Sunday, May 30, 2010

Technique and Spirit

Recently, I picked up my copy of "Karate-do Kyohan" by Gichin Funakoshi for the umpteenth time. As I began reading through the forewards to the book I was a bit surprised to find out that the author was initially a little reluctant to have the 1958 printing released. He was somewhat distraught over the way in which karate was being promoted and taught to the (Japanese) public at that time...

Fifty years ago, the "Father of Japanese Karate" lamented the future of his art and admitted that at his advanced age (he was, I believe, past 90) there wasn't much more he could do to help ensure a solid future for karate. The future of Japanese karate would be left in the hands of those he had taught and he hoped that they would take the art in the right direction.

The old master spoke of how many so-called "instructors" asked their students to test the effectiveness of their techniques by engaging in street brawls. He pointed to those who charged exuberant fees for instruction, to those who emphasized the inherently violent aspects of karate as being the "be-all, end-all" of the art.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? But the year was 1958!

Something else that Funakoshi mentioned was of particular interest. He talked about instructors who emphasize technique first and foremost. He believed that the most important thing that a student should learn was the "spirit" of karate. To teach technique while ignoring proper spirit is, according to Funakoshi, irresponsible and can only to lead to a terrible misunderstanding not only of karate, but of all budo.
I'm sure that Funakoshi's heart would break if he could see what has happened to the art he so dearly loved. Certainly, there are some teachers who carry on the traditional ways and continue to promote the spirit of the budo but there are many, many more who are interested solely in technique. Some of the latter justify their methods by pointing out that they are Westerners who live and teach other Westerners in their respective countries. Why, they ask, should they pay any attention to some odd Oriental notions of behavior, courtesy, and so forth?
Ah, Funakoshi!

Numerous contemporary "martial arts instructors" insist that the traditional martial disciplines aren't necessarily applicable in "real life" self-defense situations, that a number of traditional techniques and strategies don't work as they should, that one should discard the techniques that don't work and practice only those that do (echoing Bruce Lee's advice to, "Absorb what is useful and reject what is useless.").
And then there are those who want to test the effectiveness of their technique by engaging in what they call "full-contact" bouts while wearing protective gear and following certain rules which seem to have been borrowed from professional boxing and wrestling...

Such people have missed the point of martial arts training completely.

Discipline. Control. These things go hand in hand.

Funakoshi said that karate's greatest value was in teaching the spirit of the budo to its followers. There will always be some people whose technique isn't very strong, some who will never move with lightning speed, and some who will never be peerless fighters. But these things aren't necessarily the point or goal of the budo.

What's important is its spirit.

Without the budo spirit, all we have is a rather fanciful form of streetfighting.

So far, this whole lecture has been about karate. You wonder if it applies to kung-fu? Ah...I believe it applies to Chinese martial arts moreso than it does to modern karate, judo, jujutsu, or aikido.

Bear in mind that the way in which the Japanese and Chinese approach their respective martial arts is considerably different. Even so, I fear that the real spirit of the traditional Chinese martial arts (in China) is dead...a victim of the many atrocities committed by its communist government over the last fifty years.

The spirit of the budo (in Chinese, "wudao") is learned, practiced, refined, and expressed through technique. Without the true budo spirit technique is hollow and, in fact, one's entire practice is empty. It has no heart. No soul.

The budo spirit is something that cannot be expressed on paper. It can't be learned by reading about it or listening to stories and instructions; it has to be experienced directly, a little at a time. It must be demonstrated by the instructor (who lives it) because students can only learn it through his or her example. It is something that must be lived. It can't be practiced only in the training hall and those who try to do so will only end up with a soulless method.

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