Be Like Water, This Is Water

"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:

Only through practice and more practice, until you can do something without conscious effort.

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:

What a pity it is that war, with its terrible suffering and devastation, should often be more vivid than peace. In war, your comrades mean everything to you, life is unsure and thus precious, and you know that the sword is raised above you. Now it is peace. Your friends still mean everything, life is still precious, and look — why didn’t you notice it? There’s the sword, still raised above you.

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:

War traumatizes the human brain. War is one of the most traumatizing things a human can go through. So if we were naturally violent, why wouldn’t we go to war and become more mentally healthy? Why did people go to war, and after repeated deployments have psychological trauma if we were in fact naturally violent?

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:

[Y]ou’re talking everything from tai chi to MMA; the arts are so vast and diverse ... I grew up at a time when martial arts ostensibly put the values of respect forward, but the reality was many of the practitioners out there were terrible at actual fighting. ... With the UFC, all that changed. ... I’ve trained with guys who sneer at anything remotely resembling tradition and those who spend their weekends meditating in monasteries. In the end, I can’t say who is right. It’s their life and their path.

You and I both come from the Confucian side of the cultural spectrum, so there is some commonality there. Obviously we are familiar with the martial arts as a Zen paradigm. But what about kali, eskrima, or arts like that which come from radically different traditions? Even Thai boxing, which, while having semi-Buddhist roots, has no Zen element at all. (It also has a history of near child slavery and is inseparable from a very corrupt gambling tradition.) So ideally, yeah, I would love to see martial artists observe the kind of traditional values that I grew up with. But really who the hell am I? And my tradition doesn’t represent the final word on what it means to be a martial artist.

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:

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding among Western ‘martial artists’ is whether the system they study are martial arts or martial ways... The Japanese group their combative systems into two distinct categories. Those developed by warrior groups purely for use in combat are called bugei or bujutsu. Typically, names of those systems end in the suffix jutsu. On the other hand, budo (martial way) systems all end in the suffix do (way). These systems were developed from the jutsu forms but are directed toward goals beyond (sometimes instead of) combat effectiveness ... the true budo aspirant devotes himself to a system of physical, mental, and spiritual discipline through which he attempts to elevate himself in search of perfection.

University professor Daniele Bolelli further expands on the divergence of "martial arts" and "martial ways" in, On the Warrior's Path:

I don’t doubt that at the dawn of martial arts, the main goal was to beat up one’s opponents in the most effective way possible. But then, indirectly, the alchemy of martial arts began to strike some chords deep within the spirit of many individuals, transforming living war-machines into poets, artists, and philosophers.

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:

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water into a cup; it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

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:

What stands in the way of effortless effort is caring, or a conscious attempt to do well.

"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:

There was once a swordsman called Shôken, who was very much annoyed by a furious rat in his house. The rat was bold enough to come out of its hiding place even in the daytime, doing all kinds of mischief. ... Taking up his wooden sword he approached it, but every effort of the experienced swordsman proved ineffectual... As a last resort, he sent for the neighbouring Cat widely known for her mysterious virtue as the most able rat-catcher. ... The Cat almost nonchalantly went for the rat and came out carrying it by the neck.

Journalist and writer, Peter Serafin, shared with me the story of his martial guide, Master Chang:

I remember my first martial arts teacher, who I met many years ago when I was 16. ‘Kung Fu’ and ‘The Green Hornet’ were still running on network TV, and in my adolescent eyes Master Chang had all the qualities necessary to lead me down the path to true hapkido badassery. Under his tutelage, I’d become one of those people nobody would every dare mess with — otherwise I’d take them apart six ways till next Tuesday, all while maintaining my unflappable spiritual calm.

From the first moment, he struck me as the martial arts master straight from Central Casting. Asian? Check. Five-feet seven-inches tall and 145 pounds soaking wet? Check. Given to speaking in parables about esoteric topics using less-than-perfect English? Check. Learned martial arts in a Buddhist monastery? Check. (His father was the abbot.)

