By: Sensei Paolo Taigo Spongia - Chief Instructor IOGKF Italy
IOGKF Italy Chief Instructor, Sensei Paolo Taigo Spongia, has been gracious enough to share his deep knowledge of Zen with IOGKF members. Zen is an essential part of martial arts training and is even practiced by Higaonna Sensei in Okinawa. Sensei Spongia shares his experience in Zen and Karate-do with readers along with the wisdom and philosophy of his and other great masters of this ancient and vital budo art...

Sensei Lambert has recently asked me to contribute to the International Newsletter with some articles about Zen. I am very honored by this invitation and I hope I'll be up to the task in writing about such a delicate and important topic.

I wish to start by describing my experience, as it is through this experience which I will talk about Zen. Because we have to clarify that Zen is principally an experience from which it can derive – as it has happened in several situations – a philosophical, artistic expression. We are not talking about achieving an intellectual experience. We are talking about an experience that involves the body and mind as a unit.

Dogen Zenji, Patriarch of the Zen Sōtō, affirmed that talking about Zen without experiencing it, is like describing the taste of a painted apple.

Or else, as he strongly stated: “if you don't practice Zazen, you cannot understand it, and if you don't practice, what's the point of talking about it?”

"Language can only describe this condition, but Zen urges us to realize this - our True Nature - using this corporeal body and mind.  First, learn how to do sitting Zazen: erect your body; loosen your diaphragm; breathe from your lower abdomen; and look at yourself.  Then, carry that sitting Zazen into active Zazen: pay attention; think profoundly; be generous with your time, your energy, and your ability to benefit others.  Rest for a short while and reactivate sitting Zazen. Be patient and diligent. With the readiness of time, it becomes clear - inevitably."   -- Dogen Zenji

In the Zen Sōtō tradition, in which I have been educated and where I belong, Zazen, sitting meditation, is the  heart of the Zen practice and is intended as the concrete expression of the ‘awakening’. As the incarnation of the Awakening experience of Buddha Shakyamuni, embodied in the posture of Zazen.

Today it is a widespread habit to reduce Zazen to a mere technique with the only goal of a mythical wellness. However, we must not forget that Zen is rooted into, and gets its own lymph from the religious experience.

I know some people will feel annoyed by the word “religious”. However, in my opinion, this reaction is generated by a misunderstanding of what religion really means...

Religion doesn't have much to do, only marginally, with Institutions and dogmas... the religious attitude is the one that opens up to the possibility of listening to mystery and this is exactly what we do when we sit Zazen.

The word “religion” derives from the Latin “Religàre”: to reconnect, reunite. Man who in front of mystery abandons himself, can recognize himself as a unity together with the Cosmic Order. In this sense Zen is religion and it does not require joining a 'club' or a 'party' but rather the very freedom to go back to one's own religion, with a renewed spirit and a new awareness.

Deshimaru Roshi used to state: “Zen is the University of religion” or “Zen is the religion before religion”, that is: before it becomes 'belonging to a club' (often for convenience or blind compliance).

But let's go back to my encounter with Zen.

My first draw toward Zen has been almost simultaneous with the beginning of my Karate-Do practice.

As soon as I entered a Karate-Do dojo, (I was then 13 years old), I have been immediately fascinated by the concentration, the ways of a Dojo and the intense spiritual aura emanating from the powerful physical practice of Budo.

Not long after the beginning of my Karate-Do practice, I found two books: ‘The Way of Zen’ by Alan Watts and a book about Shorinji Kenpo by Dōshin Sō, founder of this martial art which integrates Karate Kenpo and Zazen.

I have been deeply touched by the concepts presented in those books and in particular by the research of a complete awareness of the present moment, which had always appeared to me as the key of the Zen experience.

Shortly after that I discovered the book ‘Zen and martial arts’, by Master Taisen Deshimaru, first Zen Patriarch in the European world. I read the book avidly, and I was deeply touched by the following text, at the beginning of the book: “How can you illuminate your own spirit, manage your behavior and become wise?

From the dawn of history, the human being showed the desire to improve his own strength and wisdom, striving to reach the highest strength and the highest wisdom.

However, which is the way that allows you to become strong and wise at the same time? In Japan, they try to achieve this goal through the martial arts practice, or Budo, and through Zen.

This traditional teaching is still valid, even though today Japanese Budo tends to become dualistic: learn to become strong instead of wise”.

This was what I was looking for.

It was a simple and direct message that Master Deshimaru was delivering to French youngsters in 1968.

Today, in the light of the acquired experience those words make me smile. But at that time, when I was 15, they gave a powerful orientation to my life.

I started to read avidly whatever I found about Budo and Zen. I read the biography of Master Deshimaru, who introduced Zen Sōtō in Europe and died in 1982.

I read about an Italian disciple of him, who had followed him for 14 years and, after his death, went to Japan to complete his education under the guide of Narita Shuyu Roshi, senpai of Deshimaru Roshi. That disciple received, as first person in Europe, the transmission of the Dharma (Shiho), and later became my Zen Master. His name is Fausto Taiten Guareschi, 4 times winner of the Italian Judo championship, teacher of Kendo and Karate-do and now Zen monk and master.

An image of Guareschi Roshi some years ago at the time of the meet

I started to collect articles about him and read about his adventures to spread Zazen in Europe. On the Salsomaggiore hills, in the northern part of Italy, he founded Fudenji, the Zen monastery (of which today he is the Abbot), affiliated to Eiheiji and first Senmon Sōdō in Europe.

Meanwhile I would try to sit in Zazen by myself, following a few instructions I had read in the books I collected.

