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 ~

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Tang Dynasty Poems, #70: An Old Fisherman

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 #70, An Old Fisherman. 

An old fisherman spent the night here, under the western cliff;
He dipped up water from the pure Hsiang and made a bamboo fire;
And then, at sunrise, he went his way through the cloven mist,
With only the creak of his paddle left, in the greenness of mountain and river.
...I turn and see the waves moving as from heaven,
And clouds above the cliffs coming idly, one by one.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Some Chinese Proverbs

Over at Chinese Folktales, there was a recent post which listed a number of Chinese proverbs. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here. Enjoy

The child who suffers grows as a person. [Amis] (With hardship comes growth and maturity.)

Don't be like the one who kicks a cat after losing a wrestling match. [Bunun] (In other words, don't be a poor sport.)

Even the fragile dragonfly can cast a big shadow. [Amis] (Don't underestimate the strength and ability of others. Each of us, in his/her own modest way, is capable of some greatness.)

Whether you win or lose, wipe off the dust after wrestling. [Bunun] (Once a contest or an argument has been settled, it's time to get back to normality and to move on. "Let bygones be bygones, for now everything is water under the bridge.")

Your good looks don't help in the rice paddy. [Amis] (There is a time for preening in front of the mirror; however, it doesn't supersede the work to be done. When at work, put aside your vanity. Anything accomplished will be through the sweat of your labor, not through your beauty or handsomeness.)

A curse is something with long-lasting wings. [Bunun] (Watch out! All your cursing of others may come back to you. "What goes around comes around," an African-American saying tells us.)

When sad, look to the blue sky, not to the ground below. [Amis] (When upset, take heart by looking at the majesty of the untrodden heavens, rather than the uninspiring dirt.)

A mouth is like an anus. [Bunun] (Both apertures are capable of producing many items of embarrassing worthlessness. Prudent expression is a virtue. "Silence is golden." When not in polite company, some of us in the USA might say that "an opinion is like [an anus]; everyone has one.")

Let your heart shine like the moon but your deeds, like the sun. [Amis] (Your inner quality, with all its goodness, should remain modest and not draw attention to itself. Your accomplishments, however, should speak louder than words. They should speak for themselves.)

The bear's sharpest claws remain hidden. [Bunun] (It's the silent dogs that bite" without warning. The shrewd, the cunning, even the dangerous may seldom announce themselves.)

Don't talk back to your elders or older siblings; after all, they saw the sun before you did! [Bunun] (Respect your elders; their accumulated knowledge and wisdom supersedes your own! This proverb may allude to the myth common to many indigenous Taiwanese tribes of the heroes who set off  to shoot down the gigantic sun [or multiple suns] which had shone twenty-four hours a day.)

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Monotony of Training

Below are excerpts from another excellent post at Must Triumph. The full post may be read here.

Philosophers should fight and fighters should read philosophy. Otherwise, a fragile society awaits.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
BJ "The Prodigy" Penn will go down as one of the best in mixed martial arts history. Some of us, however, would like to believe that "The Prodigy" could have gone down as the best ever—possibly in all of combat sports. Yet, the fans have come to know two BJ Penns: the motivated Penn, who is a two-division champion, and the unmotivated Penn, who loses or has draws with lesser-skilled fighters. There have also been the long time-offs taken during Penn's prime, to find his motivation. From the UFC film crew, his former teammates, to the president of the UFC, Dana White himself, have all witnessed Penn's lackluster training. He is a prodigy, and sometimes that means only wanting to do things that come easy, and not the hard things that feel like work.

