By: Neil Ripski
Not that many years ago for martial artists to discuss anything amongst themselves required huge effort. Travelling distances, especially before air travel was arduous and fraught with delays and possibly danger. Mailing one another letters, if indeed two players even knew each other and got along, was the only other option. In the mid-20th century there were even published debates between martial artists in public magazines via letters. Today this process is much easier to accommodate and email or messaging apps make it instant or nearly so to correspond with one another. The following is a response to another martial artist with whom I have been writing with awhile about various topics and with his permission I am publishing this, my response, in the hopes it may be of some use to other readers.
Three points should be made before reading this out of the context of the letters themselves. One a short discussion about all martial styles climbing the same mountain and reaching for the same peak and second that the metaphor of a mountain is useful for more than just martial arts. Finally the oft quoted “A man who chases two rabbits catches none.” Was rebutted by “To catch two rabbits you chase one, then the other.”
“… The cliché and often quoted “Martial Arts is a way of Life” is actually a deep truth but it is seldom understood. The mountain is of course reality itself and our paths the way to becoming better human beings and citizens of the world. All of us have a chance to climb it and there are myriad paths to do so many of them overlapping even near the beginning of the climb and most of them doing so I would dare say at the greater heights.
As you are seeing with calligraphy and its commonalities with Taiji principles of the body and mind and the common ground then with western calligraphy, all things that bring us into self-reflection have many, many things in common and are all pointing us towards greater truths. A good posture in the body allows for balance of the body and movements as is seen in martial arts and calligraphy. But that is only the surface, We stand between heaven and earth and the more vertically aligned we become the easier it becomes to allow our skeletal structure to bear the weight of gravity freeing our muscularity for movement. However introspection also calls for looking outwards into the world and seeing more and more of reality as a result of our self-work. What else stands between heaven and earth? What do I have in common with that? A good example of this is trees. We both stand upright, we both breathe and we are both results of circumstances beyond our control. The tree is a good example because it is perfect just the way it is and does not strive yet nothing is left undone. It drinks eats and breathes in an appropriate way for its place in the world and age. If only we could be more like this!!
What are martial arts styles then? Paths up the mountain, nothing more. Paths to certain physical and mental skills that allow us to discover, study and perhaps refine who we are. Due to this most of them have many, many commonalities once you get past the superficial part of the outward appearance of them. All are moving the human body and training to be able to move in the most efficient way possible for power, timing, speed and so on. The use of our bodies in these ways not only allow us to do combat well from a physical point of view but also all other work in our lives. We are physical creatures and so we move, run, lift and such every day, to do that very well releases stress from the body and allows us to be able to be self-sufficient longer and healthier in later life.
But this is still only a look at the physicality of the training. Learning to be efficient in movement is difficult and as such requires us to work hard, practicing the same things over and over, doing exercises that are strenuous at times and so on. It is “eating bitter” as the Chinese arts put it. But the ability to learn to eat bitter is much more than this. Martial Arts are a very special path because they allow for pressure testing of the mind and body constantly. Without any way to test the mind actively it is easy to become lost and start to believe one has skills that do not exist, believe one has accomplished a level of understanding that when unquestioned can balloon and swallow your entire life.
If you have good timing, distancing, speed and power and can combine that with experience and knowledge you will fight well. But to deal with the fear of failure, the fear and anxiety of combat and still be able to calm oneself and centre and focus the mind to get through it, that is a real victory. The mind is the real subject of the training at all times. Some feel it is automatic from training that the mind is conditioned and at a low level they are correct, but the most difficult part of the training is to be able to look at who we are and realize that is different from who we THINK we are. Reconciling the two and finding the truth, the actual truth of ourselves is the first step. I am not who I was when I was 19, nor am I who I was at 30. To stop changing and evolving is to become like stagnant water, dead, useless and poisonous to those around us. We have all met the 40 year old man who is still his high school self….
Drunken Boxing, Taiji, any martial art that remains an art has the ability to be a path through our self-work and discovery of reality by allowing us to have the lessons from a teacher (ideally) to help, the method to test our presuppositions and real ability and a way to reveal the truth of what actually IS. From a martial arts perspective what should one train? The movements that directly work on the skills and principles one wishes to understand and achieve for themselves. Dantien moves first, Stand IN your legs not ON your legs. Your hands start at your lower back, you have no knees, Look forward and listen backward, these are real martial “secrets” so secret they get taught in the very first month of one’s training usually and yet are rarely ever realized what their importance is. Instead we distract ourselves with new and better forms and moves. Concern ourselves with winning more, more trophies or even just more stroking of our ego from within.
Eclecticism in training is chasing one rabbit, then another. If I want to know drunken boxing I train its DEEPEST principles as best I can but not its entire catalog of movements necessarily. Taiji is the same and they are both so similar it is funny how they appear different at all.
Besides as all the martial artists climb the same mountain towards what other people may call “mastery”, for it is something others may say but the wise pay no attention to, nearing the top the mountain grows smaller and everyone can see one another anyway; these different paths to try to arrive on the same mountaintop, together. To move one step further with this analogy if you were climbing a mountain and saw someone struggling below you, would you not lend a hand if you could? No matter of color or creed? Styles mean nothing and instead are fought over only by straw dogs looking for scraps. Better to just train, look past the obvious and the next obvious and the next. Look within yourself to see what the training is really about and it is clear to see how each of us is only working to find ourselves and what is real. We all deceive ourselves and leave the things we dislike in our darkest corners; it is the strength to look at them anyway that is what the training gives us.