Friday, February 19, 2010

Dark Zen

The incorrigibly combative Sean correctly observes that Zen is not necessarily antithetical to bloody violence. One need only read Frank Key’s hammer story for an example of how extreme physical horror can be deeply Zen.

And then there’s karate, of course. Like many a child in the 1980s I was a keen student of the martial arts, though my immersion in Shotokan karate was extreme even by the standards of the day. I dropped it in my teens and then had another stint with the Bristol Shotokan Club in my late twenties, an eventfully violent few years during which I sustained numerous injuries including a broken nose when an African gentleman who purported to be a black belt but only turned up once announced in a training routine that he was going to throw a chudan punch (stomach-height) but instead threw a jodan one (head-height), very hard – a clever trick but hardly in the spirit of the thing. Anyway, Shotokan as it is practised in Britain has all sorts of cod-Zenny things going on amidst the kicking and punching, such as post-session meditation, endless bowing, and saying the word “Oos” a lot. Most students and indeed instructors labour under the impression that Shotokan consists of authentic Japanese rituals dating back thousands of years, when in fact they were largely invented by a bunch of scousers in the 1960s – a cabal of self-awarded 7th or 8th Dans that still rules the discipline in this country.

And then again, there’s this. This might possibly be more Wabi Sabi than Zen; or perhaps it is Dark Zen...


worm said...

where do nunchucks and throwing stars fit in on the zen scale?

Brit said...

I don't think throwing stars are particularly Zen but then I've never owned any.

I have had a few goes on the old nunchucks in my time (though weapons play no part in shotokan) and I can tell you that they are far more dangerous to the user than the target, as one constantly risks thwacking oneself on the back of the head, which I suspect is not very Zen either.

Sean said...

The first word that came into my head when I saw Zidane unleash his version of the Glasgow Kiss was "Kamikaze" which is Japanese for "Divine Wind"

Absolutely 100% pure Zen, He did more for football that day than he ever could have known, all th BS about ethics, restraint, ect. Fifa should have given him a special medal. Zen footballer of all eternity.

Its been said that If he did not have the 1998 winners medal he would have not unleashed the Marseille Munch, he would have restrained himself. I personally do not doubt that he would have done exactly the same.

Italy may have the cup, but they are not true champions, when they look at their winners Medals, ZZ will be staring right back at them.

I wish I could have Zen, I would have followed through and finished Materazzi off putting an orange in his mouth, ZZ told him and Italy to FO, the world to FO and walked totally dispassionately past the greatest prize in world sport, my eyes welled up in awe.

100% pure gold, or better still a very beautiful rough diamond, that would be a crime to try and change, or to make better.

Willard said...

Ah, Brit, I feel for you. Having studied Shukokai for about five years, I can only imagine the pain of Shotokan. All those really low stances, your groin inches from the floor. At least with our style, we could walk after an hour.

Funny how Karate is run in the UK. Like you say, these people awarding themselves these ridiculously high belts... I think it’s worse in America. A quick Google and there 15th Dan black belts knocking around. Like you, I studied it in my teens and went back years later to find out that our school had split from the school in the next town and our black belt had awarded himself a couple of extra grades. The whole thing was a bloody mess and very un-Zen.

Anonymous said...

Oh surely hitting yourself on the back of the head is extremely Zen - that Katsu! moment.

i wouldn't have had you down as a Shotokan type - it's very hard, external, rigid. i would said you were more the boxer type - suspicious of anything fancy, like my friend Bonehead. And boxing is very pragmatic, and so less bs-ridden than karate and the internal martial arts.

i sometimes think blog disagreements should be cordially settled by a mano a mano brawl on a dark alley somewhere, it would certainly encourage a more courteous mode of debate, if you knew it could end up with someone kicking your prostrate form in the head and torso.

My tai chi tutor was very into his Zen books, somewhat at odds with his old school Bradford love of violence and pain and internal bleeding. He would use chin na to grip tendons and tug them just enough to induce mortal physical terror, then smile benignly and come up with some Zen saying or another. We had a karate hard man in our class, a bit of a bully, all muscles and bulk; my tutor used to enjoy inflicting additional pain on the man, all very Zen of course, especially the time he bounced the karate hard man off the ground so hard he bounced like a beachball.

Brit said...

Will and Elb:

For a full disclosure, my old man learnt shotokan with Enoida and the scousers in the late 60s (Red Triangle Club in Liverpool) and later set up various karate clubs of his own on the south coast. For much of my childhood I trained literally every day and was a first dan at 13 years old.

You do get some real oddballs on the karate circuit - ranging from shy wimps who limp through the grades to out-and-out psychopaths who just enjoy whacking their forearms against shinbones. When I went back to it in my late 20s I found that the bullshit irritated me hugely and that I had become in the interim the least flexible person in the whole universe and could barely kick above knee height. So effectively Elb, yes I was a boxer among karateka: my gorilla-like upper-body bulk and brutal right-hand straight punch allowing me to at least inflict some consoling vengeful pain on the bendy whippersnappers.

Anonymous said...

Kicks are one of those JC Van Damme things, they look good on film but in real life are risky. Fights tend to go from medium to close range very quickly and then you're using short punches and knee and elbow strikes, and before you know it you're rolling around on the floor snarling and getting homoerotic and wishing you knew jiu-jitsu.

i think for combat one is better off looking at punches, elbow and knee strikes, and headbutts, and basic grappling. Though i did hear a funny tale via Bonehead regarding a Thai Boxing legend from his gym in Bradford, name of "Dave"; the gym invite Bonehead out for a Xmas drink...

Bonehead: Are you going to get in a fight?

Mike: Nah, nah, just a few drinks.

