I personally don't like being called Sifu or Sensei. I know that many martial artists can't wait for the day to get those monikers but I really disdain them for myself even though this irks my Sifu. When I think of the level of training that my Sifu went through from fighting to calligraphy and healing arts I find it hard to accept the title that he has earned. I know Sifu simply means teacher and does not necessarily have a qualitative attachment to it but I still prefer to avoid that title. However I seem to me alone in that category.
Americans are crazy about being called master, grand master, PHD of martial arts and any 'accreditation' they can get be it from certificates or trophies. Guys adorn their web sites with scores of accomplishments from mastering 10 arts to being actual samurai's to having the ever so laughable 'licensed hands'. They do anything to look great. As one great actual 10 Dan Dutch Judo master once said, "Americans are all masters and no one who wants to practice". I see people who are in their thirties claiming to have mastered 10 styles along with a myriad of other things. It takes a lifetime to master one style how can you master ten? As far as black belts go you can get them anywhere. Decades ago when I studied Shotokan karate under Teryuki Okasaki one of the first things he said was, "In Japan you get a black belt in a couple of years and then you start your training but in America people get a black belt and then they stop their training". It's all about the title here. Several years ago I was invited to join a consortium of local martial artists and I declined. A good friend of mine, who was highly accredited and had fought internationally, was also invited and he did go. It was put together by a fellow that had studied karate for a few years and quit immediately after getting his black belt. He was a very good business man and had established successful schools. At this meeting this fellow put forth the idea that they could test each other and advance each other to higher ranks. By being in a group this would give him some legitimacy since he had broken from his lineage. My friend left the meeting disgusted and never returned. For the record my friend had to return to Taiwan each year to get tested under their hierarchy to advance so the idea of a shortcut appalled him . The karate fellow still has successful schools and is now a 'tenth dan' red belt. Who knows certified him.
Where else is their this obsession with belts, degrees and certificates? Are there the black belt, master equivalents in any other athletic endeavor? "Hey, don't play pick up ball with him, he's a black belt in basketball , he'll kick your butt". Or, "That quarterback is a 7th dan, you're screwed". How about , "That guys not just a heavyweight boxer, he's 10th dan so he's great". It just doesn't happen anywhere but in the martial arts and it's over the top insane with this stuff. How many different masters can you get your picture taken with, how many certificates can you get, etc. Then there's the guy who has a conversation with a cop or service man and is asked how to break a grip or some other mundane thing and the next thing you know posted on his web site is "I trained the LA cops" or "I taught the US army self defense". It is ubiquitous.
It's hard to escape these things and a newbie doesn't know any better, in fact, they are drawn to it. But what can they do? There are no national standards, no Bull shido police to call someone on their nonsense and no way to know unless you happen to have an acquaintance that can guide you. Beware of those people that gather shiny things, they can blind you to the truth.
I just returned from the Glory 48 Muay Thai Competition in NYC. Along with being a successful show I got and unexpected visit with my friend Bas Rutten who was there to support Tiffany Van Soest, an undefeated Dutch fighter. Over the last few years we've had many conversations about the illusions martial artists have about what their ability is and what the ability of their opponents is. There is a lot of trash talking from stand up fighters regarding MMA fighters and vice versa. We often tend to live in our own bubbles when it comes to our styles. I'll see someone observing an MMA fight and say, "well, if I were in that situation I'd just poke him in the eyes". Bas talks about giving a demonstration where a young woman kept making these comments and he finally said to her " what would you do if I had you in this position?" , she replies, "I'd poke you in the eyes". Bas said, "Ok, I'll get you in this position and you poke me. As you do I'll break your neck, ok? Ready in one...". The young lady protests and the conversation is over. The reality vs the theory and they are quite different. I know she wanted to believe she could handle it but it's better she finds out at this demo than on the street. I've said over and over again fights are never simple or clean but so many martial artists have these terrible misconceptions. Here's some things I've experienced.
A long fist fighter is observing a Wing Tsun demonstration and comments, "That's why we have one punch kill techniques and they doing these multiple nothing strikes". Really? I've been to hundreds of professional fights and never seen anyone do this 'one punch' technique. Of course I've seen one punch knock outs but they don't happen often. I've never seen anyone consistently land a one punch knockout in a fight. One the other hand I've seen people overwhelmed by multiple quick strikes and then get knocked out in the volley. I also experienced a WT fighter land about 10 punches on a guys face who then turned around and hammered him into the ground. The 'one punch kill' shot is for the movies and the inexperienced. There is nothing more eye opening then hitting someone with all of your power and having little reaction from them.
