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By: Doshin So

So, Doshin--Shorinji Kempo.jpeg

Shorinji Kempo

Philosophy and Techniques


By Doshin So

(Japan Publications, Inc., 1970, 256 pages)


Review by Christopher Dow




I've owned Shorinji Kempo: Philosophy and Techniques for decades but I am only now reading it. When I set out to review it, I had no idea what a can of worms I was opening. In a sense, the title of this book says it all: Shoinji Kempo consists of philosophy and techniques inextricably intertwined. And what a bowl of spaghetti it is. Or worms, depending on your perspective. Let’s try to unravel it a bit by starting with the bio of author Doshin So. I will warn the reader right now that much of what follows is harsh.


A martial artist and soldier, So was born Michiomi Nakano in 1911 in Okayama Prefecture, Japan.(1) His father, a customs officer, died young of alcoholism, and his mother, a seamstress, was unable to provide for him and his two sisters. The sisters were sent to live with his mother’s family, and So was went to live with his grandfather in the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria. This was to prove a drastic turning point in So’s life because his grandfather was a member of the Black Dragon Society, a prominent ultra-nationalist, right-wing, paramilitary group in Japan. His grandfather also was expert in several martial arts, which he taught to the young So.

Following his mother’s death, So returned to Japan and was taken under the patronage of Mitsuru Tōyama, a founder of the Black Ocean Society, a forerunner of the Black Dragon Society. So joined the Japanese army and returned to Manchuria in 1928 as a spy, making geographic surveys and maps of China. While there, he lived in a Taoist school, where he gained his first experience with Chinese martial arts in the form of Báilián Quán, learned from Chen Lian, the head of the school.

So subsequently learned Yihe Quan from grandmaster Wen Taizong, becoming a grandmaster in his own right. Or so he says. Martial arts expert and historian Donn Draeger disputes this, writing:


“[F]or Nakano to suggest that he, a foreigner could succeed to a position of leadership over a Chinese martial arts tradition is to deliberately ignore Chinese tradition and to insult the intelligence of those whom he would have believe his claim.”(2)


The Soviets invaded Manchuria in the final days of World War II, overrunning the Japanese there in eleven days. Enormous casualties among the Japanese troops and mass suicides by Japanese civilians contributed to the horrors of the invasion—though So conveniently ignores the fact that the Japanese were, themselves, invaders who committed their own atrocities. So managed to escape with the help of friends in the underground Chinese right-wing martial arts societies and returned to Japan in 1946.


The early years of Occupied Japan greatly disturbed So, who felt that the Japanese people had lost their way and needed their morality and national pride restored. I wonder: Would this be to the level they were at when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? And let’s not forget that Japan was an aggressor state the had been defeated. It was during this time that So changed his name and began to syncretize and systematize the various martial arts he’d learned into his own martial arts system. It is important to note that So insists that two interdependent aspects function as a single unit within his system: the mental aspect of the philosophy of Kongo-zen and the physical aspect of Shorinji Kempo.


One of those physical aspects, apparently, was promiscuity. So had three wives. The first two left him, mostly because he was always absent on spy missions, but just as much because he was a serial philanderer known to frequent brothels wherever he lived. Some Taoists might think that So simply let his chi get away from his control, inflaming the wrong part of him, but as the Wikipedia article on him puts it: “In a similar fashion to infamous Zen Buddhist monk Ikkyu, So saw promiscuity as a vital part of his religious and martial arts training.”


With that in mind, let’s note that So died of heart failure in 1980 at age 69. But before he did, a movie was made about him titled Shorinji Kempo (1975). Starring Sonny Chiba, it was released in English as The Killing Machine. So, himself, served as Chiba’s instructor for the film.


Let’s survey the contents of the book before we delve more deeply into some of the matters outlined above—though I’m sure I won’t be able to stop myself from digressing here and there. And everywhere.


In the first place, this is a big book: 256 pages of good-quality paper stock that measures 8”x12”, bound in hard covers and sporting a handsome dust jacket. The contents are divided into four parts:


Part 1.  Background

Part 2.  Goho: Positive System

Part 3.  Juho: Passive. System

Part 4.  Applications


The first chapter of Part 1 covers martial arts history, beginning with the Buddhist influence from India. Before I go on with the survey, though, I’ll note that I’m going to use the author’s terminology, not terminology that I might normally use. This is most significant in his use of the words “Shorinji” and “kempo,” to literally mean “Shaolin kung fu,” though in various places, he also calls it Shaolin-ssu. But he also refers to his own martial art as Shorinji and Kempo, confusing the issue and constantly conflating true Chinese Shaolin kung fu with his Shorinji Kempo, which is his own invention. Or perhaps I should say, it is an amalgamation. Shorinji is definitely not Shaolin, and even So tacitly admits this when he definitively states that Shaolin, in its original Chinese form, was not practiced early on in Japan.


