The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Dao De Jing #66: It's Okay to be in the Background

The Dao De Jing is not only one of the world's great classics, it is one of the foundations of Philosophical Daoism. A free online version of the Dao De Jing may be found here. Today we have #66, It's Okay to be in the Background.

-As a large river flows to the sea, it becomes the ruler over the hundreds of valleys it travels through.
-Because of this, the hundreds of valleys have the ability to act as though they were below.
-It's just natural this ability would allow the hundred valleys to be ruled.
-The influence of a wise person promotes other people to advance, while keeping their own selves in the background.
-Their influence places others on a higher level, while their own words remain below.
-Their influence places people on a higher level, so the people don't feel like they're in the background.
-Their influence promotes other people to advance, so the people won't feel like they're being criticized.
-Everywhere in the world happiness abounds, yet won't prevent room for more.
-Because there's nothing to argue about, that's why nothing in the world has the ability to argue with each other.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Happy Year of the Dog!

Today is the Chinese New Year. This is the year of the Brown Earth Dog.

So what can we expect from the upcoming year? The Dog is an ethical and idealistic sign, and the year that bears its name will also bring increased social awareness and interest in society’s less powerful members. Any tendencies to take, take, take will be replaced by a widespread sentiment of generosity and selflessness. In general, we will all be imbued with the Dog’s keen sense of right and wrong. You can also get a feel for the year to come by checking the compatibility between your Chinese sign and the sign of the dog — the better your compatibility, the better your year.

Happy New Year and Gong Xi Fa Cai (may you have wealth and prosper)!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Myth of Perfect Practice in Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from yet another great article at Kung Fu Tea. The whole post may be read here.


The Problem with Perfect Practice

Vince Lombardie is far from alone in his admiration of “perfect practice.”  While reading threads on a private lightsaber combat facebook group I noticed that the merits of a similar quote (this time delivered by an olympic fencing instructor) were being vigorously debated.  A couple of the students (one drawing on his own background as a firearms instructor) believed it was vastly better to have students who never practiced rather than those who practiced poorly.  As far as they were concerned, the first group was superior as they possessed “no bad habits” and would therefore be easier to teach.

I experienced a mixture of emotions as I read this thread.  Darth Nihilus, the instructor at the Central Lightsaber Academy (the location of my current ethnographic research) has a lot to say on the topic.  I recorded an instance in my field notes where, after watching the performance of one of his students, he shouted that it was not enough to just practice daily, you actually had to strive to practice perfectly.

Nihilus’ was a professional musician before becoming a full time martial arts instructor.  The approach to practice and personal study that you see in the musical world has certainly influenced how he approaches training within the martial arts.  As he went on discussing what our practice sessions should look like (a topic that he decided that the class needed some ersatz instruction on) he ended up doing a hilarious imitation of his high school keyboard teacher who would sagely appraise his performances and tell him, “if your practice is garbage, it doesn’t matter if you do it a thousand times, you are still getting garbage.”  Which makes perfect sense.

And yet, there are some difficult truths that haunt this entire conversation.  The most obvious would be that perfection is a moving target.  At least in the martial arts.  It is not a thing or a singular point.  It is more of an aspirational philosophy.  No one ever reaches perfection.  As one gains technical mastery in a single area, other horizons of possible improvement suddenly appear that you were not even aware of.

All of which brings me back to Wing Chun.  One of the best pieces of advice on teaching that I got from my Sifu was that when introducing new material to students I should demonstrate, explain, answer questions, and then step back and let them work on the problem themselves.  It is so easy to smother someone acquiring a new skill with well intentioned, but ultimately incomprehensible, advice.  Sometimes what students need is not more explanation, but a structured opportunity for practice.

As I have watched teachers that I admire, I noticed that they all encourage (and even demand) that their students practice.  But none of them are all that insistent that their students be “perfect” or practice perfectly.  Not that their students usually realize this.  Learning any new, sufficiently complex, embodied skill can (and often does) feel overwhelming.  Yet from where I am now, I can look back on them supervising the mastery of a complex task (say, the dummy form) and appreciate the way in which they would give their students one task to work on at a time rather than simply listing all 53 of the major mistakes that were made the last time the student did the form.  This is how progress is made, one correction at a time.  And that means that none of our practice is “perfect.”

