Don't Follow Your Bliss -- Confront Your Desires

Posted on: Thu, 08/07/2014 - 14:32 By: Tom Swiss

Over at his blog "Hardcore Zen", Zen teacher (and punk rock bassist) Brad Warner has a very good piece on the Buddhist concept of "desire" as the origin of suffering:

This is why meditation is such a brilliant solution. It forces us to confront our desires head-on, over and over and over again. When you sit in non-goal-seeking meditation you are forced into direct confrontation with some very basic desires such as the desire to not be sitting there facing a blank wall, the desire to be doing something productive or at least interesting, the desire to not be bored…

Don't Ever Give Up

Posted on: Sun, 07/20/2014 - 23:58 By: Tom Swiss

I've been re-watching the Justice League animated series on Netflix lately. (The one from 2001-2004, part of the "DC Animated Universe" (DCAU) or "Timmverse".) It's great stuff; though suitable for kids, it manages to touch on some deep ideas, in the best tradition of the superhero mythos.

The second season episode "Only a Dream" features the DCAU version of John Dee, a.k.a. Doctor Destiny. Fans of Neil Gaiman's work on Sandman (and if you're not such a fan, well, I'm sorry for you) may remember Dee as the supervillain who stole Morpheus's ruby and used its power to create horrors; in the DCAU, Dee is instead a petty crook, a convict who volunteers for ESP experiments that end up transforming him and giving him the power to control the dreams of others. He traps most of the Justice League heroes in their sleep, leaving Batman to confront Dee alone.

As Batman pursues Dee, Dee taunts him:

"It is not finished"

Posted on: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 09:27 By: Tom Swiss

The word "sumimasen" 済みません has been described as "the most useful word in the Japanese language". It's often described as meaning "excuse me" or "I'm sorry", and it serves quite well to apologize for bumping into someone or to get someone's attention.

But I was puzzled when I bought something at a little shop in a shotengai in the Osaka suburbs and the shopkeeper said "sumimasen". Was he apologizing for ripping me off? I learned later that the word is often used to mean "thank you". We might compare it to "sorry to trouble you".

But it's interesting to look a little deeper. That "-masen" is a negative verb ending, it means something is not done or is not the case. "Nihongo ga wakarimasen" means "I do not understand the Japanese language." (True, and a very useful phrase for travelers!) "Biiru ga arimasen" means "There is no beer." (A very sad sentence, desu ne?)

wabi sabi

Posted on: Thu, 05/01/2014 - 15:02 By: Tom Swiss

There was a news story recently about how a small child almost ruined a sand mandala built by Tibetan monks for a ceremony in New Jersey. Sand mandalas are an ancient tradition, sort of sand castles taken to the nth degree: over several days, colored sand is placed a few grains at a time to make an intricate pattern or picture. I saw one being made once, and it's as slow and painstaking as anything you can imagine.

When it's finished, the whole thing is destroyed, they sweep up the sand and dump it in a river. It symbolizes the impermanence of all things. In a way, it was kind of funny that something meant to be destroyed anyway was messed up by a little kid who thought it was a toy! And I think the people involved appreciated that. But it's also nice that they were able to fix it up and finish the ritual.

I don't know much about Tibetan Buddhism, but this story reminds me of the concept of wabi-sabi (侘寂) in Japanese culture and aesthetics. (Not to say I know a lot about that, either!) Both the sand mandala and wabi-sabi grow out of the idea, found in Buddhism but also more generally in these cultures, that everything is impermanent. Wabi-sabi is also based on the understanding that all things are imperfect and incomplete to start with.

kata: the forms that shape us

Posted on: Thu, 04/03/2014 - 16:30 By: Tom Swiss

We often translate the word "kata" as "form". As is often the case there are many other ways to translate it, depending on context. But for our purposes in the martial arts, "form" seems to be agreed upon.

But what is a form? If I say "form", this being April most American adults are likely to think of a piece of paper -- or a computer screen or web site -- where we put in a bunch of numbers and figure out how much money we owe to the government. Or we might think of form as being the external appearance of things, sort of the polar opposite of substance.

But there's another meaning for "form". When you're pouring concrete, for example, you build a frame out of wood to hold it in place. If you didn't do that, the concrete would just slump over and spread out all over the place. It wouldn't take the shape you want.