“Later, after every rebellion or dynastic change in China, monks, patriots, and rebels seeking refuge in Japan brought with them various kinds of kempo which took root and grew into the Japanese martial arts as they exist today. Kempo in its purest form was never among them.”


It’s probably true that kempo styles of Japanese karate are, as a general rule, more Shaolin-like than are styles such as Shotokan and Gōjū-ryu, but not by much. And Shorinji seems to be on the harder end of the Kempo spectrum.


Of the Buddhist influence, the author writes:


“Though Buddhism and military arts may appear incongruous, the original teachings of Buddha emphasized the importance of strength as well as love in the active creation of an ideal world and the protection of the laws of Buddhism.”


At first glance, this might seem to be a fairly idealistic and positive statement, but let’s hold that sentiment in abeyance for the moment. It’s important to keep in mind, here, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, which teach that there is a way to overcome suffering caused by desire and ignorance of reality’s true nature, including impermanence and the non-existence of the self. That way is to opt out of samsara—the cycle of birth and death.(3) It’s not hard to imagine a sequence of birth and death in a cold, mechanistic, and spiritually vacant universe, but it’s hard to imagine a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth without some sort of overarching spirit behind such a mechanism, otherwise, exactly what is it that keeps getting reborn, and where does it reside when it’s not here?


So’s take on the idea of Buddha emphasizing the importance of strength is a case of cherrypicking and possible misstatement to take into account only physical strength. We all recognize that the world is not an ideal or idealistic place, but did the Buddha emphasize strength in order to encourage one to physically defeat one’s enemies, as So implies, or was the Buddha actually indicating that internal fortitude was the true strength that keeps one grounded as well as better able to withstand the rigors of life? Strength, in this aspect, is much more closely allied to love than is violence, affording one greater and broader opportunities to move ahead with one’s own existence and to contribute to the greater good. It also requires a consistently peaceful approach, which So despises, as will be seen below when he disparages the concept of “turning the other cheek.”


So obviously thinks it’s proper to kick the asses of enemies and dissenters, which isn’t a very Buddhist sentiment—Shaolin monks notwithstanding. The monks’ goal was personal self-defense, while So’s intent is clearly more aggressive, often occurring in defense of personal or nationalist ideals instead of people. All we have to do is look at his paramilitary affiliations and spying missions on behalf of an aggressor nation to see the truth of that.


In this context, we also ought to take a closer look at the last phrase in the quote above—the one about protecting the laws of Buddhism. Notice he doesn’t say, the protection of Buddhism or Buddhists. Nope. What he’s protecting are the “laws” of Buddhism. This focus makes some warped logical sense since Buddhism relies heavily on textual readings for its substance, but Buddhism also relies heavily on personal experience with the numinous gained through spiritual practices such as meditation, martial arts, and so forth. This is something So totally ignores since, as will be seen, the numinous is not, and cannot be, part of his system.


In general, I think it’s probably true to say that when you are protecting a set of rules instead of the spirit of the rules, then you have shallowed out the experiences of living in reality and are simply existing in an ossified intellectual, emotional, and spiritual construct that is self-created and both divorced from and at odds with the true and mutable nature of reality. True freedom does not consist of doing whatever you want or in following strict laws strictly, but in choosing to take appropriate actions. Laws, no matter their (supposed) genesis, cannot always guarantee, or even suggest, appropriate actions. Only internalized and observant morality can do that.


In fact, that is one of the most important revelations one can gain from practicing the martial arts. If you don’t observe and respond appropriately, you’re gonna get socked. But a specifically trained call-and-response isn’t always adequate when situations vary by a few degrees—when response requires flexibility and attention, not to movements, per se, but to the energy flowing through the encounter. The lesson of this is that the only way to truly protect laws is to internalize their intent, not futilely and violently defend their literality.


But for So, it’s all about the call-and-response. This is obvious concerning Shorinji, whose structure and methodology we’ll look at below, but also concerning his philosophy of Kongo-zen, also examined below. For the moment, we’ll only consider that, ironically, he dooms himself to the cycle of samsara by promoting violence in “the protection of the laws of Buddhism.” He can’t believe in samsara, though, because he is a materialist and thus does not believe in anything above or beyond reality as perceived by the five main senses. For him, there is nothing beyond or behind “here and now.” This is it, and the end is oblivion. If that isn't an invitation to bad behavior, nothing is.


So’s text raises the dialectic that is, perhaps, the single oldest and most important debate in human history: between materialism and spiritualism, between those who insist that reality is a tangibly and solidly real, self-created, and self-sufficient all, and those who believe that beneath reality’s apparently solid exterior is nothing but an energy construct, with individual energy fields of various sorts embedded in the larger energy field of the universe. He doesn’t frame it this way because he is so firmly entrenched in materialism that he cannot admit even the possibility that the other state might exist, much less be the true one. Perhaps he is incapable of envisioning such a thing.


