"Ultimately, martial art means honestly expressing yourself. I can show you some really fancy movement, but to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself now that, my friend, is very hard to do."
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
I sit back in my chair and reflect on my years of martial training. Attempting to understand what it is that I have been doing. Constant learning is important, but there needs to be time to digest. Otherwise, my understanding is only surface level. It is like eating without tasting. We often get too absorbed with accumulation, and we become unaware of what it is that we have taken in. Pointless productivity is not productivity.
We are taught, but we are not learning. The teacher is free to speak, but our mind is not free to listen. We have yet to organize and inspect what is already there. It is too much. We count hours of practice but what about hours of meditation? When there is practice without deep thinking, how are we different from machines? How can we be creative with our practice while mechanically going through our practice? How do we create? There is a need to step away and dwell. How can one look at something in a new way if one never looks away?
So, I open myself and muse, not only on my experiences but the experiences of others; as a collective stream of consciousness. On this conversation, I begin with Joe Hyams and the very nature of effort. In Zen in the Martial Arts, he writes:
Martial arts is synonymous with effortless effort. Is this the art of training in war or is it the discipline of improving oneself and one's craft? The Western term, "martial," refers to a military art. Eastern terms such as kung fu, refers to any study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete. Any high-skill achieved through hard work is kung fu. Many of the specific arts are variations on studies of the Way. "Dojo" itself means study hall for the Way. It has become co-opted for combat and military uses, but in historical context, it makes sense. Perfection is needed to save lives; then, there was no better system — but to consider it only in this way is limiting.
George Leonard, in The Way of Aikido, writes:
Is war natural? Martial arts is the practice of the natural governances. There are instances in martial arts where "violence" is accorded, such as a duel, where there is no victim, no violation. But violence with victims is a violation; an unnatural practice and though in line with "martial," it is not in line with the Tao nor kung fu.
Peace activist, martial artist, Iraq War veteran, and retired U.S. Army captain, Paul K. Chappell, pondered this question in an interview:
I asked a seasoned mixed martial arts (MMA) instructor and friend, Rene Dreifuss, on the true nature of martial arts. He weighed this question heavily for several days:
Retired US Air Force major, senior political scientist, and lifelong martial artist, Forrest E. Morgan, explains the differences of the Japanese arts in Living the Martial Way:
University professor Daniele Bolelli further expands on the divergence of "martial arts" and "martial ways" in, On the Warrior's Path:
So, forget whatever it is you think you know and start anew. Based on the Taoist concept of wu wei (無爲), Bruce Lee gave this now famous metaphor:
It has become so emblematic of Bruce Lee's philosophy, one assumes Lee was born with this cognition. In reality, it took years of frustration and the careful guidance of his master, Yip Man, to develop. Lee first had to overcome himself.
Joe Hyams writes:
"The Swordsman and the Cat," from D.T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture, resonates the same timbre. What you think you know, you do not know. Suzuki writes:
Journalist and writer, Peter Serafin, shared with me the story of his martial guide, Master Chang:
In reconciling these magical expectations with clashing realities, comedian and UFC commentator Joe Rogan said:
Author, philosopher, and neuroscientist, Sam Harris compares sparring with an expert in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) to the realities of drowning:
On the harshness of Master Chang's training, Serafin explains:
The question arises, what does all of this physical practice amount to if it has not been to realize a mental-spiritual change? Suzuki explores:
Why do we do the things that are hard, and suffer, when it is not required? Celebrated chef and author, Anthony Bourdain, said of his martial arts practice:
George Leonard writes in Mastery, regarding this endless journey of infinite small steps:
On his early days of training, Serafin writes:
In the Artist of Life, after struggling with the difficulties of "self" detachment, Bruce Lee recounts the lessons of his master Yip Man:
Bruce Lee took a very long time to appreciate contemplation, and the untethering of oneself to connect to the unconscious efforts of nature. The shine of physical practice and the ability to beat another man is obvious even to a child.
Immense knowledge requires more prolonged thought. Suzuki on "The Swordsman and the Cat":
BJJ practitioner and actor Ashton Kutcher poignantly stated:
When asked to explain his passion for martial arts, actor Robert Downey Jr. did not mention any of the physical aspects. Rather he stated it in this way:
Extending his thoughts on martial arts and its place in modern society, Rene Dreifuss:
It is easy to get swept up in being the hero of our own movie and treat everyone else like the extras. Author and teacher, David Foster Wallace examines this in This Is Water:
To get to this place where we can be a link that helps society, takes a great deal of work and something especially "fighters" have a hard time allowing, which is vulnerability. Vulnerability makes us uncomfortable, but vulnerability is where empathy breathes. Empathy takes some level of suffering, it also requires a dose of courage. Author and scholar, Brené Brown, gave a talk on people with great amounts of empathy:
Filmmaker, Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, and one of my former training partners, Guy Ritchie, reinforced this need in an interview. It has become one of his three life mantras:
The greater idea is of connectedness. Can we truly connect with people authentically? Meaning, taking them as a whole person, rather than the sum parts that makes us comfortable? If a tragedy befalls someone, if we are not resilient enough to connect with them and their grief, we tell them to deny their suffering. This runs counter to compassion. Sam Harris reasons:
On a better way to consider the nature of martial arts, Bolelli writes:
There are parallels to other life challenges, we've been there before, but there is something to be said of improving the general skill of "overcoming." Anthony Bourdain elaborates:
Actor Ed O'Neill quipped on the difficulties of Brazilian jiu-jitsu after receiving his black belt:
No matter the length, many of us are in it for the pursuit rather than any destination. We are curious about what is possible. Joe Rogan said of himself:
You are training your spirit:
You are increasing objectivity:
George Leonard eloquently brings it together in The Silent Pulse:
After taking the advice of Yip Man, Lee spent a week in deep contemplation with no physical kung fu (gung fu) practice. In the Artist of Life, he reflects on the moments leading up to his discovery of "water" and wu wei (action of non-action):
When acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace reflected on water, he too was struck by a similar jolt:
In this instance, Bruce Lee is one of the young fish, Yip Man would be the older fish. In Enter The Dragon, Lee recreates this motif, this time assuming the role of the teacher and warning the student not to focus on the obvious:
Many of Lee's best thoughts were inspired by ancient texts. What was captivating was his ability to convey Eastern philosophy to the Western audience. To become a student like Lee, we must delve further than surface level quotes from movies and deep-reflect.
