Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Martial Arts Matters

Coincidence or plan? Blind chance or hidden variables? Or maybe there's some blind chance and some stuff driven by hidden variables; it's just that we cannot tell which is which? That seemed so obvious to me once the notion had implanted itself in my head, that I'm baffled at the complete absence of serious discussion of this possibility just about anywhere!

Do we just notice things that we are prone to noticing, usually because of their significance to us, or is there actually something to notice?

What about Tarot cards? The I Ching? Clairvoyance? Is it all suitably tweaked 'interpretation' and what amounts to utterly unscientific—meaning, for many people, 'not real' or 'dumb-ass superstitious'—waffle and/or psychobabble smoke and mirrors?

Where do you stand with regards to such matters? Or maybe just some of them, but not all...

What's it got to do with Martial Arts? Well, it's certainly got to do lots with martial arts and me.

It so happens that at the beginning of December '09 I finally started up sword-work again. Not in a dojo context, because I came to the realization, finally and for good, that there's no dojo in Brisbane that can teach me what I really want to know. Everybody has their schemes and agendas and, occasionally weirdo, philosophies; and there's the invariable 'Master' somewhere, who often also appears, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain cuckoo. Add to that a bunch of 'local' 'sensei'—mainly self-styled; the 'sensei' mainly in their own heads, and usually signing themselves as 'sensei' anywhere they get a chance to, which is always a bad sign—with vastly overinflated assessments of their own importance, and maybe you can see my problem.

So, I started the 'work' by myself, and more of that further below.

About the 'coincidence' issue though...

Couple of weeks ago, an old friend of mine, who is about my age, definitely isn't into martial arts—though he would benefit from it greatly, especially sword work—but who reads a lot, came across the works of one John Donohue. The latter, apart from being a 'martial artist' also writes novels. I'm just going through the three he's written, and will review them when I'm done.

Apart from being great thrillers, the books also contain a goodly portion of martial arts philosophy—not all of which I agree with, but which nonetheless make one think about things again, even if only in contrary response. But I can see where the guy's coming from; a different place than myself—more on that in another blog, too—but still not a bad place. Too testosterone-charged for my taste, but that's what happens in those kinds of disciplines. Not enough of the female element. You wouldn't believe, would you, that all males start off as females in the womb...

You may not think of this coincidence—me starting up sword practice again and my buddy reading and recommending those books to me—as particularly significant. But it was, because I keep on thinking about what shape and philosophical and practical form to give to any dojo that I might establish myself. These thoughts and reflections are with me a lot, but they were going nowhere fast and somewhere only slowly.

As usual, that was due to me asking the wrong questions. This, by the way, is the case with just about everything for everybody that tries to do something and seems to be getting nowhere; or who seems to be getting somewhere quite fast, but definitely onto the wrong path. But somehow, reading the first of Donohue's novels, Sensei, other questions emerged; and that set me onto a different track with regards dojo issues.

The first question coming to the fore was: What are you actually qualified—in a real sense—to teach?

By 'real sense' I mean what of 'substance', if you will, am I qualified to teach, and what does 'qualified' mean anyway? Just being a 2nd Dan in some, albeit venerable and centuries-old, martial arts tradition—in my case Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu—doesn't necessarily mean that I'm actually 'qualified' for any damn thing. Not in my book.

You may 'have qualifications' in this and that skill, and it may appear that you 'know' a shitload of stuff—but does that mean you're qualified to go and open a dojo and tell people, "come in and learn from me"? Not in my book.

You may have passed a number of exams in certain certificates that attest to your 'qualifications' in the teaching area; but does that make you a teacher? Not in my book.

A 'sensei', translating it literally, is someone who has been born before—before those he is a sensei to. 'Birth' in this instance usually implies some spiritual dimension, being 'born to something'; or a dimension of skill or practice; or, if you will, of what is sometimes known as 'walking the path'. In other words, he or she will have gone somewhere you haven't yet, and therefore may be able to show you the way. Of course, all of us walk different paths, but a lot of the lessons learned by one person apply to others. If the 'path' includes specific elements, such as 'martial arts' ones—even without going the whole hog and declaring martial arts to be something pompous like 'The Path' (of the warrior or whatever); which is something I consider seriously misguided and narrow—then a 'sensei' should definitely be able to guide you along certain sections of it; or not, if s/he thinks that maybe you need to really figure this or that out by yourself. 'Being born before' carries an implication of 'having gone along here before'. Anybody who wants to be a 'sensei' therefore, and anybody starting up a dojo by implication makes him- or herself into a 'sensei', better make sure that he has the qualities and qualifications required to be able to say, "Yes, I have been there before, and I can help people along their path(s)."

That's a tough one, and I'm not certain I can say that with sufficient confidence to go ahead and establish what you might call a 'meaningful dojo'—or even what that implies and what's needed for the existence of such a place. This isn't paralysis-by-indecision, but a matter of responsibility. It occurs to me that, in general, establishing a dojo of any kind, advertising its existence and trying to get as many people as possible to come and visit and train in it—train for what?—isn't quite as trivial a matter as a lot of people appear to see it as. I don't mean 'trivial' in terms of economics, or venue or insurance matters; but trivial in terms of...responsibility maybe. Advertising one's wares, of any ilk, always implies a promise of quality and relevance to those the advertising is directed at. You can't do that with martial arts training, except in terms of maybe self-defense skills or something along those lines.

But I'm not a self-defense guy in the sense that people would understand it. It's a significant part of any martial arts training, of course, but the mechanics are only a tiny fraction of it. But anybody coming to training advertised as containing 'self-defense' would expect training in those above all. There are a gazillion people out there, who are better 'qualified' than I am, who can beat the shits out of each other and any unwary and even a wary attacker, and who'll gladly train up people for that purpose. But my view of self-defense and the general social activity we call 'fighting' is that the most important skill is to know how not to fight to begin with, and that the most important body parts involved are your feet and legs, and next down the line your face and your tongue. Because you need to be able to run away if you can, and if not, being able to defuse a situation with suitable facial expressions and body language and the right words and so on. That's the first and most important thing you need to know. But if that doesn't work—and you really to do your best to make it work, because in the aftermath you'll be judged by your society on how much you genuinely tried!—then you need to turn on your Dr. Hyde nature, which has to lie there, dormant and waiting to be unleashed in case it's needed, and become the most fearsome and ferociously terrifying dude or dudette your opponents have ever faced; and finish them off without mercy or hesitation before they even know you started getting serious.

That, however, is not something you can teach people as readily as a nice jab to the throat or kick to the knee or crack with a bokken on something that'll inflict suitable pain and disability. And these days people want results, which martial arts, the real kind, will only provide with patience, persistence, insight, a desire to learn and understand, and practice and practice and practice.

I'm wondering if there's something inherently wrong with the whole notion of hawking martial arts like some 'product', competing for the disposable income of your potential clients.

"When the Student is ready, the Master will appear," goes the saying. But maybe it's also a case of "When the Master is ready, the student(s) will appear." Who knows?

Gotta think about that some more. Meanwhile, this blog is long enough, and I'll talk about solitary sword practice and how one can do this meaningfully in my next blog.

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