Thursday, 24 March 2016

Book Review: "When Buddhists attack: The Curious Relationship between Zen and the Martial Arts" By Dr. Jeffery K Mann

"When Buddhists attack: The Curious Relationship between Zen and the Martial Arts"
By Dr. Jeffery K Mann
ISBN: 9784805312308
Price: £14.99
In case it isn't very obvious, this book is slightly different to my usual review material. I am neither involved in Zen Buddhism or academically involved in the study of Buddhism apart from previously teaching it as part of the A Level Religious Studies course. I picked this book up a curiosity, being a student of Aikido I found myself wanting to understand how the traditional link between the study of martial arts and Zen Buddhism works when most forms of Buddhism are traditionally supportive of Pacifism, or at least non-violent resolution. What I found was a fascinating read which looks at the topic both historically and theologically.
As mentioned, I am not well versed in the diversity of the buddhist community and so cannot review this book in the same manner as books looking at Christianity, I can however comment on the nature fo the text and its contents. The book is written as an academic piece, something that the writer himself emphasises in the text when he addresses the romanticisation of Buddhism and especially the Samurai of Japan. This gives the reader a sense of respect for the text and an understanding fo the challenge of writing an academically fair assessment of a topic which has been sold as ‘mystic gibberish' on the market  in many ways.
The structure of When Buddhists Attack' is a traditional one of introducing the history of the topic and following on to delve into specific themes which have been mentioned. The book starts by discussing the life of the Buddha, the development of various strands of Buddhism and the introduction of Buddhism into Japan. It then goes on to tackle the praxis and ethics of Japanese Buddhism in the context of medieval Japan and especially the Tokugawa Shogunate, when the Martial Arts began to take on a more religious aspect than a purely practical one. Dr Mann finishes by investigating the modern situation in Budo and asking whether such things as Olympic Budo and modern Budo practice without the explicit links to Zen are still expressions of Zen.
A key strength of the book comes from its academic nature. As previously mention, the author outright states that most discussions of this are romanticized and therefore do not tackle the question itself. As well as this, the vastness of the study is impressive. Dr Mann introduces various forms of Japanese Buddhism to the reader and explains their development and history in the region, backing up key points of opinion and reference with evidence from scholars. In this way, it is a triumph of academic writing.
Though I do not see any clear criticism of the book, I feel that the subject of contemporary budo could have done with more content. The analysis of the topic made by the author is sufficient for the text, however it leaves the reader wanting to understand this development more. Regardless of this, the overall book suffers from nothing that I feel would warrant any real criticism, though as a layman of this subject I cannot comment from any position of academic authority.
Overall, When Buddhists Attack is a fascinating study into the somewhat contradictory world of Traditional Martial Arts. The book is written in such a manner than someone who have only looked into the topic in the thinnest terms can come to terms with the subject in a deeper way and the clearly academic style of the writing shows a professionalism in the author that goes beyond most western writers on the subject. I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the subject, whether new to it or a seasoned Budoka.

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