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Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Buddhism
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Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Buddhism

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One of the most difficult things to grasp about Jiu Jitsu is its origins.  For those of us who study Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, we usually trace our academy's lineage back and mark our beginning with a Gracie, usually Helio or his brother Carlos.


Most of the time we stop there because this marks the beginning of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Besides, at this point, the story jumps to a different continent as we trace Mitsyuo Maeda's Judo heritage backward.


Things fall apart quickly the farther back we go.  You'll hear different stories about where and when each martial art began.  But a number of these stories insist on pinning the origins of the various marital arts to Buddhism and Buddhist monks.


Claiming a 4,000 year old lineage, some of the stories of Jiu Jitsu's origins claim that the gentle art began as the Buddha's first monks disseminated his teachings.  These monks were forbidden from owning possessions, so they begged for food from passers-by as they spread the Buddha's teachings.


The story goes that, since they were homeless wanderers, they were easy targets for robbers.  The monks needed to defend themselves from attack, yet they were forbidden from harming others.  


The solution to this dilemma is a style of fighting and grappling that could submit an attacker without doing any permanent damage: in short, Jiu Jitsu.

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It's a nice story, and I really want to believe it.  But I've done my homework on Buddhism, and most Buddhist histories don't offer any accounts of martial arts at all.  We only hear that side of the story from martial artists.


Of course, this isn't to say there haven't been flirtations between marital artists and Buddhists in the past.  


We can be fairly certain that, in 12th century Japan, samurai patronized the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism.  Like the swordsmen and archers who supplemented their military training with Zen precepts, the samurai recognized something in Zen Buddhism that helped to sharpen their mental focus and improve their performance in training or on the battlefield.


These stories have been romanticized over time, with stories of wandering kung fu Buddhist masters becoming almost cliche.


Nevertheless, those ancient samurai weren't wrong when they spotted something in Buddhist beliefs that helped hone their skills in the martial arts.


One of the most commonly cited terms for this quality is Mushin.  Mushin is an abbreviation of the Zen Buddhist phrase "Mushin no shin," which roughly translates to "Mind without mind."  


It describes that state where the mind is open to the moment as opposed to its usual state of being preoccupied with a dozen different worries or desires.


For the marital artist, this state is highly desirable since it heightens our awareness of our surroundings and eliminates any distractions that might prevent us from recognizing a threat or an opportunity.


Training BJJ is a great opportunity to experience this state of Mushin since we have to give our opponents our complete attention.


However, BJJ offers other ways of entering into the same mindset as those that Buddhist monks strive to enter.


One of the common misconceptions about Buddhism is that its practitioners run away from pain, discomfort, unhappiness, or desire.  The practitioners who try to run from their emotions forget the old story of the Buddha welcoming Mara--the demon who represents all the desires that cause our dissatisfaction--into his home and sitting down to have tea with Mara.


This is the essence of Buddhism: learning to exist with your emotions instead of running from them.  After all, an enemy who makes you flee is still the victor, even if he doesn't lay a hand on you.


The Buddha understood this and acknowledged his dissatisfactions.  Learning to live with them made him stronger.


But this is exactly what we do in BJJ, as well.  We walk onto the mat, determined to face our discomforts and miseries.  If we were determined to avoid discomfort, we would turn around and walk right back out the door.


Instead, we make friends with the people who try to choke us or bend our joints in the wrong direction.  We look for the person who will provide a challenge to us, and we use that challenge to learn.  


And not only do we learn new techniques to add to our BJJ arsenal, we also learn that same lesson as the Buddha learned when he invited his nemesis to sit down to a cup of tea.  We learn that we can outlast our dissatisfactions...but only if we choose to face them.


As we discover our ability to endure, we can carry that lesson outside the dojo, as well.  If we can become as resilient off the mat as we are on the mat, we will achieve a kind of peace within ourselves that most people only dream of. 


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