Thus, he argues—and even rigorously trains his body—for hard-core materialism. Unfortunately for him, both science and religion agree that reality is not at all tangible and only seems that way in some special sense—though the exact nature of that intangibility is still in question. Some thinkers believe that time is a factor or parameter that helps make reality seem real to the limited senses that human possess. Some believe that the human organism has certain psycho/spiritual “filters” that serve to limit the overwhelming infinitude of possible impressions vibrating throughout the universe. Others…. Well, who knows what the actual case might be? Whatever it is, it remains true that science has found that atoms—the basic building blocks of matter—consist of nothing but vibrations, and that a subatomic forces act simultaneously as both wave and particle. And that two paired particles respond instantaneously to changes in each other's state no matter how distantly they are separated. It’s all a matter of perspective.


The author’s rendition of kempo (kung fu) history argues in favor of the Bodhidharma genesis story but accepts that it might not be completely accurate. The development of kempo (kung fu) continued at Shorinji (Shaolin) Temple until the temple was destroyed by the emperor Wu Ti in 47 AD as part of his anti-Buddhist policies. Wu Ti also banned the practice of the martial arts among the people, driving the arts underground.


This isn’t the only instance of repression in So’s rendition, which includes several stories of periods of suppression when the practice of kung fu in China was forbidden and mostly underground. This aspect is largely absent from the average history of martial arts, and So’s attention to it is a welcome addition to the literature. But this is So, after all, and he’s not going to mention that sometimes these martial arts societies were driven underground for a good reason: They were corrupt. As with many practices that are driven into the shadows, criminality and darker purposes began to infiltrate these groups. Perhaps So has to ignore the corruption because he was a highly placed and active participant who personally benefitted from the violence and chaos created by these societies. After all, a mob boss is usually a willing accomplice, if not instigator.


Some of these underground martial arts groups broadened their scope to become larger secret societies, many of which, like the Black Dragon Society, espoused violent right wing ultra-nationalist policies and actions. In China and Japan, both, some of them morphed into the Triads, while others attempted to gain political power and influence. Many politically archconservative martial artist in China fomented and took part in the disastrous Boxer Rebellion in an attempt to drive foreign invaders from their homeland—not necessarily a bad idea considering what those foreign invaders were doing to their homeland, but certainly an ill considered response. The simple fact is, Iron Shirt and Golden Bell kung fu will not protect you from bullets, and many kung fu practitioners died amid their slaughter of foreigners, civilians, and military personnel.


I am not deeply enough versed in the histories of Japan and China to assess the accuracy of So’s take on them. He was deeply embedded in both cultures and was a highly intelligent observer and participant. And I want to emphasize his obvious intelligence, even if I believe his perceptions to be limited and faulty. His writing is clear and deep, and while I might have developed, as will become evident, an intense antipathy for his underlying motivations, I confess that one can learn a lot here about the development and interplay of the secret societies.


But because of So’s deeply partisan involvement, one has to read his accounts and his accolades and damnations with multiple grains of salt. A highly partisan actor is likely to see his opponents in the worst light and his own comrades in the best, even if their actions belie their words and they are murderous, criminal thugs. It is said that history is written by the victors, who present their whitewashed view of what happened. But history also is preserved in annals of the defeated, who’s opinion on matters most likely takes a completely opposite view of just who was heroic, even while it persists in the folklore of the people.


Reading many of So’s passages, I am struck by several matters. First, their selectivity. He would have us believe that the Chinese government—no matter which one was in power at the time—continually suppressed the martial arts and were in league with the foreigners—whichever foreigners happened to be around at the time. Ironically, So fails to note that, more than once, he and his fellow Japanese were “those foreigners.” Perhaps that sort of repression happened during many of the dynasties and subsequent governments, but not always. If it had, then the martial arts probably would have died out long ago. But they haven't. Of particular note is the Republican Era (1912–1949)—significantly a time during which So was alive and present in China and could not have failed to notice the incredible proliferation of martial arts manuals that appeared right under his nose. But he conveniently skips that era. And while it’s true that the martial arts in China were again suppressed for decades by the Communist government, obviously, they have not died out from that, or from any other government’s suppression. They are too rooted in the souls of the Chinese people—and now, in the souls of people worldwide.


I think the reason So is adamantly selective is due to simple psychological self-justification for his beliefs, whether they are valid or not. Manufactured evidence and perceived persecution are just as powerful as real things on the mind and heart of the true believer. So and the brotherhood of the secret societies must rely on the idea—if not always the true fact—of suppression to gain strength, and that suppression must always appear to come from some “villain” outside the insular culture. In other words, it’s often something you have to believe to see, and it’s always someone else who plays the bad guy.


So next writes of his own personal journey—oddly, referring to himself in the third person, though this might have been a device of either the translator or editor wishing to respect So by relieving him of the onus of praising himself despite his authorship of the book. What it sounds like is self-deification. This is borne out by the several photos of So, all of which utilize the poses most favored by authoritarian dictators the world over and through the centuries—the low three-quarters angle showing a stalwart jaw and far-seeing eyes that radiate self-importance.


