Do you remember why you first started martial
arts? Maybe you wanted to feel stronger
or learn to defend yourself. Maybe you wanted
to increase your strength and flexibility. Or
maybe, like me, you saw something on TV or
a movie that captured your interest. When I
first
saw “The Karate Kid” (this will likely date me
a bit), I was enthralled. I especially loved Mr.
Miyagi. I still find the maintenance-man-of-alow-
income-apartment-complex-turned-sensei
plot
appealing. For one, he was wise. He could see
Daniel’s situation better than Daniel and knew
exactly what was needed. Second, he was
unassuming, humble, and kind, yet could take
care of
business if the need arose. Perhaps most importantly,
Mr. Miyagi was so awesome because
he
was given his superpowers via a tradition,
passed down from father to son for hundreds
of years.
I instinctively felt that this combination of a
good and kind nature paired with the ability
to kick
ass was the height of what I wanted to be. It
was a truly powerful archetype. You could say
he
was wise due to his age and good due to the
hours he put in to training, and you would be
right.
But, not all people of advanced age are wise
and as far as the training, he had to be told
what
techniques to train and how to train them. In
other words, he wasn’t born awesome, he got
that
way through the help of all those who came
before him. He was shaped, in part, by tradition.
Looking back, this idea of training martial arts
as a way to plug into a centuries-old tradition
is
what really appealed to me. I think this has
been the case for many people who have
joined
martial arts, especially in the 80’s. Although
we’re talking about a fictional character here, there
is no denying that this movie and characters
therein were captured in imaginations of millions
of
moviegoers. A piece of art doesn’t become
iconic if it isn’t tapping into something real. I
believe
that the fact Mr. Miyagi is tied to an ancient
tradition speaks to a deep need in the human
soul.
What is tradition? One way Webster defines it
is “an inherited, established, or customary
pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such
as a religious practice or a social custom)”. You
could look at tradition as data passed down
from one set of people to the next through
time. In
our individualist American culture, we tend
to downplay the importance of tradition. It is
seen as
restrictive, stultifying, an impediment to progress.
Artists are praised for being “original”
and
doing things no one has done before. Uniqueness
is praised and conventionality downplayed.
It
seems that the entire goal of our culture is to
continually topple old traditions and progress
to
new ones. We have a tradition of distrusting
traditions. Although this attitude has its place
–traditions are never perfect and need to be
questioned and changed over time – it can
lead to
problems. For one, you are just one person
who has only been around a few short years.
Traditions generally evolve over time. The
amount of information you can attain is miniscule
compared to the amount of information it
took to develop the tradition over time. Ideally,
you
would enter the tradition and add your own
knowledge and experience to it, increasing the
wisdom contained within it. By completely
doing away with tradition, you are in essence
starting
again, at square one – having to re-learn all the
52 53
lessons of the past. Also, the data contained in
at
radiation is often hidden and only accessible
through the practice of the tradition. Generally,
this
is because the information they are relaying
can’t really be taught in the same way as book
knowledge. A clear example of such a tradition
in martial arts is forms.
My first day in class, I was ready to go. I had
been practicing moves in front of the mirror
for a few months at that point and I thought
they looked pretty good. I had even gotten on
top an
electrical box down the street and practiced
crane kicks and punches based on the training
montage in Karate Kid. I was good. Some of
the neighborhood kids thought I was weird,
but
they didn’t understand the mysterious nature
of my training. With all this skill I had been
developing by myself, I was kind of surprised
to find that I needed to still learn stuff; pretty
much everything. The bottom line was that I
didn’t know what I needed to do too properly
learn
martial arts. This is where forms came in.
Although I was excited, I remember feeling
extremely
awkward for the first few months. Not only
was I learning moves that engaged my muscles
in
completely alien ways, but I was also trying to
do what my instructor said. “Bend your knee
more.” “Don’t bend your knee so much.” “Feet
apart more.” “Don’t make your stance so wide.”
“Back straight.” “Head up.” I wondered if Mr.
Miyagi’s instructor was this picky. When I
watched the black belts, they moved so effortlessly.
They flowed and seemed to have no
restrictions stopping them from throwing
beautiful techniques. I, on the other hand, ran
into a
restriction with every step. Everything I did
was wrong in some way. As it turns out, my
training
sessions on the electrical box hadn’t really
taught me much.
Everyone who has trained martial arts for any
length of time can relate to this initial
awkwardness. We have all experienced this
gap between how we envisioned ourselves
moving
when we signed up for classes and how we
actually move. Bridging this gap requires instruction,
practice, and willingness to plug into ancient
tradition. Over time I was able to make my
forms
look the way the instructor said they should
look. But what was I gaining by making my
forms
look good? I was imprinting movement patterns
into my mind and body. By getting the
perfect
front stance, I learned to put my weight forward
into strikes. By bringing my fist back
with every
strike, I was learning to counterweight and put
my hips into strikes. By trying to make my
uniform snap, I was learning to move while
my muscles were relaxed and only tense up at
the
right moment. There is no way the instructor
could teach me this directly. It had to come
through
repeated practice of the tradition. Kind of wax
on/wax off style.
Tradition contains data. A good tradition will
deliver that data in a form best suited to
propagating itself. But traditions also serve
another purpose – they connect us to others
and thus
ground us. Humans are nothing if not good at
deceiving ourselves. What if I had continued
to
practice moves on my own rather than joining
martial arts class? I could have created an
entire
world where I was the best martial artist ever.
I would never have to go to class when I didn’t
feel like it, or do pushups, and I would get to
feed my ego. It would be great except it would
be a
lonely reality where I was the only one participating.
Left to our own devices we can spin off
into unreality. We can, in some sense,
resemble the people plugged into the matrix in the
1999
movie of the same name. We are given artificial
stimuli and connection, but in reality, we
are
living in our heads and we are alone, cut
off from reality and other people. Gone far
enough, we
lose the ability to know what is and isn’t real.
By participating in a tradition, we connect
with
those who came before us and those who are
participating with us. It not only grounds us, it
gives us strong roots that help us grow.
But traditions are not always perfect. Earlier I
mentioned that they sometimes need to be
questioned and changed. There are good reasons
why Americans are distrustful of traditions.
Indeed, traditions can become stuffy, stagnate,
corrupt, and even tyrannical. They can, rather
than
being something that grounds us, spin off into
unreality themselves. When a tradition loses
all
relevance to the current world, it has gone the
same way as the kid who becomes a martial
arts
master without going to class – it has spun off
into unreality. This can happen if it is full of
people participating for perverse reasons or if
it is full of people not grounded in reality
themselves. The tradition and those participating
in it are bound together in a symbiotic
relationship. They both feed into each other.
The participants keep the tradition grounded
in
reality while in the same way, the tradition
keeps participants grounded in reality. Either
they all
spin off into clown world together or grow in
wisdom and relevance.
We should remember that a tradition was
formed in the past and is thus always a bit out
of date. The continual job of the steward of a
tradition is to update the tradition properly.
This
requires honesty, wisdom, and love for the
tradition. You must approach tradition with
humility
first and participate in it before you can contribute
to it. If you are entering a tradition just
to
change it, you will contribute to its destruction.
We add a bit of ourselves to everything
we are
part of. The traditions we participate in end
up being just, a bit different because we were
there. I
truly believe that what we add to our traditions
is part of our legacy and will make the
future
world a better or worse place. May we take
them seriously and approach the task with
wisdom,
love, and humility.

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