Archive for the philosophy Category

First post of the new year…

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training on January 2, 2011 by serpentstaff

I resolve to write some new blog posts this year.

There’s plenty to write about; just can’t always find the time, in between all the other things I resolve to get done.

Happy New Year, blogosphere!


A Question of Respect

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on September 27, 2010 by serpentstaff

I’ve decided to post a question, because I’ve been too busy to write a good post in quite some time, and this trend might continue. It’s on one of my favorite subjects: Respect- what it is, what it means. Here’s the question:

Who shows greater respect for a superior–
1) a person who keeps quiet when he disagrees with important statements or decisions; or,
2) one who speaks up for what he believes is right?

[Note: I originally said “speaks up to defend an opposing view” — see comments.]

By ‘important,’ I mean to suggest issues or matters of principle that most people would consider worth speaking up about under ordinary circumstances. But in an authoritarian, hierarchical organization like a dojo or martial arts association, circumstances aren’t always ordinary.

Context matters, of course. I’m not talking about disagreeing with a superior when they are teaching class, because I think it’s clear in that context: Respect always requires keeping quiet unless called upon, and approaching the disagreement, if it’s really necessary, by asking polite questions, perhaps after class.

Let’s limit it to things like policy decisions or personnel matters, at the dojo or larger organizational level. If the boss makes an official statement or decides to implement a policy you believe is badly mistaken, is it respectful to speak up or to keep quiet? What if the boss has made it clear they don’t really care for advice?

I look forward to your thoughts.

The Art of Dodging Bullets

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, training with tags , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2010 by serpentstaff

My first martial art was taekwondo, but the senior student in the club was enamored with aikido. He talked about it all the time, regaling us with tales of elderly masters who could subdue multiple attackers without striking a blow, and best of all – who could dodge bullets. One story had it that an aikido master was working for the U.S. special forces in Vietnam as “the little old man in the shack” – the guy the new recruit is supposed to kill as his first assignment. Of course, the recruit would empty his gun without managing to hit the old man, who would quickly disarm him.

I had some doubts about this story. For one thing, if you had such a valuable asset – an old man who could dodge bullets and might be able to teach others to do the same – why would you repeatedly put him at risk of some lunk getting off a lucky shot (or an unlucky ricochet)? But our classmate insisted he knew someone who had been through this training. And we were at least willing to be in awe of the idea. We wanted this martial arts journey on which we had embarked to hold the promise of remarkable things.

At the time, though, we were content with our training. Nonviolence and bullet-dodging might be appealing ideas to the mind, but body and spirit wanted to kick hard, punch hard, sweat hard, and face off with opponents doing the same. Aikido went on the to-do list, under “eventually.”

Twelve years later, I did join an aikido dojo. By then I was a little less ignorant. I’d figured out that the story my classmate told was probably just a scene from a Remo Williams novel, or the movie based on it, with Joel Grey as the Asian master. [Here is the trailer, and another funny clip.] I had also learned that Morihei Ueshiba, aikido’s founder, did reportedly claim experiences of avoiding gunmen’s bullets. But I held no fantasies of attaining such a skill. By this time I knew martial arts would be a lifetime pursuit, and I simply wanted to get better at it.

While attending a seminar, I’d seen a demonstration in which the aikido instructors performed with such a relaxed air of grace, power and control – I thought it was worth exploring, so I joined their dojo. I was training actively in karate and had no intention of giving that up. So it was karate on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and aikido on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. I managed to keep up this schedule for a few fine years. During that time, I encountered all the standard questions one hears on forums and from skeptics:

Does that aikido stuff really work? Doesn’t it depend on compliant attackers? As attacker, or uke, aren’t you just practicing giving up?
When they go to throw you, wouldn’t you just let go and clock ‘em?

To which I replied, Yeah, sometimes I wanted to…but that isn’t really the point.

