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 ~

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

The Historical Role of Relligion and Spirituality in Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from a post at Kung Fu Tea regarding the historical role of religion and spirituality in traditional Chinese martial arts. The full post may be read here.

Can the confused lead others to clarity?  Perhaps the title of this essay risks overselling the contents as I can think of no subject within the field more demanding of nuance, yet less likely to receive it, than the relationship between the martial arts, religion and spirituality.  Entire books have been written attempting to define the latter two terms, both of which are always culturally and historically bounded.  And we all expect that it’s only a matter of time until someone decides to give us a book length definition of martial arts as well. (Whether that is a good idea is another question altogether). 

 All of which is to say that bringing these three subjects together in the same sentence is a recipe for complexity.
Nor is it a coincidence that this subject creates polarized opinions within the ranks of practitioners and scholars of martial arts. How could it be otherwise? On some level I think that we all look to the actions and opinions of others to lend credibility to our own investments in the martial arts.  And what could be more fundamental to understanding the nature and purpose of these practices than the notion that they convey a deeper mystery that transcends the outward practices which we all observe?
If you are of a certain generation, chances are you were introduced to the Chinese martial arts by the image of either David Carradine (Kung Fu) or Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon) philosophizing with warrior monks in mysterious temples.  This orientalist imagery fit nicely with the growing currency of the TCMA in a counterculture movement that was steeped in the writing of popularizers like Alan Watts. Nor was it simply a product of the Western imagination. Important early teachers of the Chinese martial arts in the West, individuals like Zheng Manqing, explicitly framed their efforts with the promise that one could combine martial, artistic, medical and spiritual achievement through the mastery of a single martial discipline.  Such a promise must have been music to the ears of a generation dealing with the disenchantment of globalization, social upheaval and geo-political conflict.  When looking at period sources it is thus interesting to note that the Asian martial arts seem to be spiritualized in the discussions of the 1970s-1980s in ways that even the same systems were not in the 1920s-1940s.
The excesses of this countercultural approach to the martial arts sparked their own backlash.  In the practical realm a number of arts and schools increasingly defined themselves in opposition to these images or, in their view, misconceptions.  Wing Chun schools in America tended to do away with the incense burning and memorial walls so common in other Hong Kong derived kung fu traditions.  Ip Man himself discouraged the practice of music and Lion Dancing within his organization and moved any discussion of traditional medicine into the private realm.  His practice was to be a modern self-defense art open to all.  And in a situation like this, it is hard to read the term “modern” and not also think “secular.”  The post-war process of embedding and localizing the Asian martial arts in North America (such as the rise of competitive contact Karate or Olympic Judo) often seemed to be accompanied with the distancing of these practices from their “traditional” (or perhaps spiritual) missions.
Researchers like Stanley Henning, Brian Kennedy and others in the first generation of what we might think of modern Martial Arts Studies would tackle the supposed spiritual origins of these practices head on.  Both individuals were influenced by traditions of Chinese martial arts histography that were established by scholars of the 1930s-1940s. These were the decades of the state sponsored Guoshu reform movement, perhaps the first moment in China’s history when the tools of modern scholarship and cultural criticism could be turned on the Chinese martial arts.  In general, scholars of the era (individuals like the pioneering Tang Hao) attempted to place the martial arts on a sound materialist footing by rejecting stories of wandering monks, Daoist immortals and divine inspiration. They instead sought to find the origins of systems like Taijiquan or Bagua through documentary criticism, sociological theory and fieldwork in places like Chen Village.