In reconciling these magical expectations with clashing realities, comedian and UFC commentator Joe Rogan said:

Out of all the shit I’ve done in my life, becoming really good at jiu-jitsu is probably one of the most difficult things a person can do and I think it helps me with everything I do. ... People who are in jiu-jitsu and train on a regular basis, they’re healthier people. Their egos are healthier. Especially men. They’re easier to talk to. They’re easier to hang out with. Because they’re facing reality on a regular basis.

Author, philosopher, and neuroscientist, Sam Harris compares sparring with an expert in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) to the realities of drowning:

Falling into deep water without knowing how to swim. To train in BJJ is to continually drown — or, rather, to be drowned, in sudden and ingenious ways — and to be taught, again and again, how to swim. Most martial artists get illusions in training. The great strength of jiu-jitsu, is that there really are no illusions. ... I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be. BJJ was so illusion-destroying and ego-canceling. And the combination of those two things was just exquisite.

Rogan continues:

[I]t’s reality. And if you fuck up and you get caught in a triangle, you’ve gotta tap. That is the end of story. It’s as real as it can get, and that has made me a better person. It has made me a better man; it’s made me understand myself, my weaknesses, my strengths, the shit I need to work on. Jiu-jitsu has been one of the most valuable tools that I’ve ever had in my life.

On the harshness of Master Chang's training, Serafin explains:

In his regular classes, he pushed us through pain and fear to somewhere beyond. Of course, we had to repeat this torture every training session, but each time we got stronger. Physically stronger, sure — but there was always something more. Something to do with being forged in the heat of adversity and pressure. Life lessons about how we’re all capable of much more than we think we are.

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:

What you have learned is the technique of the art. Your mind is ever conscious of planning how to combat the opponent. The reason why the ancient masters devised the technique is to acquaint us with the proper method of accomplishing the work... Those who follow the master fail to grasp his principle and are too busily occupied with improving their technical cleverness and manipulatory skill. The end is achieved, and cleverness attains its highest efficiency, but what does it all amount to?

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:

At my age to learn a new skill is deeply satisfying. To recreate that feeling of being the lowest person on the totem pole in a kitchen back when I was 17 — knowing nothing in a very hard world. The incremental tiny satisfactions of being a little less awful at something every day. It’s like that with jiu-jitsu for me. I’m learning an entirely new skill, a difficult one, a very physically demanding one but one I think about for the rest of the day. They call it — you know — physical chess because it’s something you think about... It’s a never ending journey. It appeals to some part of my brain that I haven’t visited before.

It’s a lot like being back in the kitchen again, in my first days as a young cook where I was the worst cook in the kitchen, and there was so much to learn. And every day that I did manage to learn some tiny technical detail that made my game better, that was the kind of satisfaction that I haven’t had in a while.

George Leonard writes in Mastery, regarding this endless journey of infinite small steps:

If there is any sure route to success and fulfillment in life, it is to be found in the long-term, essentially goalless process of mastery.

On his early days of training, Serafin writes:

Four times a year, once each season, students were invited to participate in what Master Chang called ‘spirit training.’ For a month, five days a week, we showed up at the dojo. At dawn — the best time to do ‘spirit work,’ he maintained. We started with a two-mile run through the desolate streets. Followed by an hour or so of yoga-like breathing and stretching exercises designed to ‘develop our ki.’ Then, as the city outside the door awoke, he’d share his thoughts on the true meaning of the martial arts...

’You’re all here to learn self-defense, but our worst enemy isn’t coming from the outside — it’s in us in the form of our own weaknesses and bad habits. The martial arts are a set of tools that allow you to attack your own weaknesses — to best express the ‘life force’ that comprises our universe. Whether one is plagued by the demon of fear, or laziness, or anger, or cowardice, or selfishness, or anything else, the martial arts at their best can give you a framework and strategy to defeat those things within yourself.’

