There is a story told of The Monk who can be cut into 10 Pieces.
During the 1950’s the Chinese invaded Tibet. All the monks had to flee to the hills before the armies stormed the monasteries. The army went to one monastery, however, and discovered one monk still there, meditating in front of the Buddha. The soldiers were scared of him so went back to their general to report what had happened. The General decided to see for himself what was happening. Upon arriving, the General said, “I can cut you up into ten pieces why do you sit there and do nothing?” The monk shouted, “because I am the man you can cut up into ten pieces”. The general realised he could not kill him spiritually and bowed to the monk with respect.
This story seems especially interesting at the moment, when we, as a Fire Phoenix community have been physically cut into many pieces, and yet we are finding ways to still come together and practice, get stronger and connect with each other.
This story is all about standing strong in the face of changing circumstances. Most of the monks in this story responded in the way you would expect, they fled from the attackers to keep themselves safe.
One monk though, stood out for not giving in to panic, instead the monk calmly continued with what was important to him, no matter what challenges faced him. No matter what soldiers challenged him, the monk continued in his meditation. This was a demonstration of true strength, not the strength that can perform physical skills, but rather the mental and physical strength we need to keep true to who we are and what we value in the face of changing circumstances. This is the most important strength of all.
It has been very heartening to see how many of our students have adapted with the times and embraced the new way offered to them to train in the Martial Arts. To be sure there are some challenges, but everyone who has joined our online programme has risen to them admirably.
While we cannot be together physically, we can be together in the online world. While we cannot practice in a purpose designed Martial Arts Dojo, we can take our training out into the world, and do our training in our back yards, our lounge rooms or our verandahs. We have adapted, and this has demonstrated that strength that we will need to get through this time, and to rebuild after the challenges has passed.
By isolating ourselves we are following the tenets of the Martial Arts which tell us to look out for those who are more vulnerable than us. We can keep people safe by keeping our distance right now, as while we are likely to be able to fight off infection easily if we should become sick, this may not be the case for other people in our lives. If we can follow the rules now, however uncomfortable they may be, we are doing our part to keep everyone in our community safe.
Keep up with your training in this time so as to keep yourself physically strong, but also keep up your connections with other people, such as your Martial Arts community to keep mentally strong. By keeping on, and not letting circumstances stop us doing things we love, we are acting as true Martial Artists and leaders, and will keep our spirits strong.
In our sparring class last night, it seemed relevant to quote Sonnet 94 of Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the class. Shakespeare is better known for being one of the most famous playwrights and poets of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, and significantly lesser known as having a fine understanding of the strategy of Martial Arts sparring. Bear with me, and we will discuss how this poem helps us become better at sparring.
The poem, Sonnet 94 has been described in various sources, as being one of the hardest to interpret, however the readers simply failed to recognise that Shakespeare was not speaking of love, or hiding emotions, but how to get better at sparring in the Martial Arts. Here is the sonnet in its entirety. (Apologies for any misquoting last night!!)
They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
Let’s break it down and get to the sparring lessons, line by line.
‘They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show”
It is far more impressive to have the power to strike hard and strong, and choose not to use that power all of the time than it is to always show your strength. Likewise it is more admirable to use a variety of skills, as opposed to always take the obvious shot.
The immortal Bard encourages us in this couplet of the sonnet to have great strength, power and skill, and choose to use restraint and make choices about when to use these assets.
“Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold and to temptation slow”
Such a powerful statement! In Sparring, it is important that we are able to take control of the space we are sparring in, and dictate the terms of the engagement. Let the distance between you be of your choosing, and not leave it up to chance, or your partner. By your movements and strategy, cause your partner to be forced into the position you always intended them to move into. This can be accomplished by smart footwork and smart planning of techniques.
This couplet also speaks of control and not choosing to take only the easy targets, but selecting a wide range of challenging targets despite the temptation to go for an easy hit in all the fast and fury of a sparring class.
“They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense”
Here we are told that the sparrer who is able to show this control and resist the temptation to become a ‘brawler’ is the sparrer who is earns the rewards of sparring, and learns to enjoy the process of putting yourself through the challenges of sparring another person.
We are also cautioned by Shakespeare here to make sure that while we enjoy the benefits of sparring, we do not abuse these lessons, and use the skills we have gained in an inappropriate time or place.
“They are the lords and masters of their faces
Others but stewards of their excellence”
In this we are told that the sparrer who is able to follow these guidelines is in control of themselves, and this is everything. To be able to be in charge of yourself is the greatest skill you can achieve. To be in charge of yourself means that you make choices about your actions, instead of reacting. It means that you are not subject to the limitations of your body, you use your mind to push through your limitations.
