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.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Martial Arts and the Art of Shodo

“Shodo” is the Japanese term for the art of calligraphy, or the “way” (“do”) of the brush (“sho”). Anyone who’s ever attempted the study of Japanese/Chinese calligraphy will attest to the tremendous difficulty of this traditional art but aside from that, how can shodo be compared to the practice of traditional martial arts and their accompanying forms?
When a youngster first picks up the brush and begins to learn the most fundamental strokes (we might compares these to the basic techniques of our arts) he practices on very thin rice paper, which is placed directly over copies of strokes made by renowned masters of the art. The student does his or her level best to copy these strokes – essentially “tracing” them, as it were, onto the rice paper.
This stage must be practiced until the young student is able to easily “trace” the strokes as they were made by various masters. It cannot be completed in a short time and there are no short-cuts. Can we not compare this to striving to imitate the basic techniques and forms exactly as one’s instructor performs them?
Let me tell you, if you’ve never been initiated into the practice of shodo you cannot imagine how much is really involved. It’s much more than simply “painting” certain strokes onto a piece of paper. Much. More. Your posture and breathing must be correct. You must calm your mind and unify your spirit. The brush must be held just so and you must learn to manipulate it this way and that so as to move the very tip of the bristles in certain directions. The pressure used to write one part of a given stroke is often very different than that required for another part.
You don’t write by moving your wrist as we do when writing with a pencil or pen. Rather, the whole arm moves – but it moves only as a part of the dantien (“tanden” in Japanese), so that you are actually making the strokes with your whole body and mind.
When first learning the basic techniques and form(s) of our chosen martial disciplines, are we not told that we must maintain a certain posture, breathe a certain way, and put spiritual strength into the dantien? At first we are overwhelmed by so much instruction; we feel that it’s simply too much to remember! But, of course, with lots of practice over time, we become accustomed to these many details and they become second nature. We are able to accurately imitate our teacher’s movements and it is at this point that we are ready to proceed to the second stage.
The calligraphy student will now write on paper that is laid beside, rather than over, the master’s works. This is a difficult stage because the student must practice to be able to imitate the writings of the masters in a “freestyle” manner, as it were. He or she cannot simply “trace” them. Moreover, the aspiring calligrapher must learn to pay attention to small details; how the vital force (“chi” in Chinese and “ki” in Japanese) of the old masters was expressed through their strokes. It is said the one who is skilled in this art can see into the very heart of someone who has brushed several strokes.
In time, the student is able to freely copy the works of the past masters and he or she is now ready to enter the third, and final, stage of training.
The third stage involves learning to find one’s own “way” of writing. The student must understand that the thousands of copied strokes he or she made up until this time had no real life in them. They were purely mechanical constructs; empty imitations of the real thing. Now, he or she must give “life” to the strokes and characters and find his or her own “way” of expressing them. All of the necessary mechanics will be correct, all of the principles involved in brushing calligraphy will be observed but they’ll be adapted to the writer’s body, mind, and spirit. This means that they may appear to be different on the outside but on the inside, the principles are always the same. If you look at the same characters brushed by two different high-level practitioners they will look considerably different, but they are easily read by anyone familiar with the written language of China or Japan.
Is it not the same with martial arts training? After years of imitating the instructor’s movements to the smallest details, the student eventually finds his/her own “way” of executing them, according to his/her own physical, psychological, and spiritual structures. Each student breathes life into the techniques and forms and makes them their own. But because each student thinks and feels differently, so their (performance) of their forms will vary a bit. This is why two high-ranking students of a particular teacher will perform the same form somewhat differently. Each student has adapted the form to fit his or her body, mind, and spirit. Both forms are essentially correct – for the person performing them – but when presenting them to their own students they will demonstrate the movements exactly as they learned them from their teacher. This allows their students to follow the same developmental progression that they did.
Nowadays, novices sometimes try to find their own “way” of performing techniques and forms much too early. They have not yet mastered the underlying fundamental principles and their spirits are in disarray. The result is almost always a poor attempt at imitating martial arts. Like the aspiring calligraphers, they should take their time and savor the details of their arts. Real skill does not come easily or quickly. It happens of its own accord and cannot be hurried. In fact, the harder you try to achieve it, the further from it you get. Only when you throw away effort can it be realized.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Dark Side

