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 ~


Friday, April 29, 2011

Machiavelli

Walter Russel Mead over at StratBlog wrote a very good article on Machiavelli. An excerpt is below. The whole article may be read here.


Stratblog: The Virtues of Machiavelli


Niccolo Machiavelli is one of those rare writers so well known that his name has become an adjective; ‘Machiavellian’ means crafty and ruthless.  And over the centuries, Machiavelli’s most famous book, The Prince, has vexed moralists for its seeming defiance of all moral laws.

The ruler, Machiavelli tells us, must not just learn to do good; he must learn to do evil — and learn to do it well.  It is better, he tells us, to be feared than to be loved.  A ruler must not be afraid to commit atrocities — but he must commit them at the right time so that they will serve their intended purpose.  

It is wise to break promises to the weak, and often necessary for a successful ruler to lie.  It is useless to think of wars as just or unjust — it is only necessary to know when wars can bring success.

Machiavelli has been a scandal for almost 500 years — a shocking contradiction at the heart of the western canon.  A long moral and philosophical tradition going back to the ancient Hebrews and Greeks insists on the opposite: that to do good is to do well.  God will bless those who deal justly and punish those who mistreat their fellow beings.

Since Aristotle tutored Alexander of Macedon, the wise have counseled the great to be good.  Machiavelli says that is all balderdash, and counsels rulers to be devious and ruthless rather than honorable and fair.  He is so shocking that we can’t quite make our peace with him — but also too smart to ignore.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems, #39: Ballads of the Four Seasons: Spring

The Tang Dynasty was a high point in Chinese culture. Poetry was especially esteemed. The very best poetry of the era was collected into the classic, 300 Tang Dynasty Poems. The poet Li Bai (aka Li Po) figures prominently in this collection. An online version of this classic may be found here.

Li Bai

BALLADS OF FOUR SEASONS: SPRING



The lovely Lo Fo of the western land
Plucks mulberry leaves by the waterside.
Across the green boughs stretches out her white hand;
In golden sunshine her rosy robe is dyed.
"my silkworms are hungry, I cannot stay.
Tarry not with your five-horse cab, I pray."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Angry Frog

Over at Ichijoji, Chris Hellman (author of The Samurai Mind) has a story about Hirayama Shiryu. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

Another story that well illustrates his character is an episode that occurred with one of his friends, Shimizu Akagi, who was obviously of a similar mind to Hirayama. Walking home one cold evening in winter, Shimizu remarked "The heroes of old used to fight in the middle of winter. If we are serious about our martial studies, shouldn't we prepare ourselves for the same. How about a little swim?"
Hirayama, of course, agreed, so they both got into the icy water.
After finishing their swim and getting out, Hirayama proposed a nice bowl of hot noodles, to which his friend replied "Gotcha! They wouldn't have had that kind of luxury on the battlefield!"
Hirayama conceded the point, and they both went their separate ways home.

However, Hirayama's friend, on his way back, figuring Hirayama would go back home and be snuggled up warm in bed, thought he would surprise him and score double points. When he got to Hiryama's place, he was not in bed, but sitting on his normal oak board (which he used in place of a cushion), studying, according to his normal schedule. (In fact, he usually slept on the floor of his dojo rather than in a futon, with only a light cover, so I doubt he would have been getting very warm in any case).

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The 2011 Lenten Challenge: One Week To Go!

We have a week left in the Lenten Challenge. For those of you who have managed to keep up with it, good work! The finish line is within sight. For those who have fallen off the path and have become discouraged, there is a week left! Please rejoin us and see it through to the end.

My practice and been strong and my mind is clear and calm. How have you been doing?

Sherlock Holmes and the Art of Self Defense



Click here for the Bartitsu.org.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sisyphus

The Myth of Sysiphus

by Albert Camus
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

If one believes Homer, Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals. According to another tradition, however, he was disposed to practice the profession of highwayman. I see no contradiction in this. Opinions differ as to the reasons why he became the futile laborer of the underworld. To begin with, he is accused of a certain levity in regard to the gods. He stole their secrets. Egina, the daughter of Esopus, was carried off by Jupiter. The father was shocked by that disappearance and complained to Sisyphus. He, who knew of the abduction, offered to tell about it on condition that Esopus would give water to the citadel of Corinth. To the celestial thunderbolts he preferred the benediction of water. He was punished for this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains. Pluto could not endure the sight of his deserted, silent empire. He dispatched the god of war, who liberated Death from the hands of her conqueror.

