Alan Watts, philosopher and popularizer of Eastern spiritual ideas to the West, observed that “everyone’s a philosopher; most are poor ones.” That is, just in the nature of human life itself, you can’t get away from reaching conclusions concerning “what it’s all about” and the meaning and purpose of your life, yet few of us are raised to think clearly and diligently about these things, and as a result have less than fully formed, mature positions, often holding contradictory and mutually exclusive views.
As Westerners, we live in an outward-focused society–one that values appearances, status, wealth and other visible forms of achievement. There is a not-so-subtle prejudice against thinking too long and hard about deeper matters. Even in TV commercials that lampoon meditators as navel-gazing, naive, and unrealistic, we can see how pervasive these attitudes are. “Real men and women don’t sit still.” We’re doers, not thinkers.
So maybe it’s not surprising if popular images of Eastern spirituality tend to be exaggerated caricatures of Asians as inward-focused and inactive, sitting on their mats while the world whirls by around them. But while it may be true that traditional Eastern cultures tended to be more inwardly and philosophically inclined than those in the West, it’s also worth noting that there was sometimes pushback against this within the East itself.
One of the great stories of the ancient world is that of the Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, said to have crossed the Himalayas and arrived at the legendary Shaolin Temple monastery in 527 B.C.E. His story is one in which many different traditions and approaches to life intersect.
The important word to remember here is “legendary.” 527 B.C.E. sounds like a very specific and precise date; but it’s worth recalling that the traditions of the ancient world are full of precise-sounding information that is not likely to be historically accurate. Stories back then were mostly handed down orally, as few could read and write, and were not meant to be history in the modern sense so much as they were to convey important truths about life.
This is especially true where the martial arts are concerned. The famous fighters of these ancient tales were the superheroes of their day: real men and women in many cases, but whose exploits got wilder and grander with each retelling, like the myths about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in this country.
The one about Bodhidharma is that when this wild-eyed monk got to China, he met with the emperor, got into a disagreement over Buddhist doctrine, and went to visit the Shaolin monks, who refused him entry to their monastery. So he went and sat in a cave for nine years, where he bored holes in the rock walls with the focus of his laser eyes and left the imprint of his shadow there as well. Presumably these feats impressed the Shaolin enough that they invited Bodhidharma inside.
Once there, what he found was a surprisingly modern story: a bunch of pencil pushers hunched over desks, with poor posture, bad backs, and maybe carpal tunnel syndrome. The monks had spent so much time working on translating Buddhist scriptures that they had neglected their physical health. Their lives and culture were out of balance. Too inward. Too mental.
Bodhidharma yelled at them to get off their butts and exercise, like your home room teacher in seventh grade. “Put down your phone and get outside! Breathe some fresh air!” He taught the monks a series of movements drawn from the Hatha and Raja Yoga forms of his native India, designed to correct their posture, strengthen their muscles, limber up their joints, and deepen their breathing. Brightening up and shaking off their bookish gloom, the monks eventually expanded these practices into fighting forms that became what today we think of as Shaolin Kung Fu.
That’s the story. It’s a children’s book, basically, full of four-color pictures of shaven-headed monks studying the movements of snakes and cranes and tigers and the like–maybe even dragons!–and working those patterns into their own exercise, making them the formidable fighters that eventually enriched the Hong Kong Kung Fu film industry and led to David Carradine peacefully kicking bigots through bar windows in the seventies TV series of the same name, Kung Fu. It’s a fun story.
The reality is probably more complex. For one thing, there was already a rich martial arts tradition in China at the time Bodhidharma would have arrived. And given the dangers of bandits on the roads and wild animals roaming the forests surrounding the remote monastery, it’s likelier that the Shaolin monks would have already had some self-defense skills. So Bodhidharma’s contribution was probably to integrate the Yoga movements with the Chinese fighting forms, and teaching the monks Indian Buddhist philosophy, leading to the development of Zen when it reaches Japan. But that’s not quite as good a movie.
The most important point of the story, whatever the truth, is that human beings need a balance between active and passive, movement and meditation, thinking and letting go of thought, in order to have a full life. And that introducing action, even vigorous, powerful action, into the calm disciplines of meditation and spirituality can be a good thing, improving our experience on both ends of the spectrum.
