The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, July 25, 2016

Courage and Boldness

There is a good post at The Art of Manliness on Courage and Boldness. An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.

What causes one culture to flourish while another flounders?

Why do some civilizations reach great heights only to fall mightily?

Historians have dedicated great tomes to these questions. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West are two prime examples of this line of inquiry.

But another can be found not in a work of non-fiction, but that of historical fiction. In Tides of War, author Stephen Pressfield provides a fictionalized account of one of the greatest conflicts in history — the Peloponnesian War — fought between two of the West’s greatest civilizations: Athens and Sparta.

While Tides of War is a work of historical fiction, Pressfield went to great lengths to maintain the integrity of the actual events described, relying on primary sources from Thucydides and other Greek historians. He also worked to capture the ethos of the time, and the men who inhabited it.

Peppered in between Pressfield’s thumosinspiring depictions of battle, are penetrating deductions about the cultural forces going on behind the scenes — the differences between the warring parties’ mindsets and principles, and how these differences led to mighty, imperialistic Athens falling to modest, republican Sparta.

While the decline of a civilization is often chalked up to economics or politics, Pressfield theorizes that Athens deteriorated because one particular aspect of its individual and national character degraded, and another was substituted in its place.

Sparta and Athens: A Tale of Two City-States

Despite living in close proximity with one another (the cities were only about 150 miles apart) and sharing the same gods, the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta were more different than alike. While Sparta was more communal (some would even say fascist), Athens celebrated individual liberty and freedom. While Sparta disdained wealth and luxury (going as far as outlawing money), Athens was a commercial empire. While Sparta’s military might lay in their fierce and indomitable army, Athens ruled the seas with their navy. Sparta was content with remaining a small and independent city-state; Athens was much more imperialistic — ever seeking to expand its influence politically, economically, and culturally.

The Spartans valued things like poetry, music, and philosophy more than is popularly believed, but such pursuits were decidedly subsumed by an emphasis on military training. This focus created one of the most effective, disciplined, and fearless armies in the world. Athens, on the other hand, celebrated art and philosophy as the pinnacle of human flourishing, and produced aesthetic masterpieces along with many of the most influential thinkers and philosophers in Western history, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Athens and Sparta differed politically as well. Sparta maintained a democratic system with a balanced constitution that divided power among three groups. A system of checks and balances prevented any one group from gaining too much power. Athenians, on the other hand, governed themselves under a radical democracy in which every male citizen was expected to participate.

While Sparta and Athens banded together for the sake of Greek freedom during the Persian War, they were reluctant allies. Each had long kept a suspicious watch on the other. Spartans were particularly wary of the Athenians’ increasing imperialism, believing it was only a matter of time before they would try to conquer their slice of the Greek peninsula. It was exactly that fear which led to the thirty-year Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Though the decades-long conflict would decimate the power and strength of both city-states, Sparta emerged the victor.

While both Sparta and Athens had their particular strengths and weaknesses, by the time of the Peloponnesian War, the latter had forgotten the apothegm attributed to their mythological law-giver Solon: “Nothing in excess.” Athenian virtues and ideals were taken to such extremes that they became vices. Love of individual liberty and expression degenerated into narcissistic, hyper-individualism; robust commercial enterprise morphed into unhinged avarice; hardiness and restraint were replaced with softness and debauchery; active and healthy democracy devolved into mob rule and demagoguery.

Even the great philosophers of Athens — Socrates and Plato — became increasingly critical of Athenian degradation, contrasting the discipline and virtue of the Spartans with the civic and moral decay of their fellow citizens. They looked on with dismay as a once thriving culture was slowly eaten by the cancer of decadence.

Spartan Bravery and the Difference Between Courage and Boldness

What was the core difference between Athens and Sparta, then? We’ve dissected external differences between the city states, but was there a deeper, foundational quality that the Spartans maintained, and Athenians lacked, that led to the latter’s decline and ultimate defeat?

In Tides of War, Pressfield uses the Spartan naval admiral Lysander to give answer to this question. In perhaps the most stirring scene in the book, Lysander stands before thousands of Spartans and their allies in the lead-up to the Battle of Notium and gives them a rousing speech. In it, he lays out the differences between Athens and Sparta and makes the case for why the Spartan way of life is superior, and why, in the end, his men will prevail.

