Rizal: Zen Life, Zen Death
By Rene J. Navarro, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)
"My hands are shaking because I have just had a fencing bout; you know I want to be a swordsman." Jose Rizal, age 18, to Enrique Lete, 27 November 1879.
EMERGING FROM THE DOJO where he had been studying jujitsu, Jose Rizal found the crisp air scented with flowers. It was the Spring of 1888 in Meiji era Japan. The landscape had suddenly been transformed from dead winter to a lively panorama of flowers everywhere. Beyond was Mount Fuji, snow-capped and majestic.
He wandered all over Tokyo, seeing Kabuki and Noh plays, journeying past a Ginza starting to burgeon with emporiums and bazaars, past squat houses "walls made of paper," to the temples and shrines of Kyoto and Nara and the Daibutsu at Kamakura, hiking through parks and gardens, listening to street bands, visiting museums and libraries, sometimes alone and sometimes with his dear friend, O-Sei-San, and always, his heart was agitated when he saw something new and exotic, and in Springtime, Japan was a tourist's haven, with its rituals out of ancient lore.
The cherry blossoms had burst into white and pink amid the bright colors of Spring. As the storks keened overhead, the blooms touched with raindrops radiated with limpid softness in the sun. Immortalized in painting, music and poetry, brooded over by samurai and zen monks, who saw in the flower the symbol of life's fragility, the sakura dominated the Spring festivals.
To the mountain village, this spring eve,
I come and listen to the monastery bell,
Watching the cherries in bloom,
And petals softly falling.
--Noin (10th century)
Rizal felt his body stirring as he walked the strange streets.
He had read the haiku and waka, in original Japanese, had admired the sumiye paintings (those spontaneous,unplanned and thoroughly intuitive sketches), heard the strains of the koto and samisen lamenting the fate of the sakura, and in the jujitsu academy he had heard of the meaning of the Spring rites. Like the sakura, the warrior's death must be as glorious as his life. The samurai must live every moment intensely because death hovers perpetually over his head. Death and life both must be faced with stoic indifference. It was right of the age of the shogunate, when the country was a bushi's turf.
Rizal sketched scenery and flowers and common folk in the zen way of sumiye, which he had started to learn from O-Sei-San.
With his background, Rizal must have reminded O-Sei-San of the ideal of bunburyudo, the combination of artistic and martial virtues a samurai aspired to, as exemplified by Miyamoto Musashi, famous swordsman, painter and poet of feudal Japan, and author of the military classic, The Book of Five Rings.
Indeed Rizal had the characteristics of a true warrior: he had a lifetime commitment to martial arts, an obsession with death, a contemplative mind, an intense involvement with life and nature, a spartan character and a great sense of loyalty and justice.
Icarus by Oillight
He had a difficult birth. His mother vowed to take him on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Peace and Safe Voyage in Antipolo as a gesture of gratitude. It was thought by the family that Rizal would die.
Death was to haunt him all his life. From childhood he had anxious premonitions and dreams of disaster. He recalled the story of the moth: "I looked toward the light and fixed my gaze on the moths which were circling it...The flame rolled its golden tongue to one side and a moth which this movement singed fell into the oil, fluttered for a time and then became silent...All my attention was fixed on the fate of the insect. I watched it with my whole soul...It had died a martyr to its illusions."
In Madrid, Spain, he wrote a passage which prefigured his end. "Night. I don't know what vague melancholy, an indefinable loneliness, smothers my soul...Two nights ago, that is 30 December, I had a frightful nightmare when I almost died. I dreamed that, imitating an actor dying on the stage, I felt vividly that my breath was failing and I was rapidly losing my strength. Then my vision became dim and dense darkness enveloped me -- they were pangs of death."
Separation, celebrations, ruins, even the landscape evoked death. Again from Madrid: "The trees are shedding their pompous dresses and converted into dry skeletons, complete the sadness of foggy days. A fine rain, an even finer wind, horrible, freezing, comes from the Guaderrama...a thick mist that wraps all objects with its whitish veil giving them a particular aspect and expression are the tones and lines of this penultimate month of the year, the simple notes of its funeral song intoned to the death of nature."Madrid in 1985, when I visited Spain, was exactly as Rizal described it.
