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Obstacles & Good Fortune

By Jeff Brooks

At every level of martial arts training you will encounter obstacles. If we treat them as external to training, something to get rid of so we can get back to training, we will inevitably be defeated by one of them. If we treat them as an element of our training itself we can triumph and move on.

At a mountain pass where the road narrows, or in the middle of a long wooden plank bridge swaying over a deep chasm, or on the drawbridge to the castle, we see a single knight, warrior, cowboy or whoever, make his stand against what at first appears to be an endless series of enemies.

One by one they come to challenge him. One by one they are defeated. If the hero were to attempt to face them all at once he would quickly succumb to their massed power. But taking each on individually the hero becomes the victor.

But remember this: if he loses even one battle he loses everything. The opponents are numerous and relentless. The hero fights alone.

This is how our training goes.

As a beginner we face many unfamiliar opponents. Our feeling of awkwardness in a room filled with skillful people. Not knowing the techniques, the movement sequences, the formal etiquette of the training hall, all this can be intimidating. In fact it can be so intimidating that it defeats some beginners. They never face this battle squarely. They never defeat this first opponent. They never take the first step on the path to mastery.

We will face sore muscles. An injury. A sudden shift in schedule. Work pressures. Personal pressures. Health, family, money. Events inside the dojo and out, in our body and mind, all will come to the fore, one by one or several at a time, and appear to be obstructions to our training.

Someone may believe that their legs are not strong enough for martial arts. They may decide they do not have the speed or flexibility it takes to be effective or excel at their art. If they yield to this misgiving they give up all hope of achieving anything. But if they face the fact squarely and train hard, sincerely, consistently over a sustained period of time, even with no certainty of the outcome of all their effort, they will prevail.

People discover resources of physical ability they never knew they had. They become stronger. They become more flexible. Their balance and speed improve steadily as they continue to apply their effort in training. In this way, just by consistently practicing, they can overcome this opponent and prevail.

But like the hero battling the series of enemies on the bridge alone, another opponent will appear when one is defeated. Perhaps the quest for a higher level of performance. Maybe a challenge to the ego. Maybe an uneasy feeling that other people are having an easier time. You feel too young. Too old. Too thin. Too fat. Too different. Too plain. Maybe you feel your own achievements are going unrecognized despite your merit. You might feel a competitive challenge, a temptation to vie with others for recognition, status, or rank.

These all will appear as obstacles. To some they will appear as obstacles that are inherent qualities of martial arts practice rather than something which will be encountered and defeated, or simply outgrown, but something (some mistakenly believe) they will face throughout the course of their training. This mistaken belief makes some people give up training.

Some school leaders are fair and run their school on merit. Some will teach an arrogant student humility by not singling them out, but simply letting them train. For an arrogant student, that can be very hard to take.

Some teachers will distort the rank system, not basing it on merit but on demonstrations of servility, donations of money or some other kind of favoritism. Then it is up to the sincere student to make a choice. There will be no benefit in remaining in a situation that fosters poor values or poor technique. Then you will have to make a decision, whether or not to leave that setting and find a healthy one. That may be the next opponent to face and to defeat.

There will be more opponents ahead, even if you overcome that one. For intermediate and advanced students, for teachers and leaders, at all stages of one’s martial arts career, the heart of the career is a series of challenges. By dedicating ourselves to training we create opportunities to encounter difficult challenges, to face them, to overcome them, and to move on to the next encounter. By engaging in this process we become stronger, more intelligent, more able, more refined human beings.

Facing the limits of our own knowledge is a real obstacle, if accumulating knowledge really matters to you. Incorporating the endless insights that arise in the course of hard training, even if no one else around you can appreciate them. Being humble. Being willing to learn, to accept criticism, to give criticism when it is warranted, to provide your students with the tools they need to live their own lives and pursue their own practice. Taking responsibility to lead. Finding the right balance between persuasion and coercion in the course of fulfilling a difficult responsibility.

Putting it all at risk when the time comes and even letting go when the time is right for that.
Facing each new opponent as it appears does not mean creating a life that is an endless series of battles. It means creating a life in which we consistently challenge ourselves, in a healthy, well-calibrated way, to become stronger, smarter, more in tune with the world around us and the people in it.

That way martial arts practice stays fruitful and meaningful. It does not turn into a corny pursuit of rank or approval. In this way martial arts can be a real way of life, and each person who lives it becomes a genuine hero.

Copyright Jeff Brooks and 2007

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About The Author:

Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, has been the director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton, Massachusetts since 1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993. He is a police officer and police instructor, and the author of “Rhinoceros Zen – Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom.” His column Zen Mirror and other articles appear on

New! 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. Fast paced and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding read for any martial artist.

(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)


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martial arts training,martial arts philosophy,zen

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