Dec 22, 2016
Zen in the Martial Arts is a classic martial art book written by Joe Hyams. It was recently selected as the #1 martial arts book by guests of this show.
You can read our post on the Top Ten Martial Arts Books as selected by our guests.
It’s time for episode 146 of whistlekick Martial Arts radio, and we’re going to talk about an amazing book that has come up in conversation a lot on this show – Zen in the Martial Arts. Not a reader? You should still stick around because this isn’t a book review.
Let me introduce myself. I'm whistlekick’s founder but I’m better known as your host on this show. My name is Jeremy Lesniak. whistlekick makes the best sparring gear you can get as well as some great apparel and accessories for practitioners and fans of traditional martial arts. I'd like to welcome all of you new listeners and thank everyone that’s come back.
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Today’s episode has a full transcript available on the website.
Zen in the Martial Arts, for all of the impact it has had on several generations of martial artists, is short. It’s 140 pages of a small book, and it’s not small font. That might make you think that it’s incomplete, or otherwise lacking, but that isn’t the case.
Reviews for the book continue nearly 40 years later, and on the popular book review sites, the poorest rating I could find was 4.1 out of 5. Amazon, which is known for having the most reviews, shows it as 4.6 of 5.
There are 28 chapters, each one with a title that seems ripped from a classic kung fu movie – Empty your cup, Active Inactvitiy, Extend Your Ki. The chapters are short, most around 5 or 6 pages, and begin with a relevant photo. Most end with a bit of wisdom, like this one: “Life unfolds on a great sheet called Time, and once finished it is gone forever.”
The book discusses some great names from our history, including Ed Parker & Bruce Lee. The chapters tell stories from the author’s time training.
Joe Hyams, while beloved by martial artists for the book he wrote, was not best known as a martial artist or martial arts author. He was a writer, sure, but primarily a celebrity writer. During his career, he wrote or co-wrote books on Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra and Chuck Norris.
He studied martial arts for more than 50 years. Beginning with fencing and then, through an introduction by music composer Bronislau Kaper, met Ed Parker. He became one of Parker’s first private students, then soon after, one of his first black belts.
He trained privately with Bruce Lee for two years and introduced him to Hollywood. Hyams was a big piece of Bruce Lee’s start in films. It’s hard to believe that as big of an impact as this book has had, Joe Hyams’ contributions to the martial arts community, via Bruce Lee, were so much greater.
He died in 2008 at age 85.
Most martial arts books are about martial arts or some metaphysical subject. Often times they’re written by people who really know martial arts, but aren’t so good at writing.
Mr. Hyams was a writer and a skilled one at that. He wrote newspaper columns, books, movie scripts… Clearly a varied and masterful writer.
He was also very good at conveying his point simply, something that the very best martial artists seem able to do. This book is 140 pages because Mr. Hyams didn’t need more.
While it has a tremendous amount of martial arts content, it’s not a book exclusively for martial artists. According to Melissa Hyams, his wife at the time he passed in 2008, said the book “isn't really about martial arts. It's about life and philosophy, and how to turn a negative into a positive, how to defuse a situation by the way you handle it. That's what he'll most be remembered for."
To illustrate this, I’ll read to you one of the shortest chapters, “Anger without Action,” which is just over one page:
I don’t remember when my Mother first picked up the book. I have vague memories of it being a gift, and it was likely a gift to her. She started training in 1985, so I’d guess it was in our home between 1985 and 1987. I would have been between 6 and 8, which seems about right.
It was always out. Sometimes on the coffee table, sometimes in the bathroom. It was the first nonchildren's book I read and it’s certainly the book I read most. I’d guess I’ve read it all the way through a dozen times.
It was the bits of wisdom that struck me most. I memorized them before I understood most of them, and as I grew up, life and martial arts showed me what these parables meant. “When you seek it, you cannot find it,” “The angry man will defeat himself in battle as well as in life,” and other sayings had a tremendous influence on me.
In fact, as I think back on my life and my time in the martial arts, behind my instructors and my Mother, this book was the third most influential element.
The copy I have now sits on my bookshelf, unread. Which is ironic and something I plan to change. I think it will end up in the same place in my home that it did when I was a child.
Have you, like many of our guests, read this classic? It’s still available in new copies, and it’s pretty inexpensive. You can find used copies for a few dollars, digital copies or audiobook versions if that’s your think. If you haven’t read it, you should.
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That’s all for today. Until next time, Train hard, smile and have a great day.