The Human Condition of Inactivity

Though Penn is a natural fighter, he's human like the rest of us. And like the rest of us, he's susceptible to the same mental trappings. He's a product of the same messaging many of us grew up with in the 80s and 90s; that motivation is the answer to everything, and everything must be fun. (The media needs you to believe this so you feel a need and urgency to keep buying crap. If you were content, you would be a terrible consumer.)
We're told that whatever it is we want to accomplish, we should feel like doing it. And if we don't, we should somehow motivate ourselves to feel like otherwise. Journalist and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking Oliver Burkeman said this in a talk:

“You do not have to feel like doing something to do it. Such a liberating insight. All those motivational messages ... it seems like they will help you get things done but they actually erect this additional barrier. They say now, not only do you have to do the challenging-important thing, but you got to feel like doing it as well. And I think that’s a lot bigger and unnecessary demand.”
If we take the typical advice for getting things done, it often makes things worse. Doing it and also feeling like doing it; it's a double-whammy of stress. Yes, it may work for some people but the effects are usually temporary. Motivation isn't the same thing as endurance, it's not meant to last. Which is the point of self-help, you must keep returning to consume more motivation because you can't generate the will yourself.

The Monotony of Being a Champion

For most of his professional career, BJ Penn was his own head coach. He had long avoided training with the best camps. After another losing streak followed by another brief retirement, Penn took time to reassess. Like many of his fans, Penn knew he never lived up to the fighter he could have become. Penn sought out Greg Jackson, whom many consider to be the best coach in mixed martial arts, and undeniably one of its best minds.
It was with Jackson when Penn recognized the stumbling block that had been plaguing his career—his misguided perception of boredom. With every loss, Penn made excuses: he accused fighters of cheating, he came up with conspiracy theories, he blamed the athletic commission. Yet, there was no secret conspiracy out there holding him back. (The fans and the UFC itself wanted him to win.) His saboteur was himself, and his weakness wasn't physical, it was mental. He could face extraordinary obstacles without fear; what he couldn't face, what he couldn't defeat were simple and ordinary daily challenges. Penn said this in an interview:

“The talks Greg and I have together, he tells me, ‘BJ, if you’re going to go out there and do something that no one else has done before and win these three belts you’re going to have to put in [the work]. You’re going to be sitting in the apartment bored, looking at the ceiling and you’re going to have to go through all these things, go through all these emotions.

It’s starting to happen already. I’m getting further into camp, and I’m starting to see the monotony and repetitiveness take place. That’s why I stepped out of the sport before. All that stuff, it all plays, and all those mental mind games. It’s all how you handle it. Being tough mentally. At the end of the day, it’s a mental game, and you’re only as good as you think you are.”
As much natural ability BJ Penn had, he had a mental weakness: endurance. This had not only shown itself physically during his matches, by him gassing out, but also in his inability to maintain his training. He was on-and-off with fighting, staying in shape, and his martial arts progress. Penn could not endure. That's the irony many of his fans could not understand; he could fight men twice his size, people that would make us cower, yet he could not overcome minor things like boredom and emotions. Things most of us overcome regularly. Sometimes, true mental strength is pedestrian. Many fighters fight not because it is a challenge to them, it's often the opposite, they get a "high" off of it. (It is the constant chase for that "high" that is dangerous and self-destructive.) Now, being able to do those things that aren't exciting and fun, that takes courage and grit. But in our society, we are not likely to admire the trash collector or the public high school teacher (but we should).

Bertrand Russell on Fruitful Monotony

This is a life lesson mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) discusses at some length in The Conquest of Happiness. In it, Russell writes:

“The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements, such as shows and good things to eat, and they do not realise the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.”
A life lesson that many of us never learn, but for those that do, a world of accomplishments and happiness awaits. I know it sounds counterintuitive but embracing boredom is how you rob boredom of its powers. Fleeing from boredom only allows it to dominate you. Think for a second what you could achieve if boredom was never an issue? Russell calls the productive embracing of boredom "fruitful monotony." In the realm of martial arts, it's called discipline. It's how people launch companies, build Apple and Facebook, go through a training camp, get their PhDs, and how hard-working fighters defeat prodigies. It's the mistake young lovers make; they think love only means excitement, but love is also the fruitful and tender monotony of spending the rest of your life with another person who wants to do the same with you.
Russell writes:

“I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony. ... A boy or young man who has some serious constructive purpose will endure voluntarily a great deal of boredom if he finds that it is necessary by the way. But constructive purposes do not easily form themselves in a boy’s mind if he is living a life of distractions and dissipations, for in that case his thoughts will always be directed towards the next pleasure rather than towards the distant achievement.”
Physical toughness is not the same as mental toughness, though one should be fit in both arenas. Philosophy for the body and martial arts for the mind; philosophers should fight and fighters should read philosophy. Otherwise, a fragile society awaits.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Seasons of the Life of a Martial Artist

Why do you train in martial arts? I would bet that it's not for the same reasons that you began and will continue to change as you move through life. I know this to be true for myself.

