Since commencing karate training at an early age I have continued to be intrigued by the degree to which we in the West are able to truly embrace the real essence of the martial arts.
These come predominantly from the Far East - from a time and culture which remain distant from us and which are only glimpsed at in historical texts or films. It raises the question as to whether we can truly become ‘authentic’ martial artists or if it is something we are to some degree ‘just playing at’. We are after all extracting and focusing primarily upon the practice elements, a mere fragment of what the arts are all about.
In order to explore this theme we need to consider the contextual issues implicit within the development of many of the martial arts. These were created within feudal times, as a means of actively waging warfare or as a means of protection and defence. If we take for example the Japanese and Okinawan martial arts we can reflect upon a culture that has endured many centuries of almost perpetual civil war. The martial arts practised at this time can be regarded as distinctly different from the approach taken at the cessation of conflict where learning and development adopted more of an internal and spiritual pursuit. This approach forged a closer association between the martial arts and Zen Buddhism.
We can only speculate what it must have been like living in Japan through the centuries. This was a country torn apart through continued civil war, in a place known locally as “the land of tears” on account of the perpetual presence of suffering from battles, earthquakes and other natural disasters. The existential views and contextual perspective was very different from anything we can easily conceive. Life was regarded as transient and fleeting and a commonly accepted philosophy was that “I might die today”. This was regarded as Karma, something to be simply accepted.
It highlights the meditative and introspective quality which was sought as a means of coping with all the sadness and misery so often encountered. Here was an escape from the brutalities of life with appreciation and enjoyment of the beauty inherent within nature or artistic expression. This is where the sunrise, a Haiku reading, the blossoming trees or an exquisite piece of calligraphic writing could captivate the imagination and stimulate all of the senses. We can also consider the perfection sought within a Chado (tea ceremony) or the careful contemplation of Ikebana (flower arranging) as highlighting the extent to which inner enlightenment and spiritual development was sought.
Across all of these pursuits we can observe a fine attention to detail, a sense of careful reflection, a rich degree of expressiveness and the development of a sense of inner contemplation. These same elements can be viewed within Myamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings. In this text, the famed swordsman offers many philosophical lessons including the messages:
“If you practice diligently from morning till night, the way of strategy I teach, your mind will spontaneously broaden.”
“You should examine this point well.”
These extol the virtues of careful and tireless endeavour as a means of working towards self enlightenment.
My attraction to the martial arts began way back in the 1970’s and included some of these wider aspects. Like most other kids of that era, I found the explosive and graceful power of Bruce Lee captivating. Enter the Dragon provided a role model that many of us could dream of emulating yet knowing instinctively that this would be an unrequited dream. For me though an even more appealing and engaging example came from the TV series Kung Fu starring David Carradine as a wandering Monk (a concept actually conceived by Bruce Lee). Watching this show today it can feel contrived and all a little implausible yet still containing some intriguing concepts. Here was something far deeper than a mere external process of showy techniques and hinted at the hard to discern and quantify element of chi.
Chi can be regarded as a number of concepts dependent upon which context or culture it is being viewed from and includes qualities such as inner strength, calmness, self-discipline and respect. In Japanese arts it can be encapsulated in Zanshin, a term which embraces various states of awareness.
A recent TV series Mind Body and Kick Ass Moves showcased some truly amazing and inspiring exponents. Watching these examples it is hard to know what is genuine and what isn’t. We are well used to magicians baffling us with their tricks yet aware on another level that these are just illusions. How are we therefore to understand and accept these Eastern “tricks” as authentic without really experiencing or understanding them? I have only had fleeting and brief experiences with some of these from various exponents on courses across the country but am convinced that it is worth exploring.
One of my longest and dearest ambitions is to one day visit Japan and start to gain a much wider appreciation for the arts I am involved with. This is borne out from conversations with other martial artists who have visited the countries their style comes from (i.e. Japan, China or Korea) and who report a deeper sense and feeling about their arts. I am sure that our learning and understanding cannot penetrate further than a surface level although maybe we can attain a deeper appreciation for what it is all about.
I remain committed to learning and teaching more about chi even though most students appear unconcerned about the inner qualities, instead more desirous of developing their practical techniques. Even simple aspects such as starting and finishing a class in Seiza with students given time for quiet meditative contemplation are important. This enables them to slow their thoughts down, control their breathing and detach themselves from some of that day’s issues. It offers one of the interpretations of Kara (“empty”) which when combined with Te gives the unarmed combat interpretation. Here though, another view is offered - “empty” of fear and aggression. It is only a start and something which could be taken to infinite lengths - yet is a journey I feel worth pursuing.
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