Mill Bay Traditional Martial Arts Academy

Death and Life



A warrior must cultivate the feeling that he has everything
needed for the extravagant journey that is his life. What counts
for a warrior is being alive. Life in itself is sufficient,
self-explanatory and complete.

Carlos Castenada from the Teachings of Don Juan



In Japanese Zen tradition there is a term called satori which loosely means a moment of realization. It can be thought of as both the moment of supreme awakening or enlightenment and it can be thought of as applying to all the so called ah ha moments of deepening insight which occur when a person walks the path of self realization. These moments of satori usually indicate a (sometimes brief) piercing or deepening of ones perspective into a much more profound and mindful inner stillness and radical awareness. It is in this state of mind that one penetrates deeply into life and the universe and allows the highest possibilities of human expression to spontaneously manifest. When a martial artist was able to attain satori to the extent that they transcended normal day to day thinking it was called the achievement of mushin or no mind.

There is a famous story of a great Karate master called Bushi Matsumura who upon reaching a moment of satori famously stated that all was vanity. A seemingly harsh statement but it must be understood that Matsumura was a student of philosophy as well as Karate and so would have been well aware of the Buddhist concept of attachment causing suffering. He saw in that moment the connection between desire and downfall and realized how by seeking to win a warrior was doomed to fall. 

Ultimate it seems Matsumura saw how everything we think, say, and do, is bound to perish and so it’s all an act of vanity to live a life in deep concern about things that are meant to pass away. It may sound like a description of a depressive mindset but as the story of Matsumura shows it actually is profoundly liberating. This realization or attainment of mushin allows a person to let go of all futile anxiety and worry. A great deal of training and intent usually is required for this moment of satori to allow a person to achieve mushin. 

There are few ways to achieve this result without extensive training and dedication but any brushes close to death can have the necessary impact to achieve a certain amount of it. The nature of deaths ultimate reality is like no other. Coming close to the limits of ones own mortality tends to be one of the only experiences that is virtually guaranteed to shake up a person enough for them want to look deeper into themselves. And awareness of the unshakable reality of death is one of the most crucial facets of all warriors traditions throughout the world.

So death often becomes the critical element that motivates people to pursue satori or their own awakening. That being because achieving and sustaining these esoteric notions of satori and mushin is also the best possible way to sustain and cultivate life.  A warrior that achieves mushin is said to have become unbeatable in combat but that also means they have become able to be untouched by the constraints of inner anxiety and self defeating behavior. It appears very paradoxical but the idea is that by really focusing on death life can become brought into a much clearer focus. Things that don’t matter are obviously unimportant and a powerful emancipating freedom ensues. Without attachment to outcome the warrior can be free to simply act. It is this letting go that focuses the appropriate attention on the significance of life itself and simultaneously gives the martial artist the presence needed to respond according to what the situation requires. But the motivation comes from death, which is of course the direct opposite of life. 

This is a strange phenomenology if one simply takes a moment to think about it. That death would be such a powerful means by which a person might acknowledge life is itself is a fascinating concept. But why then is the realization of the sacredness of life so distant to most people. So much so that life’s own opposite must personally visit before a recognition of life’s value  can be made.

It seems to indicate that on the majority we are not fully cognizant of just what we are. That is, we are beings destined to die. Now no one can argue with the finality of death. But so often we live as though that fact has never crossed our minds. It fact for many it might only summon feelings of fear and pain. So much so that we tend to avoid any serious thought of it. As if that might change the outcome.  

The finality of death cannot be denied for if we were not to die we could not be alive at this moment. It is not unlike the classic Yin-Yang symbol of Daoist Tradition. (Which of course can be brilliantly used as a pictograph for many kinds of energy dynamics.) However in this case it can be said to show the two basic polarities  of life and death. It shows that life and death are always emerging and merging, into and from one another. More poetically it also shows that in the deepest dark there is a spark of light, while in the brightest light there is the start of night. 

Now a great deal of my life has been focused on studying the so called “warrior traditions” of our planet. For in virtually every culture I’ve ever looked at there has been a group of people dedicated to what in feudal Japan was called Bushido, which means the way the of the spiritual warrior. The concept of war as in war-rior in this context is very different from the commonly thought of idea of modern warfare. As the warrior is in pursuit of the deepest and most authentic kind of personal freedom, full self-hood. Such a goal is entirely spiritual and has little or nothing to do with patriotic fervor or religious zealotry.  

This warriors path was almost always tightly woven into the spiritual and mythological motifs of any given culture. So it then becomes an archetype and something very important falls into place. If denial of death is a problem, and it is for the people who live in denial of it, then the more or less universal motto of our worlds warrior traditions says something very meaningful. Do not avoid death at all, rather face it constantly, consciously and in every moment and in every breath. 

After all death is the one thing that is yours to experience exclusively by you alone. In the words of the great wisdom traditions of North America. “When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”

It all starts by being mindful about life. In fact the deeper and wider one can expand their vision of life the more empowered they become to accept death and life more fully. Death leads right back to life, and life is heading unavoidably towards death. Like a dog chasing it’s tail all these concepts lead around and around to the same point. That by embracing the finality of death life becomes more vivid. This dance of light and shadow, male and female, night and day, death and life, it goes on and it will go on when you and I pass. So make the most of every moment and every breath as is prescribed by our planets great warrior traditions. 

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