It is said that Sisyphus, being near to death, rashly wanted to test his wife's love. He ordered her to cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square. Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there, annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth in order to chastise his wife. But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, lead him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him.

You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward tlower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.

If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much. Again I fancy Sisyphus returning toward his rock, and the sorrow was in the beginning. When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy arises in man's heart: this is the rock's victory, this is the rock itself. The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged. Thus, Edipus at the outset obeys fate without knowing it. But from the moment he knows, his tragedy begins. Yet at the same moment, blind and desperate, he realizes that the only bond linking him to the world is the cool hand of a girl. Then a tremendous remark rings out: "Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well." Sophocles' Edipus, like Dostoevsky's Kirilov, thus gives the recipe for the absurd victory. Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism.

One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. "What!---by such narrow ways--?" There is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd. Discovery. It happens as well that the felling of the absurd springs from happiness. "I conclude that all is well," says Edipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.

All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Changing Your Practice With The Seasons

A question that I've asked several martial arts teachers over the years was based on the principles of Daoism, how should we change our training along with the seasons. I've always been told that was a good question, then I saw a lot of tap dancing. No one gave me a satisfying answer.

To be fair, I have to take some of the responsibility for asking a question and having a preconceived idea of what sort of answer I expected. What I expected was that in winter we should do this and this, while in summer, we should do something else. I think the teachers I asked sensed what I was expecting and couldn't think of a response along those lines.

Then it struck me. It's so simple. We change our training in our Practice much like we train when we practice with a partner. Just as we yield, stick, listen and follow a training partner, we do the same as the circumstances of our lives changes.

We adapt. We change. During winter we spend more time indoors and therefore have less space. During summer we might spend a lot of time on outdoor activities, it's hot and humid and we have to know when to rest.

It makes no sense to beat our heads against a wall made up by some contrived standard when that standard is no longer appropriate. Every day our circumstances change and we have to be flexible enough in our outlook to change as well.

In the larger sense, this also applies as we move through the seasons of our lives. I trained one way when I was young and had no responsibilities; another when I was building a career and raising children and yet another way now that I am older and have an empty next.

There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. - Ecclesiates.

Friday, April 08, 2011

A Different Kind of Luxury

Have you ever wanted to drop out of the rat race? A Different Kind of Luxury is a blog about a book of the same title which may give you some insights. An excerpt from the blog is below. Enjoy.


ABOUT THE BOOK: Raised in the tumult of Japan’s industrial powerhouse, the 11 men and women profiled in A Different Kind of Luxury have all made the transition to sustainable, fulfilling lives.

Based on Andy Couturier's popular articles in The Japan Times, this lushly-designed volume has a wealth of stories about real people who have created an abundance of time for contemplation, connecting with the natural world and contributing to their communities. In their success is a lesson for us all: live a life that matters. Read an excerpt of the book here or here. Read a review of the book here, here, or here.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

On Preserving Ancient Knowldege

Below is an excerpt from Ichijoji on translating and decrypting old martial arts documentation from the distant past. The whole article my be read here.

As the translator of a collection of old works on swordsmanship, the question of what can we actually learn from these kinds of works is close to my heart. Of course, they have an intrinsic value for those with historical bent, but what we can learn beyond that, whether they contain anything that we can utilise in our own lives and practice is one that, I suspect, is at the back of many readers' minds.

Some of the works in this, and related, genre have certainly stood the test of time and achieved a canonical status. Sun Tzu's The Art of War, in particular has been read widely - for perhaps two thousand years, in fact, and in the late twentieth century, Miyamoto Musashi's Gorin no Sho achieved a wide international readership. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the vagueness or lack of precise detail that allows a variety of interpretations. Though these kinds of works conjure up a feeling, an image of knowledge,  they do not always deliver on their promise, remaining tantalizingly vague and frequently obscure.

