Practicing Swimming Next to the Pool
That title might sound like a ridiculous thought, but it really is how a lot of people train in the martial arts and they may not be aware of it. There is an intrinsic problem in studying the martial arts no matter what the style. It has to do with how the brain processes information. There are these misconceptions in the arts that somehow something mystical will happen when we are in a real fight and some warrior instinct will arise within us allowing us to vanquish our foes. We believe that the training we do in the kwoon or dojo is going to apply to the streets, but in actuality it normally does not. This is not the blame of the student or the school, but of the brain itself. I had a few instances in my life that crystallized my view on these false ideas we hold. Several years back there was an article in a major Philadelphia paper on female black belts asking them about real life experiences. The reporter asked several of them if they had ever been accosted and when they replied 'Yes' he asked, ‘What did you do?' Pretty much all of them responded that they screamed and then tried to get away. I found this very peculiar that their reflex action was not to strike or fend off, but to scream. This is pretty much any person’s reaction so why do you need a black belt? One time a student visited my workout space with his friend and was pushing the friend to learn kung fu. He told him that he might need it if he or his family was attacked and that he had no fighting skills. The friend did not want to study kung fu and proclaimed, “I know if I ever get attacked that what I need will burst forth from me and I will defeat anyone. I have faith in myself and my religion that I will prevail.” He was clearly very agitated by his friend pushing him and I could see him getting emotionally revved up. Out of nowhere he sprung across the room and attacked our 75lb heavy bag. It was poorly tethered to the floor and ceiling and we always had to reattach it. This fellow attacked it chaotically with his elbows and fists flying in a frenzy. I guess he was trying to show us his great ferocity. The bag broke off the floor tether, which was no surprise to us, tilted back and then came forward top first. It caught this guy under the chin and lifted him off the floor. Then the bottom came swinging back up and nailed him in the groin sending him sprawling on the floor a few feet away. He was knocked down —almost out—by an inanimate bag. He lay there stunned, eventually getting up to simply leave the room. His faith that things would magically go right was probably somewhat compromised at that point.
I have heard long-time martial artists’ state, “Every master knows that when the time comes the ability will spring forth." I completely disagree with this. It’s like never playing tennis against someone and saying “I know when I get on the court with another player I will be able to rise for the occasion." It’s not going to happen. There are several reasons for this, with the most important one being the biology of the brain. What we learn cognitively does not manifest itself when we are under duress. There is no cognition when being attacked thus the female black belts screamed; it was a reflex. This is why so many people say they were stunned when an attack happened. It is outside the realm of normal life and reasoning. You can practice hitting tennis balls delivered by a machine all you want, but it does not prepare you for a real opponent. You can develop certain skills and techniques, but not the reflexes you need in a real match. Our reflexes are wired into us and not part of the cognitive process. The fight or flight response is located in the back of the brain while the cognitive learning centers are in the front. When we are under duress our brain reacts from the back of the brain, not the front. All of the learning we did in the front is not accessible under those conditions. Learning to block and punch in a controlled fashion is fine to get the motion down, but unless you practice under real stress it will not be there when you need it. So many times you see people that look great in the school, but when they are attacked they start flailing away like they’ve never learned anything. This is because they have not drilled themselves to the point where it becomes a deeply ingrained reflex, no longer a matter of cognition. Fear rules the brain at this moment.
I remember the first time I sparred with a boxer. I was very fast and had great technique. I was stunned at how aggressive he was and how he was only intent on hitting me. Most martial artists train to defend themselves, you know, it is after all the art of self defense. By having this attitude of defense enable the attacker the upper hand, because he controls the fight. I have said for decades there is no such thing as self defense; it’s self offense. When they attack you attack the attack. Defending against it puts you behind the motion. The psychology in these two positions are entirely different. So when this boxer came at me he was not being the least bit defensive. Naturally, he easily overwhelmed me and knocked me down. I was trying to defend and then offend. There is a real time lag going on here. It was stunning and quite depressing to me how easily he defeated me. He later said to me, “When I fight I expect to get hurt so I am going to hurt you first." When he attacked me I was trying to understand what was happening rather than just fighting reflexively. I did not have a fighting reflex; I had fighting learning but had not gained any reflexes. It caused me to really reconsider my training and to find ways to improve it. It was quite clear to me that those who just practiced under controlled conditions folded under uncontrolled conditions. Violence on the street is fast, unpredictable and chaotic. As my dear friend Sifu David Sun says, “There is no such thing as a clean fight”. If your training has not sunken to the core of your brain you will not be able to standup under this type of onslaught.
