Traditional japanese martial arts, such as Karate-do, Aikido and Judo, have been affected greatly by Buddhism, specifically the Zen Buddhism sect as far as philosophical matters go. Just by taking a look at the goals of each of the aforementioned arts, one is bound to find more similarities than differences. That isn’t to say that those arts are the same, but that an undeniable correlation exists between them and Zen. Let’s take a short look at that correlation. Karate-do means the way of the empty hand, with emphasis on the word empty as mentioned in Zen doctrines and teachings. Aikido and Judo teach one to go with the flow, a concept prevalent in Zen as well.
The above observations are nothing but a short and abridged version of the actual correlations. A more in depth look isn’t the purpose of this writing. Instead in this article, I will try to present and interpret some basic philosophical principles and teachings of Zen and martial arts and how they apply when practicing for a competitive game, be it a sport or a competitive video game. Specifically, borrowing from my martial arts practice, my League of Legends experience and some books on Zen and martial arts I will attempt to demonstrate how some fundamental Zen principles can apply to a competitive game.
Enter the No-Mind
When you have continuously made great efforts and have accumulated discipline without really noticing, you will have left aside the thought of doing things well, and will have attained the realm of No-Mind/No-Thought. …Your actions will be like the machinations of a wooden puppet. At such a time, you will not be self-conscious and your mind will not be occupied with what you are doing. Thus, in ten out of ten times, your body, hands, and feet will make no mistakes. But if your mind slips in even slightly, you will miss your aim. When you have No-Mind, you will hit the mark every time.
No-Mind, however, is not a state of having no mind at all. It is simply your ordinary mind.1
The pinnacle of a martial artist, as seen in Japanese martial arts, is achieving the state of No-Mind or ‘Mushin’. Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear or ego during combat. Thus, that person is completely free to act and react towards an opponent without distraction, hesitation or impediment of judgement. He reacts swiftly and instinctively. This is somewhat analogous to flow experienced by artists deeply in a creative process.
In a game like League of Legends achieving such a mind would mean a skyrocketing to personal skill. However in order to do that, one should go on and master the fundamentals. Last hitting, harassing in lane, champion match ups, the potential of your champion, skill combos, roaming, objective control, item builds, etc are all training goals that must be approached separately. Before one goes around making plays, they should practice and master the above. And by mastering, I mean reaching a state of mind where intuitively, one can tell what the correct decision is and take it with no hesitation. In other words, when practicing competitively for a game like LoL, the fundamentals much become second nature to the players and they must be able to execute them adequately if not flawlessly while not letting their own self get in the way.
To sum up, Mushin happens when the mind is unobstructed and flows freely throughout the whole self. It is not a state of relaxed, near-sleepfulness, however. The mind could be said to be working at a very high speed, but with no intention, plan or direction. Once that is achieved in your art/game the goal is to further extend this state into other aspects your everyday life. Retrospectively, we could argue that we are training in order to let go of our training. But more on that below.
Getting Rid of Sickness
To think only of winning is sickness. To think only of using the martial arts is sickness. To think only of demonstrating the result of one’s training is sickness, as is thinking only of making an attack or waiting for one. To think in a fixated way only of expelling such sickness is also sickness. Whatever remains absolutely in the mind should be considered sickness. As these various sicknesses are all present in the mind, you must put your mind in order and expel them.
…In the martial arts it is a sickness if you do not leave the mind of the martial arts behind. If you will only use your ordinary mind and take up the sword , the sword will be used with freedom.
…Not being surprised by anything, the ordinary mind will be good for everything.2
Sickness, as mentioned here, can be interpreted as any kind of obsession. Whether that obsession concerns victory, fame or simply showing off, the need to get rid of this sickness is one of the fundamental goals of Zen and the traditional Japanese martial arts. Once it rids itself of these excess thoughts, the mind reverts back to its ‘ordinary’ state. Zen maintains all people are able to achieve this and, by doing so, attain freedom.
How would this affect a competitive LoL player, or, by extension, any kind of competitor? From my experiences, I can attest to becoming fixated on goals and results. When I first entered the world of martial arts, my goal was clear : I wanted to be the strongest. I was here to win, and would train non-stop to the points of exhaustion. Yet whenever a competition came up, I’d be too fixated on winning to perform effectively. The pressure I’d put on myself would make me so nervous I couldn’t properly execute even basic techniques. During one of those fights I injured my leg, which took me out of the sport for two years. My obsession had made me become my own worst enemy.
My injury gave me time to reflect on this, and when I came back I had shifted my focus to the art and enjoyment of the sport itself. Steadily I began to improve again and recover my strength. My goal to better my skills was now a general guideline for me, rather than an unhealthy fixation. I simply focused on practicing the moves: kicking and punching, blocking and parrying. When my next fight came I didn’t get worked up over winning or losing, and instead concentrated on the fight itself. The results, according to spectators, were nothing short of spectacular. This time I lost by a small margin. But the result didn’t matter. I fought and that was enough for me. Next time I may win. I just have to keep fighting.
Similarly in LoL, people can get overly concerned about their and others’ rating, division, number of wins, etc. It’s important to note that while in martial arts you alone are responsible for your performance, LoL is played alongside others. It is much easier then, to shift blame for bad games entirely to teammates. You don’t need to look far to find forum posts talking about ‘elo hell’, the fabled matchmaking range where it becomes nigh impossible to advance due to unskilled team-members.
I too believed that I belonged in a higher division, that my teammates were holding me back and that the system didn’t work. But in ranting over my rating and my teammates, I committed the same error that had almost ended my practice in martial arts. What was foiling me wasn’t the rating or my teammates, but me obsessing over them. When this dawned upon me, I decided to rededicate myself once more. I went back to the basics, focused on my own performance and played for the joy of playing. I slowly improved and, over time, my rating went from bronze to gold. While it is not that big of a deal, I am quite pleased with myself. It is where I belong currently because for all my practicing in this game, I still have a lot to learn.
If I were to give people one simple advice that would be to stop being fixated on their rating. They should play the game for the sake of it. The only guideline on their mind should be improving and even that should be for its own sake. Nor for an abstract rating. That is such a simple thing to say, yet it is quite hard to do. Even if you know how you must act and why, you can still get stirred by your emotions, which is completely natural. Heck, even the pros can make that mistake from time to time. For example, take Cloud9, currently the best of the North America LoL teams. About 8 months ago they had the chance to qualify for the regional LoL championship. They had a solid advantage for most of the game. However, for a few minutes they lost their focus in the game by thinking of what lies after victory. That was disastrous and in the end cost them the match. In their case, their “sickness” was being concerned about the future. What can you do for cases like this? Well, the best thing you can do is to consciously practice and strive for improvement until you are able to get cured of your “sickness”, whatever that may be.
To summarize, “sickness” is any obsession one may have. By discarding that “sickness” one can elevate his art/game to new heights.
All in all, before one starts winning, they must first make the fundamentals of the game a part of their selves. But most important of all one must abandon their obsession of winning. While this may sound like quite a contradicting thing to do, should one focus on playing the game and improving in it for the sake of it, winning will come. This is one possible interpretation of Zen. By abandoning one’s fixation on goals, they are free to achieve them. In a way, Zen can be argued to teach people how to pursue their goals, whether those are winning or living life to the fullest, by letting go of them. A valuable lesson indeed.
1Munemori, Yaguy. The Life-Giving Sword: Secret Teachings from the House of the Shogun. Trans. William Scot Wilson. Shambhala, 2012.
2Munemori, Yaguy. The Life-Giving Sword: Secret Teachings from the House of the Shogun. Trans. William Scot Wilson. Shambhala, 2012.