Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

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, February 16, 2020

Standards, Norms and Rules in Martial Arts

When Kendo was created from a diverse universe of kenjutsu styles, decisions had to be made. What would be included and excluded, what would be the standards and norms?

These were important decisions because those fundamental items dictated how everything would look and act from then on.

The rules in Judo from the 60's are much different than the rules in force today and Judo looks different. Judo and BJJ have the same basic skills, but operate under vastly different rules, and we clearly see the outcome.

Does your organization have a standard of performance set by headquarters, that all of the are expected to follow, or is each satellite school free to interpret the martial art as they see fit; or maybe something in the middle?

These are important and fascinating questions. 

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at the Kung Fu Tea blog that discusses this very topic. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

Why do the rules matter?
Recently I was invited to help organize a local martial arts gathering and tournament.  I have never done anything like this before (most of my organizational expertise is concentrated in the academic realm) but it seemed like a good cause, so I said yes. Little did I suspect that this new item on the to do list would have me going through my bookshelves looking at some of the classic texts on the development of international trade systems.  It seems that organizing a tournament, or really any event that brings a diverse group of practitioners together, is a lot like creating a set of trade rules.  

Or, to be more specific, several similar debates will come up, and most of those are actually about the institutional standards that you are planning to adopt rather than the more practical problem of how they will actually get implemented.  Within the martial arts we invent games to encourage training and play, but the rules are for fight over.
My specific project faces two sets of challenges.  First, this is a new event, so we cannot just fall back on the old standby of “lets, do it just like we did last year.”  With no inherited institutional memory, one is forced to think carefully about all sorts of rules, standards and goals that might otherwise be taken for granted.  Yet on a more fundamental level, an inherent tension exists between the goal of bringing a large group of people from diverse preexisting organizations together, and then organizing a single game that they can all play.
The rules of games are, by their very nature, exclusionary.  They structure participants’ incentives, demarcate permitted and proscribed techniques, create systems to officiate a contest, and describe the sorts of competitive equipment that can be used in minute detail.  In some cases, the rules of a contest may specifically exclude certain groups from play (perhaps those under 18 cannot join a tournament, or certain divisions are reserved specifically for female athletes). Yet it is ultimately the rules of the game that advantage certain sorts of player and strategies and disadvantage other.  It is our rules, as much as our athletic excellence, that creates winners and losers. And knowing that one’s preferred goals, techniques, strategies or equipment is disadvantaged by the rules leads to different, less visible, forms of exclusion.
This is precisely why so many discussions in the martial arts come down to debates about rules.  Yet even when we leave the sporting realm behind, we find that standards of practice and behavior still shape the day to day experience of most traditional martial arts.  Drawing on some of the current debates in Wing Chun, we might contest the degree of contact that is permissible in Chisao or sticky-hands training. Do we play to first touch, or should every exchange end with someone on the floor? Alternatively, other instructors are attempting to shift the art’s standards of practice in even more basic ways. Given the repeated failures of the traditional Chinese martial arts in ring (by which I really mean on YouTube), some instructors favor a reorientation of the art towards basic skills training on the one hand, and more modern forms of sparring on the other. They argue that this will produce more competitive fighters who can stand up to MMA trained athletes in the octogon.
Others question whether that is (or should be) the goal of traditional Wing Chun training.  Training to win in these sorts of situation naturally advantages certain kinds of specialists, and yet many individuals were drawn to the traditional martial arts precisely because they offered a more well-rounded view of physical culture, health and culture.  Hence when we debate the goals and norms of practice within the Wing Chun community, the actual questions being invoked are often much larger than points of pedagogical efficiency.  Again, the adoption of new standards of practice create winners and losers.  By in large individuals who have specialized in competitive sparring have not been able to specialize in sticky-hands to the same degree, to say nothing of the more esoteric aspects of “internal training.” There are only so many hours in the day and we all have to make hard choices as to how to allot our training time. The idea that one person can really be an expert in all areas, that mastery sidesteps comparative advantage, is among the most pernicious myths of the martial arts. 

There are always economic consequences to shifts in practice. Some careers and schools will prosper, others will recede.  Our community’s standards of practice are contested precisely because they create winners and losers.