Lifetime of Discipline
Like Yukio Mishima, Rizal was born a frail, sickly child. To compensate for his small size, he devoted himself to a regimen of exercise and body-building. He had a private pastime he called "higante" (giant), in which he would stand on tiptoe and stretch his body, legs and arms. He studied arnis de mano (stickfighting), dumog (wrestling), suntukan (boxing) and fencing (foil and rapier), which became lifelong disciplines to him.
Even in Europe, he pursued his martial arts interests with almost fanatical zeal, despite illness and near-starvation. In Spain he continued his study of fencing at the famous school of Sala de Armas y Carbonell. He spent afternoons fencing with Nelly Boustead, Juan Luna and Valentin Ventura.
Believe it or not, Rizal also pumped iron a la Arnold Swazenegger. Dr. Maximo Viola remembered Rizal had boasted to the members of a gym in Berlin, Germany, that he would beat their strongest man within two weeks. At this time he had been forced to turn vegetarian due to persistent lack of funds. Said Dr. Viola: "to triumph in his desire he tried lifting great weights under an unaccustomed diet." Although the smallest in the gym, Rizal did succeed in vindicating himself.
A contemporary in Madrid described Rizal: "He was then in his thirty-first year. The first impression one had of him was of wholesome vigor and physical well-being. He was rather slender of build, but all muscle and sinew, compact, for he never remitted in his exercise."
There is no record of the style of arnis Rizal studied. However, from his uncle he may have learned the prevailing system of stickfighting in the Tagalog region called pananandata or escrima.
Arnis de mano figured prominently in his college life, when he was called upon to use it against Spaniards who called his countrymen "chonggo" or monkey (Filipinos paid in kind by calling the Spaniards "bangus" or milkfish). Indeed there were frequent encounters between the two groups. Rizal became something of a street lord of a campus gang, ready to face a whole pack, one at a time.
Unfortunately, at one such encounter, he was deserted by the members of his gang called "Companerisimo" (Comradeship) and was pounced upon by a contingent of about twelve and was left bleeding and nearly unconscious in the street. Taken home, his wounds -- and pride -- were nursed by his beloved Leonor Rivera. Needless to say, he must have had some mushy entries in his diary that day.
The whole scene could have been a page from West Side Story, with the Jets on one side and the Sharks on the other, and a radiant Maria nervously waiting to minister to her favorite warrior.
Rizal was, however, not a hot-headed ringleader whose temper exceeded his prowess but a real expert. On one occasion, he and the best excrimador in Calamba, Laguna, his hometown, had a bout. Rizal was hit on the forehead. Requesting a return match two weeks later, he underwent a thorough preparation and won.
To reach that stage where he could defeat the town's master practitioner, Rizal must have had tremendous speed, technique and calculation. He must have learned to link his techniques fluidly, without interruption, so that they became in the jargon of the art, de cadena, an unbroken concatenation of attacks, parries, feints and defenses, which left the opponent no breathing space.
Rizal became master of the foil, saber and duelling sword, and acquired a legendary reputation for grace and technique.
He also became an expert marksman. Witnsses from the period say that Rizal could shoot through the mouth of a bottle and put a hole through the bottom without breaking the bottle itself. From twenty-five yards, "he could pick the circles ('oros') of a gambling card." Like many of today's martial artists, Rizal could not resist showing off. He mailed a target board full of holes to Valentin Ventura, himself an expert shooter and fencer, who predictably wrote that he was impressed. Writing to Antonio Luna, Rizal said, "I am sending you a target containing ten bullet holes, it was seven and a half meters from me." Then, he added in mock humility it seems to me, "I shoot slowly, but with perseverance I shall become a fair shot." Caveat: Rizal presented no witnesses to these feats.
Ironically, sometime later, the tipsy Luna made some reportedly unsavory remarks about Nelly Boustead. Something like "baka ang Noli mo maging Nelly." It was a cutting pun and Rizal took umbrage and challenged Luna to a duel. Nothing came of it though because Luna, now sober, apologized. I wonder if he was somehow intimidated by the reputation of Rizal.
Biographer Pedro A. Gagelonia surmised," had the duel prospered, Rizal's fate would have been jeopardized. It was a fact that he was probably better in the use of pistols than Luna but the latter was a better swordsman. In duels, the challenged party had the option of weapons, hence, Luna, logically, would have chosen the sword." This was the consensus of the Filipino exiles in Europe, too, but Rizal had a different view:" Luna is a nervous and impulsive temperament. I am cool and composed. The chances are he would not have hit me, while I could have hit him at will, but certainly would not have killed him."
