Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Life and Death

     The young samurai approached the fencing master cordially and bowed.  "Sir," he began, "I wish to be instructed in the techniques of swordsmanship," he said.  The master looked at the young man and saw that he wore the color (of clothing) worn by the imperial guards who he instructed regularly.  However, he did not recognize the youngster.  "How is it," the master replied, 'that you wear the color of the shogun's guards and yet you request instruction?  I teach the samurai of the shogun several times each week."
     The young man quivered.  "I was previously employed only as one of my lord's lower samurai," he explained.  "Now I have been promoted into the ranks of his palace guards, so I must improve my technique."  He went on to explain that his skill with the sword was minimal; that he had very little knowledge of the art of the sword.
     The master instructor nodded.  "Alright.  Pick up a bokken (wooden sword) and I will see what you can do."  He led the young man out onto the floor of the training hall.  They faced each other squarely and the master raised his sword into the "middle position."  He suddenly lowered his wooden blade and frowned.  "Why have you been dishonest with me?"  The young man stuttered, "I have not been dishonest, sir."  "Yes!" the master said.  "You said that you have little skill with the sword but I can see that you are a master of it!"
     "Truly sir," the young samurai replied, "I have little knowledge of the sword.  In fact, I've never been very good at anything in my life.  I was probably promoted because of my father's reputation but I've never had the discipline to practice anything at for perhaps one thing."  The master raised his eyebrows.  "And what is that?"
     "Well, when I was young," the samurai said, "I had no aptitude for the bujutsu (martial arts) and I determined that I would probably be killed very quickly if I should ever go into battle.  I began to contemplate my own death.  It was on my mind constantly.  Then one day, I realized that I no longer feared it.  I have no concern about it at all now."
     The master walked over to a table and took out a brush and certificate.  Signing the certificate and stamping it with his seal, he said, "There is nothing that I can teach you that you don't already know.  To overcome life and death is the greatest mastery."
     This is a story I have excerpted from Dave Lowry's book, "Autumn Lightning."  It illustrates perfectly the calm, centered mind that is needed for understanding and ultimate mastery of martial arts.  In Yilichuan, the Primary Principle is "Keep One-Point At All Times."  Many younger students take this to mean that it is really a physical sort of technique but it goes way beyond that.  It has to do with "being centered" as well as moving from the "center."  This is not the same being centered that one might hear about in various New-Age groups (most of them haven't a clue as to what the phrase really means, anyway).
     The late, great karate master, Masutatsu Oyama, once said the karateka (karate student) must forget about winning or losing; forget life and death and focus on the present.  He was, of course, absolutely correct.
     In our western culture, winning is usually considered everything.  Survival is at the top of the list of priorities.  This is in marked contrast to what the eastern, particularly the Japanese and Chinese martial artists, emphasized.  It has to do with what in Japanese is called mushin and what, in Chinese, is, I believe, known as buxin.
     Literally translated, it means "no mind."  It is also referred to as "without mind" or as another author succinctly puts it, "non-abiding mind" (which I prefer).  It is not a particularly difficult concept to understand on the surface, but to truly understand it, and even more importantly - to be able to implement it - requires a great deal of dedication and practice. It has it's roots in zhan (in Japanese, zen) which places all importance on the moment; the now, which it insists is the only true reality that we can know.
     In battle, whether it be single combat or a crowded battlefield, the martial artist must train his mind to be aware of everything but distracted by nothing.  Distractions are a "clinging" to a particular thing, whether it be a physical phenomena or a thought or feeling.  When the mind is thus distracted, it is not fully aware and one is physically, mentally, and spiritually weakened; unaware.  In the old days, this would surely result in a quick death.
     I used to tell students that when they looked at their opponent, they should look at him as though looking at a mountain.  In viewing a mountain from a distance, one does not "cling" to any particular part of it; one views the mountain it it's entirety.  The same is true when, for instance, looking at a tree.  One looks at the entire tree rather than focusing on individual leaves and branches separately.
     Looking at the "whole" rather than it's individual parts may be compared to buxin.  One is aware of every detail without becoming distracted by or attached to any of them.  Things which are of no importance are discarded from one's awareness while things that have importance are perceived as part of a whole.  As part of the situation.
     The uncluttered mind allows for clarity of the situation and spontaneity of technique.  The mind is centered, but without being attached even to that fact.  It "flows" freely and naturally.  It flows through the now rather than settling on future or past.  And the now is all that we can ever experience in this life. 
     In terms of fighting in martial arts, focusing on "past" may lead us to worry about "future."  "He did this technique before, so will he do that technique next?"  Or, "he is famous for this technique.  Is that what he will use?"  And so on.  Such "clutteredness" only bogs down the mind and prevents it from perceiving things clearly.  This, in turn, has a negative affect on one's ability to act or react spontaneously and correctly, according to what is (as opposed to what was or might be). 
     An old martial arts adage compares the mind to a pool of still water.  It will reflect accurately any image put before it.  Thoughts, fears, and the like act like pebbles of different sizes which are tossed into the water.  They cause large or small ripples which distort the image and one cannot perceive it clearly.
     For the serious wudao (martial way) student, the concept of wuxin must permeate every moment of his existence.  At least, that's what we strive to do.  In is demonstrated not only in how we practice our martial arts, but also in every aspect of our lives.  In times past, one who had attained this state disdained the gaudy because he/she felt that such gaudiness was contrary to this wuxin; this "feeling" of zhan.  Rather than outward ornamentation or gaudy decoration, the person who has grasped wuxin seeks inner perfection; simplicity....a reality stripped of artifice and illusion which can assist him/her in going beyond the concerns of life and death.  It is a fusion of what the Japanese call zanshin ("continue mind/spirit") and wuxin.

