Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Don't hit anyone..."

Sometimes I head off into the woods just to escape. Even here, a little more than a mile from downtown, I can get far enough up the trails that I can't hear the highway. Once and awhile an airplane will fly overhead, but even then, after my initial irritation has passed, I can imagine some sort of primitive connection to the aboriginal people in that old movie, "The Gods Must Be Crazy." Above the canopy of trees, it's hard to see the airplane. Perhaps it's just the flatulence of the gods.

The trees, of course, are peaceful beings. If you walk in the woods often enough, especially in the spring, you can see them come alive again after a long winter. There aren't too many examples of living things that simply exist in harmony with their environment, living peacefully. Trees seem to. Oh, I know trees aren't sentient beings. Of course not. Certainly there's a lot we don't know about our world--it would be arrogant to
Miyagi Chojun sensei.
think otherwise--but I'm pretty sure trees aren't conscious or self-aware, though I'll keep an open mind on the subject. But at least in some imaginative or metaphorical way they present us with a wonderful example of peaceful co-existence, like that tree in the Shel Silverstein book.

I was thinking about all of this because we seem to be living in strange times...though that's only a euphemism for all the anger and nastiness and distrust and aggressively antagonistic posturing. I'm reminded of the words of Miyagi Chojun sensei that often accompany a frequently reproduced portrait of him: "Do not strike others; do not be struck by others." Wonderful sentiment. I think the trees would approve. But this from a Goju master? Is there something just a bit ironic in this statement? What was he thinking?

Receiving technique from Sanseiru.
I wonder sometimes if he was at all bothered by the violent nature of the martial arts and particularly
some of the violent head-twisting techniques found in the classical kata of Goju-ryu. I wonder myself sometimes if there is any way to minimize the violence inherent in the kata. There have been times when I have explained the bunkai of a kata to people and they will say, "We can't do that. I can't break someone's neck if I get into a fight." But it may say more about how we look to interact with other people, I think. We live in an angry age, where everyone seems ready to pick a fight. Is it at all ironic that if we lived in a kinder and gentler age, our self-defense would only be used in life-threatening situations? Or in ancient times when a confrontation really was life-threatening?
Controlling technique from Sanseiru.

But I still think if we adhere to Miyagi sensei's advice, then what we should spend the most time studying and training in the classical subjects are the receiving techniques and the controlling or bridging techniques. If we can really learn the receiving techniques shown in the kata--how to avoid and "block" the incoming attack--and bridge the distance to control the attacker, then we won't get hit and we won't necessarily need to hit anyone. After all, the finishes are easy; the hard part is how to receive (uke) the attack safely and control the situation so that it doesn't go any further. Whether I use a head-twisting technique to break someone's neck or merely throw someone to the ground is really a matter of how much force or intention is put into the technique.

Of course, in this day and age, it's very unlikely that I would be faced with any situation where I would have to make that choice. Well...unless someone were to jump out from behind that big old hemlock tree and threaten me.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

It's the clothes, you know.

Practicing Sanseiru.
We actually had snow a week or so ago, five or six inches. That's more snow than we had all last winter. I couldn't resist heading out into the woods for a walk just to see what it would all look like, frozen and cold. But in my rush to get in a bit of a hike before the sun set and the coyotes and goblins came out, I forgot to change out of my old Chippewa boots. They were all oiled up, so I wasn't worried about getting my feet wet, but the soles are pretty smooth and I was a little worried about how slippery the hill trails might be. Generally I subscribe to the notion that there's no such thing as bad weather, there's just the wrong clothes for the occasion. And these were really the wrong boots for walking on slippery winter trails.

It really made me think about clothes and some of the rituals we engage in when we practice martial arts. And it seems to me that all of these rituals--the clothes we wear, the language and terms we use, the ceremonies and titles--tend to invest martial arts practice with mystery and a sort of quasi-religious feeling. I wonder whether the Okinawans themselves view the practice of martial arts the same way that Westerners do? I mean, when we count to ten or use various terms to describe techniques, we learn these words almost as if it is a rite of initiation--we become members of a select group. The same is true of the karate gi. Certainly one could say that these pajama-like clothes are comfortable and loose and durable, but seriously couldn't one also train in sweatpants? The interesting thing about the karate gi, at least the top, is that it seems to be constructed very much like the kimono. So again, I wonder how Okinawans felt putting on a gi to practice karate some 75 or 100 years ago? I don't think it would have felt "special" in quite the same way as it does to a Westerner.

Practicing Sanseiru.
I've trained in Okinawan dojos alongside Okinawans, but I wondered sometimes whether the experience was the same for me and the other Americans as it was for my Okinawan friends. We don't usually wear
geta or zori, so going barefoot inside isn't quite as natural for us. Is practicing karate in bare feet then another sort of ritualized behavior? After all, most of us in North America are not practicing in a tropical climate. 

There is a strong argument, of course, that we pay homage to Okinawa and the source of our karate by adopting the clothing, the language, and the rituals. I think there's certainly something to be said for honoring our forebears or preserving the traditions and acknowledging our roots, but how does it affect what we do? Do the clothes make the man, as they say, or do the clothes make a person's experience something other than it is? Would we be practicing the same martial art if we were wearing shoes and sweatpants, counting and giving commands in our native language, and, heavens, at all cost avoiding bowing to the shrine? Would it change anything if the commands were, "Ready? Form 13. Begin."? Or form 18 or 36 or 108?

I guess my question is, how does the adoption of all these essentially Japanese things affect the way we view our martial arts? Don't get me wrong, I loved learning all the esoterica--from how to fold a gi properly to all the correct terms for things as simple as standing with the feet shoulders' width apart to the etiquette of titles and bowing. But how does all of this--fairly familiar routines for an Okinawan--affect someone who's not from Japan or Okinawa? It seems to me that some of this at least has nothing whatsoever to do with learning a martial art, and in fact may get in the way of the
strictly martial aspect of the art.

In some ways, it strikes me that this is a by-product of our modern culture. We dress in certain ways in order to identify with an activity. And it's almost as if we do this to broadcast this identity to everyone else. If we bike, we find ways to spend a fortune on biking clothes, as if we are convinced that we need to dress and look the part in order to engage in the activity. And the same is true of almost any athletic activity you care to name. There are special sneakers or shoes for each activity--whether it's running or weight lifting or soccer or cross-training or T'ai Chi or even just plain walking. Gone are the days of a good pair of canvas Keds or Converse All-Stars for all occasions. And we have special clothing to go along with the shoes. And of course there is a special language to learn as well. All sort of weird when you think about it.