So what do you do? After you have learned your techniques and the mechanics of fighting then you need to up your training with someone you trust. You also need multiple partners with varying physical characteristics so you get diversity in your opponents. People of different sizes fight very differently. When you do this they must come at you aggressively and fiercely with no prescribed plan. You will find right away that most of the things you trained to do will not have the allotted time
to complete. Your fighting will be sloppy and panicky. That’s okay, this takes time to develop. You will also be scared. No sane person isn't. Mike Tyson used to cry before his fights and he is one tough character. I was working on an HBO fight last month in Mississippi. One of the fellows on this job is an ex-athlete and we were talking about the fighters. I mentioned the thing about Tyson. The guy I was talking to is at least 6’7” and easily 260 pounds. He is huge, really huge. He told me he played football for years and that before the games he said, and I quote, “I got tears in my eyes”. I said, “So you cried too?” He thought for a minute and said, “Yeah, I guess so”. Fear is natural so don’t be ashamed if you’re fearful about fighting; you should be. Also, in the beginning you must get used to the fact that you are going to get hit many more times than you will block or evade as this training sinks into your consciousness. Anyone who claims to have never gotten hit or that they are un-hittable is living on some other planet than Earth. We first learn by losing and it happens in every sport. You can practice running with a football all you want, but when there’s an opposing team it is truly a different game. It is by training under the stress of real game conditions that you really learn what you are doing wrong. You get knocked down a lot before you learn your mistakes. It is the exact same for martial arts. You cannot learn by standing next to the pool, you have to jump on in and do it. It is not till it becomes reflexive that it really works. All the theoretical concepts fly out the window when you are in the pool because now you are not worried about swimming, you are worried about not drowning. I was having dinner with a buddy of mine who has two purple hearts from his tours of Vietnam and he made the comment, “all the training in the world does not prepare you for when that first shot comes at you!" For this reason when I teach I always stress the real pressure aspect of fighting. After a student has digested the techniques I slowly ramp up the pressure on them. They are often quite humiliated and dismayed at their lack of ability but over time they develop true skill. Eventually their reactions will come from their core and not their mind. They will not even be aware of what they are doing while they are doing it accurately. They will not be doing an art; they will be the art.
I was just approached by a friend asking about choosing a martial arts school he could enroll his child in. He lives out of town and had visited several schools in his area. His survey of schools went from teachers who only taught one style to those that claimed to have mastered several styles of completely different martial arts with all kinds of certificates to prove it. To his eye this master of many styles looked good to him. It made me wonder why when it comes to things ‘Eastern’ we lose all intelligent objectivity. I studied Shotokan karate years ago and in the first class Okasaki Sensei had a very interesting lecture. He asked the class, "If you read in comic book that you could learn tennis in 3 weeks would you believe it?" The class responded, "No." He then said, "How about learning guitar in three weeks, would you believe it?" Again we replied no. "What about swimming?" "No". And then he said, "So how about you learning karate in three weeks?" Here the class hesitated and he boomed, "It’s no different than any other physical discipline, it takes years!"
No one can have mastered several different arts particularly if they are less than fifty years of age; it takes too much time. Each style has its own logic and mechanics for the way it fights. It has developed over centuries to be what it is today. This is why we have a thing called the trades in this country like carpenters, plumbers and electricians because generally one person can’t do it all. They apprentice for years in their craft before they get their license. A lot of these many ‘degreed’ martial teachers have simply taken a few seminars or learned a few forms and thus think they have mastered a style. This is like learning a poem in French and claiming to be able to speak French. You can’t, you can only recite it. Have you ever walked into a group of foreign speaking people and said ‘hi’ to them in their language because that’s all you knew? Once in a Chinese establishment I walked in and said, "Ni hao, ni chitean le ma?" Which means "hi, have you eaten yet"? With that the manager got all excited and yelled out in Mandarin and I was surrounded by about eight Chinese all talking to me at once. They were so happy I could speak Mandarin. I can’t. I know phrases but that’s it. It took several minutes for me to convince them that this gwei lo does not speak Mandarin. So it is with many of those who claim to have mastered many styles. They may have a cursory introduction and a certificate but the true mechanics of the system, as it was intended, are lost to them.
I asked my friend who was looking for a school if he would go to a doctor that was both an ophthalmologist and a heart surgeon. He said no. I tried to explain to him that most people that claim to have mastered many styles are no different than that. Though there are exceptions it is rare. In the East it takes years if not decades to master a style and you don’t do more than one at a time. You devote yourself to that discipline; you can’t do it in weekend seminars by DVDs or online. For this reason it makes no sense to claim to have mastered several styles. Why not just master one style that is good and well-rounded rather than running from style to style? You can always integrate other things into it. One old Chinese sifu once said to me of these teachers, "they go from master to master, style to style and want to learn but they never will. We will never trust them enough to teach them what we know; they are never really family to us. You cannot have many fathers."
