Saturday, 1 September 2012

External 'Hard Style' Martial Arts

"Though one conquers a million people in battle, he is the noblest victor who has conquered himself" - The Buddha, Dharmapada Sutra (Narada Translation, 1959), Chapter 8, Verse 103.
"The Buddha continued taking slow, stable steps. He knew from the sound of Angulimala's footsteps that he had slowed down to a brisk walk and was not far behind. Although the Buddha was now fifty-six years old, his sight and hearing were keener than ever. He held nothing but his begging bowl. He smiled as he recollected how quick and agile he had been in martial arts as a young prince. The other young men were never able to deliver him a blow. The Buddha knew that Angulimala was very close now and was surely carrying a weapon. The Buddha continued to walk with ease." p62-63, Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the footsteps of the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh.
"I loved science, and when I discovered Buddhist meditative practices and martial arts, I was able to bridge those ways of knowing the world into my own unique way. From that grew the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program" - DR. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness in the Modern World: An Interview With Jon Kabat-Zinn (2012), Omega Institute for Holistic Studies.
"In ancient times the perfect officer wasn't armed, the perfect warrior wasn't angry,
the perfect victor wasn't hostile, the perfect commander acted humble,
this is the virtue of nonaggression, this is using the strength of others, this is uniting with Heaven which was the ancient end.

In warfare there is a saying "rather than a host, better to be a guest, rather than advance an inch, better to retreat a foot",
this means to form no column, to wear no armour, to brandish no weapon, to repulse no enemy,
no fate is worse than to have no enemy, without an enemy we would lose our treasure,
thus when opponents are evenly matched the remorseful one prevails." -Daoist Sage LaoZi, Dao De Jing (~5th Century BC), Transl. Red Pine.
Caring for oneself seems to go beyond reducing stress, eating well, and doing yoga. There are physical dangers posed by other human beings in society which can limit one's options and capacity to feel safe. By practicing kindness and encouraging spiritual growth, one can easily become a target for aggression - Ghandi's assassination appears to be a pretty good example. In Thich Nhat Hanh's 'Old Path, White Clouds', he describes one of the reported assassination attempts on the Buddha, p286:
"One afternoon, as the Buddha stood on the mountain slope admiring the evening sky, he suddenly heard a shout from below, Watch out, Lord! A boulder is about to crash behind you! The Buddha looked back to see the boulder the size of a cattle cart crashing down the mountain towards him. [...] ...the impact of rock against rock sent a fragment flying which pierced the Buddha's foot. Blood gushed from his wound and stained his robes. Looking up, the Buddha saw a man at the top of the mountain running quickly away."

It seems even being enlightened does not keep one safe from the ill intentions of others. Earlier in the story, an assassin was sent to kill the Buddha with a sword:
"Late one night, while sitting in meditation on Vulture Peak, the Buddha opened his eyes to see a man half-concealed behind a nearby tree. The Buddha called to him. Beneath the bright moonlight, the man came forward, laid a sword at the Buddha’s feet, and prostrated himself as if making an offering. The Buddha asked, “Who are you and why have you come here?” The man exclaimed, “Allow me to bow before you, Teacher Gautama! I was ordered to come and kill you but I cannot do it. I raised this sword in my two hands more than ten times while you were meditating, but I was unable to take even one step towards you.” p273

Until one has the ability to constantly radiate the compassion of a Buddha, it seems one must take other precautions against close-range would-be assailants or bullies. Aggressive posturing - advertising possible physical consequences - can often be used on the streets or in workplaces. Having the confidence to defend oneself adequately against such people can be all that is needed to avoid physical conflicts, and then more noble resolutions can be encouraged or sought.

I began training in martial arts in 1997 - taking up TAGB TaeKwonDo for 3 years. Disillusioned with the effectiveness of what appeared to be more a sport than an effective self-defence discipline, I began training in WingChun KungFu with Bristol Kamon WingChun in 2000. I passed the pressure test to get my black t-shirt and stopped attending classes in 2003 after gaining what I felt to be an adequate level of self-defense capability for daily life. I was also a little unnerved that I was beginning to develop a kind of thuggish attitude - wanting to put my skills to the test, to see if I really had learnt something of value.

This is a video of my old TaeKwonDo teacher:

I began looking for a more spiritually-grounded martial perspective. The KungFu classes, although having their origin in Chinese Buddhist traditions, lacked any obvious link to spiritual practice. The training sessions I had been attending had a heavy competitive element - this was especially present as I moved on to training the 'Sticking Hands' Chi Sau exercises which required relaxed sensitivity in a kind of simulated close-range combat setting. I continued to practice WingChun very loosely after this, but since 2011 I have regained my enthusiasm for the art - especially after my partner expressed a keen interest in it, and I felt it was time to refresh my confidence in my self-defence abilities.

Here is a video of the Master of the Wing Chun school who graded me as I progressed through the system:

I see martial arts as a kind of 'desperation resource' - something to fall back on when one (or those one can protect) cannot leave the scene of a certain physical conflict. I want to learn Aikido in the future, as I like the non-lethal and neutralising responses the art teaches. WingChun KungFu can be pretty destructive, and it would be nice to have something more compassionate to use.

Master Morihei Ueshiba - Founder of Aikido in Japan.
Aikido puts an emphasis on seated meditation practice and Wing Chun has a mindful, incredibly slow section at the beginning of the first form. Eastern 'external' martial arts - especially those of Buddhist origin - are famous for their emphasis on moment-to-moment awareness, along with a relaxed mind, and so their relationship with mindfulness is long-standing and incredibly intimate. Even in Plum Village, France, Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is protected by a 'KungFu monk' - a bodyguard who travels with him, and one of the older monks teaches a bamboo pole martial art stick form for health. I learnt some of that pole form during my stay there.
Wing Chun KungFu Master Ip Man performing the mindful section of the first movement form 'Siu Nim Tao', Hong Kong.
External martial arts aim for the same ultimate goal as that of the internal 'soft style' martial arts - reflexive, fluid, instinctive and effective self defence. The internal martial arts take a lot longer to be martially effective, however, and so the external styles can provide what is needed until one arrives in that place if soft and hard styles are practiced alongside each other - something which, in my experience, seems to help both of them along in various ways.

One blog, called 'Zen's Sekai', seems to states what it says is the Buddhist approach to martial disciplines, in the post titled 'Kung Fu beyond combat: the series – Shaolin Chan':

"The pursuit of good “Kung Fu” in Shaolin is not just Fighting, Kicking, Punching. Even... in Kung fu the compassionate principles of Avoid rather than check. Check rather than hurt. Hurt rather than maim. Maim rather than kill reside. Because all life is precious nor can any be replaced, this comes into Shaolin’s use of martial Kung Fu. Shaolin is about balance and compassion, of oneness of Mind, Body and Spirit. The oneness of everything…Chan is one".

During my visit to Shaolin Temple in 2006, after watching a Wushu acrobatic martial art show, I asked one of the monks to pretend to kick me in the stomach so that my partner could take a kind of comedy photograph. The monk politely refused as it was against his ethics. I suppose it wouldn't have been good for tourism, either, if that picture had had got out.

The author with a Shaolin martial monk at Shaolin Temple, China, 2006.
I believe martial arts should provide people with effective, tangible skills which give them confidence and a sense of security. Unfortunately it seems the majority of disciplines are either ineffective or brutal - to both the defender and attacker. Disciplines really need to tested for the potential they hold for life-long health and  competency.

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