Live by the Sword
One of the really interesting things about the renewed interest in combative weapons training (whether in the Chinese martial arts, HEMA or lightsaber combat) is that very often these debates over values and standards can be observed directly in the material culture of the community in question.  Does your organization mandate the use of fencing masks in pairs practice? Or does it instead expect its students to “learn control?” If armor is worn, how much?  The use of nylon training blades allows for a generally less expensive kit.  Metal wasters, in contrast, require practitioners to invest large amounts of money in specialized gloves, plate gorgets and heavy padded jackets.  Thus, the increased realism of the metal blade comes at a very real economic cost.  And in any case, the same high-tech armor that allows one to compete “in a realistic way” also enables a wide range of behaviors that are probably not very credible from the perspective of the historical battlefield (intentionally seeking double strikes in certain HEMA tournament settings comes to mind).
One only has to visit any HEMA Facebook group to find elaborate discussions of these issues, many of which are distilled down to questions of material culture (“Should we create more specialized fencing helmets to allow for more robust thrusts to the face?  What types of gloves should be mandated, or prohibited, in this event?”) Yet these debates are rarely ever focused solely on questions of equipment design. Instead they often place the competitive nature of modern HEMA tournaments into direct opposition with the sport’s more academic and historically sensitive roots.  Debates over training blades, masks and gloves are often spirited exchanges about what sort of place the HEMA community should be.  Once again, this will impact both the social status of economic fortunes of many established or up and coming teachers.  Its very difficult to be a true expert in both aspects of the arts at the same time.
Unsurprisingly, we see similar discussions within the lightsaber combat community.  Should we restrict the wall diameter of the polycarbonate blades to 2mm, or allow the heavier 3mm blades?  Should fighters be able to compete with no gear (Ludosport), minimal gear (mask and gloves, as in the Sport Saber League), full gear (add elbows, knees, chest, as is required by the French Fencing Federation), or are we going to send our athletes out in heavy head to toe protection (the Saber Legion)?
This choice is more than aesthetic, though aesthetics are often explicitly invoked in people’s justification for one standard or another.  Most lightsaber leagues prohibit thrusts as polycarbonate tubes do not flex, and they are unwilling to impose the same barriers to entry on their athletes as the Saber Legion, whose armor tends to be much more extensive and expensive. Ludosport, on the other hand, carefully restricts and monitors the techniques of their fighters so that their game can be played safely no safety gear. But that end up imposing a different sort of barrier to entry in terms of the time and training that is necessary to ensure that each fighter has fully internalized the sports physical culture on a subconscious level before ever stepping foot in the ring.  As a relatively new sport, each school of Lightsaber Combat is forced to debate and establish all of its own standards.  Indeed, they use these standards to differentiate themselves from each other in an increasingly crowded landscape.
As a historian of the martial arts, I should also point out that there is nothing particularly new or post-modern about this situation.  Both Hurst and Bennett’s discussions of the practices that would eventually lead to modern kendo note that the early Tokugawa period was marked by heated debates about the benefits of various sorts of training gear (the bamboo shinai, the gloves, masks and chest piece, all of which evolved separately long before being brought together into a single standardized kit.) At that time a number of traditionalists noted that the habits and mindset of martial artists engaging in competitive fencing with safety gear was moving farther away from the requirements of the battlefield, not towards it.  In contrast they continued to advocate the use of wooden bokken and training by Kata. In their view these more abstract forms of training perpetuated fewer myths about the realities of combat.
The contestation and fragmentation of standards of practice within a given community is not a new phenomenon.  Indeed, the fact that they create economic or social winners and losers suggests that a degree of market fragmentation may be the natural order of things.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Developing Discipline

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kinetic Fighting on developing discipline, which as martial artists, we need by the truckload. The full post may be read here.

In my work as a leadership consultant, there have been a few recurring themes. Dealing with failure is one, and discipline is another. These topics are closely related, in that failure can often result from lack of discipline…and in some cases, it is practically assured.

In my last blog on discipline, I made the point that discipline is not dependent on your level of motivation. In fact, it cannot be, by definition. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines self-discipline as “the ability to make yourself do something, even if it is difficult, so that you can achieve a goal”.

The key word in this description is ‘difficult’. When things are easy and fun, discipline is hardly necessary. But, as I learned through many years of soldiering, discipline is what you fall back on when things get tough. When the difficulty is so great that all your focus is on the obstacle, or the pain, that you’re facing, your goal and its appeal can disappear from view. No problem for the disciplined: you’ll keep putting one boot in front of the other, staying the course until the goal again becomes visible. And it will then be those few steps closer, fuelling your motivation to continue.