To me, the point was that I had joined this practice to learn something, not to prove something. I wanted that quality of movement the instructors seemed to embody – relaxed, in control of themselves, in control of their partners. It made sense to adopt their training methods in order to obtain it, and I did so, even when it was difficult or annoying. Perhaps this was made easier by my karate practice, which included armbars and throws. I saw aikido not as a source of new techniques, but a means to improve my other art. Right or wrong, it helped me to empty my cup, and I was rewarded. I gained better posture, better footwork, an ease of movement and flow that I had been lacking. I gained tremendously in my ability to work with partners through intense exchanges. I began to lose the tight shoulders and general rigidity so many “hard stylists” suffer from. I must say that aikido as a method of practice served me very well.

Over time, my understanding of ukemi evolved, and that’s the real topic of this post. Ukemi – the art of falling, or the art of receiving an attack, – is the job of uke, the person who initiates an exchange by attacking, and takes the fall when nage applies a technique. Does uke need to be compliant in order for nage’s technique to work? One thing is certain: Uke needs to cooperate in order for nage to learn. Sophisticated wrist locks and throws are not mastered in a day. Partners must work together to feel how to make techniques succeed. Resistant ukes frustrate learning and encourage nage to force it, or muscle through the technique. Look around; you’ll see plenty of that – but good technique is not about reducing it to brawn. By resisting, uke also puts himself at risk of injury, both by making his joints rigid… and by pissing off his partner!

As a beginner, I took these as reasons enough to “go along,” and I did think of it to some extent as “going along.” This was a “throw-centric” view of training – that its purpose was to master techniques (throws, locks, and pins). Ukemi was a necessary evil, since someone had to be thrown, locked or pinned. Uke learns how to take falls without getting hurt, in order to serve as nage’s practice dummy. Uke complies so nage can learn, but it’s agreed they’ll become less compliant at more advanced levels.

I later came to see other values in staying committed to the attack and connected with nage – i.e., not just letting go & “clocking ‘em.” It’s a good and often intense education in maintaining balance, flexibility and control under duress. You learn to continue your attack from positions where others would be sprawled on the pavement. It also teaches you to feel the process of nage’s technique, to sense weaknesses and openings. It’s aikido’s version of “sticky hands.” Also, in many cases, disconnecting from nage simply means nage clocks you first! So it’s important not to think simplistically about this kind of practice.

But I got a whole new take on ukemi after I took a few years off from aikido, then returned to a different dojo. The head instructor was a real hard-ass, and there was something different about the ukemi. The students went at it with an energy and aggression I hadn’t seen before, bending and spinning this way and that, taking the fall only at the last resort, instantly up, and back on the attack. Instruction in ukemi was much more detailed and exact than I’d previously encountered. Clearly, this wasn’t just about getting thrown without getting hurt.

The throws, locks and pins were similar to what I’d practiced before, but when students were demonstrating, chances are your eyes would be on the ukemi rather than the technique – it was so dynamic. A big surprise to me was that advanced training seemed mostly to consist of individuals being thrown for minutes at a time by the head instructor. The throws weren’t necessarily flashy, but he really drove home the point of staying connected so that nage couldn’t smack you – proving the point with bloody noses and black eyes on ukes who slipped up.

I had the thought one day, watching some of the best students in advanced class: These guys would be very hard to hit. Like trying to smack a mosquito buzzing around your head. Then it dawned on me: These are the guys who are learning to dodge bullets! Figurative bullets, maybe, but impressive just the same. Another thought followed: There’s no real distinction between uke and nage. When uke initiates by attacking, nage receives the attack, and so functions as uke. The job, for nage, is to protect oneself from being struck or thrown, and succeeding there, to transform the attack into a strike or throw of one’s own. Now the same job falls to uke, who in advanced training will always take an opening to counter (and so become thrower again). My thinking had come full circle:

Ukemi isn’t a necessary evil so you can practice techniques; techniques are the necessary evil, so you can practice ukemi. And it made sense, at least to this karateka’s mind, that the techniques of aikido could not be its essence, since after all they’re held in common with jujitsu and all its descendants. The essence must be in the ukemi; that’s what makes it the art of dodging bullets.

I Lost a Student With “Too Much Philosophy”

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on April 9, 2010 by serpentstaff

This was quite a few years ago already. And while the student in question did not use that exact phrase, I don’t think he’d disagree. But let me give the background.

