Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Teaching martial arts

There is an old zen parable about a very knowledgeable teacher who one day comes ot visit a zen master. Ostensibly, he comes for instruction, but right away the zen master can see that the teacher has come to show off his own knowledge...blah, blah, blah...the pouring of the tea...blah, blah...it overflows...blah, blah. Everyone's familiar with the story, but it seems to me it's particularly appropriate as every martial arts teacher has certainly encountered students who begin with their cups already full. Once and a while they arrive at the dojo to test the teacher, but more often they come in sincerely, even with humility, yet with expectations. Their expectations are filled with preconceptions about karate or just martial arts in general. Sometimes they are able to revise their expectations, but more often than not they just quit and move on, looking somewhere else for something to match their expectations. (I wonder if this is also the way most of us live life in general: not looking for challenges, but for things that reinforce, conform to, or reaffirm our expectations.)

This summer I started to teach my nine-year-old son. We did some things when he was seven and a few more things when he was eight, but only this year has he had the desire and the discipline to really begin to learn. And I am constantly amazed at how he learns. I don't explain much, but what I do find is that he is very observant and picks up very subtle movement. Even at this age, when we do Kung Li, or power development exercises, he is able to see where the power comes from and he works diligently on imitating this. I don't know whether it's because he is an inexperienced beginner or whether it's his age and a lack of expectations. A lot of times, I think our expectations get in the way.

I have seen this problem of expectations even with experienced martial artists. Their expectations, however, produce a kind of tunnel vision so that they see only what they have been conditioned to see. Like the old adage that speaks of the carpenter who sees the solution to every problem in terms of a hammer and a nail, the karate practitioner who has spent endless hours pounding a punching post or makiwara tends to interpret all kata in terms of punching, blocking, and kicking. A Shotokan teacher once asked me what I trained. I said, "Goju-ryu." He said, "Oh, that's a very hard style isn't it?" I said, "Well, actually, the name itself means 'hard-soft style." So which is it, hard or soft? I often have a hard time trying to show people another way of looking at Goju-ryu and the applications of kata. I have been told that I was wrong because my bunkai was not the same bunkai that their teachers had shown them. I try to explain the principles upon which I'm basing my interpretations but the disbelief is still there--they have been told something else, and what I am suggesting flies in the face of what they have been told by their teachers, or by their teachers' teachers. That's another subject: when do we rightly use lineage to justify what we do and when should we question this "blind faith" we have in our teachers?

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