Not everyone, of course, has this level of discipline.

Disciplinary Deficit

Interestingly, I’ve met people who are somewhat successful, but have still fallen short of their own goals. They fell short not because of a lack of talent, but a lack of discipline. Yes, talent will get you a start, but only discipline will enable you to reach your full potential. 

These talented people who struggle to move beyond their gifts are in need of the same discipline embodied by relatively untalented, yet somehow successful, individuals. Some people will inevitably take longer than others to become elite in their chosen craft, even if working at a higher rate — but discipline will always trump talent in the long run. (You might have previously heard me talk about this here.)

So, what if you lack discipline? What can you still achieve? I’m going to make a strong statement here and say, you can’t achieve very much — certainly nothing meaningful.

There is no silver bullet to being successful, no single ‘big break’ moment. Watch how many people waste their biggest resource, time, by ‘waiting’ for a breakthrough or the chance of a lifetime. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ‘I could have done (insert achievement here), but…’, as if there is no time and no way to still achieve their goal. Unsuccessful people are never short of one thing: excuses. They will often assign blame to others and fail to take responsibility for their own mistakes. Successful people, on the other hand, are very good at taking responsibility for everything they do, and having the discipline to see things through.

Here’s the good news, though: we can all develop self-discipline, regardless of who we are and where we have come from. We weren’t born with discipline; it’s a quality we can either adopt or reject, cultivate or neglect. Being disciplined is something we must choose to do. 

This is an empowering notion. I’ve encountered successful people from all manner of different backgrounds, and what they all have in common is discipline. None of them drag their feet. Regardless of profession, gender, privilege or poverty, discipline allows the weak to become strong and the strong to become stronger.

Developing Self-Discipline

Discipline will yield best results when applied to things we’re passionate about, as the resulting drive and motivation help us to get going. But, as discussed previously, motivation is short-lived and easily derailed without discipline. So, with that in mind, it’s worthwhile thinking of discipline as a goal within itself, and developing it as such. Then, it’s always in your toolkit for whatever mission you take on. In your mind, you know you’re capable of exercising it as required. It’s a part of your character.

Try this: set yourself a daily task that has no essential value other than to show self-discipline. Basically, you’re exercising discipline for its own sake. There’s a lot of that in the army — I mean, who needs an ironed shirt to be effective in combat? It’s in the martial arts to some extent, too. For you, the task might be as simple as making your bed each morning, if you usually don’t bother. Or, maybe you’re up for more of a mental challenge and resolve to start every shower with a minute of cold water. The less ‘drive’ there is to complete the task for its own intrinsic benefits or enjoyment, the more effective it will be for honing self-discipline. And yet, you can likely see how even these simple activities could have some peripheral benefit. Choose something that’s difficult but has a positive side effect.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Zen, Samurai and Martial Arts

It is a common misconception in the popular understanding of martial arts that Zen, the practice of the Samurai and Martial Arts in general all are mixed up together. Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at the Asia Pacific Journal that makes the argument that this is not the case (or the exception rather than the rule.

The full article may be read here.


The relationship between the samurai and Zen Buddhism is often traced back to the thirteenth century, which saw both a rise of warrior power and the increased introduction of Zen teachings from China. The affinity of warriors for Zen is generally explained by their ability to identify with Zen teachings and incorporate them into their lives. As Winston L. King writes of Zen, “from the beginning of Zen’s ‘new’ presence, its meditation and discipline commended themselves to the samurai, of both high and low rank.”6 The modern Zen popularizer Suzuki Daisetsu (D.T. Suzuki; 1870-1966) was one of the best-known promoters of theoretical connections between Zen and Japan’s warrior class. In his best-selling Zen and Japanese Culture, Suzuki claimed that Zen was “intimately related from the beginning of its history to the life of the samurai…” and “…activate(d)…the fighting spirit of the Japanese warrior.”7 The martial arts are often portrayed as an important point of intersection between Zen and the samurai, epitomized through a number of popular works. The most influential text linking Zen and the martial arts is Eugen Herrigel’s (1884-1955) orientalist 1948 book Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschiessens (Zen in the Art of Archery).8 Herrigel’s contentions rested largely on a personal fascination with mysticism and Zen, combined with confusion arising from a serious language barrier between himself and his archery instructor, Awa Kenzō (1880-1939).9 Through the influence of these and other modern interpreters, the martial arts have come to be seen as a window through which Zen and the “samurai spirit” are accessible to millions of people around the world today.