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.”

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Kuchi Bushi

     Most of you have probably already encountered one of the dreaded kuchi bushi, the "mouth warrior" who occasionally visits martial arts classes and is only too happy to critique everyone’s performance. He’ll enthusiastically recite his alleged martial arts lineage and offer plenty of free advice to anyone who’ll listen.

     He loves to intellectualize about various martial disciplines, analyze and theorize – but he just never has the time to get out on the training floor and show you what he’s talking about. He must also live a life of constant torment due to the many injuries he seems to have accumulated over his many years of rugged training. I say this because whenever I’ve tried to pigeonhole one of these slippery warriors and get him out onto the floor, he manages to elude my request by pointing out various and sundry injuries, maladies, or surgeries that preclude his ability to do anything physical.

     Some kuchi bushi are fairly well educated individuals, having read all kinds of books and articles about their chosen discipline. Others have little, if any, understanding of anything having to do with martial arts.

     Not long ago I was pulling into the parking lot of a local supermarket when the old pickup truck in front of me stalled. The driver fired it back up and without any further ado, we cruised into the lot and parked our vehicles. As I walked into the store a young man approached me and apologized for any inconvenience he may have caused. He was, he explained, the driver of the pickup.

     I assured him that there was no need to apologize; I’ve had the same thing happen myself. The young fellow then began explaining the difficult circumstances of his life. He sighed and said that he couldn’t afford a better vehicle. Instead of acquiring a quality education and obtaining a high paying job, he’d spent his life training in the martial arts.

     I raised my eyebrows in surprise and asked him what martial arts he had studied. I should've known better but I was just trying to make polite conversation on the way into the grocery store. The next twenty minutes were spent listening to this fellow's description of his extensive martial arts career.
He said that he held a rokudan (6th dan) in Taekwondo which his teacher (who was a three-time World Champion) had learned when he lived in China (!!!). After all, Taekwondo originated in China, he said. And his instructor had wanted to get it straight from the horse's mouth. My new acquaintance also held high-grade black belts in Karate and Judo. Not bad for a youngster who wasn't even out of his twenties. He explained that he used to spend several hours a day training and that he regretted not having taken the time to go to school.

     I wasn't sure if he was referring to college or elementary school.