A Tae Kwon Do black belt is observing two stand up fighters going at it and says, "All you have to do is kick them once to the head and it's over". My response was "well if he's crowding you what do you do?". He said, " You can always make room, get your distance". I asked, "How about in a bar?" He insisted he could do it though he'd never been in a bar fight. He said he could always create the distance in the ring so he could do it in a bar. Not too smart thinking here. I also commented that in the many fights I'd seen most knock outs are by the hand , not the feet. On the other hand I've seen people say, " Tae Kwon Do is easy to beat , you just rush them". You know, no one has ever had that idea before and I'm sure the TKD artist will be shocked and surprised as you do that while his axe kick lands on your head.
MMA artist says "all fights go to the ground where I will choke him out". Maybe but then on the street there's no rules and while on the ground the guys buddies kick the living hell out of you. I've seen this. Then I've seen the guy who says, "I've never been choked out, it can't be done to me". Then I introduce him to some BJJ buddies and suddenly his story collapses.
Martial artists constantly dis boxers and it amazes me. One of my favorite moments on the job was an over the top MMA fighter taunting his opponent, a well skilled boxer, before the fight. He did nothing but trash mouth this guy and was dancing around the ring during the intros swatting at him and belittling him. The bell sounds and this guy keeps dancing and taunting while the boxer is moving very pointedly and deliberately. Then the guy dances by him a third time and BANG ! a well timed right hook lays him out. He woke up after the count was over and did not believe that he got knocked out. It was hysterical.
The point of this is that all of these arts were developed for a reason and are effective in their own way. Learn from all of them and apply them to your art. There is something that each has to offer and if you aren't open to it, well it's your loss. Do not criticize an art because you heard about it from someone else; go test them yourself and see what you can do against them. You might be very surprised at what you learn.
There are many assumed connections between the philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism and the martial arts. In over 45 years of the study and practice of both I rarely find any meaningful intersection of the two, there is generally just a shadow of the philosophy taught in the martial arts. I would like to talk about one of the most misunderstood yet most vital concepts of Taoism which is ‘wu-wei’ or non-doing. This is not simply some pie in the sky saying that has no meaning in real life but is actually the product of true training and practice in the arts and is essential to true mastery of any form of art. You don’t have to be a monk to realize the benefits of the actualization of these ideals; you just need to apply yourself completely and wholeheartedly to realizing them. Wu wei means to’ not do’. This is often misunderstood as a simple ‘doing nothing’ but that is completely wrong. The entire phrase should be ‘wei-wu-wei’ or to do without doing. How can we do something without doing it? It’s a contradiction. How can I kick or punch without kicking or punching? The fact that I choose to do this means I am doing it and therefore I have lost ‘not doing’. To understand this fully you have to think about the process of learning. When we first learn there is a conflict between mind, body and teacher. Our teacher shows us something and we attempt to imitate him. We see what we are supposed to do and try to understand it. We try to do it but our bodies aren’t conditioned to do it yet so we practice over and over. After a time our bodies grow and adapt and we can do it freely without taxing our bodies but we are still just doing it. It is a product of our thought, we think kick and we kick or block and block. We are doing technique, it is a conscious act. There is something dramatically different between what a real master is doing and what we are doing, but it’s hard to see what it is. If we really practice over and over it will become ingrained in us to such an extent that we are the motion, we are the kick, we just ‘do it’ without any self awareness or thought in our mind, it just happens. This is doing it without doing it, it has become a reflex, we do not decide to do it, it just flows outward from us. Though this is more desirable than just doing, it is still not complete for at anytime our mind can arise and we will be aware of ourselves and be doing it again. We learn how to do it by doing it but until we become it, we are just imitating it. A real master is it all the time. He knows he cannot teach us anything but can only point the way and hope that we figure it out for ourselves.
I find that playing music often works well when trying to explain this concept. If you’ve ever practiced an instrument you know how hard it is to overcome technique. Your fingers hurt, you’re trying to remember what to do and it sounds bad. Because it’s an external instrument it’s easy to see the difficulty in learning it. After a while you might master a few chords or songs but you are limited by that knowledge, you are still playing the instrument or ‘doing it’. You might reach a point where you can play quite well and be pretty content on the warehouse of songs or techniques you’ve built up but then you go out into the world of real musicians and realize you are lost. Someone who has not just practiced but played over and over again can become free of their instrument, they are no longer aware of it, they just express the song through it. After you hear someone great play you might ask them what they did and often they reply, “I don’t know”. They are no longer a person playing an instrument but the expression of the song or music, in the moment. It flows freely without the self or mind in between. They are unconscious of technique but they are aware of what is happening in the moment and playing it as it happens. If they need to hear what the other players are doing then they will be behind, be re-acting, and thus not gel with the other players.