In the Artist of Life, after struggling with the difficulties of "self" detachment, Bruce Lee recounts the lessons of his master Yip Man:

When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists refer to as the ‘double-bind’ type, my instructor would again approach me and say, ‘Loong, preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week: Go home and think about it.’

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":

To make Nature display its mysterious way of achieving things is to do away with all of your own thinking, contriving, and acting; let Nature have her own way, let her act as it feels in you, and there will be no shadows, no signs, no traces whereby you can be caught; you have then no foes who can successfully resist you.

BJJ practitioner and actor Ashton Kutcher poignantly stated:

You’ve got to learn to relax and give up your back to the mat.

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:

It’s a spiritual practice... It’s primary purpose is to promote a spiritual warriordom and to respect your society.

Extending his thoughts on martial arts and its place in modern society, Rene Dreifuss:

[B]e truthful and don’t live in a realm of self-serving (or cult-serving) delusion. ... It’s been said that martial arts begins and ends with respect. ... Being polite and a gentle-person is the discipline of society. And while it seems that martial arts is an individual pursuit, it most certainly takes a team working together to make the magic happen. ... Sharing knowledge is at the heart of what we do. ... If there wasn’t someone at each step giving everything he knew I would not be training today, and I think it’s my responsibility to transmit that knowledge to the best of my ability...

I think there was a psychological study that says the more you think about others, the happier a person you become. Being selfless and giving is what connects us and links us to the art as a whole. All martial arts came out of a sense of needing to protect the one’s we love... It’s about being part of the larger community. With modern MMA, K-1, etc., the spotlight is on the champion, and we lose sight of the fact that he wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for his or her teachers and training partners. Helping others ... is the biggest difference I see between ‘fighters’ and martial artists; for fighters it’s all about me, my achievement, my time in the limelight. But at the end of the day, what have you given back?

I know a lot of great fighters who say the best moment of their lives was not their winning whatever championship it happened to be, but developing their students and seeing them succeed. Being a link in the chain of transmission and seeing the world in a way that isn’t narcissistic, is to me the most important aspect of our community ... rather than some guys beating the crap out of each other. Helio [one of the founders of Brazilian jiu-jitsu] isn’t famous for beating Santana or Kimura (he didn’t), he’s famous for spreading the art as a master-teacher. We all have to live up to that example.

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:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe. The realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or your monitor. ... Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

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:

[V]ery simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. And ... they had connection, and — this was the hard part — as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection. ... The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability, this idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen...

They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating... They just talked about it being necessary.

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:

You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s what karate taught me. The fear of being uncomfortable is worse than the discomfort itself.

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:

It’s useful to have visited these cantos of hell, however briefly, to have an intelligent understanding of the realities involved...

There is a shadow to false comfort, because it prevents people from dealing honestly with grief and loss. … There is much more wisdom and compassion in accepting the magnitude of another person’s loss, and of our own inevitable losses, without pretending to know things we don’t know. As a parent, it’s my responsibility to equip my child to do this — to grieve when grief is necessary and to realize that life is still profoundly beautiful and worth living despite the fact that we inevitably lose one another and that life ends, and we don’t know what happens after death.

On a better way to consider the nature of martial arts, Bolelli writes:

Rather than being confined to a separate dimension, martial arts should be an extension of our way of living, of our philosophies, of the way we educate our children, of the job we devote so much of our time to, of the relationships we cultivate, and of the choices we make every day.

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:

In a lot of ways, it is like writing a book. Every day you write your way into a corner, you create a problem for yourself and you spend the rest of the day solving it. ... I like the fact that it’s a really steep and endless learning curve. And that it’s a hard thing. It’s easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

Actor Ed O'Neill quipped on the difficulties of Brazilian jiu-jitsu after receiving his black belt:

16 years. This must come naturally to me.

