On Exculsivity in Practice

05/08/2009 03:52

By Robert Amacker

In my previous article, I tried to outline the dangers associated with defining one’s practice, in an attempt to establish purity of style, by obsessive concentration upon one element or another of technique. In making these criticisms I might give the impression that I am a proponent of rampant dilettantism in one’s practice, an impression that I will now be at pains to correct.

To address this question we must first recognize two opposing tendencies in the martial arts today, each with its own particular logic. These might be called the “purist” and the “eclectic” approaches. The purist approach is of course the more historically enshrined, giving rise to many exotic (at least to western ears) tales. The fanaticism with which ancient teachers were reputed to limit their students practices and associations creates a definite category of the “profane,” which balances well with and implies the existence of “secrets” that are equally “sacred.” The whole thing conspires to give a mysterious and (again, at least to westerners) desirable flavor to the practice of the martial arts. It fits in well with ideas about meditation and playing the role of some sort of modern monk, a category of human almost defined by that of which he is forbidden to partake. But there is a real logic and purpose to such restrictions, one that goes well beyond any desire for mystery or exotic flavor, and we will discuss it further.

Equally prevalent is the eclectic or “practical” approach. Here the hermetic practices of the past are considered without foundation, and the philosophy is more of a rough-and-ready, down-and-dirty, whatever works kind of thing. Why not use anything that seems effective? The image here is one of a worker with a box of tools. The more tools he has, the better work he can do. Each new technique is a new tool, to be selected at the proper time.

In this last sentence is the key to the argument. In a fight, it is not so much the tool selected as the process of selection itself, and most of all, the proper time. Fighters may be likened to workers, perhaps, but only to workers on a fast moving (very fast moving) assembly line. Moreover, they do not repeat the same job, as in real assembly line workers, but must change for each new element coming down the line. Getting the best tool is of no use if the time for the job has already come and gone.

The purist approach to boxing is based on the idea that the primary skill is this speed of selection, and that purity of style is in fact simply a technique by which this is enhanced. By this reasoning, the only thing gained from acquiring a new tool may be confusion (and therefor delay) about whether or not to use it. It may be said, in fact, that real greatness in a boxing art might be defined by how well it balances these two opposing factors, variety of technique and simplicity in decision making. There is an obvious logic to the frequently expressed idea that one should practice only a few things and do them very well (an old karate teacher of mine used to say “front punch, front kick, that’s all you really ever need. If those don’t work, he’s stronger than you.”). In the history of European sword-fighting, there was a period in which it was fashionable to reduce the number of guard and attack positions in the various styles, in an attempt to have a more Zen approach (this was, of course European Zen). Interestingly, the Spanish school, which never was seduced into this reductionism and continued its esoteric and ultra-complicated ways of practice, was always considered the most Zen of all.

The attempt, then, is to produce a kind of simplifying paradigm, a mechanism whereby we may constantly do different things while at the same time doing, effectively, only one thing over and over. (It should be noted that in this statement I have stated one defining principle of art in the most general sense.) Stated simplistically, one could say that the various animal styles, Crane, Snake, Tiger, etc., represent conditions in which one may use a myriad of techniques but is essentially doing only one thing, that is, being a crane, snake, tiger, etc. Being one of these animals may not represent the ultimate in simplicity but, as an organizing principle for one’s movements, it is infinitely simpler than being a human.

A wonderful example of this process occurred once when I was studying with Quan, Sai-hung, the Monkey style master. Just the fact that I was doing this must be explained in the context of this article. At this time I had been faithfully and exclusively practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan for ten years, and as a present to myself on my thirtieth birthday, I decided to study Monkey Style for a while, as a kind of tonic, reality check, wakeup call, or what-have-you, just to get some perspective. Quan is a guy who loves to fight, and there was lots of sparring among his student. My favorite of his guys was Nirtan Lim, a Chinese fellow with a lot of class, whom Quan had taught several different animal styles. (He would first give you a style that fit your body type, and only later allow one to branch out.) One day Nirtan was sparring with a particularly aggressive and rather unstylish opponent, who proceeded to knock him down.

“Beautiful,” said Quan, whereupon the aggressive student turned to thank him for the compliment.

“Not you, you idiot,” said Quan, pointing to Nirtan on the ground, “him!”

At this point the other students expressed confusion.

“Do it again,” said Quan.

They repeated the encounter, with the same result.

“But Nirtan is losing,” objected the students.

“Yes, but he keeps his technique. That is what is important.”

At this point he walked to Nirtan and whispered something in his ear.

“Now, do it again,” he commanded.

This time Nirtan prevailed easily.

“You see,” said Quan, “proper technique can be corrected by one word, but crude force” (at this point he glanced at Nirtan’s opponent) “is uncorrectable , even with the whole dictionary.”

It is a sad and unfortunate truth that, at least among the martial artists that I have known, a great proportion of the best fighters were abused physically as children. This is not a statistically consistent thing, being abrogated at highest level, but it is consistent, I feel, with the natural process through which fighting skill is developed, and its relationship to the more refined techniques that have come to be known as martial arts.

When a person who has no history of physical conflict in his life is confronted as an adult with a threatening situation, he literally has no habits or reflexes upon which to rely, no history upon which to draw. Study has shown that even animals of reputed “instinctive” capacities to kill, when raised entirely away from their species, show no capabilities of any merit in this direction, and, if released into their native environment, are killed almost immediately by just about anything that they encounter with the physical capacity to do so. Some sort of basic training is required of even the deepest instincts; it may look like play to humans, but it is training.

