wabi sabi

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

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.

Osu!

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

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.

Kime

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

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

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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run away -- and get help

When I teach self-defense (as opposed to traditional karate -- related but distinct ideas), I use the "Five Fingers of Self Defense" model that I learned from Jun Shihan Nancy Lanoue of Thousand Waves: Think, Yell, Run, Fight, Tell. (I've put a bit of my own spin on it, so if I say something dumb on the topic blame me, not Jun Shihan Nancy!)

So what is a kyoshi, anyway? In this case, a lucky, persistent dilettante

I spent last weekend at the Seido Karate Houbu (headquarters dojo) in Manhattan, being tested for the rank of godan, fifth "degree" black belt.

Trouble, it has often been observed, never comes alone; and so to keep an adequate amount of drama in my life, in addition to the stress of preparing for this promotion I've been getting ready for a server migration at my day job. This had me still up fixing a last-minute problem with a Bash script at 12:30am on Friday morning...I ended up getting no sleep before catching the train to New York. Fortunately, however, the portion of the testing on Friday was fairly light. We candidates for promotion took a white belt level class with Nidaime Akira Nakamura (Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura's son and designated successor), and then a meditation class with Kaicho.

the thirty seconds when I knew something about karate

As I try to prepare myself to test for godan (fifth level black belt) in a few weeks, I've been reviewing more than twenty-seven years of training, looking at every drill and technique and asking myself about it.

And what I find is that I don't know much about karate. I look at my jodan uke (upper block, known to some as "age uke", rising block) and wonder if my shoulder positioning is right, if I've been doing it wrong for over a quarter century. I'm not sure which way my hips should move when I turn my body in the most basic kata series, the Taikyoku. I've been working with the bo staff since I got my shodan (first black belt) in 1995; I'm not sure how to hold it.

I can remember a time when I knew a lot about karate. It lasted about thirty seconds...

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