“Modern Shorinji kempo is the work of Doshin So, who, before the Second World War, traveled in China and studied the scattered remnants of Chinese kempo. In Peking, Doshin So studied under Wen-Lanshi, the head of the North Shorinji Ihermen-thuen (a school whose techniques center on embu). The institution preserved kempo in a form closest to the orthodox North Shorinji line. At a ceremony held at the Shorinji, Doshin So became Wen-Lanshi’s official direct successor.”


This is So’s own take on his time in China. Note that he pretends that he was in China to learn “the scattered remnants” (!) Of Shaolin martial arts, but what he doesn’t say is that his real purposes were to spy on the country and steal kung fu secrets. This passage also raises the issue that Donn Draeger took exception with—that a Japanese man could, or would, be allowed to become leader of a hallowed Chinese martial arts tradition. Considering the deep enmity between the Chinese and Japanese during the entire 20th century, I, like Draeger, find it unlikely.


So’s autobiography continues with:


“By bringing about Doshin So’s repatriation, the defeat of Japan in the Second World War indirectly became the cause of the transmission of true kempo to Japan. Though he terms it Shorinji kempo, Doshin So’s martial art is not a degenerate form of Chinese kempo but a fusion and arrangement of all the kempo he observed during his travels in China. It is kempo reexamined and systematized from a new angle. But it has also been amplified by the addition of a religious philosophy.”


Really, now. I don’t care how proficient a martial artist So was or how effective his martial art is—and I respect both aspects. Even aside from calling all other Shaolin kung fu “degenerate,” this statement contains some outrageous stuff. So says he was the first to bring true kempo—by which he means “Shaolin”—to Japan. This is simply not true. Then, digging himself deeper into a hole, he completely belies his statement by going on to say he’s reexamined all of tempo and fused and systematized it. And then he’s added what he seems to think was missing—namely “a religious philosophy.” If he’s done all that to it, then it most certainly isn’t “true Shaolin” of any sort.


Nor does Shorinji look at all like kung fu except for some punch diversions that aren’t blocks, per se, but that lead the opponent into overbalance and a tumble. Those would easily be familiar to kung fu people, but everything before and after that looks pretty karate to me, and not at all like kung fu, Shaolin or otherwise. So might be able to say that he created an especially effective amalgamation of kung fu and karate, but not that he is the only true successor of Shaolin kung fu in its “non-degenerate” form.


I also have to wonder at So statement that he introduced religious philosophy to Shaolin, thus “amplifying it.” I’m not sure what he means by amplification, but in another case of cherrypicking, he conveniently forgets that traditional Shaolin was intricately intertwined with and supported by Buddhism and Wudang by Taoism and that neither require religious “reintroduction.” Many individual martial arts have a spiritual dimension or even, like Perisai Diri (Javanese Silat), a deeply religious grounding—in that case, Islam. Further, any martial art that does not suggest and demonstrate a spiritual connection throughout reality is just learning to fight.


Despite So’s claims that he’s added religion back into the martial arts, Shorinji cannot strictly be called a religion in the narrower sense, which implies belief in and reliance on a “supernatural” power or force that undergirds reality. I put “supernatural” in quotes because it seems to me that any power that undergirds reality cannot be unnatural, only, perhaps, unseen or unacknowledged. In the broader sense of holding and adhering to a belief system, perhaps Shorinji is religious, but by the author’s own statements, it denies any spiritual underpinning to the phenomena of reality, insisting that only the tangible is real and that only the individual’s perceptions of that reality are valid. Of course, throughout, the perceptions are So’s, and only his have validity. For him, the perceptions of others have no importance except where they coincide with his own.


Unfortunately, despite his obvious intelligence, his perceptions don’t often go beneath the surface of things. Remember, for him, it’s all about the here and now and the tangibly real. No matter what a deeper truth might be, he will not see it, and even if he does see it, he will ignore it and continue to employ justifications and selective perceptions and evidence help polish his image as well as bolster his arguments, even if the information is bogus. But based on bogus info and limited perceptions or not, Shorinji is a registered religion in Japan. Frankly—and not surprisingly—it seems more like a one of those secret societies from which So rose, making it more akin to a cult than to a martial art or martial arts style.


The second chapter is, “Philosophy,” and here the author lays out the religious philosophy that he calls Kongo-zen—kongo (diamond) + zen (Zen). In other words, Hard Zen that clothes itself in the garments of gentleness, love, and peace. So puts it this way:


“As these two root words indicate, Kongo-zen is a new philosophy that turns inward as well as radiates outward, that combines gentleness with hardness and compassion with strength.”


On its surface, Kongo-zen seems to be a very yin/yang philosophy that is highly idealistic. However, it is perhaps overly so—pedantically so, demandingly so—when one considers humankind’s many proclivities for unruliness and truly awful behavior. And those harsh demands lend it an air of rule-driven authoritarianism. The deeper I looked, the less and less yin I saw. And regarding the quote directly above, again, no. This is not a new philosophy, simply old stuff repackaged, with the repackager playing the role of ribbon, bow, bearer, and gift itself. But as the Roman poet Virgil said, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” which might be rewritten here to say, “Beware of anyone bearing gifts that put you under their control.”