This article will show, however, that the relationship between Zen, samurai, and the martial arts is neither as close, nor as ancient, as it is widely believed to be. In fact, the accepted connections between the three are largely products of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Japanese thinkers in an era of rapid change sought answers and legitimacy in ancient and noble tradition. To this end, this article first considers the historical evidence to question the supposed close connection between Zen and the samurai, as well as Zen and the martial arts. It then provides an overview of the development of bushido in the late Meiji period (1868-1912), which completely revised popular understandings of the samurai. The article then considers the activities of promoters of martial arts and Zen Buddhism in the development of bushido, as they sought to tie their causes to the burgeoning new ideology. Finally, this article looks at the ways in which the Zen-samurai connection became established in mainstream understandings of Japanese history and culture in the decades leading up to 1945, and how this view continued to be accepted largely without question in the postwar period.

Historical backgrounds

The popular view that Japanese warriors have long had an affinity for Zen is not entirely incorrect, as Zen institutions did have several powerful patrons in the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1336-1573) periods. On the other hand, recent scholarship indicates that Zen’s popularity among the elite was most often motivated by practical considerations rather than doctrine. Martin Colcutt argues that Zen teachings were too difficult for many lower-ranking warriors, “most of whom continued to find a less demanding, but equally satisfying, religious experience in the simpler Buddhist teachings of Shinran, Nichiren, or Ippen.”10 Colcutt further argues that even at its peak in the late fourteenth century, Zen could be called “the religion of the samurai” merely because most of its followers were warriors, but this did not mean that most warriors followed Zen, let alone reach a high level of practice.11 As other scholars have demonstrated, the vast majority of warriors followed other schools of Buddhism, including both established and new orders, with more accessible teachings.12

Among elite military families, patronage of Zen was based on political, economic, and cultural factors that were largely unrelated to doctrine. On the political front, Zen presented a non-threatening alternative to the powerful Shingon and Tendai Buddhist institutions that dominated Kyoto and were closely allied to the imperial court.13 Economically, trade with China was an important source of revenue for early medieval rulers, and Zen monks’ knowledge of Chinese language and culture, combined with their administrative abilities, made them a natural choice as ambassadors to the continent. As Zen institutions grew, the frequent sale of high temple offices became increasingly lucrative, eventually bringing even greater income than trade with the continent.14 With regard to the cultural importance of Zen to elites, Zen temples conducted diplomacy with Song (960-1279) and Yuan China (1271-1368), which were the primary sources of artistic and cultural innovations in this period, including tea ceremony, monochromatic painting, calligraphy, poetry, architecture, garden design, and printing.15

Political, economic, and cultural considerations were the primary factors behind the official promotion of Zen institutions by the Kamakura and Muromachi shogunates, although there were a few military and court leaders who attempted to delve more deeply into Zen practice. The shogun Hōjō Tokimune (1251-1284) is reported to have been a devoted student of Zen, studying under the Chinese monk Wuxue Zuyuan (1226–1286). An anecdote related by Colcutt provides a glimpse into the shogun’s practice, including some of the difficulties experienced by his teacher: “Discussions on Zen (zazen) were conducted through an interpreter. When the master wished to strike his disciple for incomprehension or to encourage greater efforts, the blows fell on the interpreter.”16 The major Zen temples consolidated their positions as wealthy and powerful administrative institutions, but as the medieval period went on, there was a serious decline in doctrinal content. By the late fifteenth century “little or no Zen of any variety was being taught in the Gozan [major Rinzai institutions].”17

The situation was similar in other Zen schools. These underwent a major dilution of doctrine through the increased displacement of Zen study by esoteric elements and formulaic approaches that made teachings more accessible.18