Below is an excerpt from an excellent post from Kenshi 24/7. The full post may be read here.

The Kendo Lifecycle

(a.k.a.Kendo and you: what it means and how you approach it at various points in your life)

I started kendo at the comparatively late age of 19 (I’m 35 now) and, with only 16 years of practise under my belt, I can say with no false humility that my experience is pretty shallow… considering that many of my sempai and sensei have over 50 years of experience. During these 16 years the way that I have approached kendo – what it is and why I do it – has changed drastically. Part of that is, of course, simply because I have gotten older, and part of it is because of my current kendo situation: I am not only surrounded by highly experienced instructors (some of whom are professional kendo teachers) but I have also become – mostly through chance, but partially through design – a (high school) kendo teacher myself. I consider myself to be very lucky.

As my aim for practising has changed, so has my approach to kendo… not just in the way I swing my shinai, but how I aim to interact with my students, my kendo friends, my sempai, and my sensei, and how I conduct myself in these relationships. I have also seen a large change in how my sensei treat me. I guess that this change in approach is something that happens to everyone.

Since this process is ongoing, I often find myself struggling to explain what it is thats happening exactly (as my friends know). Luckily, last year I just happened to read a short article entitled “kendo and age” (年代に応じた剣道). I found the article interesting for two main reasons: it provided a chart in which age stages vs kendo phases is described, and also because it mentioned the Danish-German developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Eikson, himself a very interesting character, and whos ideas I find intriguing.

Now, how much kendo actually enters/affects your life depends on the individual of-course. For the vast majority of people – despite what they may think – its a hobby. Some people are very serious about their art and some people are casual, but to break out of the realm of “hobbyist” requires something more. Development of this line of thought isn’t for this this discussion though, but it does affect the meaning/final goal of the items below. For those of us that start later in life or outside of Japan, the items below also have necessarily to be modified (I still think that many of the ideas introduced below will be of interest/applicable to you however).

Well, what is kendo “supposed” to be about? Luckily the All Japan kendo federation chose to define and publish it for us already (in response to the over sportification of post-war kendo):

The Concept of Kendo

The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Katana (sword).

The Purpose of Practicing Kendo

The purpose of practicing Kendo is:

To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.
This will make one be able:

To love his/her country and society,
To contribute to the development of culture
And to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples.

– The Concept of Kendo was published by the All Japan Kendo Federation in 1975.

Also, here is a snippet of “The Mindset of Kendo Instruction” which I think adds to this discussion:

Lifelong Kendo

While providing instruction, students should be encouraged to apply the full measure of care to issues of safety and health, and to devote themselves to the development of their character throughout their lives.
Kendo is a “way of life” that successive generations can learn together. The prime objective of instructing Kendo is to encourage the practitioner to discover and define their way in life through training in the techniques of Kendo. Thus, the practitioner will be able to develop a rich outlook on life and be able to put the culture of Kendo into use, thereby benefiting from its value in their daily lives through increased social vigor.

– The Mindset of Kendo Instruction was published by the All Japan Kendo Federation in 2007.

(Although only published in 1975 and 2007 respectively, most if not all of the ideals presented above have – not only for kendo specifically but budo in general – existed long before then.)

Any clearer? Maybe, maybe not. I’m guessing the answer to this depends on how far down the road (naturally including your age) that you are.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Uniforms in Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from an article from Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

My Monday evening study-group just passes a milestone. Somehow it never even occurred to me that this was on the horizon, though I was the one who (inadvertently) set things in motion.  An acquaintance organizes a local street festival and she generously offered to give our group booth space and some time for small demonstrations. I accepted her offer and, as I was starting to pull things together, decided that we could really use some T-shirts. Nothing all that formal, just enough to let people know who we were.

