It has happened again to me and it is always amazing. Someone had come to me to ask about learning kung fu and while inquiring about the training asked, “ so….how long until I can teach it?” What? Where else do you go to learn something and before you even start it ask when you can teach it? Can you imagine going to a football, basketball or baseball coach and asking when you could teach it before you even studied it? Do people go to a music lesson for the first time and ask the instructor when can I teach this? It is a truly bizarre phenomenon in martial arts that this happens. When someone comes to a guitar teacher it is because they want to learn to play a guitar not teach it. It is the same with other disciplines; you’re there because you want to learn it. Somehow in martial arts people want to learn the art solely to be the teacher, the revered one, the respected one, okay, but how about being the skilled one?
I’ve been asked this question for years and it always stuns me. It shows a lack of desire to learn the art and a huge desire to have the trappings of the art. It’s about decorations and not about substance. I had a Zen student do the same thing recently. I asked what their intention was in studying Zen and the answer was so they could open a small monastery somewhere that they would be the head of. It wasn’t to seek enlightenment, bestow compassion or to fully understand their nature; it was to be a head of a temple. In over forty years it’s the first time I’ve ever heard this and I find it to be very strange. On the other hand years ago I met a fellow that was talking about doing a particular martial art and I asked him how long he had studied it. He puffed out his chest and said, “I don’t study it, I teach it!” It was like this was supposed to communicate to me what a great person he was or whatever. To him it was an accomplishment but to me it was an astounding admission of ignorance. Teriyuki Okasaki Sensei, the Shotokan master, once said to me that Americans goal is to study to get a black belt and end it there but the Japanese know that the black belt is just the beginning and start their real training there.
The best teachers I’ve had in my life were those that continually grew and learned. They never stopped developing or maturing and they were a deep fountain to draw from. Then there were all of those other teachers I’ve had and we’ve all had …. ‘nuff said.
There is a phrase that is rarely used in martial arts, religion and spirituality that could shed light on many problems and practices. The phrase is simply ‘why does this work?’. Why does one thing produce another and do you truly know that it does? I was once speaking to a very devoted Korean karate student and he was telling me about watching his master hit a makiwara board over and over again till his knuckles bled. Evidently he would do this for hours at a time and be in a trance like state. I asked the student why he did it and he replied, “Because it develops spirituality”. He told me that his master had done this for decades and I asked him, “Why does it develop spirituality”? He had no answer. I have heard this idea for many years in the martial arts community that somehow severe physical discipline will somehow magically produce an insight into the Tao. There are many myths surrounding Bodhidharma and the development of kung fu at Shaolin temple but many scholars refute these tales as being completely fabricated long after Bodhi’s death. In all of my studies in Chan (Zen) Buddhism I have never had a religious scholar mention kung fu associated with Bodhidharma though one once said, “there is nothing in Chinese history he is not accredited with doing, he probably invented the noodle too”. I think that the origins of the spirituality connection might have arisen from this association, real or fabricated, between the two.
I do not see any connection between physical discipline and spiritual development if the philosophy is not inherent in the physical teaching. If there is not an overt and clear teaching of the philosophy in the physical discipline it will not just arise out of nowhere. Hitting a makiwara board over and over again might produce endorphins that could be mistaken for spirituality but that exercise in itself will not produce anything but tough knuckles and eventually arthritis. Standing in a horse for hours or lying extended between boards might toughen the body and discipline the will but it does not dissolve the ego. If somehow enlightened behaviour or deep insight arises out of physical discipline then Arnold Schwarzeneggar and the Navy Seals should supplant the Dali Lama. I have met many incredibly disciplined professional athletes in my work from pro-boxers to WWE wrestlers and I didn’t see anything particularly awakened about them. If anything they were so attached to their physical form as to be out of balance with the rest of reality. For many their entire identity is attached to their body. I’ve never heard them claim their training would enhance their awareness or awaken them either. Somehow Eastern thought is now inextricably linked with just doing a martial art. Even the Samurai masters of old came to study Zen as an adjunct to their martial training because the physical alone was not enough. On the other hand martial artists today will practice bashing each other’s brains in for hours and then either stand in a horse for extended periods or sit full lotus and claim that it will bring them closer to the Tao. Why? Why would a prolonged horse stance bring spirituality? Why, does sitting and meditating bring you awakening? There are religious extremists that meditate to settle their minds and steel their wills before they commit heinous acts of violence so what then what does meditation do what is inherently good about the practice?
These are real questions that really need to be addressed by anyone who wants to develop a deep sense of connection with the universe. Doing kata or practicing scales on a piano does not produce real fighting skills or inspired playing. It does prepare the body for what the mind must develop. Just quieting the mind in meditation is like doing kata but never applying it to real life. This idea of stilling the mind and just being empty was addressed by the Chan master Lin chi (Rinzai in Japanese.) Someone had commented on the great masters who reside in the woods with still minds and he replied, “Shave pated sh*t sticks!” He thought them to be useless and self deluded; just empty vessels roaming about. The idea of just ‘not thinking’ is a really prevalent though poor understanding of Eastern thought in the same way that thinking physical training will develop you spiritually is.
There is another dimension to physical training that must be understood. Anyone who has trained for years knows the wear and tear it takes on the body. The difference between being twenty four years old and thirty four years old is amazing. When you are over fifty the differences are much more stark. As you age you are acutely aware of the vulnerability of the body and its fallibility. The type of energy that moved you when you are young is not the same type of energy that moves you when you are old. As you age you hopefully have developed an expanded awareness of not only what you are doing but mainly of what your opponent is doing. If you are engrossed in your own physicality you will not be aware of your opponent. You can train and harden the body all you want but it does not make you more aware of your surroundings. Spirituality develops when you have trained the body to its peak and then let go of it. Like any instrument it is there to express the art but must be lost to the artist. Any great musician loses awareness of their instrument in order to produce a song at its fullest. A great guitarist can make a poor guitar sound good but a poor guitarist will make a great guitar sound bad. It’s what they bring to it. A great martial artist is developing an awareness that is beyond the normal physical means and gains a greater holistic view of the world. He does this by mastering and then overcoming the physical and simultaneously developing the spiritual. To simply rely on the physical supporting the spiritual is a dead end street for the physical always decays.
Physical discipline enables you to overcome your weaknesses and desires. If you are so concerned about your comfort and desires you will never see beyond what your body dictates to you. If you are so concerned about your fitness you will not be aware of the source of your being. It is when you overcome these attachments as simply gratifying but not satisfying that you might glean a view of a deeper reality. At this point all that is left is the mind to cultivate and then let go of that too. Here you must face the core of your being. When you defend yourself who are you defending? Who/what is this self that disciplines the body? It is from this root that true development happens.
Ideas, articles, lessons, and retrospective moments.