Since a beginner does not have experience they cannot discern between good teachers and bad. It is a daunting task. Of the good teachers I have known they have had one trait in common and that is they promote the art and not themselves. Though they may have a long and storied career they talk about the art and not their accolades. They are trying to communicate the rewards they got from their art and want their students to experience it in a similar fashion. Think of a great musician who wants to communicate the joy that music brings them instead of bragging about the concerts they’ve played. These other teachers promote themselves, what they have accomplished, how many belts they have and how great and honored they are. They generally have a slew of different certificates on their wall. Here it is about self promotion and not the art's promotion. Did you know you can enroll online and get a doctorate of martial arts from some bogus university? It’s true. You can buy just about any belt or certificate and there are plenty of weekend seminars that will take your money in exchange for them. I know of many teachers that brag about getting their black sash in kung fu. I clearly remember when I got mine; it was the first day of class. My sifu explained that the black sash signified ignorance.
Beware of teacher’s claims and timelines. In one school I was in years ago the teacher was twenty nine years old. Besides listing himself as the master of several styles he also claimed to be ex-military and to have been involved in the Olympics. There were dozens of newspaper articles he had on his wall involving interviews with him and his school. He opened the school when he was twenty one years old. When I did the math he would have had to be in the military when he was twelve years old to accomplish what he said and in the Olympics at eight. Without mentioning these things I politely asked him for a timeline; he refused to talk to me. When you look at a teacher do the math, it pays off. Check into his lineage and see if what he says is legitimate. You want to know what medical school your doctor went to and if it’s legitimate don’t you? He should have peers in the art that respect him. He should also have students that have been with him a long time. I have found that most of the senior students of the self promoting teachers generally catch on to their nonsense and leave them. Again, think about if you met someone in any other discipline who made so many claims would you believe them? "First I was in the Army Rangers, then I studied with the Seals for a while and then with the Israeli military….." you get the gist of this.
I have something I call the dinner rule. Simply put; is this someone I would invite to my house for dinner and would I be comfortable with them around my family? If you met someone at a business meeting and they bragged about all of their accomplishments and how they crush their opponents would you be likely to invite them for dinner? On the other hand if the person was amiable, open, at ease and comfortable with their self would you invite them for dinner? I think the answer is self evident.
I always suggest that one of the best books you can read about learning kung fu is "The Sword Polisher’s Record" by Adam Hsu. He is quite clear in separating the nonsense from the hype and self promotion.
So when you see a school with one teacher listing five styles of Chinese gung fu, karate, grappling and MMA beware; they are most likely a jack of all trades and master of none.
Why The Monk Sits On The Mountain
When I first started studying Zen decades ago I witnessed several encounters between my teachers and students over the idea that the teachers were hiding something, that they weren’t really revealing what they knew. The students basically wanted the teacher to fess, come clean and just ‘tell’ them the truth. When the answer offered wasn't what the student expected they would leave angry and frustrated thinking the teacher was up to not being forthright. Just the other day I had an acquaintance ask me to show him some kung fu hands so he would have the trick to fighting. He figured that if everytime I saw him that if I showed him a little it would make him a fighter. I told him there was no way that just showing him a few hand motions could give him any skill without the years of training and foundation behind it. It’s like asking Michael Jordan how to shoot a ball and thinking you’ll get it from him. It’s a similar thing when trying to teach anything that has a profound root to it.
I was of the mind in my youth that the real masters should just be out there freely teaching Zen or whatever. Toss it to the masses and they will get it. I was very sour on the idea of the monk sitting on the mountain and waiting for the student to arrive. Dr DeMartino, my first and main teacher and long time student of D.T. Suzuki, was one who brought Zen to the marketplace. He said that if Zen wants to be viable in the world it must be able to compete and express itself like other philosophies do and to be able to defend its stance. It was his contention that the antics in Zen teaching were not doing anything to promote it and in fact might be hindering its message There is a real philosphical base for what Zen is trying to explain as the core problem of the human condition. I personally think that he did a magnificent job at this. I have to admit that I, too, accused him at times for not ‘really’ instructing me on what to do. He had, in fact, said the same things to me over and over again and I just didn’t have the ability to hear and understand it. Years of training suddenly had me realizing what he meant and me saying, “Damn, he’s been saying that for fifteen years!” So there is a development of the student that is crucial as to whether or not they can hear the teacher. The Kyoto School of Zen with Masao Abe and others also presented Zen in a intelligent, logical manner. This is not to say that awakening is acheived through logic but that 'right thinking' or 'right understanding' definitely points you in the right direction.
