Archive for March, 2009

Empty, Empty

March 29, 2009 3 comments

Gichin Funakoshi gave us modern karate. He also gave us modern karate, if you see what I mean.

Before Funakoshi systematized the karate from which many modern karate styles spring (and from which others take a huge amount, if not in terms of technique, in terms of method of teaching and training), he chose how to write the word “karate”.

Karate could have been written two ways. One set of characters meant Chinese hand, and the other set meant empty hand. For a multitude of reasons, he picked empty over Chinese and so when we talking about what the word karate means, we talk about fighting with an empty hand. This is fine. It’s great. It’s grand. If my body is the only weapon I need, I can practice all the time. I’ll never forget where I put, say, my left hand. Fantastic. This simplicity is part of what I like about empty hand training. I don’t have to wonder, where, in the real world, am I ever going to find a pair of sai should the need arise.

In the real world is a common mantra. So is In an actual situation. I hear it a lot. “Sure,” say some, “You can practice in the dojo, but in the real world, what would you do if…” and the event that follows the “if” in that sentence is just as unrelated to reality as training in the dojo supposedly is. Ask me what I’d do if someone grabbed me from behind in the wee hours of the morning while I was fumbling with the lock of my door, and my answer will come from a calm mind, rational, and unfuddled by adrenaline. Actually grab me on a Tuesday morning at three a.m. and you might lose an eye, or your life, and likewise me. Every hypothetical situation is exactly that. The dojo, the mind, a conversation. All of these things are analyzable, controllable and fundamentally not-terrifying and therefore, none of them “real world situations”.

Incidentally, I didn’t want to learn weapons. Really, I didn’t. There’s something about weapons that seems to me to take martial arts away from what I think of it as. I think of karate as the kindest way I can prevent someone from harming me. Throw a weapon into the mix and all of a sudden it’s the quickest way I can prevent someone from ever harming anyone. Period. Weapons change the dynamics of a fight. If it’s fisticuffs, who knows? Maybe it’s a mutual punch-up like a barroom brawl. If it’s weapons, the fight is serious and someone is likely to die*.

In an actual situation, if someone throws a punch at me, I might respond in kind or I might run away or I might gently set the person on the ground (having only been in one scrap, I can’t say how I’d react, but I imagine I’d take one of those three options). If someone pulled a knife on me, I would almost certainly do some sort of irreparable damage to them, because there’s no question that they’re trying to do the same to me. Weapons change the game. But not just for the person facing one.

The first time I held my sai, I tangled up my feet. Just like the first time I tried to show a kata to a friend, I got it all screwed up. My technique is there, I’ve used it unconsciously, but I’m easily distracted away from it. I’m powerfully influenced by the setting*, my surroundings and by distractions. When you first pick them up, weapons in hand are a huge distraction. In my case, they prevented me from clearing my mind and just doing the moves because I actually spend most of my time trying not to stick myself in my side, or brain myself (sometimes I look at the other students and wonder how the heck they’ve become so comfortable with their weapons while I still feel like a pig on roller-skates) and I’m only just beginning to understand what I saw when Andrew came and did a sword demonstration for our class: If the mind can’t relax, or be focused, a weapon is more cumbersome than useful. This applies to empty hand just as much as a hand holding the smelly grip of a weapon. And this takes us back to the real world scenario that people talk about. “What would you do in the real world?” is shorthand for “What would you do if you were distracted?”.

Well, I’m spending a lot of time being distracted these days. Learning weapons seems to me just another way to distract myself, and another way to learn to overcome distraction, or even use it to my advantage. Yes, I know that in the real world, I’m not going to have a pair of sai to hand. Yes, I know I’m likely to be wearing my little red shoes and have a courier bag full of books over my shoulder, and maybe I’ll be holding a cup of coffee. These distractions are the sort of distractions people talk about when they give the “real world” scenario. Yes, I know it’s extraordinarily unlikely I’ll be in my gi with my bo in one hand and my sai tucked in my belt. The coffee, book bag and cute little shoes are far more likely. That fact that I’m dressed differently and encumbered differently should not mean I will be unable to protect myself.

Before I picked up weapons I wouldn’t have even thought about this. It wasn’t until I saw how easily my brain tried to override my body when faced with a new set of circumstances that I realized distractions of the type that are likely to occur in the real world are going to have an effect on how I perform. I’m learning to shut my brain off even though I’m not confident.

Picking up weapons has improved my awareness of what’s around me, and taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve learned: Even with weapons, karate is all about emptiness. Empty hand, empty mind. Funakoshi picked empty for a reason.



*Usually the person carrying the knife. Studies conducted in the UK show people who carry knives are most likely to die by them. By their own knives, that is. So much for carrying a knife to “feel safer”. For more on this see: Fear and Fashion: The use of knives and other weapons by young people. 2004. The Bridge House Trust and Brookman et al. 2003. Reducing Homicide: A summary review of the possibilities. Home Office.

*We all are: studies show students who can study in the environment where they will be tested typically do better than those who can’t.

Categories: Drop in the Bucket

March 27, 2009 2 comments

On age, philosophy, and the training of the mind and body. Also, pretty neat application stuff.

Categories: Video

Quick Quote

This excerpt comes from Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyams (ISBN 0553225103).

“I’m going to tell you something very few people know. I became a martial artist in spite of my limitations. You probably are not aware of it, but my right leg is almost one inch shorter than my left… and I wear contact lenses. Since childhood I have been near-sighted, which meant that when I wasn’t wearing glasses I had difficulty seeing an opponent when he wasn’t close up. Originally I studied wing chun because it is an ideal technique for close-in fighting… Instead of trying to do everything well, do those things perfectly of which you are capable.”

-Bruce Lee

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