Really, if what lay inside the Kongo-zen package was all that new, it wouldn’t have the name “Zen” attached. Basically, all of its cannon is simply an amalgam mainly of Zen, with some Taoist precepts mixed in, all couched in terms that, with their intellectual rigor and steadfast belief, invite the reader to buy into them whole hog. Please note again that “intellectual rigor” does not always involve “accurate perceptions.” After all, humankind has faced the same handful of mental, emotional, and spiritual hurdles from time immemorial. They’ve just been repackaged by each culture, each nation, each new generation, and each individual. Further, while it is true that the world is fraught with dangers and pitfalls at every turn, no one set of rules—no matter how extensive and complex—and no one individual—no matter how accomplished—can contain or halt the constant growth of reality. But that is exactly what So wants to do.


On the one hand, he writes stuff like this:


“Although it is in Man’s tradition to impute human purposes and wishes to reality, one must remember that ultimate truth is not what we make of it but remains in the realm of that which is. Although increasing knowledge has enabled Man to decipher some of the secrets of the universe, just as the pattern of a rug cannot be distinguished from a handful of threads, so too, the ultimate reality of all existence is outside the realm or Man’s knowledge.”


Sounds pretty good. Or:


“As Kongo-zen does not recognize a reality which is an invention of Man’s imagination or a projection of his needs and fears, there is also no supreme power which exacts obedience, promises salvation and a heaven after death, or threatens with the punishment of hell. There is no god who talks to Man through rules created by men in his name or by way of messages conveyed to a chosen few or by tables of law invested with supernatural authority. Neither is there anyone to dictate what is right or wrong or provide the answer to life’s meaning and purpose. The only power Man can turn to for guidance in life is knowledge, knowledge of the world and mankind as they really are. Thus learning to respect the reality of the real, which is distinct from any individual or group, is essential; and by doubting, questioning, and humbly striving for unbiased knowledge Man will come closer to truth from which he can derive new moral criteria.”


Yeah, that one looks pretty good, until you realize that is an expression of complete anarchy. And not even a truly valid assessment, at that. I don’t want to get into a theological discussion, but it is clear to many people—if not to So—that reality is more numinous and filled with vitality than he gives it credit for. He is a materialist and arch conservative who views life and reality as a big machine that functions without origin or purpose. He, like all right wing individuals, desires a static reality that can be encompassed, understood, and controlled—one that does not inspire fear at its immenseness and mysteries. That is why Kongo-zen’s other half—Shorinji—is such a rigid system, despite So’s statement that it contains gentleness. I’ve watched a bunch of it, now, and I’ve yet to see any sort of gentleness.


And exactly whose “new moral criteria” is it that will be used to create a new order?’ So says it doesn’t come from deity, but only from knowledge gained within tangible reality. Aside from the fact that this denies a sort of spiritual foundation for moral behavior, this idea of a locked-in moral criteria exhibits So’s limitations in being locked into a narrower frame of reference than he might otherwise enjoy. Yeah, okay, we live within tangible reality, but that doesn’t mean that some sort of “spiritual” force doesn’t lie beneath it, creating and manifesting its many forms and actions like waves and ripples are created on the surface of water. Human kind appears to be divided into those who sense that truth, even if unconsciously, and those who, for whatever reason, can’t. Besides, I’m always suspicious of people who try to tell me their morality is better than mine when clearly it isn’t. And finally, if there is no underlying spiritual reason to behave morally and life is nothing but a free-for-all struggle, then morality has no place, whether created by deity or self. If that is the case, why is it that so many humans feel moral compunctions? But for So, the bottom line is that moral precepts come only from personal experience, which begs the question of what moral precepts So gained by his personal experiences as a right-wing nationalist militia leader. And what sort of morality he might want to exert over the rest of us.


In the next paragraph, So tries to soften matters by speaking of wisdom, strength, courage, and love, and really, I have to go along with a lot of what he says. Until, as above, I peer past the surface to grasp the underlying meaning of many of his ideas. What I hear are the statements of a man who rejects the idea that change is the only constant and who self-justifies his own rigid mindset with words that belie his fears of anything outside the narrow confines of the reality he imagines around himself. He presents his best face, but scratch the skin, and beneath you’ll find not a man of flesh and blood, but of stone. I’m tempted to believe he was psychopathic, for he exhibits many of those traits. Certainly, cult leadership is one goal of many psychopaths.


But the man sure talks a good game, and a lot of what he says rings true and valid. However, is the author a man who practiced what he preached? Remember, I’m not talking here of his martial expertise, but of his philosophy and his adherence to his own set of principles. The fact that he justified his serial philandering and whore mongering under the guise of religious observance and martial arts practice—and undoubtedly didn’t care that he hurt his wives in the process—should be a clue. But then, right wingers have no difficulty justify their own bad behavior while condemning the same—often only implied or supposed—behavior in others.


