Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Please Leave Extra Baggage Outside The Door

     I watched as the young man finished filling out the membership application that I had given him. He seemed to have something on his mind. Finally, he looked up and asked, “Do I have to spar with other students? I don’t want to do that. I’m mainly interested in training to improve my health and there’s really no point in sparring.”
     I smiled. The real translation of that statement is, “I’m scared to death of getting hurt.” I placed my palms flat on the desk and said, “Well, sparring is an integral part of the training and it’s required. Students don’t get to pick what parts of the curriculum they want to learn. They have to do it all.”
     “But what does sparring have to do with my health?” he asked. “I just want to learn kung-fu to get in shape and stay healthy.”
     Being rather old-fashioned when it comes to martial arts, I held back the urge to slap him and tell him that he should know better than to question his future instructor. I gathered myself and answered, “Mind and body are inseparably united…” I noticed that the prospective student nodded in agreement. Good. “The practice of freestyle sparring actually has more to do with your mental and spiritual health than your physical health. If you want to be completely healthy, you must consider the health of your mind and spirit as well as the health of your body.”
     “But…how does sparring affect my mind and spirit?” he asked.
    “That’s something you’ll have to learn over time,” I replied. “That’s what ‘kung-fu’ means…a fine skill developed over time.”
     “I don’t understand,” he said, shaking his head.
     “I do,” I said with a smile. “And that’s why I’m the teacher.”

     Other students have balked at bowing at the beginning and end of class because they believed that doing so ran counter to their religious beliefs. I explained that bowing, which was once a common custom in the Occident, had absolutely nothing to do with religion. The same is true of meditation.
     Some people didn’t want to have to take examinations…or if they did, they didn’t want to have to wear colored belts. “Would you go to a doctor who attended medical school but never took any tests?” I would ask. “Would you go to a doctor who didn’t have a certificate of graduation from medical school on his wall? I don’t think so.”
     I have had students who didn’t see the need for learning Chinese terminology and I happily informed them that not only did they have to learn numerous Chinese words…they’d have to learn to read quite a few! This is, in my opinion, vital to acquiring a true understanding of the martial ways and how certain techniques and forms are to be performed. For instance, the term “wudao” (“budo” in Japanese) is comprised of two characters. The first character, “wu”, is commonly translated as “martial.” But if you learn how to read the character and the radicals that comprise it, you find that the two radicals mean “spear” and “to stop.” Thus, “wu” means, “to stop the spear”…an indication that one strives to prevent violence and maintain peace. This is a far cry from the common translation of “martial”, which is indicative of having to do with making war.
     “Dao” is translated as “way”…as in a “way” of doing something, but actually “dao” indicates a path that one follows. Knowing how to read the characters and the radicals that comprise them can certainly change your understanding of the term, can’t it?
     I think most prospective students come into the training hall with a certain amount of “extra baggage.” It may have to do with some odd, preconceived notions they have about what martial arts are and what they involve. For instance, many people still believe that in order to obtain a black belt, one must kill another person with one’s bare hands! My own father was absolutely convinced that this was true.
     It may have to do with certain physical or mental conditions that the student believes are insurmountable. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it’s best if the student doesn’t get involved in practicing martial arts; they’re not a panacea for every physical or mental problem.
     Oftentimes, the extra baggage consists of what the prospective student wants out of training…or what he/she doesn’t want. Some don’t want to have to engage in freestyle sparring. Others don’t want to have to learn “useless” forms, practice throws (because they’re terrified of falling and getting hurt), engage in vigorous forms of calisthenics or stretching exercises…they want to do what they want to do. This kind of attitude leads nowhere.
     Someday I’m going to post a sign outside the entrance to the training hall that reads, “Please Leave All Extra Baggage Outside The Door.”

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