Office samurai?

In his famous book Hagakure (“In The Shafow of Leaves”), also known as The Book of the Samurai, the samurai¬†Yamamoto Tsunetomo records his views on bushido, the warrior code of the samurai.

Perhaps the best quote from the book that reveals the essence of the way of the samurai is the following:

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the way of the samurai.

Can such philosophy be really practiced in the 21st century? How about the approach below?

The way of the office samurai is found in dismissal (getting fired). Meditation on possible dismissal should be performed daily. Think of a dismissal when waking up; think of it when falling asleep. Only after losing the fear of losing your job shall you straighten your career path. There is no dishonor in getting fired. Cowardly people fuss over their workplace, while an office samurai has a path, not a place. You shall follow the path determinately and dispassionately.

It’s a joke of course, but in every joke there’s only part of the joke, isn’t there? ūüôā

All roads leave to dojo

They say all roads lead to Rome. In the times of the Roman Empire this was literally true, as all paths led to the same destination – the centre of the Holy Empire. Today this phrase is used in a figurative sense meaning there are many different ways to reach the same destination or result.

While the days of the empires are gone (at least that’s what official historiography says), the idea of Rome – or something primary and important – is still valid. This time, however, not only in the geographical sense, but rather in the psychological one – referring to something that is placed within your inner self. Let’s also leave Rome to the mighty but past empire, and use ‘dojo’ instead – the widely used word for a room or hall to practice martial arts. ¬†

Everyone has his own dojo, even though he or she is not aware of it. By dojo here I mean not only the physical location for practicing any martial art, but also the attitude of perceiving life as a continuous training – physical, psychological, moral, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.

We are all having a life-long training in fact, learning to cope with challenges and face difficulties. Sometimes life throws us roughly on the mat, and we cannot breath a word in response. Sometimes we stand up and strike back with a nice jab or cross. Many times we have sparring with imaginary opponents, and even more often fight with ourselves.

No matter what happens, the training continues. “Show must go on” – as the legendary Freddie Mercury once sang. The question is whether we accept the training challenge and open ourselves to learn new lessons, or allow other people, things and circumstances knock us down every time victory seems to be close enough.¬† ¬†

Martial art or martial science?

The phrase “martial arts” is a buzz word used by everyone. The ‘martial’ component derives from ‘Mars’ –¬†the ancient Roman god of war. The ‘art’ component implies something that is created. The idea of “martial arts”, however, is much deeper than it may seem. Any kind of fighting or self-defense system is as much a science as it is an art. This is because in real¬†life, in contrast to dictionaries, art and science are inseparable friends.

Let’s check the definitions first. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, art can be broadly understood as “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” Creation and expression are the key words here. In this regard, it is worth mentioning Bruce Lee who viewed martial arts as “honestly expressing yourself.” Science is defined as “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.” The key word here is knowledge, while “scientific method” includes experiments and observations. In other words, science is learning through experiments and observation.

As suggested earlier, art and science can be reconciled. Consider cooking, for instance. Is a science or an art? Many would agree that cooking is both a science and an art. Even it we consider the “real scientists”, i.e. people engaged in scientific, research and academic activities, they display creativity too. Only the product of their work is intellectual, not physical (like in case of sculptors, painters, artists, etc.). Similarly, if yon consider “real men of art”, they must acquire certain skills and knowledge – that is learn – before they can create a piece of art. So scientific goes hand in hand with artistic here.

The same principle applies to martial arts, which can be a misleading term sometimes. Any martial art is a science. A side kick, or yop chagi, in taekwon-do will be powerful and effective¬†if the hips, knees, and feet are all engaged at the correct angles. An irimi nage throw in aikido requires a lot of precision in controlling the opponent’s inertia and using your center of gravity. The technical examples are literally countless. Each and every technique requires thousands of repetitions and hours of learning before it can be truly mastered and become automatic. This process of acquiring skills is science. Furthermore, with martial arts there are always new things to learn, there will never be a moment when you will know everything, This is like being a lifelong student, and this is science too. Last but not least, like in “traditional science”, in martial arts you need to try, test and challenge things that don’t work best for you. And this is science also.

After acquiring at least the basic skills, you can start being creative. For instance, during the free sparring you select those¬†techniques which are best in terms of timing, speed, power, surprise, etc. In other words, you start¬†improvising.¬†Such process of creative improvisation is art. As an another example, during a training you try to make your traditional forms as aesthetic, elegant yet at the same time powerful as possible. This is art too. As Ron Goin nicely put it in his blog post on martial art vs. science: “some people will practice their martial art with the same sense of intensity and personal expression as a dancer who practices ballet.”¬†Finally, facing an unexpected attack in an unfamiliar environment forces you to be creative and inventive, which is also art.

To summarize, any martial art is both an art and a science. I like the guitar analogy here. First you need to learn basic chords, rhythms, finger style picking, etc. After a while you can start playing others’ songs, and eventually improvise and create your own music, The processes of science (learning) and art (creation) are intertwined here. The same goes for martial arts – there is no art without science, and vice versa.

Inspiration from Bruce Lee

True for everyone, not just sportsmen.

Experience shows that a give-it-all athlete can continue to fight as long as necessary. This means that a normal effort does not release the enormous reserves of power that are dormant in the human body. An extraordinary effort, accompanied by an emotional mindset to win at any cost, will release this superpower… A true athlete is the one who gives everything he has, at all times.

A Martial Artist’s Dilemma

There is a common conception in the martial arts world. It goes something like this.

“Never misuse your knowledge. Always avoid a confrontation when possible. The best fight is the one that never happened”.

Back in the 5th century BC Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general and strategist, summarized this in his classical work “The Art of War” as follows: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

I totally agree that a strong and confident person will never show off his skills. Moreover, strong people are kind people (but not the other way around). But here is a puzzle I am facing after having practiced martial arts for five years now.

If I assume MA make a student stronger, faster, more technical and agile, and so on, isn’t a fight the best prove of this? In other words, is a fight situation not best for testing your knowledge?

Many will respond these is what competitions are for – testing you fight skills and spirit with an unknown opponent. This is true to a certain degree. However, all competitions are very far from real street conflicts.

First, the competition rooms normally have enough space, light, good surface, protection gear and cheer up teams.

What would you do though in a one-to-one confrontation in a dark small street? Would you perform worse, better, or the same? With no one around, shoes and clothes making it more difficult to move, possibility of a weapon coming up, and adrenaline boiling in your veins?

Second, even though competitions have an element of surprise (you don’t know your opponent), this is a way far from a real life-threatening encounter outside the training room.

Last but not least, some martial arts, like aikido for instance, do not have have competitions at all.

Does this all mean a martial arts student try to turn any potential conflict situation into a fight?

Certainly not, Besides, the more your train, the lest conflict situations you encounter, either in personal or professional life.

I have had to use my taekwon-do knowledge only once, defending against an adult drunkard on an evening tram in Budapest. That experience brought me lots of inspiration and confidence. At the same time, I think, that’s when the seeds of the Dilemma started to grow in my mind.

At the moment I don’t know how to resolve this puzzle. I only hope that with further training I will have a better vision how to match the desire to have a life physical encounter experience and the need to control yourself and stay out of trouble.

I guess my position at this stage is this. Try to avoid any potential fight as hard as possible. Don’t take unsafe routes. Try to talk it down if a conflict starts heating up. Give away your money if your are threatened with a gun. Yet when the need comes, when your life is under thereat and may finish off stupidly, when there a family behind your back, or your girlfriend, or anyone you love and care about, you must not hesitate and give a decent answer to an aggressor.

Stay safe!