With his philosophy laid out, the author next discusses Shorinji as a martial art, though he remains insistent that Shorinji cannot be separated from Kongo-zen. If Kongo-zen is the theory, Shorinji is the practice.


“Knowing something in theory, however, does not necessarily effect action expressive of that knowledge, for moral criteria born from theory are not sufficiently imperative. It is when theory is accompanied by its direct experience that one’s way of life is positively influenced. Intellect and emotion are inseparably united, and both must be simultaneously cultivated for the creation of a complete man. The uniqueness of Shorinji kempo lies in the fact that it does not just preach a way of life but incorporates all its teachings into direct experience. The martial at of Shorinji kempo, or kempo in short, is the empirical counterpart of the teaching which we have just discussed.” [Kongo-zen]


There is nothing wrong with the basic rationale here, but when So says that these ideas are unique to Shorinji, he’s not telling the truth. A dedicated Tai Chi practitioner has to buy into Taoism, at least to some extent, in order to perfect the art. And, as stated earlier, Buddhism permeates—or at least used to permeate—Shaolin kung fu. The caveat is due to the fact that, these days, the fighting aspects of all of the martial arts are at the fore in the public’s eye, not the self-development and spiritual aspects. Everyone seems to have a need to solve their issues by kicking ass. And again, Kongo-zen is nothing more than an amalgam of Zen and Taoism, so there is absolutely nothing at all unique about Shorinji except its genesis through So’s experience. But isn’t that true of all martial arts? Each had a unique genesis in the experiences and spirit of its creator. It's even true, in a sense, within the individual practitioner's own experiences of martial development.


I think what bothers me most about So is that he paints a glowing and idealistic portrait of life and reality that any rational person would recognize as false, and then insists that only he has the true knowledge and experience to lead one on the right path. Only his way is valid. And that path becomes narrower and narrower, more rigidly confined, constrictive, and controlled the deeper one delves into Kongo-zen. The reason for that is simple: Anything other than rigid control will allow into one’s frame of reality some measure of truths and reality beyond the controlled environment of Kongo-zen—elements that threaten the true believer’s mental and emotional equilibrium because these individuals possess personalities incapable of change and that will always seek relief in an idealized, though fictional, past.


Unlike the present—and certainly the future—the past can be controlled because it can be rewritten, even if falsely, to suit the needs of those who desire to ignore the truths and imperatives of perpetual, uncontrolled, and uncontrollable change. Nationalists always seek to limit, which is in direct contravention of the entire thrust of life and reality, which is to continually move onward and continually expand. As the old adage says, time stands still for no man. No matter how much So insists that his way is the way forward, it really is a way, if not backward, then into stagnation. Remember, he wants to preserve the “laws” of Buddhism, not the human reality of it, despite his claims of basing Kong-zen on observations of reality. But can those perceptions—can those laws—be accurate if they don’t take into account the imperatives of change?


I also find So’s nationalist tendencies at complete philosophical—and again, hypocritical—odds with his participation in WWII as a Japanese spy seeking to aid his own country in dominating another. Shouldn’t a nationalist tend to his own borders and what lies within them and let the citizens of other countries tend to their’s? Or, as is a typical thought pattern with right wingers, is it okay for So to attack the sovereignty of another nation simply because he believes it is in the interest of his own? This has ever been a tactic employed by those with nationalist, right-wing agendas, who demand their own rights even as they mouth justifications for denying the rights of others and enacting violence upon them. Plus, So’s mindset as a right-wing paramilitary commander seems to me to run counter to the stated ideals of his own philosophy of Kongo-zen. But then, right-wingers never appear to be bothered by hypocrisy when their personal power is at issue.


The following choice statement from So will lead us into a look at the chapters on Shorinji:


“All techniques employed in martial arts are based on the application of three body movements: circular, straight, and bending. Throws, twists, blocks, and eluding and pinning techniques, considered gentle or defensive, as well as thrusts, kicks, and punches, which comprise hard or offensive techniques, all originate from these three movements. Although the techniques of judo, for instance, are based primarily on the defensive or gentle techniques and those of karate on the hard and offensive techniques, Shorinji kempo is unique in that is it a combination of both.”


Shorinji, then, is another one of those martial arts that, like Tai Chi, preaches total peace and harmony but teaches ways to commit serious mayhem. To give that dichotomy a friendly euphemism, we call our arts “defensive.” I’m not being disparaging here, merely critical of So’s selective evidence and reasoning that, once again, shows him in the best possible light. However, while it’s hard to imagine a Tai Chi expert deliberately hurting an opponent when it in’t really necessary, it’s hard to imagine a Shorinji exponent not seriously injuring an opponent.