Practice as Research

The strangely shifting and fungible nature of perfection is not the only difficulty that such conversations pose.  The more we think about the topic the more questions arise about both the nature of the thing being practiced, as well as the act of practice itself.   Indeed, scholarly research into both areas may be helpful.

Readers interested in delving deeper into the question of what ‘practice’ is, as well as its relationship to the mastering of technique and the production of knowledge, might be well served by picking up a copy of Ban Spatz’s book What a Body Can Do (Routledge, 2015).  This book has become something of a hit in martial arts studies circles because it directly speaks to a number of questions that lay at the heart of the turn towards the exploration of “embodiment” and “practice as research” rather than historical or social modes of inquiry.

A more traditional discussion of “practice” might start by supposing the existence of a self-contained, coherent and unchanging body of technique called a style.  Techniques might be derived from conceptual first principals (the fastest point between any two points is a straight line) or inherited from a more traditional form of transmission (Ng Moy invented the art that would become Wing Chun after watching a snake fight a crane).  These bodies of techniques, and a conceptual understanding of how to use them, are then transmitted directly from one generation of teachers to the next generation of students through the process of diligent, dare I say perfect, practice.  Only in this way can a student’s fundamental dispositions be changed, and can the genetic purity of the next generation of the art be maintained.

Yet, as Spatz might point out, it is not clear that any teachers are actually up to the task of revealing the full depth of insight about a given technique that years of diligent practice can reveal.  Any martial artist can tell you that more goes into our punches, kicks, locks and throws than just gross motor movements.  There are a myriad of small adjustments that can alter the nature of a technique, and another myriad of insights that might be gained (or not) as to when and how to employ them.  Nor do students approach the learning process as a blank slate, or an empty vessel ready to be filled with some sort of genetic transmission of pure knowledge.

Each of us brings our own assortment of bodily predispositions to the learning process.  Some of these are physical, others are cultural.  My wife’s approach to, and understanding of, Wing Chun will never be the same as mine.  I will never experience a punch or laup the same way that she does.  How could it be otherwise?

Yet one of the biggest determinants of how easy or difficult it will be to master a technique is what prior bodily dispositions you already have.  Or to put it slightly differently, there is no such thing as a student that comes to a problem with no “bad habits.”  We all have many idiosyncratic bodily dispositions.  Some of them will push our development in one direction, while others might give us a shove in the other.

There is sometimes a suggestion that when Ip Man (or any other kung fu instructor of his generation) tailored his teaching to a given individual’s background or nature he was only passing on the “technique” and not the “true system” of Wing Chun which would be reserved for a handful of close disciples.  Yet by placing the student at the center of the learning process, and allowing Wing Chun to be conceptually rather than technically driven, there were aspects of his pedagogy that can be thought of as ahead of their time.

Rather than seeing “techniques” as simply closed bodies of movement and knowledge, Spatz (capturing the intuitive understanding of most of the martial artists I know) describes them as akin to onions, each level of technical mastery reveals a new layer of questions and nuance.  Nor depending on our background and nature, is it clear that we are all headed in the same direction on this journey of exploration.  And beyond a certain point in our training, most of the new knowledge that we acquire will not come from classes and seminars (though that route never vanishes), but from the process of practice itself.

Practice is not just the acquisition of a finite skill.  It’s a powerful research tool.  As we practice we make discoveries.  Spats notes that at first many of these will focus on how we can improve our own performance.  As we become more advanced they may include insights into the application and nature of a given technique.  Later, more original discoveries might open the way to creating new techniques and insights into how to better structure the process of practice.  When reading the biographies of individuals like Kano Jigoro or Morihei Ueshiba, it becomes clear that this is the way that at least some martial arts are born. Yet at all of these levels of research martial artists are engaged with the age old question, articulated by Spinoza, of asking “what can a body can do?”  This is such a simple question, and yet the answers always manage to surprise.