Many martial arts communities have standardized, highly “traditional,” uniforms. The elements of the Chinese martial arts world that I spend most of my time with do not. The Wing Chun school where I did most of my training even managed to resist the social pressure to adopt a system of colored belts or sashes. The only formal ranks we have are student, assistant instructor and Sifu.  Likewise, we all trained in T-shirts and jogging pants.  Some people wore shirts with the school’s logo, often the mementos of a previous seminar or summer-camp.  The more vintage such a shirt was the more respect it commanded. But most people just wore random athletic clothing. Matching T-shirts were generally reserved for some sort of public event.

So, with a public event of my own on the horizon, it seemed high-time to order a bunch of shirts for my training group here in New York. That announcement unleashed a fair amount of enthusiasm and my students have spent the last few weeks designing images, selecting colors and comparison shopping for price quotes.  These shirts have taken on a much more complex set of meanings than simply being a way to signal who we are in a crowd.  In a way its all very predictable. Everyone in this group has been working hard for months, and the class is developing into a tight knit community. I suspect that all of this emotional energy has been invested into the process of buying these shirts.  I hope they end up looking great as they now have a lot to live up to!

All of this got me thinking about the role of uniforms in the martial arts, and the differences that we see between styles and communities. Why is the training gear in some arts more formalized than others?  What are they attempting to signal, and to who?  Where did our notions of the “proper” martial arts uniform come from, and why does it change over time?

I suspect that pretty much everyone who practices martial arts wears a uniform, even if they are not aware of it. This does not mean that all uniforms have the same meaning, or that they come from the same place. Indeed, there is a huge amount of variation in the social construction of training clothing. While my Sifu’s school never had any sort of rules about training clothing, it was clear that a well-understood informal dress-code was in effect.  Everyone wore nearly identical darkly colored T-shirts and jogging pants.  Nor are they alone in this. As I have gone to various seminars and visited multiple schools, that same unspoken dress code seems to have spread quite widely throughout the Wing Chun community.  From a sociological standpoint such a widely shared “uniform” is quite interesting, even if few of these communities would admit to having a “dress code.”

Still, it is the differences in the ways that schools approach this aspect of material culture that is truly revealing.  To simplify what is a complex topic, one might think of any uniform as occupying a distinct place within a theoretical cube defined by three axis.  The vertical axis might represent the question of centralization.  Is your uniform defined and enforced by a central authority (high), or is it more a matter of group culture (low)?

The front axis can be thought of representing a uniform’s symbolic vs. functional attributes. Victor Turner noted that most material artifacts have both a practical and symbolic value.  Both are always present, but possibly not in the same degree. The stylized helmets worn in Kendo suggest a high degree of practicality, whereas the stripes of colored tape that adorn the Taekwondo belts of my many nieces and nephews would seem to function only as motivational tools.

The back axis of our graph might be thought of as measuring the degree of individual expression that one sees in a uniform. They function as markers of community identity precisely because of their ability to make everyone appear “uniform.”  And yet they must also express more individual characteristics, such as one’s rank or position in a community. On one end of the spectrum these markers may be kept to an absolute minimum (perhaps just a belt color). On the other side of the spectrum we might find the highly personalized armor favored by various HEMA fighters, or the explosion of patches on some Kempo uniforms.  One might also think of this axis as a measure of the degree to which consumer power can be used to personalize one’s image within the fighting community.

Any of these uniforms can tell us, at a glance, where someone stands within the larger martial arts community. Kendo players do not look like silat students, and they all appear quite different from the guys who gather for “open mat night” at the local BJJ school.  Yet I suspect that if we think about these uniforms in terms of the three axis of analysis outlined above, we might come up with some unexpected hypothesis about the differing social needs and functions that each of these communities fulfills, based on the sorts of material culture they exhibit. Alternatively, we might take a single school and think about how its uniform conventions have changed over time as a way of understanding that style’s unique historical evolution.