For Lysander, the heart of what separates Spartans from Athenians is this:
“We, Spartans and Peloponnesians, possess courage.
Our enemies possess boldness.
They own thrasytes, we andreia.
Pay attention, brothers. Here is a profound and irreconcilable division.”
Andreia, or courage, was the dominating quality of the Spartans; thrasytes, or boldness, was the dominating quality of the Athenians.

For the Greeks, the word andreia meant both courage and manliness. Courage was the sine qua non of being a mature man; the two qualities were inextricably intertwined.
Thrasytes, on the other hand, was more of a boyish trait.

“The bold man is prideful, brazen, ambitious,” Lysander explained. “The brave man calm, God-fearing, steady.”

While Lysander set up a stark dichotomy between boldness and courage, acting with the former can occasionally be useful even for a grown man; sometimes impulsive, even reckless action is needed to seize a fleeting opportunity.

But where boldness exists, it must always be coupled and harnessed with courage; courage must be the prevailing quality of a man’s character.


In his speech, Lysander elucidates the difference between men who primarily act from boldness, and those who primarily act from courage, and details “what kind of man these conflicting qualities produce.”

Below I highlight Lysander’s words from Tides of War, and explore how they applied both to the Spartans, and equally well to men today:

Boldness Is Impatient and Fickle; Courage Is Steady and Enduring



Friday, July 22, 2016

Don't Try

An excerpt from an article at the NY Times on Edward Slingerland's "Trying Not to Try" is below. The full article may be read here.

Just be yourself.

The advice is as maddening as it is inescapable. It’s the default prescription for any tense situation: a blind date, a speech, a job interview, the first dinner with the potential in-laws. 

Relax. Act natural. 

Just be yourself.

But when you’re nervous, how can you be yourself? How you can force yourself to relax? How can you try not to try?

It makes no sense, but the paradox is essential to civilization, according to Edward Slingerland. He has developed, quite deliberately, a theory of spontaneity based on millenniums of Asian philosophy and decades of research by psychologists and neuroscientists.

He calls it the paradox of wu wei, the Chinese term for “effortless action.” Pronounced “ooo-way,” it has similarities to the concept of flow, that state of effortless performance sought by athletes, but it applies to a lot more than sports. Wu wei is integral to romance, religion, politics and commerce. It’s why some leaders have charisma and why business executives insist on a drunken dinner before sealing a deal.

Dr. Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, argues that the quest for wu wei has been going on ever since humans began living in groups larger than hunter-gathering clans. Unable to rely on the bonds of kinship, the first urban settlements survived by developing shared values, typically through religion, that enabled people to trust one another’s virtue and to cooperate for the common good.

But there was always the danger that someone was faking it and would make a perfectly rational decision to put his own interest first if he had a chance to shirk his duty. To be trusted, it wasn’t enough just to be a sensible, law-abiding citizen, and it wasn’t even enough to dutifully strive to be virtuous. You had to demonstrate that your virtue was so intrinsic that it came to you effortlessly.

Hence the preoccupation with wu wei, whose ancient significance has become clearer to scholars since the discovery in 1993 of bamboo strips in a tomb in the village of Guodian in central China. 

The texts on the bamboo, composed more than three centuries before Christ, emphasize that following rules and fulfilling obligations are not enough to maintain social order.

These texts tell aspiring politicians that they must have an instinctive sense of their duties to their superiors: “If you try to be filial, this not true filiality; if you try to be obedient, this is not true obedience. You cannot try, but you also cannot not try.”

That paradox has kept philosophers and theologians busy ever since, as Dr. Slingerland deftly explains in his new book, “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity.” One school has favored the Confucian approach to effortless grace, which actually requires a great deal of initial effort.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


The Tang Dynasty was a high point of culture in ancient China. Especially esteemed were poems. There was no home coming or leave taking; no event too small to not be commemorated with a poem.

