Green index
 sabrina Sabrina

Zen, Feminism, and the Tae Kwon Do Student Oath
March 1, 2002

To study the Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to realize no separation between self and other.
To realize no separation between self and other
 is to become one with the myriad enlightened beings
 and go on in endless enlightenment forever.
--Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, 13th – 14th c. CE

Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance. Self-control. Indomitable Spirit.
--the Tenets of Tae Kwon Do


     One of my "Dharma sisters," a fellow Zen student of Dai-En Bennage Roshi, recently asked me how I could practice a martial art-isn't it violent and combative? How can I make it fit with Buddhist practice and principles? I told her that the way I have worked this out for myself is to think that if I had to use Tae Kwon Do in a self-defense situation, if I could prevent an attacker from doing me harm, I would be helping both of us; and that as for sparring, the little bit I've done is like a game of tag or a dance, from which both parties learn and benefit. So I see no distinction between martial arts practice and Zen practice. To see and value my attacker as myself, and to compassionately prevent that self from doing violence to the manifestation of him/herself that is me-yes, that's different from the Buddha who plucked out his eye upon demand and gave it to a man who pretended to need the eye of a holy man to cure his wife's illness, and then looked on with equanimity as the man laughed and ground the eye under his heel. But I'm still a few incarnations away from realizing my own Buddhahood, I think, so a better response in my view would have been to prevent the man from incurring such bad karma! To give an attacker time to rethink his mistake and give up-essentially, to defend him from himself until he realizes he is Buddha-maybe this is how one fights with courtesy, which is no different from integrity if the other is no different from the self.
     Integrity was hard for me. Integrity means being true to oneself, which require shaving a self to be true to, and I don't think I started to have one until I was about 30. I've since learned that it's hard for women to develop a f inn and healthy sense of self in a patriarchal culture, because our selves seem so contingent and we so often survive by indirection, subversion and dissembling, adjusting our beliefs, opinions and preferences to those of our mates/boyfriends/family. As a girt I tied to protect myself or to get what I wanted, until I finally realized that in order for my life to mean anything I had to be consistent, and to be consistent I had to risk being honest. Integrity means wholeness, indivisibility. From integrity comes commitment, and vice-versa. Actually, maybe courtesy is commitment, too--commitment to treating others in a certain way, to recognizing the Buddha or God or humanity in everyone and holding it in equal value to the Buddha or God or humanity in oneself. Integrity is extending that same value to oneself, recognizing that one has wholeness and weight, and that that weight has meaning. That to give ones word, for instance, should mean something. That where one stands counts, as on a chessboard: e.g., I'm a knight, and I can be relied upon to fulfill the knights function, and not get up and think maybe I'd rather be a pawn today, it’s easier and I don't have to move as far, and maybe I'll be captured and have a good rest. Integrity means one can be relied upon, by oneself and by others.
     From integrity, then, it's a short step to perseverance, which is remaining on the path that one has set for oneself, maintaining one's integrity, in spite of obstacles. Perseverance is not blind stubbornness--it's very aware. And one can reassess one's path, guided by integrity. But practicing courtesy and integrity gives one the courage to persevere for the sake of others and oneself--to be committed to a path.
     None of the above can be accomplished without self-control, but all of the previous tenets also feed this one. With grounding in courtesy, integrity, and perseverance, self-control grows from within--it's the efficient expression of power more than a matter of refraining from doing what one shouldn't. In Zen there are the Four Supreme Efforts: Not to allow an unwholesome thought to arise; Not to allow an unwholesome thought that has arisen to continue; To encourage a wholesome thought to arise; and To maintain a wholesome thought once it has arisen. Taken together, these Efforts are the essence of self-control. Though in the beginning it seems almost impossible, it becomes easier with practice (or so I hear). Self-control begins in the mind; but the mind is not separate from the body, and to practice self--control with the body reinforces it in the mind. Maybe from the body we team that self-control is not deprivation but empowerment; practice of a martial art may be the supreme expression of this truth (or maybe Zazen is).
     I think if one realizes the first four Tenets, "indomitable spirit" is inevitable--for if one should perfect one's courtesy, integrity, perseverance and self-control, what could dominate one's spirit? Any outward authority would be superfluous. Please realize that I'm not invoking Nietzsche's  "superman"--I'm too grounded in the Buddhist concept of “no separation" mentioned earlier, which leads me to assume that these tenets rightly practiced would be in the best interest of oneself/all sentient beings.
     The late Uchiyama Kosho Roshi wrote about "living by vow," with sincere intention, and it’s in that spirit that I'd like to apply the Five Tenets of Tae Kwon Do to the Student Oath. The first vow is to "observe the tenets of Tae Kwon Do," which may seem redundant. But it’s significant that the Tenets are taken as a whole, as the subject of the verb "observe," meaning to follow but with an added connotation of watching. This verb to me implies vigilance, a constant effort to be aware and apply what one has teamed.
     The second vow, to "respect ... instructors and seniors," also affirms the values of courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit, as described above--one's own as well as those qualities demonstrated by the senior students and instructors.
     To "misuse Tae Kwon Do," prohibited in the third vow, would be not to show courtesy to the opponent-who-is-oneself (and who by extension is also one's instructors and seniors); to use Tae Kwon Do without integrity (not out of necessity, not in one's own best interest, and/or without adherence to tenets and oath); without a spirit of perseverance ("Oh, I know enough; I can stop with the techniques I have, and use them however and whenever I want"); without self-control; and without the animating force of indomitable spirit.
     From all of this, to "be a champion of freedom and justice" grows naturally, when one teams to walk with courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit in the world. Here, though the first four tenets are necessary, I think "indomitable spirit" is the key quality, the sine qua non of championing a cause against overwhelming odds.
     The intention to "build a more peaceful world," here again, I think is inevitable according to the logic of the preceding four vows. A more peaceful world begins wherever and whenever one walks in this way. To paraphrase poet Nikki Giovanni, just to be a natural woman doing what a natural woman does and going where a natural woman goes, is to have a revolution.
     Which brings me to the way all of these tenets and vows resonate differently and have a more radical impact and potential for women. For instance, we are bred and trained to courtesy; but without integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit, courtesy can easily become the hollow and timid conformity of the oppressed. Integrity is problematic for the contingent self, as I have already mentioned. Perseverance, for women, must occur against greater odds. Self-control has to learn to be self-affirming and enhancing rather than self-abnegating and self-defeating. And to embody indomitable spirit is to claim a birthright and dare to display it outwardly.
     For women to "observe the tenets," then, is already to trespass into an arena where we claim power, and to embrace empowerment as a way of life. In this arena, we "respect our instructors and seniors" for their commitment, dedication and accomplishment, not their given role in society. To refrain from "misusing Tae Kwon Do" may well require constant observation of the Five Tenets, in a world in which power has from time immemorial been used against us unjustly. But who better, then, to be "champions of freedom and justice"? To me, though, the vow to "build a more peaceful world' is the most radical. For women have traditionally been seen as peaceful, but we have remained largely invisible in our role as builders. If we can embody the Five Tenets and the four other vows of the Student Oath, we can most certainly build a world.

A story from the Blue Cliff Record: One day Lord Buddha was walking with Indra, prince of the gods. They came to a beautiful valley, and Lord Buddha remarked, "This would be a good place to build a sanctuary. " Indra bent down and plucked a blade of grass, and stood it in the earth. World-Honored One, " he replied, "the sanctuary is built."