David Foster Wallace and Bruce Lee both warn of the dangers of seeing what is only on the surface, when we don't look deeper than the obvious. Wallace heeds:
"Rather than being confined to a separate dimension," as Daniele Bolelli argues, we must open ourselves up to novel connections. Or as Miyamoto Musashi, in A Book of Five Rings describes:
Water works as a perfect metaphor, you can see the surface but you can also see far deeper than the surface since water is clear. Being able to see the obvious and beyond the obvious at the same time. Though it is the same water, it can be many different things in many different contexts. Much like yin can become yang based on the context. It can have boundaries, and it can also immerse you. Yamamoto Tsunetomo in Hagakure illustrates this paradigm:
In the continuation of the "Swordsman and the Cat" parable, Suzuki writes:
On the paradox of water, Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching writes:
From the Cat, the rat, to the aerial freedom of a bird, Bruce Lee contemplates from the water:
Sam Harris had a similar epiphany while being choked in a sparring match:
In comparison to the atheism of Sam Harris, David Foster Wallace posits:
Physical liberties are not accurate measures of freedom. Freedom in the philosopher's sense is about balance. It is the only true freedom one can (should) strive for — and it can only happen if we come to the end and there are no other paths than letting go. In submitting our minds, Suzuki contends is freedom.
Peter Serafin recalls his master's final yet most important lesson:
Master Chang's lesson is reminiscent of this passage from Zen in the Martial Arts:
In the mystery of the Cat in D.T. Suzuki's allegory, the Cat represents the spiritual teacher, the swordsman — the physical teacher. The Cat embodies a harmonious level of awareness:
The martial artist stands between two opposing ideals (at the center of yin-yang, alpha-omega) and creates harmony. If "martial' is conflict, then they are the artists of conflict, bringing balance and peace. But for this to be possible, harmony must first exist within the martial artist (artist of life). D.T. Suzuki continues:
Bruce Lee on the elusive qualities of water, synthesizes the teachings of the Tao Te Ching:
On freedom and the universal representation of the "rat" being the antithesis of freedom, David Foster Wallace suggests:
The differences between the swordsman, the Cat, and the rat only exists in response to how they react when they get wet. Suzuki on the control of the mind:
Self-realization is not about realizing one's full potential nor related to gain or ambition. The irony is in the translation. "Realization" conjures up ideas of attainment for the uninitiated, but, in the traditional sense, the purpose of finding the "self" is only to destroy it. That is metaphoric death, and that is symbolic reincarnation. To destroy the self, one must find the self. It must be released so one can connect to the greater movements of nature (universe). The swordsman searches for the rat, not for glory, nor to praise the rat. He searches for the rat to release himself from it, it's distractions, and to connect to something greater. Then in this context, there is no paradox: To release the "self," one attains the greatest self-realization. The purpose of the "self," physical, spiritual, or figurative, has always been to be released. This awareness is freedom, and this is when we truly live.
Zanshin (残心) is a state awareness — relaxed alertness. The meditative posture is the seat of wisdom, zanshin is the "remaining mind."
We practice without meditation, and we meditate without practice. We have severed them from one another when meditation is the other half of practice, and practice the other half of meditation. (By meditation I mean both: deep-thinking and no-thinking.) Accumulate and disperse. Disperse then accumulate. Balancing what we do with our thoughts. Our thoughts with what we do. When they are in sync, we are in balance. We find liberation.
Bruce Lee defines the martial arts as:
The conversation I have in my mind begins with Bruce Lee, "Become water my friend." D.T. Suzuki then asks, "What is water?"
I have come full circle, in pondering the very nature of martial arts. To where I began this conversation. But it is not the martial artist in the usual sense that I close this dialogue, but a martial artist in a better sense — the teacher:
Useful Companions to This Article:
- Zen In The Martial Arts - Joe Hyams
- The Way Of Aikido - George Leonard
- The Art Of Waging Peace - Paul K. Chappell
- Living The Martial Way - Forrest E. Morgan
- On The Warrior's Path - Daniele Bolelli
- Zen And Japanese Culture - D.T. Suzuki
- Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion - Sam Harris
- Kitchen Confidential - Anthony Bourdain
- Mastery - George Leonard
- Bruce Lee: Artist Of Life - Bruce Lee, John Little
- This Is Water - David Foster Wallace
- Daring Greatly - Brené Brown
- The Silent Pulse - George Leonard
- Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee's Wisdom For Daily Living - Bruce Lee, John Little
- A Book Of Five Rings - Miyamoto Musashi
- Hagakure - Yamamoto Tsunetomo
- Tao Te Ching - Lao Tzu
- Tao Of Jeet Kune Do - Bruce Lee