This is the greatest thing which others, not simply Martial Artists, can aspire to is having that control over themselves.
“The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though it itself it only live and die”
This is a great sentiment. When we are sparring, we know we are sparring, but when we practice control and discipline, we get to a place in our sparring where we are not doing Martial Arts, but rather Martial Arts is flowing through us and we are part of the flow. This is the great part of the Martial Arts, it takes us to a place where we are completely involved in the activity with our body, and our mind is free, at rest and quite calm, despite the chaos around us.
“But if that flower with base infection meets
The basest weed outbraves his dignity”
This couplet cautions us that if we have these skills and choose to use them unwisely, or without thinking, we become a far worse person than one who is not trained and uses force and violence against others. A person who has been trained in the Martial Arts has the responsibility to learn to control their body and mind as well as train their body. In this way they have the chance to make our families, our communities a safer and better place because we were there.
“For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds,
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
This is a great closing sentiment. When we are trained in the Martial Arts, to be strong and powerful, to strike with force and strength, and then use those skills without thought, or to harm others, it would have been far better that we never started training.
So while it seems unlikely that William Shakespeare, who wrote in 1585 – 1613, was well practiced the art of Martial Arts sparring, the immortal Bard clearly had a great understanding of all aspects of human nature, and though you have to search for the meaning, we can find lessons anywhere when we are determined to learn.
In the time since Martial Arts first formed into organised groups of people practicing a disciplined study of formal Martial Arts, there have been times of high interest in the Martial Arts, and times of lower enthusiasm. It is interesting to trace these periods of ebb and flow of the Martial Arts, and to see the changes in society that they reflect.
Viewing these changes on a large scale, in the Martial Arts as a whole, can also hold up a mirror to our own training, and the changing interest we sometimes experience in our own personal training regime.
Martial Arts were introduced to Korea with the spread of Buddhism through Asia. While it is unclear exactly when this occurred, there are some very early cave paintings that suggest fighting systems developed in prehistoric times in Korea, which as a peninsula of land was often required to defend itself against invaders.
After some time, martial arts in Korea appeared to organised itself into three main styles; Tribal Martial Arts which we re practiced in the remote, often mountainous areas. The style was known as Tae Kyon. Tournaments were arranged between neighbouring villages to keep skills sharp, and the practice of martial arts such as Tae Kyon made Korea an intimidating place to invade.
At the other end of the social scale, there was also a style of martial art practiced by the royal family and their court. This was a ceremonial style, that filled a role almost like jousting did in the European courts of the middle ages, a martial sport practiced by those who would be leaders in time of war. There were element of archery, horseback archery, musical training as well as the striking and kicking applications of the Martial Arts. This system was known as the Hwarangdo.
The other system of martial art was the Buddhist style of martial art, which was spread to Korea with the spread of Buddhism. Over time, these techniques blended with the local martial arts to give martial arts in Korea their own unique set of movements and principles distinct from the arts practiced in China and later in Japan.
The period 37BC – 1392 was known in Korea as the Three Kingdoms period, with the three kingdoms of Koguro, Paikche and Silla occupying the space known now as Korea. There were struggles for supremacy, and this time, including the time when the Silla dynasty took power, was a golden age for martial arts.
Martial Arts were practiced by people from all walks of life, and war and battles were a constant part of daily life, meaning that martial arts were a necessary skill for the defence of the land. Also assisting this time of popularity of martial arts was the fact that the common religion practiced at this time was Buddhism, which assisted the proliferation of martial arts by holding it up as not only a system of defence, but also of a way of conquering the body and it’s attachments to the comforts of the world.
In 1392 the Cho Sun dynasty came to power. (Other names for this time include Lee or Yi) This was a time of great change socially in Korea. The kingdoms were unified after the war of unification, so internal fighting was not so common. With the Mongols being the main invaders, and their chosen weapons being the Bow and Arrow, there was less need for the population in general to practice hand to hand combat. Additionally, the predominant religion of this time changed to Confucianism. This religion honour scholarly endeavours, and the respect and worship of ancestors and traditions, and looks down on physical endeavours as somewhat uncouth. Thus, over time, martial arts fell out of popularity. It was still practiced in remote areas, and some local tournaments kept the arts alive, however by and large the popularity dwindled over time.
Then in 1901 the Japanese invaded, and at this time any remaining martial arts, as well as many other aspects of Korean culture were forcibly repressed. Martial Arts was outlawed and it was forbidden to practice it or hold tournaments or displays of the martial arts.
