What if This was as Good as You Would Ever Get?

5cc4e416a35340d8a89c741c14d6ea52My Tai Chi Instructor, Sifu Robert Brown, used to ask his student this question;  ‘What if this, right now, was as good as you were ever going to get? Would you still continue with your training? Would you be happy to keep on doing the training, the hard work if you knew there was going to be no more external recognition, and that there was going to be no progress, that this was it. Would you still train?’

Sifu Brown had good reason to ask this question of his students, as in his case this was not hypothetical, this was a real question that he had to consider his answer to, not once but several times in the course of his Martial Arts training. Sifu Brown was born with Cerebral Palsy and Dyslexia, and at different times in his training, it truly seemed as though he might have come to the end of his progress, that his physical high point had been reached and he could go no further.

At this time, he considered very carefully what he should do about his training, and fortunately for everyone, he came to the conclusion that he loved the practice of the Martial Arts, and that even when he was convinced that he would not improve any further, he would still practice at the level that he could, and would still be a Martial Artist. To put that another way, perhaps it is better phrased that he could not stop being a Martial Artist.

However, this experience that he had with being confronted with his own physical limitations taught him a vary valuable lesson, that it is the Martial Arts that he values, not any rank, or progress, simply the fact of participating in classes, being involved in the art, and this is what he tries to share with his students when he poses the question, ‘Would you still train, if you knew that this was as good as you were ever going to get?’

yellow-belt_origFor me, I found my answer to this question a couple of different times, the first one when I was a Yellow Belt student. At the time, Gradings were held at my school every 3 months, so if you missed a grading, you had some time to wait before you would have the next chance to progress. At that time in the school, there were no Tips on Belts, and students were personally invited by the Instructor to attend a Belt Exam when the Instructor thought the student was ready.

As a Yellow Belt, I trained with 4 other students who had all started around the same time as me, and we were all on Yellow Belt together. A Grading was coming up, and it was getting closer and none of us had been invited to the Exam yet. We had all been training hard and consistently, so we were hoping to get invited to the Exam.

Finally, one of us, not me, came up with a plan to ask our Instructor whether or not we would be ready to do the Exam. Someone, the person who was picked to do the actual asking was me. This was a very nerve wracking experience. To ask for something you really wanted, but to ask for it in such a way that it was clear you meant no disrespect by the asking. I was nervous. After class I stayed back with a few other the other students, who were chatting as the class finished. I walked over to the Instructor, who was talking with another student. I looked back to my fellow Yellow Belts, who all made encouraging gestures towards me, but with equally nervous expressions on their faces.

At last, I asked the question, ‘Do you think that we (gesturing to the other Yellow Belts who were all waiting in a group) will be ready to do the next Belt Exam?’ My Instructor looked at me, looked at the other Yellow Belts, and said ‘No, not this time’. So I thanked him and walked so quickly it was practically a run back to the other Yellow Belts to tell them we were not going to be Grading this time.

As we were walking out of class, one of the Yellow Belts said, ‘ Well, if we are not testing this time, I am going to take a week off, and I’ll start training again after the Grading is over.’ Another of the Yellow Belts nodded, and I thought about the idea for a second, and it just didn’t make sense to me, because then you would miss out on your training. Why on earth would you stop just because of a Belt?

So a very unexpected sequel to that story is that the very next class after this incident, our Instructor was watching us in the class, and at the end of the lesson came up to us and said, actually, you guys are more ready that I realised, you can Grade at this next Grading.

27544600_10215232115781897_3550794398757989804_nWe did Grade, and unfortunately, the other student who had taken the time off never did return to his training. To this day I have no idea whether that was a lesson that our Instructor took the chance to teach us, or if we simply put the idea in our Instructors’ head that perhaps we were ready. In any case, it was the first time that cemented in my mind that training in the Martial Arts is a core part of who I am, and that Belts and progress is a bonus, but not the main reason that I train in the Martial Arts.

So, take thechance to consider your answer to the question, would you still train if you knew that you were not going to progress any further? Or perhaps consider this, what is your reason for training? If you have an answer to this, it can help you keep going through those times when it does feel as though you are not progressing, or bring recognised for your work, and accept that sometimes nothing but time will get us to the places we are going.

The Five Tenets of the Hwa Rang Do

slide11-960x408In an earlier post, I mentioned the Hwa Rang Do, a group of young men who were trained as warriors in medieval Korea, and whose principles guide our practice to this day. It is interesting to see the Tenets of the Hwa Rang Do as they were written 600 or so years ago, and reflect on how harsh they seem to us, reflecting as they do the ideas of a bygone era.