The idea of a direct transmission of knowledge from the mind/hands of the master to the mind/hands of the apprentice is mostly an illusion.  (And I say this as someone with great love and respect for my teachers).  The nature of practice itself suggests that the learning of technique, beyond its basic stages, is a rhizomic and ever evolving process.  As our practice becomes better, our research into the nature of techniques becomes more profound.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

2018 Lenten Challenge

Every year, I throw out the Lenten Challenge to my martial arts buddies. It has nothing to do with Christianity or religion (unless you want it to). We are simply using this time as a convenient reminder to rededicate ourselves to our training. It’s kind of hard to miss either Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras, the last day before Lent, which is also Paczki Day!) or Easter Sunday (Bunnies, candy, colored eggs; that stuff). Several of us have been doing this for years now.

The challenge is this: from Ash Wednesday (today!) until the day before Easter (Mar 31), train every day, without fail, no excuses; even if you have to move mountains. Simple enough said, a little harder to do.

It's not as easy as it sounds; things come up. Some days, you might only be able to get a few minutes of training in; but the point is to do it everyday, no matter what.

It doesn't have to be martial arts training either. Whatever it is that you need to really rededicate yourself to: studying, practicing an instrument, walking, watching what you eat, immersing yourself in something new; anything - do it every day, without fail.

In the past on some forums, people have posted what they’ve done everyday. I think everyone who’s done that has become tired of writing, and the others get tired of reading it. How about you just post if you’ve had some breakthrough, or you’ve had to overcome some unusual circumstance to continue your training? Maybe just check in every once in a while to let everyone know you’re keeping at it, or to encourage everyone else to keep at it.

If you fail, no one will hate you. If you fall off of the wagon, climb back on board. Start anew.

For those of you who already train everyday anyway, by all means continue and be supportive of the rest of us. For the rest of us who intend to train everyday, but sometimes come up short due to life’s propensity for unraveling even the best laid plans, here is an opportunity to put a stake in the ground and show your resolution.

Won't you join me? The challenge starts NOW!

Monday, February 12, 2018

The 82 Techniques of Sumo Demonstrated

... by two Japanese school girls in sailor uniforms.

I've got nothing.

They actually do a very good job.

Here is an excerpt from the article. The full post may be read here.

These girls expertly throw each other around the ring to help promote high school sumo in Japan.

In Japan, sailor suit school uniforms denote youthfulness and innocence, but there’s plenty of strength behind the image too. Take the gun-slinging schoolgirl from the 1981 movie Sailor Suit and Machine Gun and its 2016 sequel, for instance, or the fighting schoolgirls in Japanese pose reference books. These seemingly contradictory virtues of innocence and power make for the ultimate badass schoolgirl, and whenever she makes an appearance, we can’t tear our eyes away from her.

Now a couple of fighting schoolgirls are stepping into the sumo ring to promote the 101st High School Sumo Kanazawa Tournament, which will be held in Kanazawa, in Ishikawa Prefecture, on 21 May. Using the 82 winning techniques of sumo, which include throws, twist downs, leg trips and body drops, these girls do a great job of demonstrating each move.

Friday, February 09, 2018

The Philosophy of Stoicism

As a philosophy of life, Stoicism has much to offer. See the Ted Talk below.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Japanese Woodblock Prints Available From the Library of Congress.

From MyModernMet. the full article with many woodblock prints may be read here.

As a part of the Library of Congress‘ latest and largest digitization project, the esteemed institution has published over 2,500 reproductions of Japanese woodblock prints. Available for free on the Library of Congress' website, each beautiful work of Japanese art can be accessed, viewed, and downloaded with the click of a mouse.