Decades ago I did a show with Julius Erving for about a year. It was a talk show format and we shot it on Monday mornings. I am not a sports person and knew the name Dr J but really knew nothing about him or his career. This was the last year of his career when we did the show. I think he liked the fact that I didn't know who he was and I was not a sycophant. Often we talk before in the mornings before the shoot began or we'd chat at lunch time. At one point I said to him," I think I know how you feel running down the court". He replied with a smile, "Yeah, and how do you think that is?" I said, " It just happens. You are unaware until you've finished a rush or shot, you just go, unaware of exactly what you are doing yet fully in control. When you see the young players on the court you see their effort, they are forcing through the game while you are submersed in it". He got a really surprised look on his face and said, "Now how would you know that? It's true man, the young guys try too hard, you have to let it happen". I then went on to explain the concept of wei-wu-wei to him. Although it's a Chinese expression the experience is not limited to any culture or historical perspective and he understood completely because he lived it. Although athletes today call it 'the zone' it can be cultivated much more deeply than that.
Martial arts is the same. Until you practice and engage with others to the point that you are no longer there, no longer doing it, you will always remain outside the moment. We must free ourselves from technique like the musician does so we can move freely to do what is necessary. In this moment we are free from technique and the thoughts of life and death. This is pure art, purely in the moment, yet fully aware to do the right thing at the right time even if that be to do nothing.
I often tell students that there is no such thing as self-defense and have been criticized greatly for it but I still stand by this. When you defend yourself you are standing back from the motion, you are letting the opponent control you. You are reacting to them not blending into and overcoming them. The dictionary definition of defense is ‘to fight off’. Too many today think it’s block or step back from the attack. This will only get you hurt. Many years ago I met a visiting Akido master from Japan. I was told that this was a purely defensive art and there was no aggression. The teacher agreed to do some practice with me and when I handed him a punch he immediately, and gentlemanly, sent me to the ground. I asked him, ‘what is purely defensive about slamming someone to the ground’ and he thought for a second and laughed. This is an offensive act and a correct act. To think you just ward off someone or try to subdue them is very dangerous. I have maintained for years that you attack the attack, not defend against it. This does not mean to meet power with power but to put yourself into the position to attack the attack with whatever it takes and whatever you need to do. It might mean that you step back but to do so that the opponent moves to the place you need to get him. You move forward or backward attacking, not defending. To put your mind in a defensive posture is to let the opponent control what you do. Yes, I know I am repeating myself, get used to it.
If you have truly attained ‘doing without doing’, then you move as water or bamboo, freely and completely appropriately to the moment. There is no anger or judgment here, it is just pure motion. An animal does not defend itself with malice but it does do it with complete and total commitment and focus. The animal does what it does without knowing what it is doing. We humans have lost that ability and need to regain it. This can occur in any aspect of our lives be it martial arts, music, sport or any other creative pursuit.
The samurai’s of old came to Zen not to study Buddhism but to overcome their fear of death so that they could fight in the moment, without concern for their safety, yet fight intelligently and effectively. In other words they needed to ‘do it without being there to do it’ to be free from life and death. Achieving this in a single technique is not enough; it must be embraced by the entire body and mind.
When we face an opponent we react to what they do. That is, we do something in reaction to them. This is doing. Think of the term ‘react’, break it down to ‘re’ and ‘act’ or to act again. To react means that you are behind the other person in time, they are leading and you are reacting. This is natural because we see an attack, realize what it is and respond to it but it is too slow. To react is to be aware of your self under attack to have to defend. True ‘wei-wu-wei’ is do move without reacting, to be as one with the other like a mirror reflecting their motion. This is not a mindless mimicking of the other person because you still have to intelligently defend your self, do the right thing to survive. It causes the contradiction of doing and not doing simultaneously. To be aware of what you are doing immediately makes you re-act, you are not in the moment. To just be mindlessly in the moment means you can’t make a judgment as to what you should do. By this I mean suppose it was just a friend sneaking up on you to scare you. Do you really want to hit him and hurt him, no, but how to make the distinction in the moment between a real threat or not becomes a problem. Instinctively we know what is happening. At the core of our existence before we even think about it we know it, without a thought, it is real and immediate. If you put your hand on a hot plate you don’t have to think ‘this is hot’ before removing it, your body knows without your mind perceiving. This type of deep knowing exists with us all the time but our minds get in the way so we don’t see it. We try to ‘know’ what is happening and miss what is already there to see.
The core of martial arts is to reach this place of 'pure being', to reach the core of life. Then all of your actions will harmonize with nature as you are nature fulfilling itself.
"We are the paintbrush mistaking itself for the painter".
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