Zen, Bushido and the Martial Arts

Zen 禅 is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that was believed to have originated in China. It is believed to have spread to Japan from China via Vietnam and Korea. The term Zen is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana which can be translated as “absorption”, “engrossed” or simply “meditative state”. Buddhism is best described as a system of personal development which was founded by Siddhartha Gautama where the practitioner seeks to understand his or her true nature as well as the universal laws that govern our very existence. Rather than relying on doctrine Buddhism requires the practitioner to come into direct contact with truth and reality to create an intimate understanding of the world through direct personal experience.

The Zen movement emphasizes the achievement of enlightenment and a deeply personalised approach to the study of the Buddhist teachings. The Zen movement tends to shun doctrine to favour an experiential approach via an accomplished teacher which mirrors the experiential physical nature of the warrior arts.

Upon its arrival in Japan the Zen philosophy blended itself with the principles of Bushido / Way of the Warrior and this synthesis is reflected in the work of Taisen Deshimaru. Taisen Deshimaru was a Japanese Soto Zen Buddhist teacher who founded the “Association Zen Internationale” in Europe. Taisen Deshimaru was born in the Saga Prefecture of Kyushu and was raised by his mother and his Samurai grandfather prior to the Meiji restoration.

Taisen Deshimaru often wrote and spoke of Bushido and Buddhism as if they were the same subject. This is probably because in the past the Buddhist temples were the only places large enough to teach the martial arts indoors. It is also undeniable that the standard white martial arts uniform is also the basic attire of a Buddhist monk. The other most obvious factor is the systems of etiquette within the dojo which are also the same practices used to display respect in a temple. The term “dojo” literally means the “space where enlightenment takes place”.

Taisen Deshimaru wrote about the principles of the warrior – Bushido and how in many ways it developed within the same space as Buddhism. These principles follow: –

Gi – Having the right decision, right attitude, the truth
Yu – Bravery tinged with heroism
Jin – Universal love; compassion
Rei – Right action; courtesy
Makoto – Utter sincerity; truthfulness
Meiyo – Honor; high ethical character
Chugo – Devotion; loyalty


“Harmonizing opposites by going back to their source is the distinctive quality of the Zen attitude, the Middle Way: embracing contradictions, making a synthesis of them, achieving balance.” – Taisen Deshimaru

The Buddhist monk who must be given the most credit for the development of the Martial Arts is the founder of Zen – Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was a Buddhist Monk who lived at some point between the 5th and 6th century AD. There are many legends attached to his life and it is believed that Bodhidharma was very disturbed at the physical shape of the Shaolin Monks and so he began to teach them techniques to maintain their physical condition which led to the dvelopment of Shaolinquan. There are legends of Bodhidharma all over South East Asia as he was believed to have travelled by sea from the south of India to Sumatra, Indonesia and transmitted the knowledge of Zen to what is known today as Malaysia and Thailand. It is believed that the original forms of Silat were created by Bodhidharma.


Using the martial arts Bodhidharma used the Zen principles to create an understanding of physical / mental discipline as well as the development of philosophical understanding of the dynamics of peace via understanding conflict.

Zen can be described as a way of mastering the self and so can the warrior arts. In reality there is no difference between the terms – monk and warrior, both have the same goal.

Gyokko Ryu – Kobujutsu or Ninjutsu?


The Gyokko Ryu can be translated as the “Jewelled Tiger School” or “Sphered Tiger School” which represents the style’s use of space and physical relativity between objects.

It is known in the oral tradition of the Gyokko Ryu that during the Tang Dynasty (618 AD – 907 AD) the foundational techniques of the Gyokko Ryu left the chaos of warring China and arrived in Japan. The system traces its lineage back to the Chinese exiled general Ikai and earlier through its founder Cho Gyokko, a Princess from the Chinese Imperial Court.

These original techniques were made up of powerful blocks using the core strength of the body and quick strikes to nerves and specific targets which was the original foundation of the Kosshijutsu. These strikes were often performed with the thumbs and fingers which was the foundation of the Shitojutsu component of the school.

It is said that some of the oldest martial techniques come originally from India, Tibet and China and were known as “Tiger Striking” schools.

The Gyokko Ryu: –

  1. Ki Gata
  2. Torrite Kihon Gata
  3. Jo Ryaku no Maki
  4. Chu Ryaku no Maki
  5. Ge Ryaku no Maki

The secret principles of the tradition include: –

“Shin Shingan” – God’s heart, God’s mind

“Tenmon” – Heavenly strategy

“Chimon” – Earthly strategy

“Kurai Dori” – Sizing up the situation

“Hissho ho” – The principle of “Always wins” from the Kyohen no Jutsu

and “Bushigokoro wo motte totoshi no nasu” – The warrior’s heart is precious and essential

It can be argued that the Gyokko Ryu is a school of Ninjutsu as it was used in Iga Province  by Shinobi families. The Gyokko Ryu Kosshijutsu is also known as Gyokko Ryu Ninpo and is believed to have originated from Hakuun Ryu Ninpo, as its lineage passed from Ikai teaching Garnon Doshi who passed it to his apprentice Garyu Doshi who in succesion taught Tozowa Hakuunsai.

The Gyokko Ryu Kosshijutsu passed to Takamatsu Toshitsugu via the Toda line from Grandmaster Momochi Sandayu – the most famous Iga Shinobi.

The Gyokko Ryu is known as a historically viable tradition in Japan as it is recorded in the Bugei Ryūha Daijiten (武芸流派大事典) a Japanese historical encyclopedia on ancient martial traditions.

It seems apparent that if the Takamatsu-den traditions are historically accurate then the Gyokko Ryu Kosshijutsu is in fact a surviving Ninjutsu tradition at the very least it was a system of Bujutsu used by Shinobi.

The 5 Ethics of the Martial Arts

The traditional 5 ethics of the martial arts / Bujutsu is known as the “Dojo Kun” and in many western dojos it is known as the students creed.

The 5 Ethics are the cornerstone of martial training and can be used as a template from which to begin your training.

The 5 Ethics are:

To strive for the perfection of character,
To follow the path of truth,
To foster a spirit of effort,
To honour the principles of etiquette,
and to guard against impetuous courage.

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