Thursday, February 05, 2004


[From an email I wrote in 2001 to a grad school friend, Chad, partly critiquing Kenneth Leong’s contention that Zen is a “right-brain” tendency:]

Kenneth Leong in his The Zen Teachings of Jesus wants to make the point that Zen is right-brain oriented. It has much to do with holism, synthetic thinking, mental flexibility, etc. Let me give you a copy of the readings I gave to my students; Leong's chapters are in there, and he does a much better job of clearly explaining things than I can.

However, I think Leong makes a mistake when he emphasizes the artful element of Zen. Quite a few Western scholars have done this: they've described Asian spirituality as relying more upon the aesthetic than Western theology/spirituality does (cf. for example Noss and Noss’s Man’s Religions). Maybe true, but this needs examining. Leong is, perhaps inadvertently, suggesting that right-brained folks are more Zen-predisposed than left-brainers. That, in my opinion, is baloney. Zen isn't found anywhere except in the ordinary, and what one's ordinary mind is can vary from person to person, and from moment to moment.

This is why I suggested reorienting Leong's argument from "art" to "kung fu." Kung fu means, basically, "good effort." Whether one is a left-brained aeronautical engineer, a left-brained accountant, or a right-brained fruit-loop like Jackson Pollock, everyone can practice mindfulness (OK, maybe not Pollock, who was probably well-acquainted with the mind-altering effects of paint thinner). When eating, just eat. When FUCKING, just FUCK. When figuring quadruple integrals in math, just figure quadruple integrals.

[NB, February 5, 2004: On “kung fu” meaning “good effort”: Koreans, when they refer to Chinese kung fu (mostly known as wushu in mainland China, if I understand correctly), generally pronounce the word in a quasi-Chinese way—k’oong-hoo. But when you look at the Chinese characters that make up the word for kung fu, you see that they are gong and bu. Gong means “merit/achievement,” and bu means “husband, man, laborer, artisan, sage, philosopher.” The two together therefore can indeed mean something like “good effort.” So the word is pronounced “gong-bu” in Sino-Korean which, as any Korean knows, sounds exactly like the Korean word for “study.” This isn’t a coincidence: the 3-stroke radical of the 5-stroke gong in “kung fu” is in fact the 3-stroke character in the gong for “study.” So there’s a phonetic, orthographic, and semantic connection: to study (anything), or to practice kung fu, is to invest time and energy in the increase and development of knowledge and skill—“good effort” indeed.]

[NB2: Wushu comes from the characters wu meaning “war/martial” and shu meaning “art/technique.” So wushu is a generic label for martial arts. In Japanese, the same characters are pronounced “bu” and “jutsu” (with the final “u” baaaaaaarely audible!), and in Korea they’re pronounced “mu” and “sool.” So: wushu, bujutsu (bujitsu), and musul. Martial arts. Note, however, that the term “martial arts” will be understood in slightly different ways in each of these cultures. A string of Chinese characters may be the same from one country to another, but that doesn’t guarantee they mean the same thing. Classic example: Korean hapkido versus Japanese aikido. Even a cursory glance at the respective syllabi of these martial arts (or “martial ways,” if you will) shows that they’re distinctly different in philosophy and approach, despite certain commonalities. By the same token, Koreans will tell you that komdo isn’t quite the same as Japanese kendo. There are differences in stance, grip of the sword, etc. This linguistic “problem” isn’t really a problem; it's actually quite common: consider, for example, what “bread” means to an American as opposed to a Frenchman, a German, and a Turk. Say “bread” to these people, and each will conjure up a different (though not-unrelated) image.]

[NB3: A lot has been made of the distinction between “martial art” and “martial way.” The common wisdom is that a “martial way” is the next stage in a martial art’s evolution, in which what began as an external discipline becomes “internalized” and stresses the philosophical/religious aspects of the art more than the practical aspects. Although this is a decent way of describing martial arts in general, the rule falls apart when you begin to examine specific cases. Kenjutsu, sword-art/technique, evolved into kendo (sword-way), yes—but is judo truly a rarefied, philosophical version of jujitsu? Note several problems right away: judo does indeed have a “philosophy” of sorts: Jigoro Kano’s famous utterance, “Maximum efficiency with minimum effort.” But judo is known throughout the world not as a martial “art” or a martial “way,” but as a martial sport—much like the main forms of taekwondo (TKD includes military forms that are much more effective, incorporating close-range techniques that take advantage of knees, elbows, and palm heels). Along with this, the further problem is that jujutsu is a general term covering a very wide range of martial arts and techniques, some of which favor certain kinds of hand and arm movements, some of which are more percussive/external, and others of which are more yielding/internal.