This can be particularly valuable for those in recovery, whether from addiction or life trauma. In either situation, painful memories and emotions often lie just below the surface of awareness. As a result, when people carrying such burdens try to get quiet or meditate, they sometimes find the first thing that comes up are these subconscious patterns. They can feel sandbagged by their own history, and develop negative impressions of meditation, feeling damned if they do try to go deeper, and damned if they don’t. In such cases, beginning with movement and action as a way of coming more gradually and naturally upon stillness can be tremendously helpful.
Case in point is Bill Lee, the author of Born-Again Buddhist: My Path to Living Mindfully and Compassionately with Mood Disorders. A second-generation Chinese-American who grew up in the Chinese criminal underworld, Lee tried to use meditation as a way of healing the pain of his upbringing. But, he confesses, “Sitting meditation has always been challenging for me; practicing mindfulness, even harder.” He relates how obsessive thinking, painful flashbacks and nightmares intruded on his efforts to get still. For people with this kind of background, sitting and trying not to move can be claustrophobic, and it can feel like there is no distance, no breathing room, between them and their memories.
For Lee, the key to freedom from this bind proved to be hiking. He discovered that “just being out in nature on scenic trails cultivated calmness and cleared my head…walking in nature enabled my mind to slow down and rest, which felt liberating.” Lee skillfully integrated what he had learned about meditation with this new experience of hiking, using natural objects in the world around him, such as trees and boulders, the way more traditional meditation uses the breath or inner imagery, to focus and develop mindfulness. At the same time this took his attention out of the troubling patterns that would otherwise tangle him up, and brought him back to the present moment. Later, he also found that he could apply a similar approach to ordinary, everyday stimuli, whether lying in bed in the morning or sitting in the dentist’s chair.
All of which goes to show that sitting meditation is just one doorway for realizing mindfulness, peace, and freedom. Sitting is “training wheels” for paying attention to the present, a situation in which we temporarily reduce the number of variables we’re dealing with in order to discover fresh ways of being. But being active and turning attention deliberately outside of ourselves is every bit as legitimate, and for some people more effective.
I found this out in my own life when my therapist introduced me to a friend who was a fifth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He created a class especially for those who had not had a good experience with physical exercise and sports growing up, and tended to use their heads more than their bodies. I called it “remedial Karate.” It proved to be one of the best things I ever did.
I think we all struggled with it at first. We weren’t used to kicking and punching and sweating. We had to think, ‘which is my left side?’ when he told us to execute a move. We were out of touch with our bodies. But gradually we gained some degree of mastery over the complex forms, and got stronger and healthier. But there were other benefits, as well, that I’d never expected.
Before the class, I’d all but abandoned my practice of sitting meditation. It had grown stale; I felt like I wasn’t making any progress. I was stumped as to what to do.
Without realizing it, I was learning the lesson of Bodhidharma and the Shaolin monks. When I went back to sitting meditation some months after getting beat up on the practice floor, I was surprised to find that the entire character of my practice had changed. It was easier to settle down. My breathing was freer and more open. I could concentrate better and more fully, and was more in touch with the inner workings of my body than ever before. And there was greater energy and a dynamic quality to the meditation that hadn’t been there. Learning to kick and punch had revolutionized my practice.
Dropping the notion that there is a separation between any of the aspects of who we are and how we live was liberating. If you’re a meditator who has struggled with sitting quietly, try getting off your mat and getting busy with your body, first. Moving your body and learning forms of movement, such as in Yoga, Tai Chi or the martial arts, can have unsuspected benefits for your spiritual life. It can clarify concentration, make visualization more powerful, and shake out mental and emotional cobwebs. Sometimes, such ways of action can resolve long-standing emotional issues faster and more completely than therapy or spiritual work alone.
The image of the peaceful warrior is found in ancient and modern traditions alike, from King David in the Bible and Bodhidharma, to Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, the twentieth century martial art of Japan, whose story is no myth. Turns out Mom and dad were right. Go out and get some fresh air, run, bike, hike. Then come back and get still. See what happens. Burn some holes in the world with your eyes.