Christmas passes. Bonehead returns in the New Year.

Bonehead: So did you get in a fight?

Mike: Oh yeah. Well. Some guys came over and started mouthing off.

Bonehead: What happened?

Mike: Dave kicked them.

End of story, as Bonehead put it, having felt Dave's kicks there was no need to ask what had happened next.

Willard said...

Very impressive, Brit.

'Shy wimps who limp through the grades'. You know me so well.

It was the bullshit that stopped me returning. Older and wiser, I couldn't believe that I'd ever bought into that world which lacked authenticity. There is a strange affliction which seems to strike martial artists in the west – the need to become multi-discipline. No sooner do they think they’ve mastered one form than they move to another. Our karate school wasn’t just about learning karate. It had become full of the local goons trying their hand at every exotic weapon it was legal to import and then a few more.

Brit said...

Heh heh - v true Elb. All martial arts are almost entirely useless in real fights and those carefully-honed techniques go out the window immediately as the wrestling/strangulation begins.

An exception, apparently, is the immensely practical Israeli military art of Krav Maga - another discipline in which my old man (who is more gorilla-shaped even than me) has dabbled to good effect.

Brit said...

Willard - there's also a lot of pyramid scheme-style invented martial art frauds, where people become instructors after a couple of weeks etc. KUGB-approved Shotokan isn't that, but it's at the top end of the same slippery slope.

Anonymous said...

Dojo rules generally don't apply to real combat. i was once ambushed by two guys, one was about 6' 5", and muscular, the other a karate hard man - i'm only 5'6" and not muscular so it was unpropitious - i incapacitated the big guy first by savagely clawing my nails across his hand and arm, and then subdued the karate hard man. i think the big guy was almost paralysed by the unexpected pain of having his hand clawed open. If it had been more serious i wouldn't have had qualms about going for eyes or groin or throat - all the targets you can't attack in the dojo. Though, come to think of it, the karate hard man in my tai chi class, who was about twice my body weight in muscle, complained that i was too aggressive in sparring - amusing given how he liked to throw his bulk about.

It is useful to learn techniques, because they tend to click into place when you need them - but the most important thing is to really be unfazed by the sheer pace and intensity of a real ruck - and even when dojo sparring crosses the line it never really gets into that zone of kill or be killed - though Thai Boxing rightly has cred in the combat world because it is so in-close and brutal and fast, there's nowhere to hide, nothing fancy, it's just all out aggression like a dog fight.

Funnily enough, Bonehead did his Philosophy thesis on Wittgenstein and boxing - something to do with language games and rules, i gather.

Sean said...

My little 5 month pup had one off the cats pinned to the floor the other day, with his big cheesy doggy smile he looked at me very proud of his accomplishment.

Then there was a great big yelp and his eyes went very bright and the cat was free, she had bitten his balls.

she did not run away, she just stood there staring at him. He gingerly and in pain limped back to his basket on the floor, the cat followed and stood in front of him and calmly took a few swipes at his face, he looked very frightened so i picked the dog up to save him further humiliation and check for any injury.

The cat then walked calmly into his basket and took a pee right in the centre.

Elb, little molls does not have much of a language, a few noises infact, but she sure does have knowledge dont you think?

Gaw said...

Respect, Brit. Well 'ard.

My Dad - who played tight-head prop for Ponty in the 60s - trained me in Welsh martial arts. Just the one short lesson: make sure you hit the bugger first, when he's not looking, if possible.

Anonymous said...

Indeed Sean, i reckon Wittgenstein overstated the bond between language & even quite speculative knowledge, though to some extent he's on the right track. i suspect if he'd spent more time around cats & dogs he would have (maybe) developed some senes of the knowledge outside of language, and how a lot of the things we think of as distinctly human are actually common to animals too. i would guess that teaching kids for 6 years in Austria in the 20s made him realise how central language is to human thought - but having been brought up around dogs for the first two decades of my life i've come to see canine "thought" as much more than behaviourist reflex, acquired conditioning - they are cunning and four-legged, they have wet noses and are not afraid to work out how to open doors and get into the pantry to eat all the cake. And by God if that isn't thought what is?

Anonymous said...

Shutokan? I always thought singlestick was traditional English Zen.

Sean said...

Gaw, i thought the Welsh Martial art was to hide under a "cwrwgl" (I think i got that right)
The art of fighting without being seen.

brit, I forgot to ask if you had seen this? if not you must, I insist.

Elb, Knowledge and experience, these are very different things dont you think? I experience the world very differently from the cat, my physical self makes that a certainty, so in a way I am human because I am human? My knowledge is taken from a very different form that interacts with the natural world similar to the cat but with very different results. Language expands experience that leads to knowledge?

Anonymous said...

We have a kind of knowledge without language, that can be quite sophisticated; but i think it stays tethered to experience. It is possible to speculate without language but it's certainly not easy. Such "thoughts" don't tend to go anywhere, either, it's hard to manipulate them, to dissect or analyse, to look at them from different angles.

With language we abstract from experience. We take words and can play with them, quite irresponsibly. They can be rearranged and messed about with, as one might rearrange lego. Language allows for much easier and wilder speculation than the non-linguistic "thought".

Having a language is like having a lego reality in your mind - pieces of lego stand for, for example, a tree or cat or running or blue or pain or whatever - and you can so much more easily push them around and see what new shapes appear. The problem with language is that it has its own innate logic, which parallels but isn't exactly the same as that of "reality" - and so it's possible to come up with lego structures which seem okay within the lego world, they hold good - but aren't actually viable in the non-lego reality. It's possible to lie with lego.

Brit said...

Great stuff, Elb.