Further complicating the issue is that some martial practices refer to themselves as “ways” even though they’re more properly “arts” or “sports.” Sport taekwondo is a prime example. The name literally means “kicking-boxing-way” (kwon is the Chinese chuan, often translated “boxing” or “fist” in the Chinese context), but sport TKD involves concepts that truly philosophical practitioners find abhorrent, such as winning/losing, and prizes. Martial “ways” tend to view winning/losing dualism with the same disdain found in Zen practice (and as you probably guessed, there are historical reasons for this)—one’s efforts shouldn't be about the acquisition of a trophy.

There’s a lot of back-and-forth, however, between “art” and “way” adherents. Some in the “art” camp contend that “way” practitioners have so departed from the original pragmatism of the “art” that their moves are no longer useful in any practical sense (side note: how many kendoka can practice their art on the street?). There may be some merit to this claim, but it’s still highly debatable. “Way” practitioners reply that “art” practitioners often miss the deeper realities available to them in practice—or, worse, deliberately cultivate all the wrong things. An example of this is breathing technique. Many percussive martial arts practitioners (e.g., in karate, TKD, etc.) encourage “clavicular” breathing, which occurs higher in the torso than “abdominal” breathing. This is done in order to generate more power for the delivery of a blow. The martial “way” adherents frown on this because their own philosophy entails approaching combat with a settled, serene mind-- something encouraged by the discipline of abdominal breathing. It’s not about fierce movements and facial expressions: it’s about calm detachment and harmony.

The debates are old and there aren’t any clear resolutions. I think it’s possible to explore deep realities even if you’re involved in a martial sport, but my own preference is for something that combines pragmatic efficiency with serenity and harmony. The closest thing to that in Korea is probably hapkido, an integrated martial art that combines percussive “external” techniques (kicking, punching, etc.) with yielding “internal” techniques (circular movement, flips, holds, throws, locks). Hapkido, the same three characters as in Japanese aikido, is literally “harmony/integration-energy-way.” One very common, but very wild, translation of these characters is “The Way of Divine Harmony” (this requires a Westernization/spiritualization of the concept of ki, which may or may not be justified). It's a harmless-sounding name for what can be a brutal martial practice.]

[NB4: The move from shu/justu/sul to tao/do is something you can see in the various great religions. Islam is probably the most famous example these days: the move made from an “external” concept of jihad (struggle against others) to a more “internal” jihad (struggle against oneself, one’s own failings). In Christianity, it is perhaps less obvious, but the move from scriptural literalism and an externalized “I-Thou” conception of divine/human relationships to a more internalized (perhaps even “individualistic” in the West), nonliteralist spirituality is an example of the same transition. In Hinduism, the concept of yajna (sacrifice; our Hinduism prof always pronounced this “yugg-nuh”) moves from external to internal, as does the concept of tapas (not to be confused with Mexican appetizers), which moves from a more literal meaning of “heat” to a more internalized meaning of “effort”—that is, the sweat you invest in your practice.

Moves in the opposite direction are also possible. Fundamentalist (capital “F”—the specific Christian movement from a little over a century ago) reaction to the Enlightenment is a prime example: a retreat to literalism in the face of science and reason. Muslim fundamentalism (lower case “f,” the modern usage of the term) in the face of Western progress and values is another example of such a move. And perhaps the most venerable example is what almost immediately happened to philosophical Taoism: within a couple centuries after the probably-legendary Lao Tzu it had become magico-religious Taoism, and that’s the most prominent form of Taoism found in China today. Buddhism has demonstrated some of the same tendencies, which I'm tempted to describe as retrograde— but that's a very non-academic evaluation.]


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