Although So’s assessment of judo and karate are basically valid, it is simply not true that kempo is the only art that accomplishes some sort of balance between the hard and soft—and often in more balance than Shoorinji Kempo, with its vicious defenses and even more devastating attacks. From what I’ve seen, the “balance” in Shorinji is something like 95% “hard” and 5% “gentle,” though the so-called gentle is still pretty vicious. Many kung fu styles do achieve a more thorough balance, including Tai Chi. Though Tai Chi is generally considered a yin art because it is practiced in a slow and gentle manner, most people don’t know of its characteristic of being like “steel within cotton.” However, So’s words on breaking down the movements into circular, straight, and bending is one valid way of classifying martial movements, though not the only one.


The technology of Shorinji is fairly basic. There are no forms, only techniques that are repeated solo until one has the basic movement in mind and body. Then the trainee moves on to a second stage, as we’ll see below.


“Numbering well over 600, tempo techniques implying both gentle and hard movements, cover every possible means of defense, protecting one in almost any situation.”


Shorinji also emphasizes pressure points.


“The most important of the rational principles used in kempo, however, is the application of knowledge derived from ancient Eastern medicine on the vital point of the human body. By applying pressure to certain “switches” located in the muscles, bones, or nerves, any person can effectively subdue an opponent of greater size and strength. By applying pressure to one of the 142 designated “switches” used in kempo, one can easily cause the opponent to faint or paralyze him with pain.”


While Shorinji isn’t the only martial art to employ pressure point—or cavity—attacks, its emphasis on them no doubt makes the average Shorinji practitioner more adept than most average karate or kung fu practitioners are at applying them in combat. Immediately after, So says this:


“Shorinji kempo, which teaches that there is no meaning in “turning the other cheek” to those whose ways of life are set in strength and violence and, in fact, regard this passive attitude as a factor encouraging lawlessness and injustices, advocates the need for the individual to be properly equipped with the know-how for protecting himself.”


Okay, self-protection is one valid and important reason, among many, to practice the martial arts, in the modern world no less than in medieval China or Japan. And, yes, turning the other cheek sometimes is an invitation to further violence. It also is necessary for society to slap down corruption and criminality. But not always—and maybe not even a preponderance of the time. To advocate total retaliation for even the slightest infraction of “rules” and “laws” is another characteristic of the rigid right-wing mind. Most of the time, flexibility leads to smoother interactions with other people unless they are of a seriously rigid mindset. And if violence does ensue, then flexibility will come in handy there, too. Flexibility produces less friction; less friction results in less heat.


Shorinji is an open-hand style, and does not contain any weapons work, preferring to develop the individual’s natural weapons to the fullest. And from perusing the instruction sections as well as Youtube videos, I can see that those natural weapons truly are well developed. Technique practice is just the beginning. The true core of Shorinji practice is Embu, or two-person practice. Alternating offense and defense, two people work over time to perfect the techniques in a practical setting. “It takes two to perfect kempo,” So writes. “Both must improve together; there can be no winner or loser.”


As a Tai Chi guy who recognizes the value of push hands and sparring, I think he’s right—at least for those of us who want something deeper than form work. So then mentions two important complementary practices—zazen and seiko. The first, of course, is seated meditation, and the second basically seems to be acupressure and massage.


So goes on with some more philosophy for another few pages, and like his words before, it all sounds good until you try to suss out what lies beneath his statements and realize he’s still walking the path toward rigidity and stagnation. A man truly set in his ways, So wants all of us to be set in his ways, too.


The book then gets into the meat of the martial arts matter, and I want to emphasize once more that, while I have disparaged So’s mindset and politics, Shorinji is dynamite stuff—direct, exact, crisp, fast, and powerful. And quite violent. The author begins with an examination of Shorinji’s Goho, or positive system. By this, he means the hard stuff: strikes, kicks, blocks, footwork,  and so forth. You can tell that Shorinji is a hard style when the hard techniques include blocks. There are about eighty-five of these techniques, and both the instructional text and the photos are excellent. Since what is depicted is not a form but isolated techniques, it should be quite simple to practice them on your own if you’d like or to find a partner to practice with.


Part 3 is a description of Juho, or Shorinji’s passive system. This mostly consists of chin-na, take-downs, and grappling—the latter usually with the arms, but only occasionally on the floor. I guess they figure they won’t go down that far. There are about fifty of these sorts of techniques. Again, the text and photos are excellent.


Part 4 shows applications, beginning with several Embu forms, where the two opponents square off to practice series of attacks and defenses. This is followed by a chapter on self-defense techniques in which young woman brutalizes guys foolish enough to try to put their hands where they shouldn’t. The guys always start out leering and end up grimacing, though that might be through broken teeth if the young woman actually responded fully.


A glossary and index wind up the book.


I should have realized right off the bat that something was fishy when, in the first paragraph of So’s preface, he writes:


“Although the name Shorinji kempo appears often in texts on karate and judo, until the present, because no one has ever given it a thorough explanation, people have tended to regard it as a legendary martial art. Therefore, I, the only true successor to the Shorinji tradition, have decided to reveal at least some of its secrets to the reading public.”


