This was an interesting read. However, I consider the title somewhat misleading given the author's stated purpose for the book as disclosed in chapter one: "...this is a book from which readers may learn to apply the principles of Zen, as reflected in the martial arts, to their lives and thus open up a potential source of inner strength they may never have dreamt they possessed" (pg. 3). It appears that he learned about Zen through his experience with the martial arts and, through this book, is attempting to give Zen a broader application so that one can reap some general metaphysical benefits from Zen without ever becoming a martial artist or even a Zen Buddhist. The author notifies the reader in chapter one that this book isn't for those who wish to master either Zen or the amazing physical feats of more advanced martial artists. The book is for those (martial artists or not) who want a simple, general introduction to the spiritual/mental side of the martial arts for broader applications. This approach has its critics since some may think that he superficially covers Zen's application to the martial arts in his attempt to give it a broader application. This book does not expound in detail the philosophy and/or religion of Zen Buddhism although it does contain some practical concepts related to Zen and life in general. One doesn't have to be a Buddhist or martial artist to appreciate the practical wisdom he shares, but if one wants more details regarding either Zen Buddhism or the martial arts, one is better served looking elsewhere.
First I'd like to address a couple of criticisms that I read here that this book is rather superficial and doesn't get into Zen concepts in depth. That's true, this book is really only an intro to Zen--if you're already knowledgeable then this book will probably be too basic. However, for the beginner there is no better place to start, and as someone else here observed, the quotes from Bruce Lee are almost worth the price of the book by themselves.
Joe Hyams started his karate training back in 1952 with Ed Parker--a full ten years or more before the craze got started in America. He had the opportunity to train with such greats as Bruce Lee, Bong Soo Han, Ed Parker, and Jim Lau from the very beginning. Joe encountered many trials and tribulations, frustrations, and disappointments during his training, but he never gave up. One reason is he often had the opportunity to discuss his problems with the many great teachers he trained under, and they often offered their wisdom and insights to help him through the difficult times. He took that wealth of personal experience and knowledge and put it all into this little book.
Hyams gives a very clear, concise, and easy to understand introduction to Zen in the martial arts. The discussions are often illustrated and liberally peppered with fun anecdotes from his personal experiences with different masters, making this almost a personal journey through the dojos and minds of some of the most famous martial artists of our time. Hyams writes very well (he was a famous Hollywood screenwriter) and so rather than another dry, obscure, Zen philosophy tome, the book sounds more like an intimate conversation with a friend over a glass of wine and dinner. It sounds like he's personally talking right to you.
Hyams touches on so many concepts that I won't try to discuss them much here. But I will mention probably the most important one--which is persistence. Hyams points out that it often isn't the most talented and gifted student that achieves the most in the martial arts--since they often quit the first time they encounter a serious difficulty--since they're so used to everything coming so easy. Rather, it's the person who often has very little going for him physically, and has the patience and perseverance to stick it through to the end.
I'll mention just one other important principle. This relates to the Zen idea of living in the moment, especially when training, but also in everything else one does in life. Don't allow other concerns, however pressing or important, to weigh on your mind and distract you when you're training. Concentrate on living in the present moment and you'll make the most of your training--and of all the other activities in your life. Someone who's always worried about their other concerns can't truly live in the present, and therefore will never truly enjoy or make the most of whatever activity they're engaged in. Part of their mind is always somewhere else. Strive to always live in the now, in the present moment.
Interestingly enough, this idea has been confirmed by modern psychological research. If you have concerns that worry you, don't allow them to bother you to the point where you're thinking about them all the time. The best way to deal with this, it's been found, is to set aside some time each day--they recommend 10, 15, or 20 minutes at most--where, if you need to--go ahead and worry yourself sick about it. Then put it out of your mind and enjoy the rest of your day. Another important thing you can do during this time is to not just worry about everything but to put some constructive thought into how to better deal with your problems. Sometimes you won't have a good idea about how to do that for a while, for days, maybe weeks, but don't let that get you down. Remember the other principle of persistence I mentioned earlier. Stick it through to the end.
Realistically, life is never as bad as it seems to us during our darkest and most depressed moments--nor as wonderful as it seems during our happiest, most ecstatic moments. It's somewhere in between. The point here is that one should also cultivate the proper attitude--since that's often the only thing one has total control over in one's life. If you're the sort of person for whom even little things get you down--which is more of us than we would like to admit--then strive to be more objective. The little things can't really hurt you. They're just annoying psychologically because they bruise our egos a little bit. Save your emotional energy for the really big problems in your life, instead--because there will be more than enough of those. Cultivate a positive, upbeat attitude so that the little things are practically beneath your notice. Let them slide off you like water off a duck's back. This is also another important Zen principle--that too much ego impedes our progress in the martial arts--and our path through life as well.
Well, I've gone on longer than I intended, but this book is so chock full of useful little tidbits of advice that I got a little carried away. So I'll just conclude by reiterating that Hyams has written a great little introduction to Zen concepts as applied to the martial arts. But perhaps even more important is that they can be applied beneficially to every other area of your life.