As you’ll know if you have read other parts of this blog, I do have a strong sense of a philosophy underlying traditional training, and I try to teach in accordance with it. I am also respectful of the style/organization of which I’m a member, and I ask my students to meet that organization’s requirements in terms of learning a code of ethics and certain other tenets.

Yet I almost never talk about philosophy during class, and I don’t think it’s necessary. I believe the important philosophy is embedded in the practice. Further, I don’t think a student needs to know or embrace any particular philosophy, so long as they meet the practical requirements of working out in my dojo. If they can do that, I believe, the philosophy will seep in through their pores. If it doesn’t — their loss.

Those requirements include such basics as showing courtesy and respect to instructor and students, following the rules and rituals handed down by the tradition of our style (they’re not excessive), doing what you’re asked to do during the workout to the best of your ability, keeping talk and questions to an absolute minimum during the workout (but questioning as much as you like outside class), cultivating focus and concentration… Really, that’s about it. Train with intensity if not reverence; develop a respect for what you’re doing and the people you’re doing it with.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should talk more often and more clearly about philosophy to my students — usually when I see people “not getting it” — and I’ll resolve to do so. But it tends to go by the wayside because, frankly, we’re too busy training.

The exception happens when there are students in class who aren’t working hard, who are disrupting training or in other ways going against dojo practice. Sometimes I will bring the class around while they’re catching their breath, and talk about philosophy a bit, directing it toward whatever the problem may be. Even then, it’s only after trying a simple, direct approach with the students, such as asking them to “train, don’t talk,” or reminding them about etiquette — or having an assistant instructor remind them.

Now, back to that lost student. He had some experience in another art before he joined my school, and like many people who join a new school or style, he had trouble letting go of old ways. This is understandable. However, this fellow — give him credit — was enthusiastic, wanted to earn rank, and even — after a year or so — announced his plan to get a black belt and teach within our style. So after a good long year, I pressed him harder to begin using our terminology, bring his techniques to our standards as best he could, and make an effort to perform drills as I asked for them instead of as he might have done them at his old school. And I pressed him, as I pressed everyone, to work out with his partners instead of talking and instructing his way through class.

One evening when far too much talk was going on, when this fellow in particular was resisting corrections on a drill and instructing his partner in how he would have done it at his old school, I called the class around and asked whether everyone knew the story of the empty cup (that old standby for traditional martial artists). Many did not know it, so I told the story. When I reached the punch line, “If you want to learn anything new you must empty your cup,” there was a loud, derisive snort from the fellow in question.

I admit I was surprised. I’d expect polite disinterest, polite interest, puzzlement or understanding, nodding or furrowing of brow, perhaps a question — but derision? The story is about having an open mind, about not drowning out new input with your own noise. One can read it as shallowly or deeply as one likes, but it hardly seems controversial.

Within a couple of weeks, his bad back started acting up, and he took time off. Time passed; I received an email explaining that he had decided not to come back, that he felt he was being pressured to live some sort of “martial arts lifestyle” that he didn’t agree with, with this whole “empty cup” thing. He also cited having been asked to memorize the style’s code of conduct (a simple test requirement), which he felt wasn’t very creative, and he should have been asked to write his own code. (Ironically, he could have done just that if he’d stayed till 2nd kyu, when we begin asking students to write papers for rank tests.)

It was hard for me to resist arguing, but I had to let it go. Those of us who believe in the value of what we teach and how we teach it — we “Zen evangelists” — believe everyone would be better off if they learned our favorite lessons. But often we must accept that those who seemingly need the lessons most, may be least likely to stay around and get them. There’s no forcing it; we’re dealing with free North American adults. And after all, perhaps the lesson was for me.