What a crock. Remember that often in this book, “Shorinji” means “Shaolin.” China, itself, never lost sight of the Shaolin arts, even if they were at times driven underground, and when this statement was written in 1970, the whole world was beginning to know something about Shaolin thanks to early Western writers on the martial arts, such as the aforementioned Donn Draeger, Robert W. Smith, and others. Hidetaka Nishiyama's seminal Karate: The Art of "Empty Hand" Fighting, published ten years before So's book, contains a similar history of karate's Chinese background. By 1970, lots of the world was become aware of kung fu through books, film, and other media. And then we have to listen to someone who was born in 1911 claim that he is the only true successor of an incredibly diverse tradition that is thousands of years old—falsehood laid atop falsehood. But again, one of the tactics of right wingers is to proclaim that only they have the real stuff, whatever that stuff might consist of, and that all other people and their ideas are worthless except how they personally benefit the right winger.


“[Shorinji] concentrates on respecting and understanding the training companion so that both parties may develop spiritually and physically. It is therefore totally unlike ordinary sports or martial arts. Furthermore, from the combination of soft fluidity and rigid strength that is the core of Shorinji kempo have sprung both the softness of judo and the hardness of karate.”


In this statement, So appears to be referring to Shorinji as Shorinji, not as Shaolin, because he contrasts it with other martial arts. Is this statement true? No, if he is, indeed, referring to the specific martial art of Shorinji, which postdates the influx of Chinese martial arts into Japan by many hundreds of years at least. And even if he is referring to Shorinji as Shaolin, this doesn’t work, either. True, the Japanese martial arts owe their existence, in part, to the influx of kung fu practitioners and techniques, but their current forms also have much to do with historically indigenous Japanese martial practices. After all, humankind’s favorite activity is making war on each another, and every peoples, every nation, and every culture have developed or systematized some sort of barehand method of combat.


Furthermore, almost all martial arts have two-person practice in which the participants respect—or at least, should respect—their training partners. Long ago I learned the simple statement: “Don’t hurt your training partner, or he won’t want to play with you anymore.” And Shorinji isn’t the only martial art that completely depends on memorized techniques perfected through two-person practice, rather than through form work and two-person practice—Perisai Diri being another example.


And if So wants to protest that he’s added the “spiritual dimension,” I again call BS. As stated above, Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, and other religions permeate almost all of the martial arts, even if some individual styles or practitioners sometimes ignore that fact. Again, this is an example of So’s selective reasoning.


In addition to the book being handsomely produced, the translation is pretty good, though the translator is unnamed. Perhaps So wants the reader to believe that he writes this well in English. I don’t know, maybe he does, but I doubt it. However, it’s hard to overlook the pathetic editing and proofreading job performed by the publisher, Japan Publications, which generally produced volumes of superior quality. Spots of awkward language, frequent typos and misspellings, and even repeated lines all made it into the final book. And this was not a cheap book to produce, so it’s a shame to sully it with errors that shouldn’t have made it past the proofreader’s desk. If there was a proofreader. Shame on you, Japan Publications.


Content-wise, the book’s plus side is its martial material—divorced from the Kongo-zen aspect, which assessment undoubtedly would annoy the author—for it displays a definitely effective and probably fairly easy to learn martial art that could be learned without reading a word about Kongo-zen.


However, I can’t help but say that I admire some of the stated tenets of Kongo-zen, which contains many worthwhile gems of wisdom and insight. Obviously a superior intellect lies behind this book, and the opening chapters are well worth reading by anyone for their historical and philosophical content alone. But I can’t honestly recommend you buy this book solely for the content of Part 1, though that is the meatiest material for those who do not practice Shorinji Kempo or some other form of kempo or karate. If you do buy this book for its instructional content, you’ll receive the extra treat of those early chapters. Just be aware of Doshin So’s subliminal message, and don’t buy into his regressive cult mentality.


In the final analysis, it’s interesting to view So, his philosophy, and his martial art through the lens of today’s politics, but that’s not my intent here. His right-wing stance and his extensive yet severely limited and selective justifications to place all humans in their proper place—at his feet—fills me with revulsion. Furthermore, the idealism So espouses on the surface is not something that can ever be achieved on a macro scale throughout humanity. Not in this reality. There are just too many bad people out there who like being bad—or at least accept it as business as usual. Frankly, So seems to be one of them.


The more deeply I looked into So’s text, the more it apparent it became that all his idealism is aimed at freeing him, personally, from the need to be subjugate to anyone in any way, shape, or form—not even in situations that could be better solved through cooperation or by doing things someone else’s way. That’s because he can’t admit that others might have better goods than he. So might have been able to perfect his physical abilities, but his deeper philosophy reveals, in my opinion, the desires and methodology of a psychopath.


In the end I’ll put this book in its rightful place in my martial arts library, but I will never again look at it with anything other than distaste.








1  Most of the biographical information in this review is from “Doshin So.” Wikipedia,


2  Draeger, Donn F. Modern Bujutsu and Budo: The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan. Weatherhill. p.165

3  “Buddhism.” Wikipedia,

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