The frame, the form, acts like a mold and gives shape to the material. The old kanji for kata -- 型 -- includes the ideogram for earth, because the most primitive way to use this sort of form is in packed earth construction.


Posted on: Thu, 03/06/2014 - 00:12 By: Tom Swiss

In Seido Karate, we use the word "osu" all the time in the dojo. To us, it means "hello", "goodbye", "I understand", "I will try", "to have patience", and almost anything else. I'm not a military man but I've seen it compared to the Marines' use of "Semper Fi" as an all-purpose greeting and exhortation. It also seems similar to the Army's use of "hooah", which has been defined as "referring to or meaning anything and everything except no".

In Japanese culture outside the dojo, it's usually considered a overly macho term. Even in some martial arts traditions, especially in koryu budo (classical arts), it's considered sort of barbaric. Karate, it ought to be remembered, was an import to mainland Japan and for many years was considered sort of "low class". Those karate people would train anyone, not just people from samurai families. How gauche!

bend like the bamboo

Posted on: Thu, 02/06/2014 - 00:10 By: Tom Swiss

We've been spared the worst of the crazy winter weather here in Baltimore, just enough to be interesting. Last night we had an ice storm, coating the sidewalks and the trees. The roads were mostly clear, though. It made my run this morning quite interesting, I stayed on the streets rather than my usual run down the "trolley trail" through the woods.

While I was out I came across one area where a tree, weighed down by ice, had fallen and taken down some overhead wires. (I don't know if the downed wires were power, cable TV, or phone, and I didn't get close enough to investigate.) And on the return lap, I heard a loud crack! and turned in time to see a large branch of a fir tree break away and fall, fortunately just onto lower branches and not on anyone or a house or car.

Meanwhile, in my backyard, while the trees stand tall but brittle, perhaps near the breaking point (and leaving me glad that BGE's contractors found that the huge locust tree was rotten and took it down), the bamboo bends all the way down to the ground under the weight of the ice.

Bamboo is a tremendously hard and strong material. (After the flood two years back, my downstairs floors are now bamboo, and some bamboo flooring can be harder than oak -- though comparisons are complicated.) Yet the response of the plant to being weighted down is not to stand strong and immobile, but to bend.


Posted on: Wed, 01/08/2014 - 22:43 By: Tom Swiss

The word "kime" (決め) comes up often in our karate training. It's usually translated as "focus" or "power", signifying the efficient and coordinated application of muscular strength to create an effective strike.

A person may have a great deal of muscular strength but yet not be able to throw a good punch. Putting together -- in a fraction of a second -- the necessary actions from the feet to the fist is a complex psychomotor skill. We describe such a technique as "clean" or "crisp" or "focused", saying it has kime.

on bullshit, the Buddha, bushido, and women

Posted on: Wed, 09/25/2013 - 23:28 By: Tom Swiss

Two interesting questions about the martial way have come over the transom lately, and I thought it might be useful to try to address them here.

First, a fellow who attended one of my self-defense classes inquires, "How can I wear the 'won't take no bullshit' face while NOT wearing the 'won't take any kindness' face?"

A little background: when I teach self-defense, I use the "Five Fingers of Self-defense" model, which includes using verbal and non-verbal communication skills to deter an attack or de-escalate a confrontation. The "won't take no bullshit" face can be part of that, using body language to set boundaries. And that's critical: self-defense begins with setting boundaries and then communicating them.

But on the other hand, the phrase "won't take no bullshit" puts me in mind of a story about the Buddha. Supposedly, a Brahmin detractor came up to the big B and unloaded on him, insulting him and cursing him. (We sometimes tend to have a mental image of a smiley happy-go-lucky yoga teacher Buddha, so it's worth noting that his teaching was such a deep challenge to the power structure that (according to the sutras, at least) three attempts were made to assassinate him. This was not the only Brahmin that Sidhartha pissed off.)

the line between persistence and stupidity

Posted on: Wed, 05/29/2013 - 17:40 By: Tom Swiss

This photo from the archives (click on it for a larger version), from when I was a brown belt in 1992 or so, shows me about to break a cinder block cap during a intramural tournament. It's not a terribly impressive break -- I really need to be in a lower stance and drop my center of gravity more -- but you may notice that I'm performing the break with my left hand. And I am not left handed.

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