Monday, March 19, 2007

Provability, and other questions

My co-worker, Keith, is a big guy like myself, but unlike me, he's mostly muscle. And, he knows how to fight. He works out at a gym here in Tokyo, doing mixed martial arts. His background is in karate, wrestling, boxing, judo ... you name it; he trains in the gym where pro Pride and K1 fighters Takada and Sakuraba trained, up until a few months ago. I gather that his practice sessions are pretty intense, too.

Today Keith told me that, as of this weekend, he is now the Japan Heavyweight Amateur Shootfighting champion. And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy! But still, I don't want to make him mad. I feel as though he could take me apart seven ways before I could even beg him to stop.

Which brings me to my point. I was telling him the other day about iaido and jodo, and how we often have "arguments" about what works and what doesn't; people spend a lot of time talking about "if he does this, then you just do this" and "don't stand this way because you can't do that" and "in my style, we do it this way because." Keith smiled a knowing smile and said, "I used to listen to those people, and really think about what they were saying, but nowadays, I just tell 'em, 'Try it on me and we'll see whether it works or not.'"

I envy him having such an efficient "bullshit detector." He does martial arts that are provable in real application: "Oh, you'd slap an arm lock on me, would you? Not so easy when I'm raining blows in your face..."

I'm not really interested in fighting people, but for some reason, my mind does often drift back to the persistent question of "combat effectiveness" and what place it has in iaido. We have inherited a number of styles; nobody knows exactly how old they are, or how much they resemble what was being done 400 years ago, but it's fairly safe to say the answer is "not a whole lot". So, how much made it through? How much of what we are learning is (to use an extremely vague and slippery word) "real"? We know that Oe Masamichi used a sword in battle, and he died less than 100 years ago.

To dwell on this point a little more: we have inherited this knowledge, and we have to presume, from people who know more about "real fighting" than we do now. Is it our responsibility to maintain it, and pass it on exactly as we learned it? Some would argue, vehemently, that this is exactly our duty -- our only duty. But should we transmit it without understanding it fully? (Ever read "A Canticle for Leibowitz"?) Or should we devote our energy to analyzing it and trying to understand it more deeply? What if that means we uncover some inconsistency, some weakness, or some flaw? Do we change the technique to match our understanding, or do we automatically tell ourselves "My teacher is infallible, so this just reveals my flawed, incomplete understanding, so ... back to the drawing board!"?

And furthermore, what does it matter? I feel as though it must matter to some extent, otherwise, we might as well practice however we damn well feel like, which in my case, would be from a chair, with a beer in one hand and a chicken wing in the other. But no, we are supposed to be sword fighting, and when we draw the sword, it is supposed to be for a reason; but this just raises the next question: what reason?

I think the frustrating thing about these questions, for me at least, is that no matter how much I think about them, I never seem to make any headway. I always come back to the same old questions. Hundreds of philosophers over the centuries have devoted countless hours pondering the nature of reality, or what it is to be human, and for my money, none of them has come close to finding a satisfactory answer. I feel as though these are the same kinds of questions - ill-posed from the get-go, and basically unanswerable. So ... Gimme a beer and some chicken wings and let's change the subject. Maybe I should have gotten into MMA.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff.
I liked your post -- it's prompted me to reply.
I was a Philosophy major and I strongly feel indebted with gratitude for my studies: the deeply intentional thoughts of great thinkers added to my growing understanding of what "it's all about." Sense making of the world is personal and reflective. The more knowledge one has on the topics, be it religious, philosophical, spiritual, experiential, for example, the more one is able to generate a comprehensive understanding of what it is to be in the world and exist.
Iaido training, in my humbled opinion, is one of those pieces. Primarily, its esoteric, ritualized patterns act as tools for self-reflection: Iaido as a highly structured vehicle for personal growth through a small scale struggle with pride, ego, social relations, and physical training. Sure, I sometimes talk about the effectiveness of X, Y, Z but only in the context of what I was taught, and what seems to make sense. None of this talk is based in any experience with sword combat so really, when you take away the rhetoric, we're talking a whole lot about what's been passed down and trusting in that. Way more importantly, in my approach, is letting go of Iaido through the combat effectiveness angle and focussing intensively on the training as Life Skills, as personal betterment, to be repetitive with different lingo here. This has removed the stress I once had with the combat side of Iaido. I really spend little time on this. Heck, sensei to sensei and year to year uke nagashi becomes something slightly different because "if you do this, then this", for example, could be used incessantly (and I think I'm saying this is the case!) tedious as it is. Key here, and this has been my MOST important lesson and probably will be for life, is to trust in your ONE sensei and do what he tells you do for as long as he is sensei, and that should be for life. What other sensei say is great and you do what they say at the time they say it. Go back to the dojo, keep that info for reference and continue with what your first sensei told you to do. One's Iaido will grow from this humility and experiences with other sensei inevitably. This is why, I believe, sensei are not interested in making 'mini-mes'.
Thanks Jeff for being patient with my short reply.
Chris Gilham

6:38 PM  
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