"The nail that sticks up gets pounded down." --ancient Japanese folk wisdom.
I was wondering the other day what it would be like if Socrates had practiced karate. A simple stonecutter known throughout ancient Athens for his knowledge of martial arts. Of course, Socrates would not have taught martial arts in the traditional manner that we have come to associate with almost anything Eastern. We watch, we imitate, and we progress through the ranks, most of the time rarely questioning anything. Socrates, I fear, may have been different. This was the man, afterall, who was sentenced to death, to drink hemlock, for corrupting the youth of Athens. And what did he do? He taught them to question tradition, to question the way things had always been done, and he did it by asking questions himself. What would he have said about the karate that we so diligently accept--without question--from our revered teachers.
Socrates: Why do you chamber your punches? Isn't it slower? And if true speed comes from relaxation, why are so many karate people so tense? Why do they seem to hold punches locked out in some pretense of strength when a really fast and strong punch is relaxed until the moment of impact and then immediately relaxes again?
Student: But appearances are important aren't they?
Socrates: Do I really need to answer that? Not to change the subject, but why are there turns in kata? I mean, if you're doing it for yourself or even if you're demonstrating for someone else, why would you turn around unless the turn itself has meaning--that is, unless the turn actually shows you how to step off line?
Student: Didn't they turn around when they ran out of room?
Socrates: Didn't they train outside? And speaking of techniques, if some techniques seem quite a bit more lethal than others, don't you think it possible that the katas are composed of combinations of techniques--that is, the sequences begin with a block or receiving technique (uke) and end with the opponent down?
Student: But karate training will teach me "the one punch kill," won't it? I mean, if any one of my techniques will kill, then how is kata anything more than a collection of individual and unrelated techniques?
Socrates: Do you really think your one punch can disable an opponent that's not standing there like a makiwara post? Are you really that naive? And how long will it take you to train that killer punch? And you'll be how old then? And speaking of punches, why all the punches to the chest, not a very lethal technique is it? Isn't it more logical that the punches are really to the opponent's head and you should back up in the sequence of moves to figure out how you got the opponent's head down to chest level? And speaking of hidden techniques...why all the cat stances? I mean what good is a cat stance if not to allow you to knee kick off the front leg? Really, isn't it possible that all the supposed down side kicks in Goju-ryu are really knee kicks?
Student: Is that why we train with the iron geta?
Socrates: Did you ever try to do a front kick with one on? And speaking of strength training, shouldn't a viable system of self-defense be most efficacious for people who may most need it? That is, should you be able to use your self-defense when you are old and least likely to be able to defend yourself with strength and speed? Then logically, shouldn't sound technique require little physical strength to apply it effectively?
Student: Do you mean the study of koshi and spinal rotation rather than meeting all attacks head on?
Socrates: Speaking of head on, is it logical at the beginning of Sanseiru to step back and block a kick? Aren't you bringing your head down, inviting the attacker to punch you in the head after you block his kick? Is it even logical for someone to initiate an attack with a kick? Why would you move to put yourself in danger of a second attack? Is it possible that something else is going on here? And in Seipai, with its 270 degree turn, why would you turn your back on the opponent as some well-known teachers do, when they attack with a double punch, its blocked, and they turn almost all the way around to attack again? Isn't it more logical to suppose that you are not actually turning your back on the opponent but throwing him?
Obviously this could go on and on. The heretic Socrates was told that he could "take it all back," in a manner of speaking, or he could drink hemlock. It's strange to me that someone asking questions--whether it was 2500 years ago or today--could so upset the powers that be that they could be viewed as heretics spewing blasphemy, but that is the nature of the beast. We don't tend to question what we are doing, and if we do, we often don't ask the right questions. I think true learning only occurs when we ask questions--that is, when we question what we do. Of course, there are often answers, but some answers are better than others.