This lasted until 1945, with the end of the Japanese Occupation with the end of WW2. At this time there was a resurgence in interest in the martial arts. The Korean people vowed that they would never again be occupied as they were by the Japanese. If they were invaded, every man, woman and child would rise up and defend their country against occupation.
This sentiment was very strong, and the government soon became involved, organising all the new schools that cropped up into a style called Taekwondo, with a unified syllabus and grading standards, and this style was taught in schools and in the military. While this unified approach was subject to tremendous political influence, with the leader of the Taekwondo organisation being a political appointment, not a technique or art based appointment, it did help spread the art very widely through the country.
Then with the Korean War, a large number of servicemen and women were involved in military action in Korea that they did not feel a strong connection with, and found it hard to come to terms with the fighting carried out there. Searching for some meaning in the nightmare of war, they found some comfort in the newly reinstated martial arts systems being practiced in Korea. For some, they offered some dignity and meaning to their time in Korea, and they took the skills back with them to the United States as a way of dealing with the stress of the situation they found themselves in.
At that time the government of Korea had a deliberate programme of sending Martial Arts masters to areas of the west to promote Korea and the martial arts to the west. This was the first wave of interest in the Martial Arts in western nations, and alongside the Brice Lee movies, the public was introduced to the study of Martial Arts.
After a time, interest began to wane in the martial arts. Everyone knew what it was, however it had somehow become relegated to a children’s activity, something that was good for discipline and physical activity, but not necessarily something that the mainstream considered a serious activity.
This changed when the movie ‘The Karate Kid’ brought the concept of martial arts back into the public’s mind. The movie showed martial arts as a path to self improvement, and a way of o overcoming obstacles by following a higher path. This has always been the idea of the martial arts, however this movie made the concept of martial arts recognisable as a serious pursuit.
Over time trends come and go, and interest waxes and wanes in the martial arts. This trend can also be seen in our personal training – sometimes we are in a state of excitement about our training, and other times we feel demotivated. This is a natural part of our journey towards Black Belt and beyond, and our ability to cope with this cyclical interest is an important test of our determination to achieve a Black Belt.
However, as we train there are many things that change, and that can help us through the times of lessening interest. It can be a seminar or special event in the school. It can be a new programme, such as Hyper Martial Arts, yoga or another tangent on our training.
It is great when there are new things to keep us motivated and on track as we move through the highs and lows of martial arts training, however the core martial arts that we study is always there, waiting for us when the season changes and our interest turns. Our martial arts remains the same and is the core of our practice, regardless of changing fads and seasons.
As we prepare to move into our new martial arts school in the New Year, I am reminded of a talk given by my Tai Chi Instructor, Sifu Robert Brown, which he entitled, ‘Transforming a Temple, Creating an Art’.
The story is told of a temple that was situated high in the mountains, and this temple was a site of pilgrimage. People would come on a pilgrimage to the temple from all over the place, and when they got there they found the temple well tended, fresh flowers and offerings everywhere, incense perfumed the air, and there was an air of quiet purpose with an undertone of great rest.
There were over 100 monks who attended the temple, and it was a thriving place where people came to pray, and left feeling uplifted. The monastics were dedicated to their temple, and kept it swept clear of leaves, kept the incense sticks burning and the incense ash cleared away. It was a place of great beauty and great calm.
Over time, however, there started to be fewer visitors. Just quietly, over time, not so much that anyone would really notice, but the flood of visitors slowed to a river, then to a stream and then it was barely a trickle. The monks moved on, went to serve at different temples and eventually, over time their numbers dwindled to less than 20. With the visitors coming so infrequently, the monks so few, the temple fell slowly into a state of not disrepair exactly, but certainly not the great example that it once was.
The abbot of the monastery called the monks together for a meeting, and it was decided that he would pay a visit to another temple to see if there was any insight he might gain on how to bring the life back to the temple.
It was a week’s walk to get to the next temple, and while he was there he had plenty of time to think about what to ask the abbot of the other monastery. After his long walk, he arrived at the temple and immediately sought an audience with the abbot. He described his situation, and the other abbot thought about it carefully. At last he said, “well, at the moment, nothing really comes to me, I’m afraid. However, eat with us, sleep and rest after your journey, and I will meditate on your problem, and let you know what occurs to me.”
The next morning, the abbot of the monastery came to the visitor and said, “my friend, I have meditated on your problem, and I am afraid I still have no answer for you. I am sorry you have had such a long trip, but there is nothing I can tell you.”
