Introduction to Ch’an.

Robert Barton 

In the last several decades a great deal has been written in the western world about the subject of ch’an. In this essay we will be taking a brief look the history of this discipline and discussing what it is and how we use this practice with our classes in the context of martial arts instruction. We will be confining our discussion of this practice as it relates to martial training and will not be discussing associated religious or philosophical views. I recommend that anyone interested in a deeper understanding of related philosophies and religious views read several of the plethora of books available on the subject.

Ch’an is a mental meditative exercise practiced in ancient India and possibly in related Indo-European cultures. As a specific practice it is devoid of any particular philosophies or religious views though it has been widely associated with eastern philosophy and religion. The practice traveled from India eastward across Asia and into China and westward across the Middle East to Alexandria and was carried in this expansion by teachers of Buddhism who had established centers for teaching in China as long as 1500 years ago and earlier in Northern Africa. It spread into most parts of Asia and when it spread to Japan the name became Zen which is the most commonly used name for this practice in the West.

The long time association of the practice of ch’an with Buddhism has led most people to believe that they are one and the same and that the practice of ch’an requires one to practice Buddhism and its philosophies and beliefs. Historically this type of mental practice can be found associated with a variety of faiths such as Hinduism, Vedism and practices like it can be found in Western faiths also. This association of ch’an with Buddhism is not active within the karate style of Shorin Goju.

Within the context of Shorin Goju  and our training methods ch’an is simply a mental practice that promotes health and clear thinking and may be practiced by people of any faith or no faith at all. Our approach to ch’an is one in which we view it as a natural process that will take place properly with regular practice and it does not require constant guidance to understand. We also do not use puzzles to work the mind into impossible scenarios. We simply allow the natural process to take place and allow the student to learn from this natural process. 

Ch’an as a practice for us is simple. Usually at the end of class a few minutes are taken and the students sit comfortably still and relaxed and breathe deeply. The eyes are allowed to stay open or to close as is comfortable for the individual.  We simply allow the mind to do what it does and we just try to observe our thoughts as they go by and try not to focus on anything in particular.  We do not try to “quiet the mind” or any of the other commonly heard platitudes. We simply allow the mind to do what it does. As students develop they will experience different levels of relaxation and awareness. These levels vary from feeling like their mind is racing al the way to feeling as if their mind stops thinking and stops being conscious of anything at all. None of these states should be said to be the particular goal and the practice is the goal.

To place this practice at the end of class serves several purposes. First it can allow the student some time to process al that has gone on in class. It allows the mind to settle down a bit before leaving so that it may better change gears from training to daily life. It allows the body to calm down a bit, the pulse stabilizes breathing returns to normal and the body can cool down a bit. The student is thus shifted from the mental and physical demands of training to the outside world. Lessons learned tend to be retained and the students leave calmed and relaxed.

There are some long term benefits to this practice. Numerous health benefits have been documented through the years and a bit of personal research can clarify these. As for mental benefits it can lead to an overall sense of an increase in mental calm and focus. The ability to focus without being easily distracted is increased and a person learns to have better mindfulness of the task at hand with a reduced distractibility by other thoughts. But along with the greater mindfulness comes a greater awareness of surroundings so that the person does not tend toward tunnel vision when concentrating. One learns to have a greater awareness of ones own thought process and thoughts. A student often becomes more in tune with his or her body and so can be more aware of personal health. Personal emotional activity becomes clearer and we are able to better understand how we are feeling and why.

The various benefits and stages take place naturally and the student need not try to reach any of these as a goal. Instructors need not try to teach any of these or direct the student toward any of these. We simply practice ch’an regularly and it takes care of itself naturally. There are certainly other ways to approach ch’an and presenting in to students. The method outlined here is simply the method that we use in the Shorin Goju School of Karate.

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