December, 2009: Zen and Strategy

A former black belt of our dojo, Gene Feller, passed away November 24th. He was a local artist and a gentleman. There will be a memorial service for him Saturday, December 5th at St. Mary’s at 10:00 AM. Because of this there will be NO CLASSES at Fit Happens on Saturday, December 5th.

There will be no classes at the Hackettstown or Fit Happens dojos on December 24, 25, 26 & 31. Please plan ahead and make up these classes.

Zen and Strategy

zenZen philosophy and its strategic insights optimized fighting strategy and taught Samurai to deal with fear and death to obtain victory. The benefits were proven during hundreds of years in situations where the penalty for failure was not loss of a “point”, but death. Today Zen is rarely taught in fighting, and the focus of martial arts classes are usually all physical despite the fact that the mental component is the most important attribute in any fight – tournament, or real life.

Asian strategy (e.g. the classic “Art of War” by Sun Tzu) and Zen are not religions but provide systems for understanding the ‘self’, optimizing technique and performing at one’s best. Some of the principles taught by sport’s psychologists mirror that of Zen in the martial arts and other things taken from Zen are more specifically directed towards combat. The modern term of putting oneself in “the zone” is directly related to the Zen mind state of mushin – one Zen principle, which can be related to kumite, is discussed in more detail below.

“Like a full circle, the mind must be empty, yet complete.” The Japanese term often used in karate, which is loosely translated as “empty mind”. This term does not strictly imply “no thought”, but rather no attachment to any one thought, emotion or strategy. To obtain this state of mind fears, doubts, ego, and any preconceived thoughts of action (strategy) must be removed, or the mind will not react openly. When we apply mushin to certain techniques and kumite strategies many karate athletes often miss the point at first glance – it revolves around the assumption that the mind must be trained to know all these strategies innately and that at any moment in kumite the right one for the situation is released without thought. This creates the required speed (i.e. no delay) and enables dynamic adaptive change in the strategy after the opponent begins to react (which enables another innately trained technique/combination to emerge as soon as it is needed). There are drills, combinations and training methods to enhance this heightened mind state.

A simpler conceptual analogy for mushin, which removes the complexity of strategy, is the following: imagine fighting someone who truly has the ability to strike with any one of their 4 limbs at any time. These people are always tricky fighters due to the fact that any limb can come out at any time i.e. no attachment or predisposition to any one thing (mushin). As one works on kumite this is one physical-mental approach, which can be drilled.

There is a famous Zen saying “mizu no kokoro” which translates to “a mind like water.” Everyone understands how the water of a pond can be calm and clear. In this state, it will reflect all around it truthfully & accurately, much like a mirror. In karate and in life we strive to have a calm mind that reflects everything around us accurately. Therefore, the mind must be clear like the glass surface of a still pond, reflecting everything accurately and without distortion. If the mind gets attached to any thoughts, this is analogous to throwing a stone into the tranquil pond. The ripples that the stone creates (or thought in the mind) will interfere with the smooth surface of the pond making the reflection (perception) distorted. If the mind is cluttered with thoughts, how can it possibly react quickly in stressful situations? Only when the mind is clear and calm will we act instantly without hesitation or fear.

The term “void” (kara in Japanese) has very real implications for strategy, Zen mind set and accessing weak points in an opponent’s technique and body. The use of “void” as the first character in Karate-Do was later consolidated in 1935 by Funakoshi sensei (founder of Shotokan) publishing the book “Karate-Do Kyohan”. The link between “voids”, or “emptiness”, has obvious similarities to mushin, however, its mental implications for strategy go further than that. The mind is just one component of a “void” approach used in fighting. Other cumulative uses of the “void” concept include:

  1. Technique combinations which open an opponent enabling the scoring of a “point” (pre-determined opponent response strategy which occurs following a particular combination)
  2. Furthering the first two points by striking a cavity, or anatomical void, to most damage/upset the opponent.

Therefore, fighters can chose to train certain combinations that provide a three-pronged approach of creating mental voids, physical opening voids, which are then followed by impact on an anatomical void. The emphasis here is to use all three “void” approaches in a cumulative fashion. The goal here is to not only score points but also mentally optimize one’s position of confidence and strength relative to the opponent’s physical and mental state.

Although this article mentions just two karate related Zen concepts a number of others exist which are highly relevant to kumite performance. All such concepts can be worked on as part of one’s training to optimize tournament fighting. Other Zen-based lessons can include:

  • Centering in a bout (physically and mentally) – upsetting your opponents “centered confident state”
  • Striking voids (mental and physical combinations)
• Progressing through the stages of Zen as one’s fighting improves
  • Reading your opponent
  • Dealing with fear and anxiety to perform at your best
  • Use of Aiki and Kiai to upset your opponents mind game, and at the same time create physical openings for standard technique scoring


Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After 3 minutes: A middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later: The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. Several other children repeated this action. Every parent, without exception, forced his or her children to move on quickly.

45 minutes: The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story (you can read it here, at the Washington Post). Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. 

The questions raised:

  • In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
  • Do we stop to appreciate it?
  • Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: 
 If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made. How many other things are we missing?

Posted in Dojo Newsletter.