The image of the Chinese martial arts which the work of Kennedy and Henning generated was remarkably secular and mundane compared to the clear flights of fancy that television programs like Kung Fu had promoted a few decades earlier.  They focused on martial arts traditions that were eminently practical, the domain of village militias, KMT sponsored military academies, government sponsored programs or university-based physical culture programs.  All of this stuff did exist, and it did dominate much (though not all) of the public discussions of the Chinese martial arts in the 1930s.  I have written about these same subjects in many places on this blog. These were the sorts of modern martial artists that were sent to represent China at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Its probably worth noting that the reformers guiding the KMT and the Central Guoshu Association during these years were very influenced by Western ideology and scholarship. Indeed, their writings are full of contemporary concepts like “Social Darwinism.” They were well versed with the sorts of theories and concepts that are now called the Modernization Hypothesis, and they seemed to accept its corollary, the Secularization Hypothesis. They believed that China could not reach its potential as a modern state without dumping the superstition and backwardness of its past.
In effect that meant purging traditional religion and activities associated with ritual religious practice (such as vernacular theater traditions which were at the heart of every town’s temple festival) from their reformed and modernized martial arts.  Given that individuals supporting these notions both wrote many of the surviving records of the period and laid the theoretical foundations for future historical studies of the Chinese martial arts, it is perhaps no surprise that later scholarship came to see the traditional martial as being primarily practical and secular practices.  The always excellent work of Peter Lorge would be one example of this school.  As is so often the case, the sort of image that the Central Guoshu Institute wished to project into the future also came to define much of how we see China’s past.
Clearly much of this scholarship has value.  And we are all better off if we are not forced to rely on David Carradine as our defining image of the Chinese martial arts.  The vast modernization efforts of the early 20th century generated a broad base of support within Chinese society and largely continue to define our experience of the Chinese martial arts today.  They are the proximate cause of the world that we have inherited, and so scholars must respect and deal with these impulses.  Still, it would be a mistake to assume that this is all that has ever existed.
My own historical work on the development of the Southern Chinese martial arts illustrated, at great length, how successful Guangdong’s martial arts community was at resisting and subverting these modernization efforts during the 1920s-1930s.  When Masters fled the Pearl River Delta to areas like Hong Kong, Taiwan or Malaysia in the 1950s they were able to preserve many of the “superstitious” cultural practices and beliefs (practices like spirit writing, spirit possession, and exorcism rites) that the KMT had worked so hard to stamp out decades previously. And the love of supernal warriors that had dominated Cantonese opera stages soon found a new home (minus its former ritual context) in Hong Kong’s martial arts film industry. Anthropological scholars like Daniel Amos were able to document all of these practices in the 1970s and 1980s during the course of their fieldwork.
While the practice of the TCMA seems to be struggling, we are currently living in the golden age of martial arts studies scholarship.  We now know, as Scott Phillips has argued, that accounts of Southern Chinese martial arts interacting with the world of opera are very plausible (though it did not always take the glorious forms that various kung fu stories would have one believe).  While scholars like Shahar have demonstrated that the Southern Shaolin Temple of legend is a myth, interviews and fieldwork have demonstrated that Guangdong and Fujian had multiple Buddhist temples where monks really did supplement their income by teaching marital arts (in addition to basic literacy) during the early 20th century, and a few of these seem to have adopted the Shaolin label as good advertising.  

