The video I’m blogging about here was something that was sent to me a while ago (thank you Grasshopper), which I only now got around to watching and listening. It is a Q&A conversation with Brother David Steindl-Rast and Ryushin Paul Haller. You can watch it on Vimeo here.
A few specific things stand out to me from their conversation, mainly revolving around an audience question concerning “the function of structure” and its relationship to “practice” (i.e. prayer, Zen). Here are some transcribed quotes with my thoughts beneath them:
Haller (00:33): “…we often talk about formal zen practice. And when we talk about formal, we mean, it’s formed. It has a particular structure. And within that particular structure, there’s a very intentional, detailed way of engaging…Enter with this foot, stop here and bow like this. And then if you’re still listening, we’ll say, and here’s exactly how you bow, here’s where your elbows are, here’s where your fingertips are, how’s how you move your body. And that’s just getting in the door.”
So of course I’m thinking about karate kata here. I think it only makes sense that a prospective student begins with a structure of some kind. The student is given a tangible, disciplined way of engaging themselves in the practice. And that gives them the foundation to later explore outward from. The obvious problem though, as I’ve experienced it with many teachers (not just karate), is that they’ll get so caught up in the “formal” practice of it that they become Nazi about it. You know, “YOUR FOOT SHOULD BE AT A 45° ANGLE! NOT 44°! AAARRRGGGHHH!!!” A HUNDRED PUSH-UPS NOW!”. Okay, I’ve never been told to do a hundred push-ups. But the irritated and annoyed attitude that I’ve gotten from some teachers has been equally as painful and not at all helpful.
Haller (02:37): “…and so within the structure – the paying attention. And in the paying attention to the details that are offered – something that goes beyond details…”
And so again, thinking about the kata here of course. You begin with some kind of structure. And so even though modern karate generally teaches kata first (because if you’ve read Patrick McCarthy’s research you’ll find that this was the LAST thing to be taught in the old days), the kata provides the structure for “paying attention” (learning about mindfulness is relevant here too actually). And if knowledgeably taught, the student is eventually able to zoom out and see that the details of kata are really part of a larger chain of fluid and transitional movements used in empty hand-to-hand fighting – “something that goes beyond details“. So again, what’s the common problem with teaching then? That’s right. Gettin’ caught up in the details.
Steindl-Rast (03:10): “That distinction between formal prayer and informal prayer is also obviously in the Christian tradition. And formal prayer is sometimes the ritual, so it’s not yet words…There are advantages to saying your own – putting it in your own words that can also be ritualized, like a circle sitting around or in church…And then everybody’s invited to…express their thanks in some words. And then everybody responds ‘Thanks be to God’ or something like that. And so this’ formalized but in it there’s room for your own expression. Or you have very old prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, that goes really back to the 1st century and has a staid form. And that’s the problem then that after so many centuries, the words don’t quite fit anymore. And so you have to really think what does that really mean. But it’s almost like putting on a garment that has been worn by your ancestors for several generations and you put it on, you feel differently and you walk differently…even though it’s not very comfortable or doesn’t even exactly fit you…”
I thought Brother David’s comments were particularly insightful here and you can immediately see how this translates to eastern martial arts. “…formal prayer is sometimes the ritual, so it’s not yet words…” – I think here about my inability to speak the combative language of kata (formal prayer) because all I’ve done is blindly followed the ritual, i.e. rote physical repetition of kata. The “advantages” as he says to putting this “in your own words” – that’s what I wanna do with my study-practice group idea. That becomes the ritual. And the people who come are invited to bring their own knowledge to it. And so even though there’s still a “formalized” approach, there’s room for “expression”. That just makes more sense for me, pedagogically speaking. I liked when he talked about the “staid form” of the Lord’s Prayer and how the “words don’t quite fit anymore”, and having to “really think what does that really mean”. That’s all about the kata right there! And then when he mentions putting on the garment of your ancestors, I thought to myself that perhaps this is why so many people are attracted to doing martial arts. There is a kind of mystical and ancient feeling that people yearn to be connected to and erroneously give meaning to as well! And so even though gi are relatively modern inventions, I for one certainly do feel differently when I put one on and practice. I thought the last bit was funny: “even though it’s not very comfortable or doesn’t even exactly fit you…” It made me think about the gi that Jesse Enkamp worked to develop to address exactly that problem! Apparently they’ve designed a garment that is actually comfortable and fits well, although I don’t have one myself to know the difference.
Steindl-Rast (05:15): “But we do want to maintain that in praxis the two…can be quite different…And that’s your main concern. They are very different from one another. But only in the form…Not in what is really at work. Because what is really at work, ultimately in both traditions, is always that basic human trust in life…Whatever we have in differences, if it doesn’t lead to that basic trust in life…it’s misunderstood.”
What Brother David says here is originally the heart of why I wanted to blog this in the first place. I have recently gone back to read Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence (which honestly, if you are a practicing martial artist and you have not read this book, then look, I’m not gonna call you a fool. Just go and pick up a copy and read it okay?). I was feeling particularly in need of being reminded of “what is really at work” recently and that’s why I picked up that book again. Whatever differences there are in the various martial disciplines, ultimately, if they do not lead us to an understanding of how violence really operates, then we’re not only simply misunderstanding, we are seriously ill-informing ourselves about reality. For us martial artists, the “basic trust in life” has to be the direct experience we gain through consistent scientific experimentation and testing, i.e. real rough&tumble sparring. What I like to call “grappling hands”. This is really to me where the “spirit of practice” lies and that’s where I’m trying to move towards.
– Hiji Até