Why They Did It
…the essential inner stream of east Asian martial arts culture…
When you make something, you change the material you are working with. And you change too.
Anyone can fight. Kids hit. It takes no training, no brains and no skill. Impulsive ones lash out. The other ones learn what to do about it.
People cannot automatically protect themselves, against force, just because their cause is just. That is something we need to learn how to do.
For a million years people threw rocks, in war and to hunt. Then, little by little, they learned to mine ore, heat it, and make metal. They learned to make blades. The people who made the best ones won.
We can learn from their example. The transformative stages in our own art are secret, although they are not hidden. Here they are:
To transform a bar of iron or steel into a sword we start with heating and pounding the metal and then plunging it onto water to cool it suddenly. Putting the metal under extremes of temperature and pressure, precisely, again and again takes time and skill and effort.
This way the metal can be folded and worked into the shape of a sword. It will have the strength and resilience of a sword. But at this stage it remains dull, and will not fulfill its potential.
All that extreme treatment, the heat and pressure applied at the limit of its capacity, has done its work. Then the next phase begins.
Grinding the edge. For a tool like an axe this stage is necessary, and it may be enough. But for a razor-sharp weapon, used at lightning speeds, for maximum effect with minimum force, there is more to do.
The whetstone, by hand. To sharpen a blade on a whetstone we do not bear down on the blade with force. If we put it under too much pressure the metal will wear away, and the edge will stay dull.
If we hold the blade lightly as we cycle it against the stone it will take an edge that will cut a thread in the air when tested, or end a threat, unseen.
You cannot skip steps. To make a sword the iron or steel must be smelted and forged well and thoroughly, without defects, before the blade will take and hold a sharp edge. If the blade is not well made it might look okay, but will break under pressure. The sharp edge will not have a chance to do its work.
For us the heat and pressure of the first phase of training makes our body tough, flexible, strong and unified. We share this training pressure. It is a group effort. It brings skill and power to the body and mind and will.
On the basis of years of intense effort, on the basis of a unified body and mind, we can take the next step in training, achieving skillful, spontaneous action, with our body and mind as a single tool, without resistance in the body or distraction in the mind, without hesitation or delay in the will. This brings high skill on demand, and equanimity in the midst of action and in stillness.
We can go further, like the fine polishing of the edge a blade, using advanced mind training methods. This is the path to the unfettered mind, the mind without hindrance, to insight liberation. This is advanced training. It will not help if it is applied too early – the first two stages must be reached and passed in order.
These stages will not be achieved merely by time in the dojo. You can train for a lifetime without progress, if the pressure and heat are not set properly and maintained consistently until the threshold for the next phase is reached.
But it can be done.
Without the summum bonum of liberation as the objective, however distant it may seem, there is no way to remain inspired and purposeful every day for a lifetime. No way to keep the pressure on and the focus sharp. This is the essential driver of the inner stream of east Asian martial arts culture. It is what invites total dedication to practice, and makes this devotion a coherent way of life. The method of its achievement has been variously interpreted. The purpose remained central.
People may stay in karate for many years, even for a lifetime, to stay in shape, to enjoy friendships, to grow their organization, to have a business, or to pass on their technique.
But that is different from a lifetime of training aimed at perfection.
Participating is different from urgently making your way through the stages of transformation. To do that you leave old habits behind, and create a new life.
Photo by C-D-X via Unsplash