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:

Something that my taekwondo teacher told me when I was a little kid that I never forgot was that martial arts are a vehicle for developing your human potential. And nothing in my life has ever put me in face with reality better than jiu-jitsu. In life, we can all distort our perception of things in order to make ourselves more comfortable, in order to make ourselves accept where we are. And there’s a lot of people out there that are running around in life full of shit. ... When you do jiu-jitsu, it’s impossible to be full of shit because reality comes at you in the purest form possible: a life or death struggle, using your determination, your focus, your techniques, your mind, and your training, over and over and over again.

You are training your spirit:

Only after several years of training did I come to realize that the deepest purpose of the martial arts is to serve as a vehicle for personal spiritual development.
— Joe Hyams

You are increasing objectivity:

There’s something about BJJ as a martial art that strikes a tangent to the more contemplative project of self-transcendence. In BJJ, one’s ego-centric illusions get canceled right at the outset. You can’t fake being good at BJJ for even 30 seconds. As you train, you are constantly haunted by the evidence of someone else’s superior skill.
— Sam Harris

George Leonard eloquently brings it together in The Silent Pulse:

We might say the universe is so constituted as to maximize play. The best games are not those in which all goes smoothly and steadily toward a certain conclusion, but those in which the outcome is always in doubt. Similarly, the geometry of life is designed to keep us at the point of maximum tension between certainty and uncertainty, order and chaos. Every important call is a close one. We survive and evolve by the skin of our teeth. We really wouldn’t want it any other way.

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):

After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then — at that moment — a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might — yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

When acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace reflected on water, he too was struck by a similar jolt:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’

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:

It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.

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.

Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.
— Hui-Neng

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:

[I]f you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.

"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:

Once you understand the Way broadly, you can see it in all things.

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:

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

In the continuation of the "Swordsman and the Cat" parable, Suzuki writes:

The one is a great river incessantly flowing, and the other is a temporary flood after a heavy rainfall, soon exhausted when it encounters a mightier onrush. A desperate rat often proves stronger than an attacking cat. It has been cornered, the fight is for life and death, and the desperate victim harbors no desire to escape unhurt. Its mental attitude defies every possible danger which may come upon it. Its whole being incarnates the fighting ch’i (‘spirit’), and no cats can withstand its steel-like resistance.

On the paradox of water, Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching writes:

Nothing is weaker than water, but when it attacks something hard, or resistant, then nothing withstands it, and nothing will alter its way.

From the Cat, the rat, to the aerial freedom of a bird, Bruce Lee contemplates from the water:

Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the birds flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached — not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.

Sam Harris had a similar epiphany while being choked in a sparring match:

Pay close enough attention to the nature of your own mind — to the flow of thoughts, moods, sensations, and perceptions in the present — and you can notice that the feeling of being a self, an ego, a thinker of thoughts in the midst of experience, is an illusion. Which is to say that you can actually discover the absence of the feeling that you call ‘I’. You still have thoughts, moods, sensations, perceptions, but there it will be clear that there is no self riding around in your head owning these experiences. This is a discovery that can be made, and it’s every bit as reproducible and confirmable as the proper technique for applying a triangle choke.

In comparison to the atheism of Sam Harris, David Foster Wallace posits:

There is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. ... Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

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.

First of all, therefore, he is to have an insight into the Reason of life and death, when his mind is free from thoughts of selfishness. This being attained, he cherishes no doubts, no distracting thoughts; he is not calculating, nor does he deliberate; his Spirit is even and yielding and at peace with the surroundings; he is serene and empty-minded; and thus he is able to respond freely to changes taking place from moment to moment in his environment. On the other hand, when a thought or desire is stirred in his mind, it calls up a world of form; there is ‘I’, there is ‘not-I’, and contradictions ensue. As long as this opposition continues, the Way finds itself restricted and blocked; its free activities become impossible. Your Spirit is already pushed into the darkness of death, altogether losing its mysterious native brightness. How can you expect in this state of mind to rise and wager your fate against the opponent? Even when you come out victorious, it is no more than accidental, and decidedly against the spirit of swordsmanship.