     He'd won several national championships but, alas, he had injured a knee and had had to give up his competitive career. I suggested that he go back to school, being careful not to mention my own involvement in the martial arts.

     Actually, I hoped that my suggestion would end the conversation so that I could decide which breakfast cereal to buy. It's tough to make a decision like that when you've got someone jabbering at you.

     My strategy worked. The idea of returning to school was something of a revelation to him and he thanked me for my wise counsel before he bounced off towards the beer and alcohol aisle.

     Kuchi bushi.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Breaking Balance

    In Japanese grappling arts such as Judo, kuzushi refers to breaking the opponent's balance.  There is no special Chinese term for this particular art...and it is an art unto itself.
     In Judo and other highly sophisticated grappling arts, kuzushi was once practiced most assiduously.  After all, it's very difficult to throw an opponent whose balance is intact.  Not only is it difficult to throw him, it's very risky because he's easily capable of countering any attempt to bring him down.  He can quickly apply powerful striking or grappling techniques of his own.
     Learning how to break the opponent's balance and use his own force against him is in keeping with one of Judo's famous maxims which reminds its practitioners to always strive to obtain "maximum effect with minimum effort."  There's a lot more to that statement than meets the eye.
     If an opponent pushes against you and you push back or try to hold your ground, you are resisting him.  In this situation, the stronger person will win.  However, if you yield to him and pull him in the direction he is pushing, you can easily gain control of his movement.
     The same is true if the opponent pulls you towards himself.  If you yield to his force and push him in the direction he's pulling, his balance is easily broken and he can be brought under control without too much difficulty.
     In both cases the object is to yield to the opponent's force and thereby displace his center of balance.  Once that's achieved, he's helpless unless he is able to regain his balance.
     It occurs to me that in the practice of Aikido the art of breaking balance is a little more subtle.When the opponent attacks his mind/intention (yi) leads his body.  A skilled Aikidoka (practitioner of Aikido) is capable of exploiting this fact.  When an aggressor attacks him, the Aikido enthusiast will allow or cause him to over-extend his body by subtly encouraging him to over-extend his yi.  When this is done, the aggressor's movement and force can easily be intercepted and redirected.
     In both of these grappling forms, students move from the grossly overt to the fine and subtle.  That is, a beginning Judo student often fails to attempt to apply kuzushi at all.  He'll grunt and strain as he tries to literally lift up his opponent and throw him down.  As he continues to practice (and study) he'll discover the importance of kuzushi.  At that point he usually grabs his opponent's jacket in a death-grip and starts yanking, pulling, and pushing in outwardly gross attempts to effect kuzushi.
     But the technique of the master Judoist is much more subtle.  Knowing that taking a death-grip on his opponent's jacket can lead to entanglement, joint twists, and other problems, he gently "hooks" his partner's jacket with his fingertips and a delicate touch.
     His touch is delicate so that he can feel his opponent's movements (and thereby detect his intentions).  This is not unlike tui-shou (push-hands) exercises.  When he unbalances his opponent it is done so subtly that the opponent himself is often unaware of it until he's airborne.
     An Aikido novice often focuses on how to turn the joint or arm or whatever and pays little or no attention to the concept of kuzushi.  He uses his own strength in an attempt to force his partner's joint to turn this way or that and after just a few minutes of practice, he's soaked with sweat.
     The master seems to glide along a current of air and his uke (the receiver; the person being thrown) often feels that he has no control over himself at all.  He is caught up in a whirlwind of movement which may result in his being tossed several feet away or brought down in a painful joint-twist.  The more effort he uses to attack the master, the easier it is for the master to throw him or bring him into submission.
     The idea in both arts is to allow or cause the opponent to extend his center of gravity beyond the structure of his physical foundation.  Once this is done, the opponent has (unconsciously) placed himself in an untenable position and a skilled grappler will quickly take advantage of it.
