A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

Martial Arts

Why did Bodhidharma go to the east?

Like every scrawny overly sensitive boy, I loved the martial arts. I often fantasized about turning the tables on bullies and behemoths with my superior skill and mystical insights into human frailty. From the ages of six to nine, I spent my Saturday mornings watching USA Network’s Kung Fu Theater, leaping over sofa cushions with expertly timed sound effects–my pasty white limbs splayed to some deadly purpose. I certainly was no coward: more than once, I followed my mouth into a physical confrontation that landed me on my ass with a bloody nose. Being an exceptionally small boy with a fantastically large mouth, this happened more times than I probably remember or care to, and my martial arts fantasies were an alchemical solution to a depressingly leaden reality.

About the age of nine, I began training in a Japanese martial art that I took very seriously. I was still exceptionally small for my age, but I was not without some natural ability, and I progressed quickly through the simulated confrontations and dance-like routines that are called Kumite and Kata, respectively. My bravado grew, and I contrived some disagreement with another boy that quickly turned into a fight, that quickly turned into a humiliating display of the laws of physics. Force-equals-mass-times-acceleration. String as many round-house kicks and lunge punches together as you like, but puny mass times middling speed equals forced ingestion of mud–and a good deal of pride and blood besides. Fortunately, boys are quick to forgive, and my comedic rout amounted to a grudging respect from those around me that I wouldn’t let a little thing like humiliation keep me from standing up to someone, and so for the most part people left me alone, even when my mouth begged for a bruising.

Oddly, these reality checks didn’t keep me from continuing to train. I switched to a Korean martial art after I was old enough to drive and make an educated decision about my teachers. The new art was a rigorous from of Hapkido that not only involved training in weapons and close-quarters combat, but a deep study of human vulnerabilities. I learned, for example, where to grab someone to temporarily or permanently dislodge their windpipe, and where exactly on the skull the ganglion of nerves lies, which when struck knocks a person unconscious and causes temporary amnesia. My continuing to train may seem a strange commitment given my experience, but the belief that one can transform imagination into reality is addictive. And that, after all, is the martial artist’s vision, isn’t it? Indeed, the vision of every art: that one can make the imagination’s wisps into the body’s works. It’s our way of bridging our dual natures, the imaginative and the concrete, what Emile Durkheim called the homo duplex, the double human, the two yous–of course, he was talking about something other than my quest for fists of fury.

The truth is our dual nature is real, and we can, in fact, make the ethereal material, but it is always a translation, an exchange. Something is lost along the way, or cannot be fully pulled into this world. The true form, just like the true demon or god, can only be imperfectly embodied. If you lift the veil of Isis and see her true face, you vanish from the world, which is why in martial arts mythology all true masters live in the mountains, away from the marketplace, where only goats and saints wander the rocky paths. They’ve learned that the various ways in which human dignity can be ruined are so common that it’s not safe to live near their brothers and sisters: they know, for example, where the oculus is weakest; how fragile even the strongest fingers can be; what angles turn elbows into fulcrums for the shoulder’s destruction; how easily the vertebrae can be dislodged to bring suffocation and paralysis. The master offers us terrible news of our condition, but it is terrible in the same way that all knowledge is terrible and limiting. You name it, no matter how mundane, to know something is to be roughed up by your own finitude, worked over by weakness. To know what something is, is also to know, horribly, all of the things that it is not.

Our always-on-display limitations are ready to be exploited by any competent artist, be it martial or otherwise. Virginia Woolf’s dictum about great artists thoroughly mastering their view of the world is precisely instructive in this. Artists force their voice on us, their eyes on us, their paws upon us; their way of seeing the world is not ours, but it resembles us so closely that it forces us into submission because we give up everything hoping to have it–that other half. Perhaps, though, all these aggressive metaphors make you uncomfortable, and you prefer “seduce,” or “invite,” which is fine. Every great fighter knows how to lure an opponent in, feint an opening–Muhammed Ali’s Rope-a-dope being the most famous example. The point is that when we encounter art, it is always this carrying over, this submission, this translation, this loss we seek and find. Indeed, every great fighter’s hope is not simply for victory, but for dominance, to be so dominant you disappear. The cannibal’s belief that by consuming their victims, they assume their power is a particularly gruesome form of this.

But all predators hunger for prey, as prey pine for predators. The deer’s wide-eyed submission to the mountain lion long before death’s dominion quells the heart is the same. We crave authority. Need to yield. Search for self-help.

What I learned all those years of training is not comforting, but it was clarifying: if we ever meet in a dark alley, the heart I’ll be reaching for is yours.

One Response to Martial Arts

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    […]Like every scrawny overly sensitive boy, I loved the martial arts. I often fantasized about turning the tables on[…]…

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