Zen And The Art of Sparring

No one has taught me more about the essence of martial arts, and especially the experience of sparring (or live rolling) than Shunryu Suzuki. While his teachings were in the Sōtō Zen tradition, and specifically reflections on living I have always felt his teachings applied just as much to the mat. Here are three reflections on what he taught, and how it may apply to martial performance.

Leave your front door and your back door open. Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.

– Shunryu Suzuki

When you have a thought about something, for example, your opponent or your own performance, you probably tend to believe that’s the way it “really is.” But a thought is always just some abstraction in your head, and may have little or nothing to do with what is actually going on. Your thought is just that—a thought. Meanwhile, reality is right there in your face—that guy punching you, and reality doesn’t give a damn about what you happen to be thinking about. Native American warrior-poet-musician, John Trudell said it beautifully in one of his songs, when he noted: “I slammed into reality, and reality didn’t even blink.”

What Suzuki is talking about is to not ‘fuse’ to your thoughts, to sit down with them, and and invite them over for tea. Rather, you want to see your thoughts for what they are, transient, fleeting. If you let them come and you let them go, without attaching to them— then they have no power over your actions, and have no consequences. They come through the front door of your mind, and leave out the back door—but crucially there you still are—able to respond, adapt, and mold to the opponents actions, allowing your body to make the decisions for you.

Moment after moment everything comes out of nothingness. This is the true joy of life.  -Shunryu Suzuki

This is also the true joy of sparring, at least when you are able to get out of your own way. Much of getting out of your own way, is what I just wrote about earlier, that mental clutter, that you keep inviting over for tea.

Sadly we have been conditioned to always over think everything, to calculate, to plan, to expect. But what if, if only for a moment, you just moved because you moved, you defended, because you defended, you punched because you punched.

What if, if only for a moment, you sparred only to spar, not because you wanted a specific outcome, not because you planned a specific strategy, not because you were looking for a specific gap—but rather, just moved because that’s all that was needed to be done.

You see, trusting yourself to make the right moves, the right decisions in sparring doesn’t need you to have a plan, what it needs is for you to let it unfold naturally without you getting in your own way.

Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer.

– Shunryu Suzuki

There are good days, and there are bad days in sparring. Some days there is a reason, and other days there are non. The truth is, the reason why people quit performance based martial arts practice, especially those that require sparring, is because they cannot handle the imperfection.

They cannot accept, that performance is like a roller coaster ride. For brief moments you are on the ride of your life, but mostly, you are climbing up, waiting for the ride to happen. It is that sense of feeling like you are always waiting for that perfect ride to happen that is the very thing that ensures it never arrives.

It was only when I recognized that the perfect ride, the perfect sparring session only happens because everything changes, that I was finally able to find composure in the midst of chaos. It was really about coming to peace with the beauty that lies in the transient. It is in those moments of imperfection, that the best in us rises to the surface.



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