Happomoku is a Japanese word meaning fisheyes. Happomoku was a regular part of practice in the martial art I studied while living in Japan after college. Two people would stand facing one another and look at the other person’s face and at the same time pay attention to their outstretched fingers. One would wiggle the fingers; and the other would match the movement. It was all designed to expand peripheral vision; to be able to see beyond one’s usual focus. To be prepared to respond to anything that might come. To see the whole field as we imagine fish can do, given that their eyes are on opposite sides of their bodies.
In the West, we tend to think of martial arts as demonstrations of physical prowess: how many boards can be broken with bare hands, how many thugs can be subdued by karate chops or surgically targeted kicks. But the origins of martial arts come the Shaolin Temple in China, the birthplace of Zen Buddhism in the 6th century CE. In an effort increase awareness and deepen spiritual practice, physical exercises were developed to train the mind, increase awareness – and enable the body to respond to every possible situation that it might confront. The original martial arts were disciplined dances; participants were not combatants but were partners in stretching their physical and mental horizons.
There certainly was an element of intense focus as practitioners learned the physical movements and trained the brain. Yet part of the practice always involved the intention to maintain happomoku, to keep an open mind and an expansive vision.
Developing and maintaining focus is regarded as a critical value in Western culture. Recent studies in brain science suggest that the human capacity to focus had its origin thousands of years ago, in the emergence of a hunting culture. Tracking, stalking, waiting, throwing (spears) and shooting (arrows, and then guns) required enormous concentration. The urgency of securing food often rendered hunters vulnerable, because their focus could short-circuit their ability to see the whole field, and not notice another predator ready to pounce from the periphery.
I see our cultural emphasis on focus, honed over many centuries, playing out in similar damaging ways. There are millions of people who have spent the last fifty years trying to overturn Roe v. Wade. Many of them had an unrelenting focus in doing so. Now that they have achieved their goal, the larger field of reproduction, with its many challenges, is being exposed. Ectopic pregnancies, fetal abnormalities that are fatal to the baby and potentially to the mother, and a whole host of medical and public health concerns that were lost in the effort to kill the possibility of abortion, has left some “pro-life people” looking at the issue differently, while others are maintaining their focus and doubling down in their opposition to abortion.
In another arena of deepening controversy, the millions of people who are passionate about preserving the second amendment, are either unwilling or unable to see what is happening at the periphery: that the stockpiling of weapons in people’s homes generates more risk to young children who find an unsecured weapon and accidentally fire it, to disastrous effect; and makes the possibility of suicide easier to carry out. And that the technical advances in assault weapons can literally blow a kid’s head off, which happened in several instances in the massacre in Uvalde.
Some two thousand years ago, various groups of religious believers were zealous in maintaining the community’s focus on the law, particularly as it pertained to the sabbath. And they kept a close eye on Jesus, the itinerant preacher, because of his seeming disregard for sacred law. And he was chastised and ultimately arrested for it. Jesus honored the sabbath, but at the same time he was able to look at the whole field, and see that people were hungry and sick and in need of words of hope. So he healed, he fed and he taught on the sabbath. He maintained happomoku.
We would do well to follow his example.