However when we look at these principles another way, we see that they are just as valid today, and while the wording may seem old fashioned, the concepts they are based on are important for martial artists across all ages.

One of my favourite quotes about martial artists is this;

‘In martial arts it is not how many people you knock down that counts, it is how many people you lift up that truly matters.’ 

This quote is an indication that as martial artists, we have a greater responsibility to those around us due to the skills we have acquired. This is an idea that has always been a part of the martial arts – that part of the deal with being a martial artist is having the responsibility to keep everyone safe, and not use the the skills we gain to harm others.

There are five tenets of the Hwa Rang Do.754179-korean_knight_01

  1. 사군이충 / 事君以忠 – Loyalty to one’s king.

The idea of loyalty to one’s king was of course very important to a warrior group whose role was to protect the country in times of war. The Hwa Rang Do were expected to have complete loyalty to their king and country, overriding personal desires. This brought them together as a group and helped them forge a sense of identity.

We can interpret this to be respecting authority in our lives. While sometimes authority can have negative associations for many people, there are many ideas that authority embodies that it is important for us to uphold. Things such as controlling ourselves to act appropriately in different situations. Such as taking care of those less fortunate than ourselves. Such as making sure everyone has a voice and their ideas and contributions are listened to.

By respecting authority, we can help to implement not only the basics of survival, we can set and uphold standards that lift everyone up to the highest of standards and give people around us room to grow and thrive, not merely survive.

As martial artists, we can help uphold order in places we work, live and play. We can be the leaders in our group, whether that is a recognised leader such as an instructor, or simply the voice of reason in our circle of friends. By agreeing to a set of rules, and helping in the implementation of those rules, we cement ourselves as a group and start to create an environment where we can hold ourselves to high standards, and show others how they can lift themselves up too.

2. 사친이효 / 事親以孝 – Respect to one’s parents.

Respect for parents is an important character trait. It implies a sense of gratitude and appreciation. Respecting our parents is respecting the sacrifices they have made and the commitment they have made to raising us as best they know how. While we may not always agree with our parents, respecting and accepting who they are is a fundamental skill for martial artists. When we show respect to our parents, the heads of our family group, we are acknowledging that there is a wisdom that comes from experiences we have not had yet, and there is knowledge of the world that comes from having lived in it longer.

Having respect for parents and elders is having respect for the past and honouring where we have come from.

Bruce Lee and Ji Han Jae on the set of ‘Game of Death’

3. 교우이신 / 交友以信 – Faithfulness to one’s friends.

In a battlefield being faithful to one’s friends is a matter of life or death. Following through on what you arranged to do with your friends – keeping faith – could be the difference between success on the battlefield or failure.

While we no longer go into a formal battlefield, sometimes and places; school and workplaces, can feel like battlefields. Having the courage to be true to our friends, stick up for them physically and verbally is a test of our character. Being faithful to our friends whether they are there with or not speaks highly of our character.

4. 임전무퇴 / 臨戰無退 – Courage in battle.

Clearly a group of warriors are required to have courage in battle. For martial artists practicing now, we could interpret this to be about having courage in our training. In our classes, it can require courage to try the things our instructor asks us to do. This courage can be the physical courage to try something that we fear may hurt our bodies. It can also be mental courage, to try something even though we are afraid we may look foolish when we try.

Another interpretation of this tenet for modern times can be the courage we need to fight our personal battles. The courage to stand up for what we think and feel, and to express ourselves calmly and collectedly without loosing our temper or demeaning other people. We also need the courage to make decisions and take actions based on what it is right to do, not what it is easy to do.

5. 살생유택 / 殺生有擇 – Make a righteous kill.

This tenet was important on the battlefield. It meant that the warrior was meant to use their physical skills to kill swiftly in battle, and the mental skills to ensure that this step was taken only when it was determined that this was the appropriate thing to do. Killing on the battlefield was not meant to be in the heat of the moment, rather each action was deliberate and was the result of a decision, not simply a reflex.

In our lives we are not called on to make these sorts of decisions about killing, fortunately. However we are called on to fight some battles in our lives with the people around us. As martial artist, we should choose these battles wisely. Arguing simply to be right may not always be worth it if we are upsetting the people around us. Insisting on things being done the ‘right way’ may shut the door to the possibility of there being other, even better ways of doing things.

It is interesting to see the tenets, or philosophies practiced by our martial arts predecessors are still relevant to us today just as much as the physical skills they learnt are relevant to us today as well.