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Barclay PowersBarclay Powers is an author and futurist filmmaker. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and has an extensive background as an independent scholar. He has studied Chinese, Tibetan and Indian meditation, yoga and martial arts traditions for more than 30 years. Powers is currently releasing multiple media projects worldwide in film and print, related to the evolution of consciousness based on his studies with numerous masters of ancient wisdom traditions. His most recent film, The Lost Secret of Immortality, based on his book, won best spiritual/religious/Christian film at the Great Lakes International Film Festival, 2012, the Silver Palm Award at the Mexico International Film Festival, 2012 and best spiritual documentary at the New York International Film Festival, 2011. See his website at for information on the book, graphic novel and film.


The Sword of Zen

Meditation/Brain Training for Functional Combat Cognition

Barclay Powers

“The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all emptiness. It is like a flash of lightening. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is emptiness and has no mind, the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword, and the “I” who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightening.” —Takuan Soho

One of the most interesting aspects of the martial arts philosophy of Rory Miller is the way that it expresses the essence of the sword of Zen within a 21st century context. An enlightened understanding of the Art of War has been an essential aspect of East Asian civilization, which often considered the highest level of martial arts to be the actual completion stage of meditation—the rediscovery of the Original Mind. Perhaps the most well known saying of Zen is, “See the original face/true self and become a living Buddha.” The word Buddha it should be remembered means “awake”. From the perspective of the Zen sword it means instantaneously killing your opponent with one movement completely without thought. As Takuan Soho said in the 17th century, “The term ignorance means the absence of enlightenment, which is to say, delusion.”

Heaven, Earth and Man as one being.

The questions that emerge from a careful comparison of premodern and 21st century brain training methods may very well lead to a completely new paradigm of consciousness and the effects of meditation on functional performance enhancement during situations of extreme violence. There also appears to be esoteric Buddhist meditation practices like dream yoga, which may be extremely useful in reducing the tendency to temporarily freeze in situations of extreme violence, when the complexity of sensory data overwhelms the ability of the brain to process and react to combat sensory bombardment with functional efficiency. Although he may not realize it, Rory Miller gives the same instructions for getting out of freezes that Tibetan lamas give for practicing dream yoga. Why is this? What is the neurological explanation for the perceptual principles of the Zen sword? How can the mental training of the combat professional be improved by rewiring the brain using esoteric Asian meditation methodology? What is the sha chi or killing energy that forms the basis of many Chinese combat systems? (Definitely not tai chi.) How is it developed, controlled and ultimately transcended? What is the Original Mind neurologically speaking?

Rory Miller, author of
Meditations on Violence:
A Comparison of Martial Arts

As Rory Miller says, “Your idea of who you are probably won't survive a violent encounter”. There is much confusion that surrounds meditation, awakening, the sword of Zen and its Taoist origins. Although Zen meditation and its effects on combat efficiency are relatively well explained by classical Chinese medical theory, Western science cannot understand the essential Asian martial arts theory of chi/Ki and its relation with maximizing the efficiency of the performance of the mind, body and brain. Many elite highly proficient combat professionals tell their students that the entire concept is superstition and martial arts mythology. How can martial arts mysticism be explained by neuroscience? What happened to Ueshiba's brain when he saw an all encompassing golden light and experienced the love of the universe, which enabled him to create the gentle art of Aikido based on compassion and kindness? It should be noted that golden light experiences are at the core of Taoist meditation, and sometimes called the Golden Flower or Golden Elixir. As Rory Miller points out emotionally balanced high-level combat efficiency results in the individual acting as protector and guardian.

Morihei Ueshiba (left), Founder of Aikido
”…at that time I was about 40 years old. One day I was drying myself off by the well. Suddenly, a cascade of blinding golden flashes came down from the sky enveloping my body. Then immediately my body became larger and larger, attaining the size of the entire universe. While overwhelmed by this experience I suddenly realized that one should not think of trying to win. The form of Budo must be love. One should live in love. This is Aikido and this is the old form of the posture in Kenjitsu. After this realization I was overjoyed and could not hold back the tears.” —Morihei Ueshiba

There is a story that sometimes is believed by Zen practitioners that when a monk achieved enlightenment without any training he could pick up the sword and effortlessly cut down a trained opponent expertly. Additionally his poetry, calligraphy and all the other Zen cultural arts would suddenly reach a sublime level of expression at the level of the legendary ancient masters. This represented the rediscovery of the Original Mind. A less romantic version of the story, which is probably more accurate, is that after many years of practice and meditation in a variety of arts, a sudden neurological shift occurred which enabled the individual to bypass the linguistic and cognitive networks of the brain, which maintain the artificial or normal self. The constant emphasis on the hara or lower abdomen in both Zen and Taoism is based on the fact that the enteric nervous system is the basis of the complete activation of the central nervous system using the vagus nerve. Enlightenment is the conjunction of the central and enteric nervous systems from a neurological perspective. This is described as seeing the Original Face or True Self in Zen.

What is fascinating from a neuropsychological perspective is that Zen principles of the sword still apply to the process of mental/brain training for combat professionals in the 21st century. The text, The Unfettered Mind, by Takuan Soho, is based on a Zen abbot telling a sword master how consciousness really works in extreme battle conditions. The concept boils down to the fact that, as Rory Miller points out, it takes multiple experiences of extreme violence that are successfully navigated for the brain not to freeze or hesitate in a combat situation, and for the body to go on autopilot and complete the mission successfully, based on the rewiring of the brain that was achieved by the initial training process. Takuan Soho describes the legendary, “No-Sword” as follows, “To speak in terms of your own martial art, when you first notice a sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by your opponent. This is what stopping [Freezing] means. Although you see the sword that moves to strike you, if your mind is not contained by it and you meet the rhythm of the advancing sword; if you do not think of striking your opponent and no thought or judgments remain; if the instant you see the swinging sword your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the sword away from him; the sword that was going to cut you down will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the sword that cuts down your opponent.


In Zen this is called, “grabbing the spear and, contrariwise, piercing the man who had come to pierce you.” The spear is a weapon. The heart of this is that the sword you wrest from your adversary becomes the sword that cuts him down. This is what you, in your style, call “No-Sword.” Whether by the strike of the enemy or your own thrust, whether by the man who strikes or the sword that strikes, whether by position or rhythm, if your mind is diverted in any way, your actions will falter and this can mean that you will be cut down.”

Recently I met a Korean Zen master named Chun An who is the abbot of the Amitabul Zen Center in Seattle, Washington. He is in his mid-60s but looks much younger with a glowing presence that fills the room with a powerful, tranquil enlightened feeling. He has spent more than 20 years in meditation retreat in the mountains of Korea, with a total of over 40 years of practice. Fifteen years ago he experienced an overwhelming indescribable experience of all-encompassing golden light. Since this time he has glowed from within and appears radically different from the Western practitioners that I have met. He says that he has achieved the ultimate goal in life, which is enlightenment, and that he is one with the universe. What I realized when I saw him was if you put a sword in his hand this is what Musashi must have really been like in terms of visible internal power and overwhelming presence. It is this Ki, which is the true mind of Zen.


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