Two Principles

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, training with tags , , , , , , on January 18, 2010 by serpentstaff

Off to a bit of a slow start this year, but now that I’m back online I’m posting a couple of quotes I came across over the holidays:

“If there is anything to do, there is certainly a best way to do it, and the best way is both the most economical and the most graceful.” ~Inazo Nitobe

“Do not be negligent, even in trifling matters.”
~Miyamoto Musashi

Nitobe’s statement, from his 1899 book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, comes when he notes some Europeans disparage Japan’s “elaborate discipline of politeness,” dismissing elaborate ceremony as trivial. On the contrary (according to Nitobe), elaborate ceremony develops out of long efforts to find the best way to achieve a result. He specifically mentions the tea ceremony, but it seems to me he could equally be talking about certain aspects of traditional martial arts practice:

“To a novice it looks tedious. But one soon discovers that the way prescribed is, after all, the most saving of time and labor; in other words, the most economical use of force…”

In traditional training (if all goes well) we find that the rituals and discipline, the exercises that sometimes seem far removed from practical application, combine to condition mind and body to move and react in the most economical and effective way. This is a foundational goal of training—one that is broader and deeper than learning an arsenal of practical techniques; and the practitioner who achieves it will perform better at that arsenal than the one who tosses ritual and discipline aside. That, at least, is the traditionalist’s theory. In addition, we might find that our traditional exercises actually move mind and body toward the goal in the most economical and graceful fashion.

But there is more to love about that first quotation. For one thing, it expresses a wonderful attitude toward pursuit of excellence. That’s probably what drew me to it at the turn of the year, when we can’t resist resolving to do better going forward. It’s an attitude of striving for perfection—perfectionism in the best sense, not the overbearing neurotic sense. It also seems to me to express an idea at the heart of both science and art: Science strives for economy and elegance in both the means of discovery and the explanation of it. Art reaches for the same things in immediate expression.

Now to the Musashi quote. I came across it on the Nintai Budo blog; it’s the eighth of Musashi’s nine precepts for those who would follow in his Way. Interestingly, when I pulled out my two different editions of the Book of Five Rings, they offered slightly different translations of this precept. One said, “Pay attention even to trifles.” The other said, “Be careful even in small matters.” A quick search online found yet another version: “Study the details.”

Translation is an interesting sport. You can see how the choice of words draws in or omits different shades of meaning. The translators’ choices no doubt reflect their judgments about the meaning of the document as a whole. The reader’s attitude brings shades of meaning, too, and I stumbled on the Nintai blog while thinking about Nitobe and the pursuit of the “best way.” Therefore, I related the ideas, and went through a train of thought something like this:

Don’t be sloppy, even in small matters.

No detail is so small as to be unimportant.

No matter is too minor to deserve full attention and the best possible effort.

Principles to live by.

What is a ‘martial arts master’?

Posted in martial arts, philosophy with tags , , , on November 1, 2009 by serpentstaff

While I’ve been too busy to write these past several weeks, a certain news story has been preying on my mind. Many of you probably read it: “Judo champ jailed in train station beating.” The Striking Thoughts blog made mention of it, if you didn’t catch it in your local paper. Here’s the opening sentence from the article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Horseplay between a martial arts master and a Menlo Park amateur at a Peninsula Caltrain station turned into a full-blown assault and put a national judo competitor behind bars, authorities said Friday.

This ticked me off so severely that I almost… wrote a letter to the editor. What got me was not the thuggish behavior of the judoka; no, such assaults by young men on one another are so run-of-the-mill in our society, it’s hardly worth a letter to the paper, I’m sorry to say. What angered me was the journalist’s use of the term “martial arts master” to describe this 23-year-old judo-competitor-slash-thug. It struck me as emblematic of the kind of ignorance about martial arts that characterizes so much of what we see in the media, and gives us all a bad name.

Then I began reflecting on the term ‘master’ and what it does or doesn’t mean. It’s not so clear. There are two senses of the term in common understanding, and its usage in martial arts has elements of both. This is probably the cause of some problems.

First, there’s the sense of ‘mastery’ of a set of skills or area of knowledge. In that sense, it’s not unreasonable for a layperson to believe a champion competitor must be a ‘master’ of a sort. Surely they’ve mastered some martial arts skills in order to win those judo tournaments; ergo, ‘martial arts master.’ This might be analogous to ‘chess master,’ where the title is determined by ratings earned over time through winning matches. But we martial artists, besides knowing how transient tournament wins are, believe the title means something broader and deeper than that, so much so that we actually find it offensive if some twenty-something gets called ‘master’—no matter how many tournaments he might win.