But as I sat in Zazen, many doubts rised in my mind: was I practicing correctly? Were the profound discomfort and the intense physical pain that I was experiencing, normal?

I could not find a satisfying reply to my questions, so my trials failed miserably in front of my lack of faith.

A trust and a faith that – as I later discovered – can only be originated from the relationship with a teacher and with a community that share the effort of practice.

Just few weeks ago I was in Okinawa, and I went, like usual, to join Zazen at Kozenji, in Shuri.

One morning, after the Zazen at dawn, Sakiyama Roshi, explained to us how the ideogram

Za from the word Zazen represents two men sitting on the ground.

That is: Zazen is a practice that has to be shared.

Until one day, my lucky karma offered me the occasion to meet Guareschi Roshi in person during a lecture of his in Rome, where I live (around 1992).

I had been immediately impressed by the strong presence of this man, by his vigor and by his readiness.

I have been struck by his statements:

Zen is a radical Buddhism... it is abandoning the body and mind in the present moment... Zazen is useless, and just because it is useless it is of fundamental importance for our life...

At the end of the conference I approached him and asked how I could start practicing under his guidance.

He invited me to visit him in Fudenji monastery.

Since then, in 1992, I started a continuous pilgrimage to Fudenji, about 500 km from my home, to receive the Teaching of my Master.

Here some images of the beautiful garden of Fudenji:

I would participate in the Sesshin (intensive Zen retreats) where I would receive a vigorous Teaching and education from Master Taiten Guareschi.

For me, a Karate-do practitioner and teacher, it has been profoundly shocking to confront myself with the Zazen experience and with the severe education of my Master.

I had already experienced fighting and the hardest tests to get my dan gradings, but I felt like a child when facing the refined and razor-sharp Zen education.

The concept of Zanshin, (total presence, total immersion in the present moment) became extremely clear through the experience of life in the Temple, marked by the practice of 'Kata' in every action and by the search of a precise, timely and intuitive gesture.

The formal meal in the Zen Temple

Samu, the manual work, is a fundamental aspect of Zen practice.

Practicing Samu with my Master has been an enlightening aspect of my Zen experience.

The search for a harmonious and efficient action - before any thought can interpose itself between intuition and action – is at the basis of Zen Teaching and practice.

And the essence of Zen Teaching passes from Master to Disciple as “water is poured from one vase into another”  I Shin Den Shin (from heart to heart) through the direct contact of daily life.

I realized that even in the most sincere martial practice, especially nowadays, we can find 'escapes' and strategies to avoid the real and authentic confrontation with ourselves.

Oftentimes a martial practice can bring us to build a mask or an armor that gives us an image of ourselves very distant from reality, while reinforcing our ego.

My Master has unmasked my strategies. He read inside myself and with the severity and intuition typical of an authentic Zen Master he took away from me all the fake supports I was relying on and to which I was entrusting my identity.

It has been a true internal revolution.

I understood that today, as much as our Budo practice can be sincere, it needs the keys offered by Zen education and Zazen experience, in order to reach its depth and transformational effectiveness.

In 1999 I received the lay order. In 2002 the monastic order (Shukke Tokudo), and with that my Dharma name: Taigō.

The ceremony of ordination of Spongia Sensei

My Dojo became also a Zen Dojo.

Since 12 years ago, I have been organizing each year a Ken Zen Ichinyo Gasshuku (Gasshuku of the unity between Karate-do and Zen), in the Fudenji Monastery. In this way, living in the Temple, the practitioners have been able to experience Zen and Karate-Do and most of all, to benefit from the strong atmosphere of the monastery life.

Here a clip from one of the first Ken Zen Ichinyo Gasshuku in Fudenji, around 1997/98, with a short demonstration offered to the Temple in the last day of the Gasshuku:

In those occasions, my Master has always generously offered lectures to the participants.

Following this experience, Sensei Sensei Sydney Leijenhorst invited me to organize a Gasshuku in his Dojo in Holland. After some resistance, I have accepted and it has been an exciting experience that we shared with Dutch, Italian, Belgian and German practitioners.

This year, at the end of March, we will conduct our 4a Ken Zen Ichinyo Gasshuku in Holland.

Here two clips from the last Ken Zen Ichinyo Gaasshuku in Holland:

In 1998, during my first visit in Okinawa, I asked Higaonna Sensei if I could go with him to practice Zazen in Kozenji, under the guidance of Sakiyama Sogen Roshi, a great Zen Rinzai Master, once disciple of Chojun Miyagi Sensei.

Since then, every time I am in Okinawa I never miss going at dawn to Kozenji and enjoying the teaching of Sakiyama Roshi.

1998: with Sakiyama Roshi at Kozenji, from left to right, Sakiyama Roshi, Nakamura Sensei, Spongia Sensei and Leijenhorst Sensei

Here is a precious clip showing Sakiyama Roshi performing Sanchin in a New York Shorin Ryu Dojo:

And here is another clip filmed in Kozenji years ago:

After taking the monastic order, I continued my education in Fudenji until 2008.

After that, the Sōtō Shū Institution ordered that western monks, in order to continue their education and become priests, had to be in three retreats of 3 months each, in different parts of the world.

This for me would have meant to abandon the guide of IOGKF Italy and my Dojo for too long a period. Thus I decided not to pursue to become a priest fully ordained by Sōtō Shū, believing that my teaching in the Dojo and in IOGKF Italy could be the same of great value to diffuse the Zen teachings in society and help new generations to achieve armonius education and formation through Karate-Do and Zen.

So, I am continuing my experience in the service of those who wish to approach Zen practice, in my Dojo, and wherever I have the possibility to do it.

In this way, I wish to repay the enormous debt of gratitude, which I owe to Zen practice.