Here, Rizal pointed a finger at three bushido (samurai) principles. First, know your enemy and exploit his weaknesses (Sun-Tzu). Second, avoid unneccesary killing. And three, strive for serenity. Rizal's suggestion was, swordplay demands not just technical proficiency but also psychological balance. He used the words "cool and composed" which in martial arts mean a mind in repose. Like Sekiun and Takuan, Japanese masters of swordsmanship, Rizal emphasized the psychological against the merely technical.
Rizal's martial qualities have understandably been eclipsed by his other accomplishments. Yet when he died, he had behind him at least 25 years of experience in the native regimen of arnis de mano, suntukan and dumog; 20 years in fencing and weightlifting; about 15 years in marksmanship.
A layman may find it hard to understand the kind of physical, mental and emotional peak a martial artist like Rizal achieves. When an escrima master goes through a pattern, his whole being is behind every movement, every stroke. Totally centered, he focuses all his faculties -- power, breath, muscles, body, mind and spirit -- into that single strike. A master marksman reaches the same intensity. He blots out everything, including himself and his ego, and becomes one with the target.
Fighting with a master is a different plateau altogether. How to respond to an attack, which may be real or feigned, demands tremendous coordination of eye and body. When a stick is whipped, it travels a maximum of 150 miles per hour. At close range, this acceleration takes only a split second from inception to impact. A defender has to react instantaneously to avoid, divert or stop the blow. There isn't much time to decide what specific technique the defender must employ -- only his instinct, sharpened by training, can help him with a precise and, hopefully, appropriate answer -- or else. Within that almost infinitesimal span of time, the martial artist determines different coordinates -- the distance, position, direction not only of his body, legs and arms but also his opponent's, and moves accordingly. How much more complicated it becomes when one considers that the forces constantly shift. And then again, what does one do in the face of a synchronized multiple attack?
The expert acquires a skill so spontaneous it's like second-nature. He moves without hesitation. Neither fear of death or injury nor extraneous thought must intrude into his mind. He becomes, after years of discipline, a person who's centered, one who has broken through the dualism of nature and the contradiction of body and mind.
It is not an easy passage to that level of expertise often described as mystical. A student has to endure pain and loneliness until body, mind and reflexes respond mechanically, until the weapon becomes a mere extension of the hand, until finally the discipline becomes "artless art."
Back to Bothoan
Rizal lamented the loss of the ancient martial heritage. Said Rizal: "The ancient Filipinos had army and navy with artillery and other implements of warfare. Their prized krises and kampilans for their magnificent temper are worthy of admiration and some of them are richly damascened. Their coats of mail and helmets, of which there are specimens in various European museums, attest to their great achievement in this industry."
The ancient barangays had a martial arts culture. With the coming of the Spaniards and Roman Catholicism, it was slowly decimated. When weaponry was banned by the Spaniards, the Filipinos gradually forgot their ancient martial prowess and discipline. They began to adopt the new culture and religion of the foreigners. By the time of Rizal, Filipinos in the colonized areas had been reduced to using sticks instead of the deadly kali weapons and the schools sometimes called bothoan, where the art of war, the techniques of weaponry, herbal medicine and assorted expertise were taught, had become a mere footnote in Morga's Sucesos.
As if to remedy the situation, Rizal organized martial arts groups for Filipinos. Rizal's public gym in Calamba (circa 1887) combined classes in wrestling, weightlifting, fencing, marksmanship and arnis de mano. It was probably the first integrated martial arts club in the country. He also proposed the inclusion of martial arts in school curricula.
Of course it is difficult to visualize Rizal, the intellectual giant, the renaissance man, as the resident sensei of a local dojo or even as an oriental guru but he did teach martial arts to Filipinos of his time, and not for divertissement and sublimation it seems. I suspect he also dreamed of resurrecting an ancient tradition -- that of the Filipino as a warrior.