Like all of the institution's digital reproductions, this series has been curated into a collection based on culture and chronology. Fine Prints: Japanese, Pre-1915 includes nearly 2,700 Japanese woodblock prints and traditional drawings produced between the 17th and 20th centuries. This rich selection of Japanese art highlights the country's predominant print traditions—Ukiyo-e (“Pictures of the floating world”) and Yokohama-e (“Pictures of Yokohama”)—and features masterworks from prolific printmakers, including Hiroshige, Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Sadahide, and Yoshiiku.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Poetry of Taijiquan Master Cheng Man Ching

Cheng Man Ching (Zheng ManQing) was not only a master of Taijiquan, but also a physician, chess master, painter and poet.

Below is a video of one of his students reading one of CMC's poems.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Martial Arts Training in Winter

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

There are many attributes that make Cornell unique among America’s top universities. One could choose to focus on its philosophy of undergraduate education, beautiful setting or its long and pioneering history of Asian studies. All of that is true and good. The library’s collections are stunning. And yet the campus has a dark side.

The first hints suggest themselves shortly after halloween when small signs begin to appear on campus staircases and walkways warning unwary travelers that these paths will not be maintained during the winter. One undertakes the journey at your own risk. At first all of this seems like the ramblings of an over enthusiastic legal team. The staircases and walkways in question are not in some deserted corner of “the plantations.” These signs dot the campus’ main quads. They are referring to the areas that one will likely traverse.

By January the situation comes into an awful clarity. The signage is neither alarmist nor paranoid. The university (like everything else is Ithaca) is built on a hill, one that is now all the steeper for being covered with ice. Walking from the bus to the library can be enough to test anyone’s Kung Fu.

And then there is the snow. Having grown up near Buffalo NY I am used to major snow events. “Lake effect snow” is a part of my life. I cannot count the number of storms I have been in that have dumped three feet of snow in a couple of hours. While we tend not to get quite as much snow here in Central NY, an uncanny combination of typography, high winds and low temperatures combine to make winter driving in the area uniquely problematic. It certainly makes fieldwork seasonally challenging.

To sum the situation up, in Ithaca winter starts as a rumor, and quickly escalates to a nightmare.
All of this can be a challenge for martial artists. While there are many ways of classifying the traditional Chinese fighting styles (northern vs. southern, modernist vs traditional, internal vs. external, Han vs. minority, hard vs. soft….) I suspect that one of the most salient sociological divisions has largely been overlooked. That would be individuals who train in the park (or some other public outdoor space) vs. those who train primarily in an indoor studio.
Coming from a Wing Chun, background I was strictly a studio guy. When a reporter once asked me what sort of environment my martial art had been developed in, I surprised him by answering “warehouses” rather than Red Boats or mythical temples (the answer that he seemed to be fishing for). Nor is Wing Chun alone in this regard. Many southern Kung Fu systems tend to be practiced indoors.
Various explanations are given for this, ranging from the extreme secrecy of their transmission to the traditional lack of open green space in the region’s cities. It is sometimes hard to know what to make of the conflicting explanations. Villages in the countryside tended to have open air “boxing grounds,” but in urban environments the closed studio, or rented temple courtyard, became the norm.
If pushed I would say that this probably reflected the realities of urban architecture rather than any deep seated cultural preference for walls and a roof. Yet what begins as a matter of expediency often becomes “tradition” as we create stories to interpret our own experiences. Modern cities in Southern China (and South East Asia) now have parks and green spaces. But one is much more likely to find Taiji, Bagua, or Jingwu students within them than Wing Chun or Choy Li Fut classes. Even in America my Sifu always conducted his classes indoors, even though the back of our school opened out onto a usually empty park. (Pole training was one of the few times we headed outdoors to make use of this resource). Cultural practices within the martial arts are innovated and stabilized rather than always being a product of the distant past.
Moving back to New York state has forced me to think carefully about some of these issues. Doing more weapons work, and lacking a dedicated studio for daily practice, I have found myself migrating from the ranks of “studio dweller” to “park person.” One of the really nice things about Ithaca is that the region is covered in parks and green spaces. One is never without a place to jog or train.
The downside to that, however, is that today’s high temperature is expected to be 2 degrees (the low is -7) and all of those “green spaces” are white. So should I grab by boots, hat and dragon pole to head outside for some training?