          For many martial arts enthusiasts the main goal of training is to become stronger and faster, and to master fighting techniques and tactics so as to defeat any aggressor who dares assault them.  Basic techniques are drilled over and over while muscles ache and breaths come in gasps.  Forms are practiced over and over and then studied and analyzed in minute detail until their true meaning is understood.  Students leave their blood on the striking post and their sweat on the training floor.  But underneath it all is something more, something personal and dark.
     We've all faced times of hardship, times of "testing" as we've traveled the martial path.  These difficulties come in all manner of shapes and sizes, from minor to major injuries, illnesses, delays, loss of interest, problems with relationships...and there is simply no way to intellectualize or buy your way out of them.  Oftentimes you must work or even fight your way through them and at other times you must simply endure and wait them out.  Sometimes simply staying on the path is all you can do.
     The legendary founder of Aikido, Morihei Uyeshiba, put it succintly:

"In extreme situations it seems as if the entire universe has become our foe.
At such critical times unity of body and mind is essential.
Do not let your heart waver.
...Bravely face whatever God offers.
...One should be prepared to receive 99% of the enemy's attack and stare death right in the face in order to illuminate the path.
...Transcend the realm of life and death and you will be able to make your way calmly and safely through any crisis that confronts you."

     In the practice of martial arts we must eventually confront our own "shadow side."  Each of us has fears, from a simple fear of the dark to fears of pain, financial ruin, lonliness, disease...and although these fears seem to come from outside of us, I think they are often the result of an internal process, a process of which we may not be consciously aware - a process below our surface personality.

     In training we strive to perform correctly, even under pressure.  It usually doesn't take long for inhibiting problems to begin to surface; poor attitudes, envy, self-pity, criticism (of self or others), insecurities, anger...they bubble to the surface to be seen by everyone.  You can't hide them although you may try and then it becomes obvious that you're trying to conceal them!  It's more than a little humiliating.
     The fact is that we've lived with these "shadows" for so long that we've developed our own personal ways of handling them.  They've become a part of us - habits, if you will - and we've become so accustomed to carrying them around that we don't even notice them...until we get involved in martial arts training, which is really very different from most other physical activities because we're dealing with the basest form of human relationships...a punch in the mouth.  We have to learn to respond appropriately to physical attack while we must simultaneously "be with ourselves" under gradually increasing levels of physical and emotional pressure.
     Before long we must face the ways in which we typically handle this and other forms of stress; how we armor ourselves against them, how we withdraw (into ourselves) or attack...and what we see may not be pleasant.  We're exposed not only to ourselves, but to all of our classmates as well.  The way we defend ourselves under great pressure (as when a partner tries to punch us in the face) shows us how we work to survive in daily life. 
     As Wilhelm Reich said, your body acts as a "prison" that holds "you" (or what you perceive as "you") in place.  Although you can see an open door before you, you are held back in your "prison" by limiting beliefs, attitudes, and so forth.
     A skilled and caring instructor will see immediately what you see...but he cannot present you with an instant "cure."  All he can do is encourage and guide you and YOU MUST LISTEN.  He's been where you are.  Your chosen martial art can be used as a vehicle to explore those things that you find undesirable in yourself; your fears, what threatens you, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, and so on.  It is at this time, when we recognize various aspects of our "dark side" that we must take Master Uyeshiba's advice to heart.
     You face your opponent (your training partner) and he becomes you.  You project your fears, your weaknesses, and even your strengths onto him and confront them as you practice fighting.  And as you strive to "not lose", it isn't really your opponent who you are trying to defeat.  It's your "shadow side."  This is why practice fighting is so very important - because in actual combat it's the same thing.  Your opponent, whether he's just a training partner or a real assailant, is a mirror
     I believe that the willingness to face one's "dark side" and striving to understand (and eventually overcome) one's weaknesses, fears, and the many things about oneself that one would rather keep hidden away is what makes a true warrior.  You must begin by being bold enough to admit the truth of what you see (about yourself).  Then you must be strong enough to resolve those aspects of yourself that you find undesirable.  This can be accomplished through correct martial arts training but it isn't easy and many students will quit training in order to avoid having to face themselves (although many of them, perhaps even the majority of them, are unaware that this is the reason they're quitting).
     Remember the word of Master Uyeshiba above.

