Two parts to being an accomplished martial artist: You have to know what to do. And you have to do it.
Lets take the example of Odysseus, a fighter with proven skill, proven attitude, a winner.
He was a king and a warrior. He was done fighting. It had been a long war.
Now Odysseus wanted to go home.
He fought in the Trojan War from day one. No rotation. No home leave. He fought to save his friend’s wife when she was kidnapped. He brought thousands of his men with him. By the end, he alone refused to leave the field of fire when all was lost, and he alone turned the tide of the battle. His courage and cunning won the war.
But was he happy? No.
After years of struggle it was time to head home. He sailed away in a little fleet with the last of his men, the few who had lived to see the victory. On they went and now, nine years later, he was still trying to get home.
On the way he faced seduction, drugs, euphoria, poison, pain, betrayal, murderous rage, the hate of gods and their cannibal sons. But strong hearts just keep going. He kept going, and he just, just barely, kept winning.
Odysseus wanted to get back to Ithaca. To his own city and farm. To his wife and son. To his work, his life, his world where he was king.
But he was stuck. Shipwrecked. On an island in the middle of nowhere. Where it was silent and still. Nothing. No one. Just the sound of waves crashing uselessly around the rocks and the occasional cry of a bird.
There he was on the beach alone. He was a prisoner. A captive of an exquisite, beautiful goddess. She would not let him go.
She knew all about him. Everyone knew about him. She thought he was fabulous. She wanted him to stay with her forever. She kept Odysseus captive by providing him with ‘wine and music’ and by ‘moving to and fro’, according to one translation. I am not sure the translator captured what was going on in that description. But you can imagine.
Her name was Calypso. The first syllable of Calypso, ‘kel’ in Greek, means conceal or deceive. It is cognate with the English word ‘hell.’
Odysseus was stuck on that island. He was okay with being there for a little while. But the more he insisted on leaving for home the more Calypso resisted: ‘Please, just a little bit longer…’ She wasn’t really asking. She left him no choice.
Calypso loved Odysseus. She was totally sincere, overcome really. But Odysseus called on Athena, goddess of wisdom, Odysseus’ patron goddess throughout the war, who asked her dad Zeus if Zeus wouldn’t mind telling Calypso she had to let Odysseus go. Zeus agreed. (If he let goddesses play with mortals just for their own pleasure and amusement, as if they were toys, all hell would break loose sooner or later. He knew that.)
So, after holding on to Odysseus for seven years, Calypso let him go. It broke her heart. But she had to let him go. And she had to help him too.
In martial arts training there are many traps and seductions. People get stuck. They get invested in groups and compromise their art and even their dignity in exchange for approval and group status. They compromise their judgment and independence to be part of an organization. It’s fun. Why shouldn’t they? They compromise the course of their lives, their strength, their maturity, and their true potential, for easy mutual validation in a protected greenhouse environment. But they have more important things to worry about, and worse things they could be doing. There are many ways to fail to fulfill our promise. There are few ways to succeed.
There was no way for Odysseus to leave on his own, no matter how strong his will. He was on an island, with no boat, and no way to get one.
Calypso, under command of the gods, brought Odysseus an axe and some other tools.
She knew what he would do.
He went to the woods, to a grove of hardwood trees that Calypso showed him. He cut down twenty of them.
He split the trees and hewed them into planks.
He joined the planks together skillfully, with mortise and tenon joints, and pegged the joints together with dowels, hammered into place.
The story describes this process in detail.
Why would this ancient, imaginative, made-up, mythic story go into this much technical detail?
At least in part to make the point that Odysseus wasn’t just lucky or talented or good-looking. He had skill and knowledge and a blazing will to do what he needed to do.
Boats are used frequently in ancient wisdom literature from all over the world as a metaphor for the skillful means that we need to achieve spiritual freedom.
Ancient people had no other way to ford a river or cross an ocean. They could not do it without a boat. And they knew that to build a boat and to navigate across the unpredictable ocean takes great skill, and is hard to acquire.
To achieve freedom – from confusion, from wrongdoing, from suffering, from death – takes skill, effort and the determination to prevail over obstacles, attachments and opposition. It takes strength of character, persistence and acquired knowledge.
All ancient traditions agree you cannot ‘just do it.’
You can’t just do martial arts. You need to carefully adhere to the forms passed on to you by someone who really knows what they are doing, and master the art by adjusting your body, your mind, your habits, your will and impulses to accommodate the demands of the art. Then, at a certain point, you do need to break out. Going off on your own too soon, or waiting too long, will fail.
When it is time to go you need to go.
We modern people all face this kind of danger. What seduces us? What seems appealing, easy, near at hand? What keeps us captive, weak and isolated? When you recognize what it really is, when you recognize that what it promises is not at all what it really offers, you will want to be free of it.
As martial artists it is easy to be complacent. To settle. And it is easy to be seduced. If the level of challenge is too low we do not transform, do not get strong, we just get strung along. If the dojo cultivates emotional dependence between the students and the teacher, it cannot offer freedom. People can stay at ‘green belt’ level for a lifetime.
The ancient literature known as the prajna paramita explains ‘transcendent wisdom’, the knowledge that liberates us from suffering, sometimes calling it ‘the wisdom of the other shore.’ Putting it into practice we cross over from ordinary life and death to complete freedom.
The wisdom mind and a heart full of love are the craft we use to cross over. But you can’t just have them, or know about them, you have to build them, learn to use them, master them, and go.
To escape from the prison of mortal life and material obsession can be done, but only by creating the right conditions, only if you know what to do.
Once Odysseus built his boat and was gone from her island Calypso died. She missed him, and was overcome with sadness. It is a sad story.
Why is she called Calypso, the Concealer?
Odysseus had been away from home almost 20 years. His family thought most likely he was dead. Calypso was concealing him from them, from the world, from everything but herself.
Calypso offered him pleasure and immortality if he would stay with her. He declined the offer. He knew it was a bad deal. He knew that pleasures and the hope of immortality on earth concealed the fact that these always lead to suffering and death. Always. He had been around a long time. He had seen the consequences of a life of pleasure-seeking.
In the course of his travels Odysseus had descended to hell, crossing the river Styx in a boat, rowed not by him, but by a guide who knew the way. Odysseus saw for himself the consequences after death of the things people did when they were alive.
What happens after death is hidden from us. The consequences of our actions are not immediately seen. Hell is concealed. It was revealed to Odysseus.
The danger of succumbing to pleasure and comfort also is hidden from us. Especially when we are young, when our impulses are strongest and our judgment weakest. It is why we have parents, and teachers, and heroes. It is why we have a culture. To show us the way. To keep us alive. To warn us about the dangers present but hidden from us, which may hurt or kill us, unless we get a warning.
Every society that has thrived, since the beginning of time, has learned that living a self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking life causes decline and death. Addiction to pleasure, to food, sex, status, wealth and time off, is like licking honey from a razor blade – the first taste is sweet, but soon the blood begins to flow.
Homer through Odysseus reveals this to us.
Posted by J. Michael Brooks
Language note: When what is hidden is revealed – when the ‘calyps’ is un-covered – you get the word “apocalypse.”
“Apo” freedom from, “calypse” the hidden. Freedom from what is hidden would be what is revealed. It might be written down and called Revelation. Which is not the end of the world, but it’s interesting.