War in Miniature
No doubt his martial arts training taught Rizal the principles of war. As it is understood by martial arts teachers, sparring -- with fists or weapons -- is actually war in miniature. As on a battlefield, two adversaries size up each other, using spies to study each other's weaknesses, making strategies for victory, considering variables of combat such as speed, strength, size, technique, terrain, distance and timing. Like it or not, a practitioner who goes through the routine daily, as Rizal must have done, would develop certain reflexes and as important, an awareness of principles of combat which negate mere size.
The popular belief that a martial artist rushes into battle, without thought or preparation, certainly has no foundation in fact. An escrima student learns how and when to attack, ascertain and exploit the vulnerabilities of his opponent, create a beat ("kumpas") by which he hypnotizes his foe, distance himself through footwork and body weaving ("indayog ng katawan"), create illusions of speed and height, set traps and ambushes, wait for his adversary to make a mistake and initiate the action. He is taught not to be foolhardy or impulsive or temperamental. He must consider all elements, including his own resources and his opponent's strategy, to win.
Requisites of Revolution
Like Sun-Tzu before him, Rizal believed that, "prudence and not valor is the first necessary quality of a general."
Preparation, allies, timing, discipline -- these were, to him , the prerequisites of a successful revolution. It bothered him no end that the Filipinos had inadequate weapons. He considered how long the logistics would last. Making contact with a Japanese minister who offered three merchant ships to ferry arms and ammunitions, he tried to borrow money for the venture but was rejected by a prominent Filipino.
Not the least of his concerns was, who would lead the rebels on the battlefield? He had met but did not know Andres Bonifacio. He dreamed that the noble Elias would lead the Revolution. He settled for Antonio Luna -- yes, the hot-headed Luna -- to "direct the campaigns in case hostilities broke out." Rizal himself had sketched plans for fortifications in his travels; in fact he had written notes on military parapets with diagrams.
It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if a man like Rizal, trained in weaponry, a martial artist par excellence, had led the Revolution of 1896. He had rightly perceived the configuration of Asia, with Japan as the ascendant power and America lurking in the wings; had understood the weakened position of Spain in the face of the Cuban revolution and had correctly analyzed the role of the rich and the military in the struggle. Moreover, he appreciated the role of the masses, of materiel and of strategy in revolution, not to mention the need for unity and discipline.
A tantalizing speculation it is to cast Rizal into the role of a field marshal.
Strategy of Revolution
In his famous dialogue with Dr. Pio Valenzuela, Andres Bonifacio's personal emissary from the Katipunan, the revolutionary society of the 1890s, Rizal expressed his desire to secure more weapons for the Filipinos before the Spaniards got wind of the revolutionary underground, was willing to lead the revolution and, apparently to augment his military knowledge, was intending to go to Cuba to observe military tactics, "to study war in a practical way, to go through the Cuban soldiery if I find something that would help remedy the bad situation in our country."
Said Rizal,"I will never lead a disorderly revolution and one which has no probability of success because I do not want to burden my conscience with an imprudent and useless spilling of blood; but whoever leads a revolution in the Philippines will have me at his side." In short, Rizal wanted a strategic approach, a revolution by maneuver and tactic, a position that is consistent with his lifetime training as a martial artist.
There are many explanations for why Rizal died cool and composed. It is said he had a clear conscience, he was at peace with God, or he was a patriot who was eager to die for his people.
I agree, but I like to believe also that it was his lifelong practice of the martial arts that gave him that feral nerve. Wielding a sword against an adversary or aiming a pistol at a target, he had to steel himself, empty his mind, achieve egolessness and surmount the merely physical aspect of survival. He had spent years to attain what the Japanese call mushin no shin ("mind of no-mind"), that pinpoint concentration where intuition and reflex both responded instantly, without hesitation, where body and mind and spirit became one in the sword or the gun.
While the world tumbled about him, the gentle warrior went about his business of writing notes, saying goodbye, leaving legacies to his heirs, putting his affairs in order. As if nothing affected him. Even his request that he be shot infront or his incredible gesture of twisting around so that he would fall facing the Philippine sky evoked the grandeur or that idee fixe which, perhaps, only the warriors and samurai could have mustered.
Rizal wrote his immortal poem just before he died. Perhaps it's no coincidence that before their death, the samurai of Japan wrote poetry, jisei, a kind of "parting-with-life-verse" in the words of D.T. Suzuki characterized by what is known as furyu, an appreciation of nature amid tragedy and annihilation.