Further, the careful ethnographic work of Avron Boretz in Southern Taiwan and Southern China has demonstrated that the religious and spiritual aspect of the martial culture is not only very much alive, but also remains a primary method of self-actualization for marginalized young men throughout the region.
Yet Boretz’s work also located and illustrated the point where this conversation becomes difficult.  

While his field work initially focused on martial arts students in Taiwan, he became interested in the fact that many of them were also members of temple ritual societies. These temple troops led processions through the neighborhood and were often practicing both a mixture of mundane skills (music, lion dancing, theatrical martial performance), as well as more exotic spiritual technologies (possession, exorcism rituals).  In point of fact, the individuals who ran these groups were often martial artists.  Yet the temple troop (which was a community non-profit organization) often maintained a separate corporate identity from any of the commercial martial arts schools that these individuals may also have been part of.  So to what extent can we say that the practice of martial arts in Southern Taiwan, in the community of marginal individuals that Boretz observed, had a religious or a spiritual component to it?

Friday, July 03, 2020

Judo Giant Seiichi Shirai

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at the Mokuren Dojo blog about one of the sometimes overlooked giants of classical age of Judo, Seiichi Shirai. The full post, which contains some interesting vintage videos, may be read here.

Our judo and aikido teacher, Karl Geis, attributed a significant portion of his newaza doctrine to seemingly little-known judo sensei (at least in America) Seiichi Shirai. Geis even called part of his groundwork doctrine, "The Shirai System." .
But there is relatively little online about a Shirai-sensei, so who was this Shirai guy? It turns out that he was one of Kyuzo Mifune's uchideshi, favorite ukes, and later Mifune's nephew-in-law. That clue gives us some research leverage because there IS a lot online and in print about Mifune!
We can get a glimpse into Shirai-sensei's thinking on judo from these quotes in Draeger's Training Methods book:

...and from Draeger & Otaki's Judo Formal Techniques book:

...and from some lessons quoted from the Spring Park Judo Club at Garland TX:

"...Another of judo’s first generation who trained under founder Jigoro Kano was Seiichi Shirai. He also trained with Mifune and eventually married Mifune's niece. ...a story that Shirai would tell about the importance of repeating a lesson:.The mind is like a tea cup. And if you fill it again and again with green tea, the cup will eventually turn green, absorbing the lesson. “And that’s the way,” Shirai would say, “I would repeat a story, over and over and over again.”...Another lesson ... from Shirai was about gaijyu and naiko. While the outside appearance of people in dealing with each other should be soft and gentle – gaijyu, the mind and the heart inside should be strong like steel – naiko."


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Cook Ding's Anniversay

Today marks the 15th anniversary of Cook Ding's Kitchen. In these fifteen years, over 2100 posts have been made along with almost 1.5 million hits.

So who's this Cook Ding cat? The "skill stories" from Zhuang Zi's Inner Chapters have always resonated with me and in particular, the story about Cook Ding:

Prince Huei's cook was cutting up a bullock. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whshh of rent flesh, every clink of the chopper, was in perfect rhythm — like the dance of the Mulberry Grove, like the harmonious chords of Ching Shou.

"Well done!" cried the Prince. "Yours is skill indeed!"

"Sire," replied the cook laying down his chopper, "I have always devoted myself to Tao, which is higher than mere skill. When I first began to cut up bullocks, I saw before me whole bullocks. After three years' practice, I saw no more whole animals. And now I work with my mind and not with my eye. My mind works along without the control of the senses. Falling back upon eternal principles, I glide through such great joints or cavities as there may be, according to the natural constitution of the animal. I do not even touch the convolutions of muscle and tendon, still less attempt to cut through large bones.

"A good cook changes his chopper once a year — because he cuts. An ordinary cook, one a month — because he hacks. But I have had this chopper nineteen years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks, its edge is as if fresh from the whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice. Indeed there is plenty of room for the blade to move about. It is thus that I have kept my chopper for nineteen years as though fresh from the whetstone.

"Nevertheless, when I come upon a knotty part which is difficult to tackle, I am all caution. Fixing my eye on it, I stay my hand, and gently apply my blade, until with a hwah the part yields like earth crumbling to the ground. Then I take out my chopper and stand up, and look around, and pause with an air of triumph. Then wiping my chopper, I put it carefully away."

"Bravo!" cried the Prince. "From the words of this cook I have learned how to take care of my life."

ZhuangZi (Lin YuTang)

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Inside and Outside of the Dojo

Below is an excerpt from a very good piece from The Thoughtful Sensei - Aikido Musings regarding the difference between inside and outside of the dojo. The full post may be read here.

What we do in the dojo needs to be as real as we can possibly (and safely) make it.  It’s Budo.  It is not a sport.  It is not a game.  It is an activity where we practice the very serious art of controlled violence where mistakes have consequences and even the little things can often be critical so everyone’s head must always be on straight.  The quantum 8-dimensional algorithm may therefore be stated as:

PIE (Physical, Intellectual, Emotional) ………….. R (Reigisaho) Squared. 

Reigisaho can be considered many times more important than simple PIE.  PIE can be looked at as how “teachable” a student is (a measurement of their capacity and potential so-to-speak).  R (Reigisaho) can be looked at as “how seriously” that student views the training and whether they develop the proper mental attitude to understand that the dojo (and indeed Budo) are not sports nor are they games.  Reigisaho should then be looked at as R-Squared.  Maybe even R-Cubed and beyond.  That is how important Reigisaho is to the life of a dojo and to its’ existence in the Budo-Verse.

A dojo, if one pauses to consider, is an unrealistic and impractical idea; a waste in the business sense of unoccupied space and underutilized facilities since 24/7 classes are impossible.  Many Sensei have described the dojo in their own fashion so there are many ways to consider the idea of the existence of such a place.  A place of competition?  No.  A place of combat?  No.  A place of pure contemplation?  No.  A place of self-realization and enlightenment?  No.  An institution of learning?  No.  A place of social discourse?  No. 

