These past few years have been most interesting for me. My teacher of many decades, Dr Richard DeMartino, student and friend of D.T. Suzuki, died in January 2013. D.T. Suzuki once stated that no other Westerner truly grasped Zen other than Dr. DeMartino. There has been no greater influence on my life than him. He tore down my preconceptions, challenged my views on most things and forced me to think deeply and critically. He freed me from my own myopic view of the world. A few years before him Dr Maso Abe passed on. He was another great influence on my life and bade me to teach to others.
Besides these deaths I have been traveling constantly for martial arts broadcasts. Two trips to Japan and then Croatia, Istanbul, Vancouver, NYC, Miami, LA, Vegas and a slew of other cities have enriched me as well as exhausted me. I’ve been surrounded by martial artists from all over the world, sharing the same hotels and gyms and traveling the world with them. I’ve had some of the best and most insightful conversations with these fellows and worked with Bas Rutten and Duke Rufous on a regular basis. I’ve been busier than I’d ever intended to be and traveled more miles than I’ve ever wanted to. The coming year looks just as busy and with even more travel.
All of my time on the road and with all of the events that have happened has caused me to constantly reevaluate and tweak how I teach martial arts. I always try to trim away the superfluous and unnecessary. I am constantly aware of how much ineffective and somewhat silly techniques are taught in martial arts. As one fighter put it in Tokyo “you can train all you want on how to fight someone but once you get punched in the face that all goes out the window”. What he meant was that what you plan for is not what ever happens. There is nothing like hitting someone with your super destructive thunder punch and having nothing happen to them; it takes the stomach right out of you. As they said in Mortal Kombat, “this is where you fall down…” but they don’t! Being on the road with these guys I see it over and over again.
I always find it most interesting when we are doing fighter interviews how the production crew reacts to some of their antics. Here’s some fellow trash talking or bragging about his skill and thinking he’s making some kind of good impression while the crew thinks ,‘ what a hammer’. There was a fellow in Japan bragging about how he is there real deal, true traditional martial artist, and that no one could train to fight him. One of the fellows in production muttered, “I hope he gets his ass kicked”. That sent me laughing. This guy was trying to impress and all he did was come off looking bad. He lost the fight in the first round to a KO. The majority of fighters are not arrogant at all. I’ve spent many a night in the hotel bar with the winners and the losers and there is almost no animosity.
So now I look to trying to teach what I can before that final ten count signs me off. One very accomplished fighter once said to me, “Joe, don’t try to offer a meal others can’t digest, they won’t learn”. It’s very hard to gauge what someone else can digest but I understood his meaning. The art has to be grasped from the inside and brought forward like a lotus opening up. All the techniques, belts and certificates in the world don’t mean anything if you have not digested the art. I strive to find a resonant point with my students; a place that sprouts within them that will grow if they nourish it. They need to grow without me, it has to be the nourishment they digested. There is so much bravado in the martial arts and it is truly dangerous. I regularly hear teachers bragging about their skill when they’ve never really been tested by a seasoned fighter. There is this wonderfully silly myth that big guys are slow. Well, some may be slow but when I was in Istanbul I was talking with a 6’5” Muay Thai kick boxer. His trainer was there and he showed me his hook kick. He fired that from the floor, touched my ear and put it back down in a flash. Most importantly he was completely out of range of my legs and arms, basically firing from a safe distance for himself. I was most impressed by his great speed. It just made me think of all those folks out there doing the arts and having no concept of what it is like to face a fellow like this.
We want to be secure in our art, we want to believe that no matter what we can win and be safe, and we can’t. We can do our best but there are no guarantees yet we want them. I saw a demonstration of a Taiji practioner who ‘only used defense techniques’ to ward off attackers. He took volunteers from the audience. It was not a martial arts crowd so no one could really fight and they flailed about on the stage while trying to get to him. It was great entertainment but so far from reality it was scary. A dear Chinese friend said to me, “See this is why Taiji is so great, he can avoid violence with no problem”. I answered,”no one here is trying to hurt him nor do they have the ability to”! I have nothing against Taiji or most arts. My concern is the unrealistic belief and expectation of them. I realized by my comments at this demo that I was raining on their parade and then kept quiet. (Yes I know that is unusual for me) They truly believe he could do this. If I went up there and challenged him I would just be an arrogant jerk no matter how good my intentions were. No one would learn anything by it. I hope that fellow never gets mugged by someone who has any skills.
I keep the art real; I always have and always will. I truly hope that the seeds I spread scatter and grow with dignity, honor, kindness and fierceness. I thank those who have persisted with me in continuing this art.
Ideas, articles, lessons, and retrospective moments.