The doctrinal connection between the Zen schools and Japanese warriors before the seventeenth century was certainly superficial, and even after this time, there is little evidence of exceptional samurai interest in Zen doctrine. In contrast, a number of scholars argue that samurai engaged with Zen practice rather than doctrine, and the martial arts are often invoked as supposedly providing such a connection: “The ethos of modern martial arts is derived from the Japanese marriage of the samurai code to Zen in Kamakura times,” when the “samurai practiced martial arts as a path toward awakening.”19 Heinrich Dumoulin’s seminal History of Zen takes a typically vague approach, reflecting the lack of evidence linking Zen and the martial arts. On the one hand, Dumoulin speculates that “Long before the introduction of Zen meditation, Japanese infantry-archers were probably acquainted with Zen-like—or better, Yoga-like—practices such as breath control.”20 On the other hand, Dumoulin cites Herrigel’s problematic account as evidence for a Zen-archery connection, claiming that Herrigel’s instructor Awa Kenzō was “full of the spirit of Zen,” when Awa himself denied having any connection with Zen.21 At the same time, Dumoulin concedes that the evidence for a strong link between Zen and archery is circumstantial: “Like all aspects of Japan’s cultural life during the middle ages, the art of archery also came under the formative influence of Zen Buddhism.

Among the many famous master archers of that period, not a few had had Zen experience. They did not, however, form any kind of association.” Furthermore, “The different archery groups in Japan have maintained their independence from the Zen school.”22

While many promoters of the Zen-samurai connection focus on the Kamakura period, others situate the relationship much later in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868): “The application of Zen theory and practice to the training of martial skill and technique, and the investing of the warrior life with spiritual values, are really Tokugawa phenomena.”23 As evidence for this latter claim, modern Zen popularizers often cite the interest in swordsmanship displayed by a few Zen figures during the early seventeenth century. However, this does not mean that a significant number of Zen practitioners were also swordsmen, nor does it mean that a majority of the innumerable fencing schools had any Zen connections. As Cameron Hurst writes, “We have to be very careful with the idea of combining Zen and swordsmanship or asserting that ‘swordsmanship and Zen are one’ (kenzen ichinyo). There is no necessary connection between the two, and few warriors were active Zen practitioners.”24 Dumoulin also addresses this subject, writing that “During the Edo period, the art of swordsmanship—like the independently popular art of archery—was inspired just as much, if not more, by the prevalent teachings of Confucianism.” He continues: “it is clear that the military arts of archery and swordsmanship do not belong essentially to the world of Zen, despite certain close relationships.

Both arts maintained an independent identity of their own.”25 Dumoulin’s claims in this regard are based on the popularly accepted connections between Zen and the martial arts, rather than historical evidence.

The ideal of the Zen swordsman is epitomized by the writer Yoshikawa Eiji’s (1892-1962) influential, and largely fictional, portrayal of Miyamoto Musashi (1584?-1645) in his best-selling novels Miyamoto Musashi, first published between 1935 and 1939. Relatively little is known of the historical Musashi, and Yoshikawa fleshed out his narrative by adding many details and anecdotes.

One of these involved having Musashi study under the Rinzai Zen master Takuan Sōhō (1573-1645), although there is no evidence that the two men ever met.26 Here, Yoshikawa was inspired by modern promoters of the Zen-samurai connection, and especially the ideas of his close friend, the nationalist Yasuoka Masahiro (1898–1983).27 As Peter Haskel implies, Takuan would have to wait until the modern period to have his greatest influence, as his writings were first picked up by bushidō ideologists in the late imperial period and then revived by businessmen—the so-called “economic soldiers”—in the 1970s and 80s.28

With regard to the historical Takuan, while he had no discernible connection with Musashi, and was not a skilled swordsman himself, he did provide guidance to the fencing instructor Yagyū Munenori (1571-1646).29 In his writings to Yagyū, Takuan explained the advantages of Zen training to swordsmen, stating that the concepts of “no-mind” and “immovable wisdom” applied to all activities, including fencing, but this was only one of his interests.30 Takuan was not exclusively interested in martial matters, and his writings were certainly not only addressed to warriors. William Bodiford summarizes the influence of Takuan’s Record of Immovable Wisdom (Fudōchi shinmyōroku), which was finally published in 1779, as follows: “…Takuan’s instructions have been included in innumerable anthologies addressed not only to martial art devotees but to general audiences as well, and thus they have helped promote the popular perception that Zen is an intrinsic element of martial art training. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that success in the martial arts demands mental discipline, a topic about which Zen monks (among others) have much to say.”31

A similar situation can be seen in the case of Suzuki Shōsan (1579-1655), a samurai who experienced various battles before becoming a monk. Suzuki is often cited by later writers attempting to link Zen and the warrior class, especially as he wrote precepts specifically for samurai and had actual military experience. However, the image of Suzuki’s teachings as “warrior Zen” was created through careful selection of his writings, which span half a century and vary widely. Over his lifetime, Suzuki included elements of Daoism, Confucianism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Shinto in his teachings, and his attitude towards death did not always reflect the stoic detachment later attributed to samurai Zen.

