Cultivating the Root of All Art
We are all familiar with the term martial arts it is used all the time by those trained in the different forms of fighting. While you have the term martial, pertaining to war or the military and art, meaning the creation of meaningful or thought provoking works, how do these two terms really reconcile one another? What does it mean to call something an art? There are many fighters in the world but where is the art form in it? Generally when we speak of art we think of conveying a thing of beauty in picture, form or dance, we don’t think about bashing someone’s head in. So where then is the art, what beauty could possibly be expressed in a martial environment?
First I’d like to address the idea of art as understood in the East as opposed to the West. We in the West think of the arts; music, dance, painting, etc. as what art is. This defines art in a very narrow way; it stands apart from ordinary life. We delineate between fine arts and modern art along with many other forms. But what is art really trying to express, what makes it art? I would say that it is the attempt to express something greater than the known self, something that is above and beyond normal expression but is universally recognized by many people as something wonderful and profound. Thus Musashi’s painting of the Shrike on a Twig with its few strokes and DaVinci’s Mona Lisa can both be art forms. Both are very different in form and technique but both expressing the ineffable quality of art. The simplicity of Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” or a Mozart symphony, while seemingly very different are both expressing something wonderful, deep and beautiful.
The term kung fu means hard work, that which you persevere to attain through your hard driven effort. The idea of ‘good kung fu’ can be applied to anything in life from cooking and sewing to what we traditionally call arts. A great chef has good kung fu, good skill, as does everyone else who strives to attain a level of mastery at their particular skill. Musicians are constantly trying to overcome their physical limitations to master their instrument. They want the dichotomy between their mind/body and the instrument to disappear. They want to be the guitar or piano, to be the song. The only way to do this is by constant practice so that it becomes what is commonly known as second nature. In fact it is more of an attempt to return to our first nature, our original nature before the rise of our ego, our sense of an individual self. The routine drilling of scales does not make inspired music like the routine drilling of form does not make real kung fu or develop real fighting skills. They can definitely assist in developing skills but by their self alone will not do it. It is the overcoming of the technique that frees you to become a true musician or fighter or an artist. Thus the Zen expression: no rider above the saddle, no horse below. The separation of rider and horse has vanished.
One of the most common traits of artists, be it Michael Angelo or a kung fu master, is that they are seldom happy with their skill level. They are ever trying to hone their skills, to overcome their self so that they might produce truly good results. There is an expression in fencing that says you need two lives to master fencing; one to master the mind and then another life with a new body because by the time the mind is mastered the body is too old. We are trying to express what is formless with form and the form can be very limiting. If you truly love someone you are limited by how you can express it to them and it is the same way with art. To be full of music or prose and to be able to express it are two different things. In the expression of a martial art the art arises when the self is lost to the practice; you are no longer doing the art, you are the art. In this state your desire is neither egotistical nor malevolent, you move as needed and do what must be done according to what is presented. Self-consciousness is lost here and a new consciousness arises.
There is an old samurai story about a student that is not advanced by his master and is frustrated because he does not understand why. Although he can do every technique the master always says, “Not good enough”. This goes on for years and the student cannot figure out why the master won’t advance him. Finally the master stops teaching the student and assigns him to work in the kitchen. For months the student works in the kitchen but is consumed by his inability to become a true samurai. He cannot figure it out for he has mastered all techniques, there is nothing left for him to do or learn. One day when he is lost in his cooking the master comes in and suddenly attacks him with his sword. The student has a soup ladle in one had and the pot lid in the other and fends off the master and strikes him down with the ladle. The master gets up smiling and says, “Now you are a samurai”. He had finally given up on the idea of techniques and weapons and had become the art using what was at hand.
It is this mastery that creates the art in martial arts. It is the overcoming of self to achieve something that is greater than the self. It is something that is ineffable and intangible; the more you have an idea of what it is and seek it the further you fall from it. When you commit yourself to your endeavor without expectation is when it is most likely to arise. Musashi expresses himself equally with the sword or the brush. Each is a flowing of the formless through the form. The goal is not ego fulfillment or accolades but the expression of the Tao, the formless, no-mind or nirvana (extinction). What you seek to gain in status or fame will eventually fail with the body but what you become when you are a true expression of the formless does not rise or fall with the body. There is no braggadocio here or posturing. Someone who trumpets his battles, the bones he broken or the foes he has vanquished is not expressing the art; they are only expressing their ego.
“Therefore the sage manages affairs without action (wu-wei)
And spreads doctrines without words.
All things arise and he does not turn away from them.
He acts but he does not rely on his own ability.
He accomplishes his task, but he does not claim credit for it.
It is precisely because he does not claim credit that his accomplishment remains with
Lao Tzu “The Tao Te Ching”
translated byWing Tsit Chan