Then there’s the sense of ‘master’ that’s associated with ‘underlings’ or ‘followers’ (not to say ‘slaves’). Here in the egalitarian West we are uncomfortable with this title—as well we should be. Besides underlings, it brings up the notion of cults and abuse. Yet in martial arts we do use the term in a related sense: The master is indeed someone whom we are meant to “follow,” at least to the extent of trusting his or her teaching and obeying instructions in class—and obeying with a greater depth of intention than we have when following instructions, say, in shop class, or from the boss at the office.

Put the two meanings together, and you can see where we get the romanticized, Yoda-like concept of a Master: someone whose skill and understanding are so great, and wisdom so deep, he (or she) is worthy of being followed and emulated like a guru. We have to mention wisdom and understanding here, because they are what raise the concept above plain technical skill. That’s important to us traditional martial artists, because we like to believe we are pursuing something greater—polishing our character.

Now, when I began training, I started with a simple, unromantic understanding of the term ‘master’ as a bit of jargon not unlike other foreign terms encountered in the dojo. It was simply a title applied to people who had reached a certain rank. I remember being told by a fellow student that anyone who reached (believe it or not) the rank of third degree was called ‘master.’ (Back then, in the school/system I was in, there weren’t many who reached third degree. Nowadays they are everywhere.)

If we accept it as jargon, we can avoid ‘master/guru’ concerns, and leave it up to styles and organizations to decide what requirements must be met. It becomes more like ‘chess master’ again—but not entirely. That’s because traditional martial arts are about more than technical skill, and do bring in hard-to-measure concepts like depth of understanding, wisdom, compassion for others, ‘mastery over oneself.’

In this picture, there are no 23-year-old masters; such a notion would be ridiculous, because those intangibles are reached only through maturity and reflection on many years of study and teaching. And in this picture, an individual who uses his skills to assault people in train stations is self-evidently not a master; he’s instead an offense to masters everywhere.

But that’s just one point of view. What do you think, readers? What is a martial arts master?

(Not) How to Choose a Dojo

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching with tags , on September 1, 2009 by serpentstaff

Someone once asked me whether I’d write a guide to choosing a dojo, to go along with a training manual I was working on. I thought about it, but decided the answer was “no.”

It’s not that I don’t have ideas and opinions on the subject; I have those on all subjects, and generally am more than happy to express them and try to persuade people to my point of view. At the same time, I want to leave plenty of room for others to have their differing points of view. This particular subject is one that has a strong element of personal preference embedded in it, which (I believe) needs to be respected.

I’ve read quite a few such guides, some written as chapters in longer books or training manuals, others presented on dojo websites. They are always colored by author bias. (I suppose everything is—but this subject more so than average.) Either they’re biased toward particular martial arts styles and approaches, or they succumb to stereotypes. The ones on dojo sites often list a lot of detailed questions to ask and requirements to meet—plainly tailored to match what you’d find at their school. Click to another site, and you’ll get a different and equally persuasive list of specs.

Some of them include questions to ask a prospective instructor, interview-style. These smack of someone having been asked to come up with a list of questions, for the sake of having a list of questions. I’ve been “interviewed” in this fashion a few times by prospective students or their parents. I am of course happy to answer whatever they’d like to ask, and I’ll do so thoroughly and with good humor—but sometimes it feels odd, contrived. As though they are challenging me to come up with the “right” answers—the ones prescribed by whomever wrote their list. I often think how easily they could answer their own questions by observing or participating in a class or two and listening to what I say to my students, instead of by testing my verbal facility one-on-one.

Indeed the people who will do best in these “interviews” will be the silver-tongued among us, and those who have studied what the marketing consultants say. And I wouldn’t say that makes them the best instructors. There are excellent instructors who are not silver-tongued, and who don’t subscribe to marketing consultants. They just believe in what they’re doing, and act on good instincts—which they might or might not be able to articulate.