So to rephrase the question above, perhaps what we should be asking is whether they contain more than these vague and attractive generalisations, some core of 'deep' knowledge?

If the answer to this is 'yes', we should then ask if we can access that knowledge. With a work like Sun Tzu, the range of notes and interpretations, stretching back a very long way, tell us that not only have many seen it as a valuable work, but that it is one that invites, and perhaps requires, explanation.

The same questions may also be asked of other works. One of the enduring attractions of Musashi's Gorin no sho is the fact that he was a superlative swordsman. The practical value of his work may depend on our ability to interpret it, but Musashi's ability seems to stand as surety of the riches it contains, making it worth the effort to study what he wrote.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Japanese Character

A friend sent me this article. An excerpt is below. The whole article may be read here.


The Japanese Could Teach Us a Thing or Two

When America is under stress, as is happening right now with debates about where to pare the budget, we sometimes trample the least powerful and most vulnerable among us.

So maybe we can learn something from Japan, where the earthquake, tsunami and radiation leaks haven’t caused society to come apart at the seams but to be knit together more tightly than ever. The selflessness, stoicism and discipline in Japan these days are epitomized by those workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, uncomplainingly and anonymously risking dangerous doses of radiation as they struggle to prevent a complete meltdown that would endanger their fellow citizens.

The most famous statue in Japan is arguably one of a dog, Hachiko, who exemplified loyalty, perseverance and duty. Hachiko met his owner at the train station when he returned from work each day, but the owner died at work one day in 1925 and never returned. Until he died about 10 years later, Hachiko faithfully went to the station each afternoon just in case his master returned.

I hope that some day Japan will erect another symbol of loyalty and dedication to duty: a statue of those nuclear plant workers.

I lived in Japan for five years as the Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, and I was sometimes perceived as hostile to the country because I was often critical of the Japanese government’s incompetence and duplicity. But the truth is that I came to cherish Japan’s civility and selflessness. There’s a kind of national honor code, exemplified by the way even cheap restaurants will lend you an umbrella if you’re caught in a downpour; you’re simply expected to return it in a day or two. If you lose your wallet in the subway, you expect to get it back.

The earthquake has put that dichotomy on display. The Japanese government has been hapless. And the Japanese people have been magnificent, enduring impossible hardships with dignity and grace.

As I recalled recently on my blog, I covered the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people, and I looked everywhere for an example of people looting merchandise from one of the many shops with shattered windows. I did find a homeowner who was missing two bicycles, but as I did more reporting, it seemed as if they might have been taken for rescue efforts.

Finally, I came across a minimart owner who had seen three young men grab food from his shop and run away. I asked the shop owner if he was surprised that his fellow Japanese would stoop so low.

“No, you misunderstand,” the shop owner told me. “These looters weren’t Japanese. They were foreigners.”

Granted, Japan’s ethic of uncomplaining perseverance — gaman, in Japanese — may also explain why the country settles for third-rate leaders. Moreover, Japan’s tight-knit social fabric can lead to discrimination against those who don’t fit in. Bullying is a problem from elementary school to the corporate suite. Ethnic Koreans and an underclass known as burakumin are stigmatized. Indeed, after the terrible 1923 earthquake,

Japanese rampaged against ethnic Koreans (who were accused of setting fires or even somehow causing the quake) and slaughtered an estimated 6,000 of them.

So Japan’s communitarianism has its downside, but we Americans could usefully move a step or two in that direction. Gaps between rich and poor are more modest in Japan, and Japan’s corporate tycoons would be embarrassed by the flamboyant pay packages that are common in America. Even in poor areas — including ethnic Korean or burakumin neighborhoods — schools are excellent.

My wife and I saw the collective ethos drummed into children when we sent our kids to Japanese schools. When the teacher was sick, there was no substitute teacher. The children were in charge. When our son

Gregory came home from a school athletic meet, we were impressed that he had won first place in all his events, until we realized that every child had won first place.

For Gregory’s birthday, we invited his classmates over and taught them to play musical chairs. Disaster! The children, especially the girls, were traumatized by having to push aside others to gain a seat for themselves.

What unfolded may have been the most polite, most apologetic, and least competitive game of musical chairs in the history of the world.