Nothing to Lose
By Jeff Brooks
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt (Chapter
20) from Jeffery Brooks’ new book, “The Rhinoceros Tale – A
Practitioner’s Guide to the Alchemy of Action,” now available
in FightingArts.com’s e-store. The book is a fresh perspective
on karate and Zen which emphasizes the importance of dedication to practice.
Included too are new insights and stories of Okinawan karate and Zen
masters as well as stories - moving, terrifying, humorous -- about the
people who have made practice their own.
Accepting that self-defense training has a meaningful place in life
lets ask the next question: what’s the best way to do it?
Karate training properly done involves mostly subtraction. One of Japan’s
archetypal figures is samurai, strategist and poet Miyamoto Musashi.
He lived in the 16th Century, fought in many battles, killed many opponents,
according to legend he trained in solitude for fifteen years and emerged
as Japan’s greatest sword master. Late in his life he recorded
his understanding in the still popular Book Of Five Rings. In this compendium
of advice for martial artists Musashi says it takes a 1,000 days to forge
the spirit and 10,000 to polish it.
One of the implications is this: during the first phase of a life of
practice, the first “1,000 days”, we are adding to our store
of knowledge, strength and skills.
In the first phase of karate training you learn new techniques, become
acquainted with new tactics, adopt a new vocabulary and discover new
capacities of your body and mind. For that period of time the emphasis
is on the additive aspect of training.
Sometimes people get stuck in this phase and assume that developing
as a martial artist means continually accumulating strength, skill, knowledge.
This kind of person can seem sincere and energetic. They will say they
are “seeking.” Their karate life focuses on accumulating
information -- about techniques, methods, styles, teaching lineages,
terminology. They may study half a dozen styles or more, switching back
and forth from one to the next over the course of days or years.
After they have been dabbling for a while their attention will shift
from practicing their style. They will devote the time they would have
used for practice to reflecting on comparative taxonomy, analyzing similarities
and differences between styles, in ways of moving, on detecting and speculating
on the meaning of the variations of postures in different traditions,
in tactical approach, in the means of energy transmission, target maps,
feeling obliged not only study Chinese medicine and five elements theory,
but try to apply them to the methods of fifty teachers. This is a trap
that many of us can fall in to. It is interesting. It looks very appealing.
But where does this emphasis on accumulation get us?
We may miss the chance to master a martial art because our time is limited
and mastery comes from practice. Not “knowing about” it,
but doing it. And changing as a result. You cannot practice effectively
without learning the fundamentals. And new insights will often arise
directly from your own experience in action. But you will not experience
the polishing of the body and the emotions, and the deeper transformation
that comes as a result of real practice, if you concentrate too long
Musashi points this out. The second phase in Musashi’s description,
the 10,000 days, is the polishing. Polishing is a negative process. It
requires a lot of energy. If you have ever polished some hard, tough
material like metal or marble you know how much energy it takes. And
it takes faith in the efficacy of that effort, since the results come
slowly and, at first, imperceptibly. Polishing is removing the stuff
that obscures the real nature of the material.
Now it is possible to object to the polishing analogy: in polishing
a stone the work is purely of negation, and the effects remain on the
surface. In polishing a human spirit, in the second, 10,000-day phase,
there is also a transformation underway. That is in “polishing
the spirit” we are changing the quality of our body and mind rather
than just removing what is obscuring its nature.
When we practice we use our intention and our effort and our thinking
to repeatedly put the body and mind under precisely calibrated pressure.
Through this intelligent conspiracy our muscles, tendons, organs and
bones change in substance -- becoming tougher and more resilient and
more our own. We experience our minds changing in character as well --
an almost alchemical transformation from dull to quick, from scattered
to focused, from volatile to stable.
You can easily see that when an untrained person undergoes high pressure
(in a self defense situation or a personal crisis for example) they tend
to lose their composure. When an untrained person undergoes very low
pressure (a long period of meditation or a long wait in an airline terminal,
or an unstructured vacation) their mind tends to behave like a bunch
of bats -- scattered, unruly, subject to inner impulse and outer sense
As you practice that changes. You feel the quality of your own mind
shift, becoming more stable, less contingent on conditions, not so easily
disturbed by inward fluctuations or outer sensations, not dependent on
fixed ideas in order to hold steady.
Having practiced for a while we sense that our mind and body have undergone
a transformation in substance. It does not feel, subjectively, like some
interfering, adventitious stuff has been removed. But we have to look
at this process more deeply, because we can perceive our true nature
if we do.
This phrase “true nature” can sound like it means “what
we are really like inside.” That is not what I mean by it. I mean
not “what we are” – not our physical substance or psychological
mechanics, as if to imply that these things have a fixed character of
their own. Rather I mean it metaphysically: that in fact we exist as
beings utterly susceptible to transformation through the alchemy of our
About The Author:
Jeffrey M. Brooks holds a Go Dan Fifth Degree Black Belt
in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, training in Okinawa, Japan and the USA with
Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of the style, Takayoshi Nagamine, his successor,
as well as numerous others in the Matsubayashi Ryu lineage and related
Chinese traditions. His Buddhist study and practice is with Rev. Issho
Fujita, resident director of Valley Zendo and Geshe Michael Roach of
the Asian Classics Institute. He has an M.F.A. from NYU Film School and
works as a speechwriter for public figures. He is founder and director
of Northampton Karate and Northampton Zendo in Northampton, Massachusetts,
offering classes daily for adults and children since 1988. (www.northamptonkarate.com).
Brooks’ column, “Zen Mirror”, and other articles regularly
appear on FightingArts.com.
FightingArts.com is pleased to announce its first
book: “Rhinoceros Zen –Zen
Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom,” by Jeffrey Brooks, a work
that portrays the dual paths and interplay between Zen and Karate-do.
and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding
read for any martial artist.
(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)