments. It felt exactly the same as Kendo, like having a sword in my hands, yelling “Menn!” and galloping across the dojo. It had a new vigor and aliveness, and these made the ensuing sense of being free to choose where to direct my attention feel all the more potent and sweet.

Originally published on Cristina Moon’s Substack. Reprinted with permission.

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