It was perhaps no coincidence either that Rizal died the eternal stoic, pulse normal, eyes alive to the beauty of the dawn, mind lucid and rational. It was a beautiful death, an exit without regrets, a samurai would have been proud of it.
Here was a man. A genius who, at 35, had accomplished bunburyudo, the martial artist's ideal exemplified by Musashi Miyamoto. Now, he faced martyrdom, the unconditional endorsement through death of his beliefs.
As shots rent the morning at Bagumbayan on December 30, 1896, he twisted his body and fell facing the sky.
For the samurai to learn
There's one thing only,
One last thing --
To face death unflinchingly.
-- Tsukara Bokudan (1490-1572)
To avoid the clutter of excessive footnotes, I have worked certain explanations into the article itself. After all, this was written for a popular audience, not for academics and scholars.
* However, grateful acknowledgment is due the following which provided useful insights and data: D.T. Suzuki, "Zen and Japanese Culture"; Yukio Mishima, "Sun and Steel" and "Hagakure" (Hidden Leaves); Sun-Tzu, "The Art of War"; Yambao and Mirafuente, "Mga Karunungan sa Larong Arnis" (the first book on arnis de mano); Teodoro Agoncillo, "Revolt of the Masses"; Pedro Gagelonia, "Rizal's Life, Works and Writings"; other materials published by the Jose Rizal Centennial Commission. These were the main authorities I consulted when I researched the article in late 1970s in the United States. Many materials have come out since then. Among them: Mark Wiley, "Filipino Martial Culture"and William Henry Scott's work on the ancient barangays/pre-Hispanic Filipino.
* His physical training also made his death more poignant and beautiful since he developed a strong and muscular body. It is a traditional belief among warriors that if they are going to die for a cause, they should be young and strong. As Yukio Mishima said, "A powerful, tragic frame and sculpturesque muscles (were) indispensable in a romantically noble death. Any confrontation between weak, flabby flesh and death seemed to me absurdly inappropriate." The cult of the romantic death -- dying for a noble cause at the height of one's powers -- has many followers among the samurai and warriors. It is enshrined as one of the cardinal rules of Bushido or the warrior's code. There is perhaps in certain cases the inarticulate death-wish.
Dr. Rizal was also obsessed with Elias, the Noble Hero. I suspect that this obsession had its origin in the Siegfried legend, in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung. In fact, a close reading of the Noli and Fili would reveal many German influences. But this requires another essay.
* This essay was first published by the Philippine News in San Francisco some 20 years ago. When Dr. Alejandro Roces read it at LaMama ETC, NY in 1980, he thought it should be published in the Philippines. (He was giving lectures on Philippine culture and I was teaching arnis and appearing in Cecille Guidote Alvarez'a PETAL productions.) I was told it was published in Malaya magazine but reportedly copies of the magazine that carried it did not reach the readers because the publication's office was raided and closed by the Marcos government for alleged subversive activities. When the author went home for the celebrations of the February Revolution in 1986, Dr. Alejandro Roces read the article again and decided to publish it in the Manila Times Sunday magazine on the anniversary of Jose Rizal's death. This essay was also published in the Rapid Journal edited by Daniel Go of Manila and in the book "Arnis: Reflections on the History and Development of Philippine Martial Arts" edited by Mark Wiley under the Tuttle imprint (2001). Copyright (C) 2001 Rene J. Navarro
Jose P. Rizal was born in 1861 when the Philippines was a colony of Spain. He studied at the Ateneo de Manila and University of Santo Tomas. Due to his desire to further his education and the apprehension of his relatives that he would go to jail, he left for Europe and studied in Spain at the Universidad Central de Madrid. He spent some time in Germany (Heidelberg and Berlin), England, and France. He wrote 2 gothic novels -- Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo -- which were considered subversive by the Spanish authorities. He was also a doctor, a poet, painter, a polyglot (he spoke or understood about 24 languages, including Greek, French, German, Latin and English), essayist, and martial artist. Because of his novels, he was banished to an island in Southern Philippines and when the Philippine Revolution exploded, subsequently tried unjustly by a biased tribunal. He died a martyr's death by musketry in Bagumbayan (now the Luneta). Before he died, he wrote his immortal valedictory poem which is now a classic in Spanish literature. He is one of the national heroes of the Philippines.