The visiting abbot was disappointed, of course, but thanked the abbot and started out the long trip back to his home monastery. As he was walking away, barely started on his journey, the abbot came running up to him. ‘I don’t know if this helps at all, but during my meditation it did come to me that one of your monks has made it – has become an enlightened person.” This was interesting, but neither of the abbots could think how this would be useful in revitalising the temple. So they took leave of each other and each went back to their own monastery.
Upon his return, the abbot called his monks together. They were eager to hear what the other abbot had to say. Everyone was disappointed to hear there was no instant answer, but they were all fascinated to hear that one of them had achieved enlightenment. They all looked at each other, asking the obvious question – who is it, which one of us has made it? No one knew.
Over the next few days, the monks all went around with very thoughtful expressions. One of us has made it! They would think. Then slowly, they started to think about their daily actions. If someone in their presence was an enlightened being, perhaps they should focus a little more in their mediation practice, so as not to distract the enlightened one with weak and mundane thoughts. If someone in their temple was enlightened, perhaps they should work a little harder on their cleaning around the temple, to be sure that the enlightened one had a pleasant place to live and would stay with them, and inspire them.
No one ever found out who it was that was enlightened amongst those monks, but over time, with the effort of the monks in their meditation, their concentration in their studies and their conscientiousness in their cleaning, the temple gradually once again started to attract more visitors, as those who did visit told others of the dedication, purity and peace of the monks.
It is interesting to think of this in relation to our new school. In any class, who knows who amongst out student will be the one who will one day achieve mastery, who will achieve greatness in the martial arts. It could be any of us, it could even be most of us!
If you knew that in your class, training right there with you was the future Tyler Weaver, Jet Li, Bruce Lee, Musashi Minnamoto, how would that affect the way you train? How would that make you treat the other students in the class when you are partnered with them? How would that make you treat the place where one of the greats had trained?
If we can all adopt that attitude to our training, how much better would everyone who train with us become? When we build a new martial arts school, we will do everything we can to create the best possible training environment. How it evolves and it used comes down to the attitudes and intentions of the people who use the place. If we want to have the best training environment in the world, all we have to do is act as though we already have it, and that is exactly what it will become.
There is a story told of a temple where the monks would assemble every day for their meditation session in the open courtyard of their temple. One day it happened that a cat arrived just at meditation time, and started to mrowl and cry loudly. The abbot of the temple, having kindness for all living creatures in his heart, asked a monk to take the cat to the kitchen to be fed, so the cat would be content and would not disturb the monks in their meditation.
So the cat was fed and content, and the monks completed their meditation and went about their daily routines, and all was well.
The following day, as the monks settled into their midday meditation in the courtyard, the stray cat made another appearance, and mrowled and cried again to be fed. This time the abbot asked a monk to take the cat to be fed, but also to tie the cat up while the meditation was in progress, so the monks would not be disturbed. The cat was released as soon as meditation was complete, and the monks again went about their daily routines.
Each day the same process was repeated, with the cat crying to be fed at each meditation session, so eventually the cat was automatically tied up and fed and meditation time, and the monks went on with their routines with the cat a part of their monastery.
Over time, the cat grew old and died, and another cat arrived in it’s place. The monks continued to tie up the new cat, and over time and cats, this became a habit with the monks at meditation time, even when the cat was well fed enough that it was no longer necessary to tie him up, the cat was still tied up as part of a routine.
Many years later, a young monk wrote a scholarly paper on the importance of tying up a cat for correct meditation practice. All this because over the years, the monks had stopped asking questions about the cat, and made assumptions.
In our martial arts practice, it is important to ask questions. When we learn a new technique, if there is something we do not understand, or a method that does not make sense to us, it is always okay to ask why. If there is a good reason for doing things a certain way, your instructor will be able to explain it to you. If there is not a good reason, sometimes it might be done it certain way because that is the way it has always been done.
There is nothing wrong with following traditions, however, we need to understand the reasons behind the things we do. If we do things without questioning the reasons behind them, we can limit the opportunity for new understanding. If we can see a way to do things better, we should be open to considering it.
If we only ever do things in the same way that they have always been done, we can only ever be a shadow of those whose paths we are following. To be the best we can be, we need to try, to experiment, to find out own path. We need to understand the theory of our martial art, and then try to apply those theories in our practice. We do this by trying out new combinations, new ways of moving, new approaches to our practice.
When we consider the way we do things, not just do them, then we have the ability to grow and develop our martial art for the future.