Things have changed greatly since then and now there is a preponderance of Zen teachers in the market and unfortunately many of them not very good and have a weak understanding of the core of Zen teaching. They have the accoutrements of Zen but none of the marrow. This is true in many disciplines now unfortunately including the martial arts. Now that it’s easy to find a ‘teacher’ there is little effort put forth by the student to actually to vet them out or to apply them selves. There is a plethora of ‘aha’ experiences and lot of titles thrown out there but there is little of substance. From the TV gurus to the hundreds of ‘easy’ awakening books in the bookstores we are inundated with the scent of Eastern thought but not the substance. If something bad happens to you its because you did not lead the good lifestyle of these teachers. Think good and good happens might happen in a comfortable society but what about the Sudan, are those people to blame for not living the spiritual laws that are bandied about here? I was once in a Zen monastery with Masao Abe and we had just listened to a lecture by the head priest. The priest was explaining the interpentetration of things, how all things are related. Part of the explanation was centered around a coffee cup and whether or not we had thought about who made it and what their life was like; this was the interpenetration of things. The priest also exclaimed that nothing abstract was real. With that one fellow said, "how about mathematics?" No reply was given. After the lecture the priest approached the man and chided him for asking the question. Right after that we were introduced to that priest and a few others. They explained to us about the different direct transmissions they had received from various masters and their various achievements. They talked about whom they had studied with and how well they were liked by their teachers because of their great insights. They barely took notice of Abe Sensei. It was that year that Masao Abe Sensei was declared a living art treasure by the emperor of Japan and had received various awards for academic excellence for his book “Zen and Western Thought”. He was the preeminent teacher of the Kyoto School of Zen. This was all surprising to me since I had just heard a really weak lecture/dharma talk by the head priest and I was wondering how they had been taught. The priest's reasoning could not stand up against a scrutinizing freshman year philosophy student at a community college. It was poorly constructed and lacked any internal logic or reasoning and showed a true lack of understanding of the depth of Zen and the meaning of the interpenetration of things. It made me wonder what attracted the congregates to this monastery. Many people come to Buddhism when the religion they were raised with can no longer sustain itself to them either logically or philosophically. They become critical of their religion and seek something of greater substance. I felt that if they had applied that type of criticizm to what I was witnessing here that it would not have been a viable alternative to their past practices. After each of the priests had left I turned to Abe and sincerely asked, “Abe Sensei, what does it take to be a priest here”? He grimaced and said, “Ah, many priests here but no Zen”.
As time went on I have met more and more weekend Zen students on their path to awakening. They come for a snippet or two, a platitude here and there from the cafeteria of Eastern wisdom and then they move on. Like the fellow who wanted me to show him a few hands but not really apply himself to the art. There are plenty of teachers more than willing to supply these folks with what they seek. Few are there for great existential relief of their problems; they just want the merit badge and the Zen wink and nod and some respite from daily life. I find that many of these folks have not applied any real thought to what they beleive; they just believe it. They talk about heart and that the heart will lead you. I have to ask ‘just like the heart lead Muhammad Atta to fly into the WorldTrade Center following his heart”? This is not meant to be a snide comment, it is meant to make us really look at our beliefs and how they are generally based on some ambiguous foundation. The Eight Fold Path teachers right thought and right understanding. It is not about faith or acceptance but critical analysis ultimately ending in the question, 'who am I'? In Zen dialogue the teacher takes away all the misconceptions of the student. They don't fill you with big smiles and 'aha' moments; they rock your very foundation. If you’ve had a good teacher you’ve been challenged about everything you hold as real. In turn you challenge your teacher and if he’s real he will meet your challenge and disintegrate it. They will not run from it or admonish you for challenging them, they will welcome it. You won’t get a remark like “you would know if you were aware like me” or “I am the master, it is beyond your comprehension” or some other some such nonsense these teachers hide behind. It is in this challenging and testing that truth blossoms. It is in heat that steel is forged not comfort. It is what the student brings to bear that the teacher rises to and amplifies.
The great Zen master Zenkei Shibayama once said that ‘Zen is for the elite’. He was greatly criticized for saying this and it created quite a stir. When I heard this in my youth I wondered why everyone was so upset; awakening isn’t easy, Bodhidharma himself said 'the way is long and difficult' and he is the first patriarch. It’s like saying the olympics are for the elite; well, they are. If you don’t train hard you don’t get there. It’s the same with Carnegie Hall. There is nothing elitist about that statement; it’s a fact. It reminds me of a funny saying by a 10th dan jujitsu master from Holland, “America is full of masters and no one who practices”. I love that line.
Now decades later I realize why the monk sits on the mountain. It’s because those that come to him need an answer like they need air to survive. They are sincere and ready to do what they must. They have already proven their grit, determination and dedication. The road is long and difficult no matter what chicken soup for the Zen soul says and they have already embarked upon it. They have been weeded out by time and hardship and they are ripening to be able to understand the teacher. They are there because they have to be there, they have no other choice. In a sense it’s Zen natural selection and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Ideas, articles, lessons, and retrospective moments.