Peter Serafin recalls his master's final yet most important lesson:

‘If you ever have to actually use any of these techniques on the street, that means you probably failed somewhere along the line,’ he’d remind us. ‘A true martial artist sees several steps ahead. He knows when the tenor of ... an encounter changes and it’s time to take steps to diffuse the situation — or make a strategic retreat. Listen closely enough and something will tell you to avoid or leave a dangerous situation, so you won’t have to fight your way out. Of course, something could develop, and you’ll have to use some techniques — but if you ever do, it’s almost always because your awareness failed you earlier. Remember that.’

I haven’t seen Master Chang in decades ... but I always remember Master Chang as the first one to show me how a true martial artist conducts himself and lives his life. And while learning to fight to defend one’s self and loved ones is an important skill, I learned that martial arts ‘badassery’ isn’t what I once — naively — thought it was.

Master Chang's lesson is reminiscent of this passage from Zen in the Martial Arts:

When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the Way.

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:

When you are in a state of mind known as ‘mindlessness’ (mushin), you act in unison with Nature without resorting at all to artificial contrivances. ...

Some time ago there was in my neighbourhood a cat who passed all her time in sleeping, showing no sign of spiritual-animal power, and looking like a wooden image. People never saw her catch a single rat, but wherever she roamed no rats ever dared to appear in her presence. I once visited her and asked for the reason. She gave no answer. I repeated my query four times, but she remained silent. It was not that she was unwilling to answer, but in truth she did not know how to answer. So we note that one who knows speaks not a word, while one who speaks knows not. That old cat was forgetful not only of herself but all things about her, she was in the highest spiritual state of purposelessness. She was the one who realized divine warriorship and killed not. I am not to be compared with her.

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:

Because of the self there is the foe; when there is no self, there is no foe. The foe means an opposition as the male is opposed to the female and fire to water. Whatever things have form exist necessarily in opposition. When there are no signs stirred in your mind, no conflicts of opposition take place there; and when there are no conflicts, one trying to get the better of the other, this is known as ‘neither foe nor self’. ... Your mind is cleansed of all thought movements, and you act only when there is a prompting.

Bruce Lee on the elusive qualities of water, synthesizes the teachings of the Tao Te Ching:

Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded; sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day. So is the principle of wu wei:

The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury. And since he will not strive, none strive with him.

On freedom and the universal representation of the "rat" being the antithesis of freedom, David Foster Wallace suggests:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. That is being taught how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the ‘rat race’ — the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing. ...

Think of the old cliché about the mind being ‘an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ This, like many clichés, so lame and banal on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

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:

Such conditions as pleasure and pain, gain and loss, are creations of your own mind. The whole universe is indeed not to be sought after outside the Mind. An old poet says: ‘When there is as particle of dust in your eye, the triple world becomes a narrow path; have your mind completely free from objects — and how much this life expands!’ When even a tiny particle of sand gets into the eye, we cannot keep it open; the eye may be likened to the Mind which by nature is brightly illuminating and free from objects; but as soon as an object enters there its virtue is lost.

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."

The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
— Joe Hyams
‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. ... It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.
— David Foster Wallace
It is yourself who realizes the truth of it. The truth is self-attained ... self-realization is the keynote of them all, and it is transmitted from mind to mind... There is no transference of secrets from master to disciple. Teaching is not difficult, listening is not difficult either, but what is truly difficult is to become conscious of what you have in yourself and be able to use it as your own. This self-realization is known as ‘seeing into one’s own being’ which is satori. Satori is an awakening from a dream. Awakening and self-realization and seeing into one’s own being — these are synonymous.
— D.T. Suzuki

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:

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... Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

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:

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

’This is water.’

This is water.
— David Foster Wallace

Useful Companions to This Article: