by Modaser Shah
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.
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.
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.