     In the striking arts of Karate and Kung-Fu, the idea of kuzushi is largely unheard of nowadays.  This is unfortunate because it's just as applicable to them as it is to their grappling cousins.  Many practitioners of these arts prefer to stand their ground, not giving an inch as the opponent attacks forcefully.  They resist his strength with their own strength but as you know from looking at the previous examples, in such a situation the stronger force will win.
     Kuzushi in these kinds of arts is much more subtle than it is in the grappling arts.
     The same thing is true in Japanese Kenjutsu (fencing).  The two swordsmen face each other with their weapons positioned just so.  There is very little overt movement.  No hopping around like a rabbit on amphetamines.  The first person to make an error will be struck down instantly.  They are focused on what they're doing; joining their minds to "feel" each other's intent.
     Obviously, if one swordsman stumbles he becomes a popular breakfast food...toast.  But there's little chance of that because they've trained long and hard to maintain their physical balance.
     If either fighter initiates an attack with a large, gross movement he'll be struck down instantly. 
     They're not just standing still and admiring each other's pretty eyes.  They're "feeling" each other's minds and spirits.  If one swordsman's spirit should become "unbalanced"; if it should weaken for only a moment, the fight will be brought to a sudden end because his opponent will sense it and strike him down.
     This kind of kuzushi is extremely subtle.
     And it's the same kind of kuzushi that should be applied to the striking arts of Karate and Kung-Fu.  In some forms of karate this is known as "the moment of vulnerability", or kyo.  In Chinese it can be called ko (meaning, "opening" or "hole"). 
     In Judo and Aikido, student go from the gross to the subtle.  That is, they begin with actual physical contact - grabbing.  Because of this initial contact, it's easier to detect your opponent's intentions and to feel when his physical, mental, or spiritual balance is disturbed.  This skill must move from the gross to the subtle.  Otherwise, the student's skill will never develop beyond the stage of a novice.
     This same kind of practice is found in the tui-shou exercises of Chinese Taijichuan and related arts.
There is a story told about Dr. Jigaro Kano (founder of Judo) when he was challenged by a British boxer who claimed that Kano's grappling art was no match for western fisticuffs.  Kano was dressed in a business suit but agreed to demonstrate the effectiveness of his art.  The two contestants squared off.  Kano reached into the breast pocket of his suit jacket and deflty tossed a handkerchief into the air.  The boxer glaned at it and Kano skillfully took advantage of the moment to throw the boxer (cushioning his head so that he wouldn't be injured when he hit the ground). 
     There's more to the story than just a chuckle.  Kano deliberately distracted his opponent by unbalancing his mind.  And as I've said before, mental balance and physical balance are inseparable.  Once his opponent's mental balance was disturbed, his physical balance was likewise (although very subtly) disturbed.  And he was vulnerable.  Kano's technique was so fine that he was able to take advantage of that micro-second and throw his opponent.
     In a couple of films, one of Morihei Uyeshiba's (founder of Aikido) best students, Gozo Shioda, was seen dropping his opponents with no more than a touch.  As they advanced and attacked, he would move and touch them on the chin or throat and they'd go flying backward.  It wasn't magic.  When the film was slowed down, it could be seen that Shioda's touch made contact as just the right instant - when his opponents were in the final stage of transferring their weight onto their advancing foot...and then they were suddenly (although gently) caught by his touch.  This caused their minds to move backward which resulted in a severe loss of physical balance and they were easily thrown down.  It was a masterful demonstration of both kuzushi and breaking the opponent's rhythm.
     Sadly, most contemporary practitioners remain at the gross level and never progress to the finer, more subtle levels.  In Judo this has resulted in what one of my senior students calls "Brute-Do" (or Brudo for short); using one's brute force in outwardly gross attempts to manhandle and forcefully throw the opponent.
     Kuzushi applies to more than just the opponent's physical stance and balance.  It also applies to his mental and spiritual "balance."  You have to learn how to truly apply kuzushi and then polish your technique so that you can apply it effectively when the opportunity presents itself.
     Then when you have learned how to apply it to your training partner, study to see how it can be applied conflicts you encounter in your daily life.