Some of the best poems of that period have been collected into an anthology known as The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems. A online version of the anthology may be found here.  Today we have #60:


Throughout this dynasty no one had painted horses
Like the master-spirit, Prince Jiangdu --
And then to General Cao through his thirty years of fame
The world's gaze turned, for royal steeds.
He painted the late Emperor's luminous white horse.
For ten days the thunder flew over Dragon Lake,
And a pink-agate plate was sent him from the palace-
The talk of the court-ladies, the marvel of all eyes.
The General danced, receiving it in his honoured home
After this rare gift, followed rapidly fine silks
From many of the nobles, requesting that his art
Lend a new lustre to their screens.
...First came the curly-maned horse of Emperor Taizong,
Then, for the Guos, a lion-spotted horse....
But now in this painting I see two horses,
A sobering sight for whosoever knew them.
They are war- horses. Either could face ten thousand.
They make the white silk stretch away into a vast desert.
And the seven others with them are almost as noble
Mist and snow are moving across a cold sky,
And hoofs are cleaving snow-drifts under great trees-
With here a group of officers and there a group of servants.
See how these nine horses all vie with one another-
The high clear glance, the deep firm breath.
...Who understands distinction? Who really cares for art?
You, Wei Feng, have followed Cao; Zhidun preceded him.
...I remember when the late Emperor came toward his Summer Palace,
The procession, in green-feathered rows, swept from the eastern sky --
Thirty thousand horses, prancing, galloping,
Fashioned, every one of them, like the horses in this picture....
But now the Imperial Ghost receives secret jade from the River God,
For the Emperor hunts crocodiles no longer by the streams.
Where you see his Great Gold Tomb, you may hear among the pines
A bird grieving in the wind that the Emperor's horses are gone.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Power of Touch

The New Yorker had an interesting article on the science related to our sense of touch. An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.

On a bitter, soul-shivering, damp, biting gray February day in Cleveland—that is to say, on a February day in Cleveland—a handless man is handling a nonexistent ball. Igor Spetic lost his right hand when his forearm was pulped in an industrial accident six years ago and had to be amputated. In an operation four years ago, a team of surgeons implanted a set of small translucent “interfaces” into the neural circuits of his upper arm. This afternoon, in a basement lab at a Veterans Administration hospital, the wires are hooked up directly to a prosthetic hand—plastic, flesh-colored, five-fingered, and articulated—that is affixed to what remains of his arm. The hand has more than a dozen pressure sensors within it, and their signals can be transformed by a computer into electric waves like those natural to the nervous system. The sensors in the prosthetic hand feed information from the world into the wires in Spetic’s arm. Since, from the brain’s point of view, his hand is still there, it needs only to be recalled to life.

Now it is. With the “stimulation” turned on—the electronic feed coursing from the sensors—Spetic feels nineteen distinct sensations in his artificial hand. Above all, he can feel pressure as he would with a living hand. “We don’t appreciate how much of our behavior is governed by our intense sensitivity to pressure,” Dustin Tyler, the fresh-faced principal investigator on the Cleveland project, says, observing Spetic closely. “We think of hot and cold, or of textures, silk and cotton. But some of the most important sensing we do with our fingers is to register incredibly minute differences in pressure, of the kinds that are necessary to perform tasks, which we grasp in a microsecond from the feel of the outer shell of the thing. We know instantly, just by touching, whether to gently squeeze the toothpaste or crush the can.”

With the new prosthesis, Spetic can sense the surface of a cherry in a way that allows him to stem it effortlessly and precisely, guided by what he feels, rather than by what he sees. Prosthetic hands like Spetic’s tend to be super-strong, capable of forty pounds of pressure, so the risk of crushing an egg is real. The stimulation sensors make delicate tasks easy.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Chinese Martial Arts and Classical Theater

Today we have a guest post by Scott Park Phillips, who is the proprietor of Weakness with a Twist blog. Scott has recently published a new book, Possible Origins: A Cultural History of Martial Arts, Theater and Religion.

I created this video and wrote the book because my own experience convinced me that martial arts, dance/theater, and religion were not only compatible, but were often part of an integrated whole.  The deeper I looked into Chinese history and Chinese religion, the more obvious it was to me that Chinese culture had integrated martial skills with theatricality in a fully religious environment.  


