Sunday, February 22, 2015

4.5 Ninja Stars for "When Buddhists Attack"

Review of "When Buddhists Attack"

In the interest of full disclosure, I was given this book by the publisher for review purposes.

Title: When Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts
Written by: Jeffrey K. Mann
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
Pages: 221
Cover Price: $16.95

    If you've practiced Japanese martial arts, you've probably heard some of the ideas that are part of Zen Buddhism mentioned in your practice.  Mushin, zanshin, and others are always discussed as part of the mental or the, for lack of a better word, spiritual portion of the art.  When Buddhists Attack is a book which not only discusses what these Zen ideas are, and how they became associated with the martial arts, but Dr. Mann also answers the more important question of "why".  Why did Zen became intertwined with Japanese martial arts.  


  The book roughly separated into three content portions.  The first is a generalized history of Buddhism, with an emphasis on the Zen branch.  It includes some of the basics of Japanese, and by default samurai, history.   It then starts to discuss how and when it Zen become part of the Japanese culture, specifically the culture of the samurai.  The second delves into why these ultimately practical warriors would willingly adapt this new philosophy.  What did they get out of it.  It also includes a deeper discussion into some some of the specific Zen aspects that influence martial artists today.  Dr. Mann does a good job of explaining mushin in a way that is more in depth and more decipherable than I've ever read before.  I admit, I had a shallow understanding of the term, and the book discusses the shallow meaning, and why that isn't enough.  The third section is a sort of closing argument which talks about how zen can and is being used today in dojo, and even discusses the zen of competition arts such as kendo or judo.


    This book, although focusing on a very specific point of reference, goes through a generalized history of Japan and the samurai and explains how and why zen came to be entwined with the ideas and teachings of martial arts that of Japan.  It explains the often confusing Zen ideas in less esoteric ways than many other books on the subject.  To that end, this book is either filled in a lot of information I was missing, or deepened my understanding of what I did know.  As with any book on philosophy it naturally has to be a thought provoking book, and it was.  It is dense with information.  I had to take my time with this book.  I had to read it in smaller bites.
    The author also is good at taking the parts of Zen most martial artists are exposed to and explaining them in terms and ideas most martial arts would understand.  The book has a very informational way of saying "if you want to get better at martial arts, then here is how Zen can help you."  This makes it a practical philosophy book, at least from a martial arts perspective.


    The only negative I can see is that the part of the book that I liked, may be bad for other people.  Because of the informational density, I wouldn't recommend this book, if this is your very first exposure to the ideas of zen.  Even though it does a good job explaining them, it could be a bit overwhelming.  It does jump quickly into the deep end with the philosophies.  I think the reader would be well served to have a cursory idea of what the ideas and philosophies of Zen are first.  That being said, many martial artists would have probably been exposed to some of these ideas either inadvertently or on purpose through their martial studies anyway.


    I've had this book on my wishlist since it came out in 2012.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I learned a lot from it.  Which I guess is the best praise you can give a book.  As such, I'm going to give this book 4.5 out of 5 ninja stars.  The only reason it isn't a full 5 ninja stars is that you have to have some exposure to zen to fully understand what is being said throughout the book.  That being said, I'm going to shelve this one, and come back to it in a couple of years, and see how much more I understand at that point.  It's that good of a book.


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