In extreme situations it seems as if the entire universe has become our foe.
(Ever felt like the whole world - maybe even the whole universe - was against you?)

At such critical times unity of body and mind is essential.
(First, recognize the situation and the feelings it evokes.  Then "Get One-Point" and exercise reverse breathing.  Unify your body and mind!)

Do not let your heart waver.
(Don't get cold feet.  Don't even think about the possibility of giving up or failing.  Ever.  Those are NOT options.)

...Bravely face whatever God offers.
(Face whatever the problem/s is.  And remember the words of Richard Bach; "There is no such thing in the universe as a problem without a gift for you in it's hands."  Every problem you face has a hidden gift to give you.)

...One should be prepared to receive 99% of the enemy's attack and stare death right in the face in order to illuminate the path.
(Like the old Japanese saying; "You only live twice.  Once when you are born and once when you look death in the face." )

...Transcend the realm of life and death and you will be able to make your way calmly and safely through any crisis that confronts you."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Technique and the Way


            By Phillip Starr

     It occurs to me that many martial arts schools nowadays don't really teach a martial art, per se. Rather, they emphasize the development of martial technique as the be-all, end-all of a student's training. Certainly, learning and practicing technique is important but I believe that a true martial art must go beyond mere physical skill.

     The Eastern martial arts are different from most other combative disciplines because they place high importance on the development of the practitioner's character as well as his physical technique. In the West we're not accustomed to thinking of, or practicing any particular art with this idea in mind. It's all about technique, about getting from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible. We rarely consider looking at everything that happens in the process of getting from A to B and how those things impact our character.
     I know, it sounds pretty abstract. Let's put it into perspective by looking at one particular Oriental art; chado. The word "cha" refers to tea (in both Chinese and Japanese) and the word "do" (or 'dao" in Chinese) refers to a "way, a path..." So "chado" means, "The Way of Tea." And it involves much more than simply boiling a nice pot of tea. Much. More.
     The process begins long before the tea is even made. The chado practitioner (chadoka) must take time to center himself and prepare his mind and spirit for the task at hand. If the event is to be conducted in a traditional Japanese teahouse, the path leading to the door must be ceremonially cleaned before anything else is done.
     All of the utensils that will be used in the making and serving of the tea must be scrupulously cleaned and all in accordance with certain "rules of technique and conduct." The tea must be prepared in a very specific way and it is served and experienced (I hesitate to use the word "taste", as that simply doesn't get the idea across...), and so on. The whole event can be likened to performing a Japanese kata (form), not unlike those that are seen in the practice of myriad martial disciplines.
     In the West we would see all of this persnickety-ness as a waste of time. After all, isn't the idea just to brew up some tea and drink it?
     No, it isn't.
     The whole process is an experience. It is disciplined, precise, and simplistically beautiful. And doing it impacts the character of the practitioner.
     When you practice a particular technique you know that it must be done just so. Perfection of any technique is a lifelong pursuit. The same is true of forms. Most people practice for a short time and then give in and give up. Some of them are happy to settle for being mediocre and they lack the intestinal fortitude to continue to push and discipline themselves.
     Learning technique isn't too difficult and almost anybody can achieve some measure of skill with it. But the true art is beyond that; it is a striving for perfection for its own sake that reveals the real art and develops the true martial arts practitioner.