Muhammad Ali and Miyamoto Musashi, George Foreman and Sasaki Kojiro

by Modaser Shah

Muhammad Ali, who engaged in more 'fight of th...

Muhammad Ali, who engaged in more ‘fight of the year’ contests than any other fighter in boxing history, spanning almost two decades. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1974, in the legendary Rumble in the Jungle, in Zaire, Muhammad Ali, beyond his prime, faced George Foreman, a formidable opponent at his physical peak, as an underdog, with even his fans and well wishers not holding much hope of eluding a knock-out, much less winning. I recall the air of heaviness and gloom with which commentators made their predictions, as though a hero was, tragically, about to fall. However, they were wrong and Ali won by a knock-out.

About 360 years before this epic duel, thousands of miles to the east, on the Ganryu Island, in Japan, two samurai warriors met in a duel of equally epic proportions, with the difference that this was a duel to death. Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s foremost swordsman, a cautious and tortured soul, destined to be much more than a swordsman, met a dashing, brash and formidable and over-powering opponent, Sasaki Kojiro.

Miyamoto Musashi, self-portrait

Miyamoto Musashi, self-portrait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Again, there apparently was gloom in the air and even Musashi’s well-wishers did not think he had much of a chance. When the dust settled, Musashi had felled his erstwhile undefeated, fearless and fearsome foe.

What have boxing and martial arts to do with mysticism, specifically Sufism? The connection between martial arts and Zen, at least on the surface, seems less far-fetched.

If Sufism is thought of as a way to develop the spiritual layers or capacities of the personality, though not only these, and not as an avoidance of the rough and tumble of the real world, then there should not be any surprise that there, indeed, is a connection. Sufism can appear in the most unlikely places. Thus Sufis can be warriors, soldiers, janitors, doctors, nurses, weavers of cloth, cobblers, craftsmen of all stripes, artists, poets, writers, even polticians and lawyers, although the degree of difficulty in joining the caravan of Sufis can, obviously, vary a great deal. It is likely that the person who is a Sufi may not even know, or care, that he qualifies as one. In fact, I would venture to go so far as to say that the majority of Sufis, especially before this appellation made its appearance, were not aware that they could be described with a common label. And this state of affairs may still exist for many. Sufis are Sufis. What they or we call them does not matter that much, although for us ordinary mortals, at least, discovering the fact that one has been on the Sufi path may help affirm one’s identity and direction, seeing that one is part of a fellowship of seekers. Recall the saying” the map is not the territory.” The territory covered by the term preceded it.

Back to Ali et al. At the time of the fight with Ali, Foreman, like Kojiro at the time of his fated duel, had the utmost confidence in his power, physical prowess and techniques, and had not paid much attention to the nurturing of his psychological and spiritual layers. In fact, it can be said that the loss was critical in waking Foreman up to these dimensions and he did show evidence of development in these areas over the following years. Kojiro, unfortunately, lost his life in the duel and didn’t have that opportunity, at least on this shore of eternity.

枯木鳴鵙図 Kobokumeigekizu

枯木鳴鵙図 Kobokumeigekizu, by Miyamoto Musashi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Muhammad Ali’s spiritual journey had already begun prior to the fight and, as we all know, he has continued on this journey, to this day; he seems to have made great progress and he is probably, in my opinion, on the Sufi path. Like many Sufis, he might wish to remain a hidden seeker.

What about Musashi? There is as much to say about him as there is about Ali. Perhaps, we will go into some detail at some future time, but for now, I wished to hint at some of the unmistakeable similarities between these two remarkable warriors, separated by almost 400 years and thousands of miles; this is particularly the case when one tries to dig into the deeper layers of their personalities and their higher inclinations and aspirations.

Musashi ends his renowned treatise on swordsmanship Gorin no Sho with a chapter titled Kuu no Maki, where kuu means empty. He summarizes his thoughts on this complex topic in a few sentences.These sentences have acted, especially for seekers in the field of martial arts, as sources of inspiration and as a sort of a ko-an. He says that one can come to know, not without a life long struggle, the unknowable by knowing the knowable, or non-being by knowing being. Ultimately, the void is a state of the absence of maya or illusions or, in my opinion, becoming able to see things as they are.

This entry was posted in Modaser Shah, Original Essays and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Muhammad Ali and Miyamoto Musashi, George Foreman and Sasaki Kojiro

  1. sv says:

    Nice post , the journey to the void

  2. Madelaine says:

    I actually had the honor of meeting Muhammad Ali many years ago! Such a gentleman…Thanks for sharing this!.

    • sufiways says:

      I almost had the honor of meeting him in the 1960’s when he visited the mosque in Yoyogiuehara, in Tokyo; however, I feel I had some second hand BARAKA from him since a close friend of mine did go, shook his hands and exchanged a few words with him.
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Perhaps you could say a few more words for those of us who never saw him up close.

      • Madelaine says:

        Sure, but there is nothing much to tell. It was in the 70’s and he must have been in the beginnings of the Parkinson’s Disease that has now ravaged him, as he seemed to be a little ‘out of it’ so to speak and was being guided around by two gentlemen who were also doing the introductions. I do remember he had such a beautiful smile though!

  3. sufiways says:

    Thank you so much. That beautiful smile, that’s where the spirit of the man is. Even when the mind is ravaged,the spirit can show itself in some bodily manner. Sad and beautiful,like life in general.

  4. seeker says:

    I didn’t know Ali is a Sufi? Good read. I noticed that are several names in this blog. Does that mean there are several writers here as well?

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