This has not been a short journey.  I’ve been doing Chinese martial arts for 38 years.  I was a professional dancer, dancing many hours a day every day of the week.  In the early 1990s when I was deep into dance training, male teachers were dying of HIV/AIDS in alarming numbers.  Those still living were dancing about death a lot. This gave me countless opportunities to perform in front of audiences; paradoxically, it was a great time to be a dancer. On the other hand, I wanted more training from male teachers so I started looking at other other types of movement arts.  I became a disciple of Chitresh Das, a master of Kathak (North Indian Classical Dance), and improvisation.  I also studied intensively with Malonga Casquelourd from the Congo.  My studies of martial arts deepened too.  I was doing movement training 6-10 hours a day.  Doing these three types of advanced training at the same time opened my eyes to things other people were not seeing.  It became self-evident to me that Congolese dance, and Kathak dance were martial arts, and that Chinese martial arts were a form of dance-theater. All three contained the major elements of martial skills, martial religion, and theatricality.

By age 30 my interest in performing diminished, but my interest in practice and training did not. That is when I met a Daoist priest named Liu Ming in Santa Cruz California.  I began doing the five orthodox Daoist practices: sitting still, the golden-elixir, liturgy and text studies, daoyin (opening and getting on track), and dream practice (called: day and night the same). With me, Liu Ming emphasized huge amounts of reading. After each full weekend of training, he would send me home with a stack of books and a reading list. This went on for ten years.

I continued to practice and teach gongfu, becoming well known around San Francisco for teaching kids performance skills and improvisational life skills inside of the martial arts.  I also taught adults at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 

Finally, I returned to one of my teachers from years before, George Xu. In the old days, training with George had been about being as tough as possible. 3 to 4 hours a day 6 days a week, plus the practice he expected us to do outside of class. Now, 15 years later, George Xu had mellowed. He had been going to China every year to find new teachers to study with, and now all of his training revolved around emptiness.  Amazingly, he had reverse engineered the golden-elixir practice inside of gongfu training. Since I had been doing the golden-elixir for more than ten years at that point, I recognized it immediately. 

It quickly occurred to me that if the golden-elixir could be put into marital skills, it must also have been put into theater training.  And all the pieces of the big picture started to fall into place.

Since I would love people to read the book, I’m just going to address a single issue here.  The biggest obstacle most people have to comprehending the relationship between martial arts and theater, is this: People falsely believe that theatrical expressivity is an obstacle to martial prowess.

Violence professionals must be efficient. Inefficiency is a luxury only amateurs can afford. Martial skill has to function independently of expressivity. Even crappy expressivity skills would diminish one’s movement efficiency if the two were not independent.  But most violence professions (I’m talking here about people who break legs and capture criminals for a living), consider high quality expressivity and communication skills part of the job description.  That’s why expressivity and martial skill have to be well integrated.

However much theatricality a violence professional happens to have, it will be fully integrated with their martial skills, and the more theatricality the better. 

As part of that same argument, I often hear, “But that doesn’t look like the street fights, or bar fights, or the MMA I’ve seen.” That’s right, every type of violence looks different. Social, asocial, and environmental contexts determine what fighting looks like.  Kidnapping was a big problem in 18th and 19th Century China.  If the biggest danger you are dealing with is kidnappers who capture by throwing a bag over your head from behind, your martial art is not going to look like a duel.  But it is likely to have high momentum techniques like butterfly kicks, flips, and long extensions for pushing off of walls.  It is going to have a lot of simple techniques for breaking legs. If you can understand the context the art was created for, you can understand the efficiency of the movement. 

Here is me doing a movement form Chinese opera call “Butterfly Breaks Out of his Cocoon.” It is training for some unconventional chokeholds. 

Thanks to Cook Ding’s Kitchen for hosting my guest blog post!

Weakness with a Twist blog

Scott Park Phillips lives in Boulder, Colorado.  He regularly travels for workshops, his next one is in Oakland, California, August 26, 27, 28th at Soja Martial Arts (click on Adult Workshops)