While some of his texts speak of eliminating the self and drawing energy from death, elsewhere Suzuki wrote of his own fears of death and argued against killing. “What I teach is Buddhism for cowards,” Suzuki wrote, later adding that “If it was up to me I’d say I practice just because I hate death….Everybody loves Buddhism. I know nothing about Buddhism. All I work at is not being subject to death…” Of his own abilities, Suzuki stated that “The only thing I have over others is the degree to which I detest death. That’s what’s made me practice with the warrior’s glare. Really, it’s because of my very cowardice that I’ve made it this far.”32 Suzuki’s precepts for samurai should further be seen in the context and goal of his best-known work, Right Action for All (Banmin tokuyō), which addressed all classes and sought to promote his own interpretation of Buddhism as the correct faith.33 Like Takuan, Suzuki desired to demonstrate that his teachings could be applied to all activities and classes, and warriors were merely one group that he felt could benefit from them.

A third Tokugawa-period Zen figure often cited by proponents of the Zen-samurai connection is Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), an influential figure in the Rinzai school.34 Hakuin believed that his teachings could be useful to all classes, and also discussed specific ways in which Zen practice could be of use to samurai. However, this should be seen in the context of his desire to spread Rinzai teachings, rather than as evidence of any exceptional interest in the samurai, who Hakuin described elsewhere as “useless.”35 Hakuin echoed the thoughts of many of his contemporaries when he wrote of the “timid, negligent, careless warriors of these degenerate days,” who had declined from a long-past ideal. “They scream pretentiously that they are endowed at birth with a substantial amount of strength and that there is no need to depend upon being rescued by another’s power, yet when an emergency arises they are the first to run and hide and to besmirch and debase the fame of their warrior ancestors.”36 Hakuin’s harsh criticisms of his samurai contemporaries have generally been left out of modern works seeking to place him in a “samurai Zen” tradition.

Relatively few Zen figures showed an interest in the martial arts, and their attitudes did not necessarily align with the interpretations put forth by modern promoters of “samurai Zen.” On the other hand, like samurai in general, martial arts practitioners in the Tokugawa period were largely ambivalent towards Zen.37 Although many fencing schools incorporated spiritual elements, these were typically an eclectic mix of Shinto, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and folk religion specific to the individual teacher.38 In his detailed case study of the Kashima-Shinryū school of martial arts, Karl Friday has argued that it was “compatible with almost any religious affiliation or lack thereof,” and various generations of masters drew upon a wide variety of different religious and philosophical traditions to construct their own spiritual frameworks.39 This applied to many different schools of martial arts in Japan. Alexander Bennett describes even early schools of swordsmanship as resembling “pseudo-religious cults,” a condition that became more established during the peace of the Tokugawa period.40 Spiritual elements, especially those borrowed from esoteric religious traditions, were important marketing tools for martial arts schools, as they promised prospective students access to unique and secret knowledge unavailable to outsiders. Later, around the turn of the twentieth century, promoters of Zen took advantage of this ambiguity, and portrayed Zen teachings as having been the dominant force in the typically opaque mixture of spiritual traditions that coursed through the martial arts schools of the Tokugawa period.

From the various perspectives of samurai, Zen figures, and martial artists in the Tokugawa period, the evidence does not support a clear and significant connection between Zen and the martial arts or any “way of the samurai.” Conversely, the texts most frequently cited as sources of bushido in modern Japan contradict many of the assertions made by promoters of Zen. Tokyo Imperial University philosophy professor Inoue Tetsujirō’s (1856-1944) 1905 collection of Tokugawa-era documents, The Bushido Library (Bushidō sōsho), established the core of the bushido canon until at least 1945, and his selection continues to have a strong influence on scholarship today. When Inoue was selecting texts for this collection, promoters of Zen were still in the early stages of engagement with bushido discourse. The texts chosen by Inoue were quite diverse in their interpretations of the duties and obligations of samurai, but were almost all in agreement in their rejection of Buddhism, reflecting the dominant sentiment among Tokugawa samurai.41 The Bushido Library includes writings by Kumazawa Banzan (1619-1691), Yamaga Sokō (1622-1685), Yamazaki Ansai (1619-1682), Muro Kyūsō (1658-1734), and Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1714), all of whom are frequently cited by modern bushido theorists.42

