Zen, short for Zen Buddhism, in essence is meditation or deep contemplation.
Historically, Zen Buddhism originates in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
Around 500 B.C. he was a prince in what is now India. At the age of 29, deeply troubled by the suffering he saw around him, he renounced his privileged life to seek understanding. After 6 years of struggling as an ascetic (a hermit), he finally achieved Enlightenment at age 35. After this he was known as the Buddha (meaning roughly “one who is awake”). In a nutshell, he realized that everything is subject to change and that suffering and discontentment are the result of attachment to circumstances and things which, by their nature, are impermanent.
By ridding oneself of these attachments, including attachment to the false notion of self or “I”, one can be free of suffering.
The teachings of the Buddha have, to this day, been passed down from teacher to student. Around 475 AD one of these teachers, Bodhidharma, who was also a prince who renounced his privileged life to seek and attain Enlightenment, traveled from India to China and introduced the teachings of the Buddha there.
In China, Buddhism mingled with Taoism. The result of this mingling was the Ch’an School of Buddhism. Around 1200 AD Ch’an Buddhism spread from China to Japan where it is called (at least in translation) Zen Buddhism.
Bodhidharma, also known as Da Mo, is believed by many to be the originator of Shaolin Kung Fu, and Shaolin is believed to be the father of all Asian martial arts.
Whether or not this is accurate, many of the oldest forms of martial arts were practiced in monasteries where the goal of resident monks was spiritual development. Therefore, it is no stretch to say that martial arts practice was originally designed for the same purpose – personal and spiritual development.
Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, this is significant in that the practice of true martial arts, which includes the daily practice of meditation (i.e. Zen) results in a calmness of mind and a clarity of thought even during times of adversity.
Originally published February, 2004