I once read a parents’ guide in which the author suggested short, stocky kids should be directed to judo, while thin kids with long legs should be encouraged to try taekwondo. Okay, there’s some stereotyping for you. I know plenty of tall, skinny folks who excel at judo, as well as chunky people who can kick you in the side of the head without blinking. Whatever basis there may be for stereotypes, they should not be used as directives. Kids should get to find out what their passion is, regardless of body type. So should adults.

Martial arts devotees can have strong opinions about how a dojo should be run (and I notice the strongest opinions often come from people with little or no experience running their own schools). Their advice of course bends to their pre-formed opinions. Some hate the idea that money should be charged for classes at all; they’ll lump all commercial schools together as questionable. People who adhere to strict, traditional “white gi” backgrounds will sometimes suggest that any school wearing any colors or patches must be full of phonies. But these stereotypes don’t hold up, either. Just apply a little vigilance about money, and pay some attention to what’s actually being taught and learned at the school. That should tell you what you need to know.

Some assert that a head instructor should be at least a 3rd degree black belt, and perhaps over a certain age. Now, I was just a shodan in what became my primary art when I started my own school. And while I certainly know a lot more now than I did then—about teaching, running a school and everything else—if I had to choose between younger me and present-day me as an instructor, the choice would not be clear at all. Younger me was energetic, creative and not so set in my ways. Either choice could be a good choice.

The question of “McDojos” gets a lot of attention. I admit, the first time I heard the term it cracked me up; I loved it. Likewise the term “bullshido.” For “McDojo” especially, I think there’s a colloquial understanding: It will be a school using inferior ingredients to turn out large quantities of mediocre product for profit. But when it comes to specifics—describing to a non-martial artist what exactly that would mean in a specific case—stereotypes and author bias come pouring back in. It’s just not that clear. Things quickly get snarky, to use another popular term. One particularly snarky piece I just read asserts that any school not basing its training mainly on hard-contact sparring is probably a McDojo. Any school that uses one-steps or board breaking is probably a McDojo. Any school with lots of students is probably one. And so on. Ridiculous.

Another great term is “Faux-Jo,” which I encountered in Matthew Apsokardu’s eBook, The Student’s Guide to Surviving a Traditional Dojo. –And by the way, I think he did a great job on the book, on the whole. It’s well worth a read by people starting out in a traditional art. It’s a good “orientation tour,” and I especially like all the material about mindset and attitude. –But back to our subject: I think the brief Faux-Jo section suffers from the same problems as most McDojo discussions: It relies on the personal opinions of a martial arts insider, and doesn’t bring any clarity to a newcomer or outsider. What does “excessive” mean, when it comes to belt ranks and certificates? (For example, we give out a certificate of rank at each promotion; is that “excessive?”) Does my colleague have a Faux-Jo because he lets the demo team wear colored gis with a special patch? Does my friend who holds hard-earned rank in several styles have to keep those ranks secret so he won’t be seen as having “many belts in different styles and few real credentials?” Are my brown belt assistant instructors to be seen as “teachers from accelerated ‘teacher programs’?”

I suspect Matthew and I would probably be in agreement about which dojos out there are really Faux-Jos. I know exactly what he means by all his bullet points. But that’s because I’m a martial arts veteran with experience of these things. They don’t have that much meaning for someone who doesn’t come to the discussion with a lot of knowledge, and opinions already formed. The best illustration of this is his final bullet point: “no feeling of cheesiness” versus “strong cheese vibe.” I laughed at this one, but think about it: “Cheesy” doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t already have an opinion about what it should mean. It’s mainly just snark, I’m afraid.

Instead of snark, what we need for “how to choose a dojo” is respectful clarity, with room for different points of view. I don’t know that it can be done. There are few clear-cut cases. The quality of a dojo isn’t easily captured by superficial things, and what’s under the surface must be experienced to be known. In the end, the best advice is the least advice, in my opinion. Maybe what we really need is a guide to choosing a guide to how to choose a dojo.