Friday, February 07, 2020

Injuring Someone Isn't Self Defense

At The Way of Least Resistance, there was a post about how the notion of horribly injuring an attacker in the name of self defense really isn't a good idea. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

A particular approach in reality-based self defence (RBSD) is becoming increasingly popular: that of learning how to inflict maximum damage to dangerous attackers.
On paper this approach looks like it could have merit - and correspondingly any criticism (of the kind I'm about to make) might seem to be totally inappropriate.

After all, consider this example:

"He came in the door of my office and shot two people already. I saw him drop down for a reload. When he dropped down for the reload, I was able to tackle him and get him on the ground. Then the first thing I saw was his eye, and I gouged his eye out, which stopped him from going on." 
I got this from an article titled "How to Horribly Injure Someone". And yes, it is worded in such a way as to be rather unobjectionable in philosophical terms: first an horrific scenario is created - one where the worst violence is not only justified but arguably required. Next, the use of that violence is posited and you are invited to challenge that use (which, of course, you cannot).
All that's left is for a particular RBSD school to point out that while most people can stomp quite effectively on a can of Coke, they can't really stomp on a human head. It seems that people need to be taught to be violent. Enter the aforementioned RBSD school.

Anyone like me coming along and criticising this sort of approach will seem like a namby-pamby, goody two shoes who is all about "theory" rather than "reality".

And it will seem particularly namby-pamby of me to argue against such approach when 2 other examples where such violence would be totally inappropriate have already been canvassed, namely:
 "A guy comes into the bar and pushes me, and tells me that's his seat, so I reach out, and I grab his hair, and I gouge his eye out." 

"I'm pulling into Whole Foods. I'm waiting for a parking spot for two minutes. A guy comes in with a Mercedes and grabs my spot. I get out of the car, pull him out of his car, throw him up against the car, and gouge his eye out, your honor."
Um - no. I guess those aren't appropriate...

But I'm sorry to say, I can't let this one go through to the keeper. Because, in my view, the "injure your attacker horribly" approach to RBSD is so totally flawed that I can't help but see it as the height of irresponsibility as regards self defence advice/training.

Look, don't get me wrong: in the first scenario where it's justified, I haven't got any issue with the approach (at least, not in principle: if you think gouging someone's eye is easy, you're in for a rude shock). If you have some terrorist or other mass murderer coming at you after killing other people, you're probably going to want to know "how to horribly injure" that murderer. But as a general RBSD guiding principle, the approach is highly dangerous (for you and others) and deeply inappropriate. Why do I say this? For the following 3 reasons:

1. What kind of violence are you likely to face?

Violent crime rates are plummeting in the US and the rest of the developed world. They have been plummeting for many decades now. Your chances of facing a scenario of the kind warranting eye-gouging are slim. That's not to say the chances are non-existent: they just don't register much on the scale of things you should prioritize.

Consider: the odds of encountering terrorism for US residents are still around 1 in 45,808. Yes, they face a much higher risk of murder (1 in 249) or assault by gun (1 in 358) but the latter statistics include killings and assaults that are carried out when people are sleeping, breastfeeding or in myriad other situations where they would be unlikely to have the opportunity to pre-empt the attack with an eye-gouge or other "horrible injury".

Statistically speaking, what kind of violence is someone in the West far more likely to face? How about a domestic altercation? Or (if you are a man) a fight outside a pub with a drunken yobbo? Or (if you are a woman) a sexual assault on a university campus?

In respect of the last of these, consider the case below and ask yourself how "necessary and reasonable" an eye-gouge etc. would have been in the context of such an assault.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Chinese Martial Arts in 1928

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. A lot happened in 1928 in China with regards to martial arts. The full post may be read here.

