Warrior Samadhi in Kata
The brilliant beam of a search light sweeps past where this guy is hiding, crouched behind a dumpster. The light slides down along the wall. For a second the darkness returns. Without a sound he sprints behind the building and disappears. He felt the lapse in his opponent’s perception and got away.
When you face off with an opponent, whether you are stalking slowly or darting in and out, you lock focus on each other. The instant you sense the slightest deflection in your opponent’s awareness you attack. The deflection in his awareness could be as obvious as a glance down to the ground, at your hand or over your shoulder, or it could be much more subtle – but if you can detect it you can exploit it.
If your awareness shifts then there is a momentary breach in your defense. You become vulnerable to attack. Not every opponent is sharp enough to take advantage of it but for an instant the opportunity is there.
An ‘attack-only’ strategy can sometimes work. Aggression can intimidate some opponents. Overwhelming force is an advantage. But you do not always have it. And it may not be decisive even if you do. And what if your opponent has it? If your forward rush is predictable and your opponent is quick, he can side step and reroute incoming force or set up an attack from your side. Like a flanking maneuver, withdrawing in the face of an infantry or cavalry charge, turning toward the attacker and enfilading his line.
We use this exact tactic in every kata, again and again.
To be able to respondto sudden lethal attack our first line of defense is awareness. It needs to be steady and it needs to be everywhere. A missile that can fly under the radar will not be detected. You will have a hard time blocking a roundhouse kick you do not see coming.
Hunting, surveillance, baseball and biathlon all require alternation of alert stillness, and sudden, decisive action. All draw on the same skills as combat awareness.
Street confrontation, whatever the initial phase – staring, bob and weave, trash talking, taunting, closing in to test response, closing in to escalate, threatening with a weapon, or contact and assault, in any combination or sequence – all require sharp, unwavering awareness as a first line of effective response, and as a continuing surface of engagement.
Perception, movement and maneuver all depend on it, continually, throughout the duration of the encounter.
We can train unwavering awarenessas a component of kata. It is as integral to kata as the more familiar components like pattern of movement, energy generation and transmission, body conditioning, technical application, and others.
This deep unwavering awareness has sometimes been called “warrior samadhi” in Japanese martial traditions. It has been described as mental unification and as one pointed concentration. In meditation the terms shamata or calm abiding are used. This mind state of profound calm, clarity and focused attention are said to be the foundation of insight and liberation.
Cultivation of warrior samadhi was therefore of great concern to Japanese Zen-oriented martial artists – attracted by the appeal of perfecting their life in spiritual liberation, while deepening their practical combat skills far beyond the normal limits of human capacity.
A presentation of the use of warrior samadhi is shown in the duel scene in the movie the Seven Samurai.
The samurai leader Kambe, is in the process of recruiting a small team of samurai to defend a helpless farming village against a band of raiding thugs.
One day he sees an accomplished sword master – Kyuzo – being taunted by an anonymous challenger. Challenge accepted. At first they duel with bamboo swords, but the challenger will not accept his defeat and demands a rematch with steel swords – a fight to the death because his pride cannot tolerate Kyuzo’s placid confidence.
The samurai leader Kambe can immediately see from Kyuzo’s focus, deportment and maneuver that he is a superbly accomplished sword fighter. The inexperienced, emotional, impulsive challenger, is unable to see who he is facing. As Sun Tzu said“…If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
As we watch the scene unfold we can see the lithe balance in Kyuzo’s stances, and the stark difference in the demeanor and gaze of the two combatants.
We can see the way the expert Kyuzo lightly holds his weapon – it can move freely, unimpeded, in response to his will.
We can see the inexperienced challenger lean forward on his front foot, locking himself in place. He has a death grip on his sword, immobilizing his arms, his whole body and his weapon, with useless muscle tension. We can see that his mind is pulled off balance by emotion, as revealed in his impulsive aggression.
The sword fighting example in this scene makes the martial principles easy to observe. The identical principles are apparent in empty hand too, when comparing a person with consummate skill to someone without it.
The dynamic of of suki – a gap in defensive awareness, posture or movement – and kizeme – causing one in the opponent – is an important feature of training. Most people intuitively do this – in combatives and in sports and other competitive pursuits. In kata-training it is easy to overlook. In kumite it is hard to miss.
Qualities of character and of skill are the result of training. There is no way to fake it. Talent alone will not do this.
This does not mean the good guys always win. Or that deep focus will guarantee victory. It means that razor sharp warrior samadhi is a powerful tool that we can cultivate along with the other physical and mental combative skills we practice every day in kata. It can keep people out of trouble and can keep people alive.