Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Monday, January 19, 2015

Enlightenment and the martial arts

I have a close friend whom I don't see all that often, but we go way back. I mean we've known each other for thirty years or so, and we train together whenever we do manage to get together. We've been to Japan together and Okinawa, and we've gone on weekends to the Zen Mountain Monastery. Our interest in Zen Buddhism did not naturally come about because of a shared interest in the martial arts, I don't think, but rather from a similar spiritual interest. We would often have long discussions about books on Zen or how one might reach enlightenment through the practice of the martial arts. These discussions have not been as frequent in recent years, but then, what with family obligations and all, our visits have not been all that frequent either.

Yet every time I see him he always asks me the same question: "So, are you enlightened yet?" We always joke and laugh and leave it at that. Perhaps it's just a conversation starter, much like asking about the weather. Perhaps it's nothing more than a harmless attempt at re-establishing that erstwhile spiritual connection, sort of a reminder that we haven't seen each other for a long time. But the next time he asks me that question--"Are you enlightened yet?"--I'm going to say, "Yes. How about you?"

I'm not exactly sure what this will lead to, what sort of reply one can have to that. Some questions certainly are never meant to be answered. I suppose one needs to laugh heartily and say, "Oh, come on," as if to imply, "Hey, who are you kidding." Or, "Get out of town." But this all comes down to a real philosophical problem for me, and one that I see quite often in the martial arts. Simply put: If you ask me whether I have reached enlightenment or not, and I say that I have, who are you to say that I haven't? That is, don't you have to know what enlightenment is yourself to know whether or not someone else has or hasn't reached it? Well, I suppose, unless enlightenment is something like pornography. Then, I guess, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I'd have to say, "I may not know how to define it, but I know it when I see it."

This all comes up for me when people tell me that bunkai can't just be one thing or have one right answer. My response is usually, "Why not? Why can't it?" They suggest that each movement in kata has multiple interpretations or applications. I agree--since I always try to be accommodating--but, if I might be so bold, only one of them is correct. What I'm really waiting for is for them to start their response with "You can't be right because...." And what follows "because" would be an argument based on the supposition that I have violated logic or clear martial principles, not "because" my teacher said so or "because" it's not the bunkai we use at our school or "because" it's not what I saw on the Internet or "because" how could you know, you don't even speak Japanese. When I say that the bunkai of the Okinawan classical kata is all about going for the head, I just want someone to prove I'm wrong. It shouldn't be terribly difficult to point out where a particular bunkai errs. I see it all the time. One of the most egregious errors is when techniques purport to be bunkai and then don't follow kata movement. Another is when the attacker seems to be frozen in time, holding his punch out there in mid-air, allowing the instructor to apply some fancy technique, while out of deference not hitting him in the face with the other hand (the hand that he dutifully holds in chamber). Yet another I often see is when the supposed bunkai does not finish the opponent; it looks more as though it would annoy the attacker, rather than make sure that you weren't attacked again by the same person. (I would give specific examples, but it generates too much hate mail, and that's not my point.) Watch bunkai on YouTube sometime and see if it satisfies these simple tests. And then tell me how logical it is for the creators of kata, whoever they might have been, to have created kata where the techniques could have multiple interpretations and bunkai can be whatever a fertile imagination can come up with.

In the meantime, if you ask me if I know the real bunkai to the Goju-Ryu classical kata, I'll tell you, "Yes, I'm fairly certain about most of the classical kata," but I'm still training and learning. If you ask me how I know, I'll tell you that it conforms to good martial principles, follows the kata exactly, and is realistic. It's also self-referential as any good system might be. If you ask me whether I've reached enlightenment yet, I'll tell you, "No, not today. Tomorrow, maybe."


  1. Excellent explanation. What people don't realize is tha the body has muscular memory so there is one response to a determined attack. I'm fully support your concept

  2. Thank you, Mr. Pellegrino, for your kind words. It's always nice to know that someone out there is listening.