What then?

It is not a gymnasium, a sports bar, a church, a social club, a rec center, a temple or monastery, a beer or dance hall, a business or a corporation.  Some Sensei have used the term “sacred place” although that term while more complete than others, is still insufficient.  It’s not even a school although most of the advertising one sees describes it as such because the normal Western civilian is simply unable to grasp the idea that it is something beyond a mere “school” per se.

It is also not a “physical” place.  Yes; it has walls, roof, floors, and other structures that one can walk into and “be” within, but a dojo is more a mental and spiritual state of being than of mere body.  Yes; the dojo is a physical manifestation of the ideals of Budo, and a dojo is said to absorb the “energy” of those who train and spend time there to the point that a sensitive can enter and “feel” those energies.  

A Dojo however is better considered a larger existence with all other descriptive possibilities attaching themselves to that one point; a locus as-it-were.

We all work and struggle and rejoice and suffer in our efforts to prosper or just to survive in our society with its emphasis on achievement, money, politics, etc. so the dojo becomes an offset to that life-battle.  It becomes a space that exists for our larger selves, and that space is energized by us going beyond the binary yes-no, win-lose idea.  The dojo needs several things that create, support, and maintain its “being”.  Those are within the overall encompassing aspects of Reigisaho.

There is a widely told teaching story in Budo concerning kendo and kickboxing.  A high-level championship shiai is held and when the winner is declared there are two differing reactions.  In the kendo match the facial expression of the winner and of the loser both remain the same with no real emotion.  The winner is the one who first bows (to the loser) to show his respect for the efforts made by him.  The respect from each to each is obvious.  In the kickboxing match when the winner is declared, the winner begins to raise his hands in the air, jump up and down and beat his chest as-if to gloat and disrespect the loser.  Two different reactions.  Two different personalities.  Only one understands.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The 48 Laws of Power, #33: Discover Each Man's Thumbscrew

One of my favorite books on strategy is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers.  Where The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is written as an overview of the whole topic of strategy, seeking to provide an overall understanding of the subject; and The 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking through 36 maxims related to well known Chinese folk stories, Mr. Greene focuses on how we influence and manipulate one another, ie "power".

Mr. Greene draws from both Eastern and Western history and literature as his source material. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli as cited as much as wonderful stories of famous con men. 

Each of the 48 Laws carries many examples, along with counter examples where it is appropriate that they be noted, and even reversals.

It is a very thorough study of the subject and the hardback version is beautifully produced.

One of the things I admire about Greene is that he not only studied strategy, he applied what he learned to his own situation and prospered.

Today we have #33: Discover Each Man's Thumbscrew

  • Everyone has a weakness, a gap in the castle wall. That weakness is usually an insecurity, an uncontrollable emotion or need; it can also be a small secret pleasure. Either way, once found, it is a thumbscrew you can turn to your advantage.

  • How to find weaknesses:
    • Pay Attention to Gestures and Unconscious Signals: everyday conversation is a great place to look.  Start by always seeming interested. Offer a revelation of your own if needed. Probe for suspected weaknesses indirectly.  Train your eyes for details.
    • Find the Helpless Child: knowing about a childhood can often reveal weaknesses, or when they revert to acting like a child.
    • Look for Contrasts: an overt trait often conceals its opposite. The shy crave attention, the uptight want adventure, etc.
    • Find the Weak Link: find the person who will bend under pressure, or the one who pulls strings behind the scenes.
    • Fill the Void: the two main emotional voids are insecurity and unhappiness.
    • Feed on Uncontrollable Emotions: the uncontrollable emotion can be a paranoid fear or any base motive such as lust, greed, vanity or hatred.
  • Always look for passions and obsessions that cannot be controlled.  The stronger the passion, the more vulnerable the person.
  • People’s need for validation and recognition, their need to feel important, is the best kind of weakness to exploit.  To do so, all you need to do is find ways to make people feel better about their taste, their social standing, their intelligence.
  • Timidity can be exploited by pushing them into bold actions that serve your needs while also making them dependent on you.