1928: What Happened in the World of Kung Fu?
-The Central Guoshu Institute was established by the Nationalist (KMT) government and subsequently held its first national martial arts tournament in Beijing.
Cheung Lai Chuen was in the midst of expanding his chain of commercially successful White Eyebrow schools throughout the Pearl River Delta. This helped to introduce thousands of new students of all ethnic and linguistic backgrounds to the “Hakka” fighting systems and led to Cheung gaining various teaching positions at regional police and military academies.
Chen Fake was invited to teach Chen Style Taiji in Beijing.
– In Kao-t’ou Village (western Henan) deadly violence broke out between two rival martial arts groups who both claimed to function as local militias. One was a chapter of the Red Spear Society backed by regional landlords. The other was called the “Bare Egg Society.” It supported and organized landless peasants who were not eligible for membership in the former group and whose leader felt that they had been wronged and humiliated by it (see Perry, 173-174).
-In Foshan Ng Chung So taught Wing Chun and may have still owned a ceramics shop (the family business). At the time he (rather than the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun”) was the main personality advancing the art in the region. Note that most of his students seem to have been well-off sons of local industrialists and business owners.
Yang Style Taiji Sword including Taiji Long Boxing was published by Chen Weiming.
Wang Xiangzhai (a Xingyiquan master and the later founder of Yiquan) defeated Hungary Inge (holder of a professional lightweight boxing title and a boxing instructor at the Shanghai YMCA) in a public bout in Shanghai.
-In an act of violent retribution Shi Yousan, an officer of warlord Feng Yu Xiang, burned the Shaolin Temple and many of its outlaying sanctuaries. The conflagration consumed the monastery’s priceless library and much of its Qing era martial arts heritage.
-Building on the commercial success of a new generation of martial arts novels and radio shows, the “Burning of the ‘Red Lotus Temple’”, the first truly successful martial arts film, was released to the public.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Old Masters Sucked

Below is an excerpt from a thought provoking article that appeared at The Martial Poet. We almost all take it on faith that our ancestors in martial arts were giants and the standard of practice today makes us amoebas by comparison. Is that right? 

The article explores that question. The full post may be read here.

Models of cultural comparison can be problematic, in that they often lead to gross overgeneralization and emphasize the differences between cultures while neglecting their similarities. With that in mind, cultural gaps are one of the major sources of misunderstanding in traditional martial arts.

East Asian cultures are largely Confucian-based, and one of the primary tenets of that belief system is “filial piety”, i.e. ancestor worship[2]. This translates to respect for both tradition and authority[3]

Parents and grandparents are held in very high esteem, and family lineage scrolls are prized possessions. The same is true in martial arts, where lineage is used not only to determine Ryuha or style, but, in many cases, quality as well. Some lineages, especially more direct ones to an original source, are of greater prestige than more obscure sources, even if the resulting technical skill is the same.

This bleeds into the narratives about Okinawa’s martial arts pioneers as well. Books such as Richard Kim’s The Weaponless Warriors and The Classical Man, Nagamine Shoshin’s Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters, and Mark Bishop’s Okinawan Karate gives us stories full of superhuman feats including levitation[4], puncturing walls with fingertips[5], and kicking ceilings that are over four metres tall[6].

Certain common narratives–for example, the disciple who is rejected several times by the master before ultimately being accepted as a student, or the sickly child who becomes healthy because of their training–are archetypes that are not meant to be taken as literal truth. Buddhist texts often do the same, using identical stories in a wide variety of biographies. In the tradition of Chinese training manuals, authorship was commonly attributed to a long-dead historical figure as a form of tribute[7]–and again, it was understood that this was not meant to be taken as literal truth.

So what are we supposed to understand when reading the obviously embellished tales about the great martial artists of the past? And, realistically, how would these figures have fared in the world of modern martial arts?

Most Things Improve:

In a Ted Talk titled “How Not To Be Ignorant About The World”, Professors Hans and Ola Rosling discuss the misconception people often have that the world is going to hell in a hand basket[8]. The reality is that most things across the world are improving.

Across all sports and physical activities, feats of speed, strength, and endurance are routinely being rewritten by today’s athletes. Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile was a groundbreaking accomplishment, but entirely unremarkable by today’s standards. In 1920, roughly a century ago, the winning time in the 100 metre dash at the Olympics was 10.8[9]. In 2016, the person who finished last in the finals did so in 10.6 seconds[10].

It would be absurd to believe that, for some reason, Karate is the only exception to that trend. While the old masters were, by all accounts, outstanding for their generation, it is hard to believe the common sentiment that they would be superior martial artists if a time machine could transport them to today’s epoch.