Only martial artists play with their children in a martial way without hurting them (practically the definition of a martial artist). The great majority of boys learn to fight from their brothers, or their peers. But this “training” does not occur until a relatively late age, after one’s “instinctive” reactions to violence have been somewhat crystallized. Children abused at a very early age experience violence as a natural phenomenon, and develop some sort of pattern of reaction to it, a pattern that later manifests as violent activity.

There is nothing sophisticated or even necessarily effective about these patterns. They may produce complex and excessive behavior, along with weak positions. They may be accompanied by emotional baggage that is endlessly energy consuming and misdirecting. But they are fast. They are fast because they are deeply entrenched, so deeply that, when situations arise that call for them, there is never the slightest hesitation or idea of choice; reaction is as fast as the perhaps excessively convoluted pathways of its action will physically permit. It is for this reason that it is an article of faith among street fighters that when a “natural” fighter starts taking some sort of martial art, he begins to screw up. He may later be tougher than ever, but in the beginning at least, he has ambivalent reactions that slow him down a bit.

This is all relevant to the idea of “crazy ch’i.” One of the best things I heard Ben Lo say was this: “The ch’i is like water; the body is like the earth. Doing the exercise is like digging a ditch. If you dig the ditch straight, the water flows fast, but if you don’t dig, the water will dig its own ditch, and that ditch will never be straight.” Now in fact, ch’i, like water, does naturally dig its own ditch, a kind of osmosis that is pictured in the classic “The ch’i moves as in a pearl with nine passages; there is no part so small it does not reach.” We are spared the possible disastrous effects of this process by the fact that most people do not have an excess of ch’i and not much left over, after taking care of the process of living, to dig ditches with. Programs of ch’i gung, kundalini training, etc., are essentially of two parts. One is increasing the flow of ch’i or prana, and the other is creating pathways for its distribution. Fortunately, these two parts are functionally linked, so that it is difficult to develop too far along one line without some simultaneous development along the other.

But it is mandatory that this process of “ch’i management” precede any dramatic increase in energy flow, just as the dirt must be cleaned and the kinks removed from a hose before the water is turned on to full power. In Indian Yoga, this preparation is mostly done through the krias and the asanas. You might say the krias are for cleaning and the asanas are for removing the kinks. A pure asana, by definition, only opens gates and works to remove blocks (vrities), but does not in itself directly stimulate energy. A mudra is distinguished from an asana in that it directly stimulates central nervous system energy. Many postures are both mudra and asana; some, like the headstand, are mudra, asana, and kriya as well.

If this orderly process is not followed, however, it is possible to generate large excesses of ch’i without the proper channels developed for its distribution. In this case, one or another (or possibly both) of two “ch’i gung disorders” will develop. The energy may simply be blocked. In this case no outward symptom will develop. In fact, the person may seem to become quite strong and entirely pleased with the results of his practice. One day, however, at a relatively young age, the person simply suddenly coughs up a huge amount of blood (or evacuates it through the bowels), and dies. I have known of several examples of this.

In the second case, the energy is not blocked, but “digs its own ditch,” and the person develops “crazy ch’i.” Fighting, and particularly being injured, produces an enormous amount of energy, at any age. One might say that the reflexes of a “natural fighter” represent a kind of “crazy ch’i,” but one that has been turned to a definite and sometimes highly useful result.

The martial arts, then, have a twofold job if they are to equip one for actually fighting. One is to supply the student with the training necessary to develop the requisite weapons, both in physical capacity and technique. The other is to offer an improvement over the results of “natural” development, in terms of a simplification of the process through which these weapons are brought into play at the proper time. This simplification into a recognizable and repeatable paradigm, somehow present and at the heart of every decision and movement, is what creates, defines, and maintains what we call style.

This reasoning is basically at the heart of exclusivity in martial arts practice. It has weight depending upon the degree of sophistication of the particular art itself. At the highest level, where the teacher is actually offering a sophisticated process that can, if allowed to proceed without complication, produce dramatic results, then that teacher’s plea for exclusivity in practice may represent the highest wisdom. If, on the other hand, the “style” is just a grab bag of techniques in the first place, and “loyalty to one’s style” is being practiced simply for its own sake, mainly in the form of logo T-shirts and secret handshakes, then the whole imitation of time-honored cliches about exclusivity in practice is a farce.

In this spectrum just suggested, it is my opinion that T’ai Chi Ch’uan holds a highly elevated position. Its central paradigm is so strong, I feel, that it should, if properly understood, be the most resistant to fragmentation of any of the arts. In every text it is repeated over and over that there is only one principle, and that all other behavioristic practice is conditional to its implementation. All other considerations, rooting, stepping, softness, roundness, centering, etc., etc., are simply the steps to a condition in which it is the only consideration.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the most elegant of martial arts while at the same time being the least dramatic. The paradigms of the Shaolin schools, for example, include the very personality of the animals being imitated. These are highly dramatic personalities, bears, tigers, dragons, snakes. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, we imitate something that is not even alive. We are nothing but a highly elaborate, movable scale, designed to receive an input and render a solution, like a computer. But mechanically, like an old computer; more like an old slide rule. The nature of this computation is highly unemotional and without reference to any of the normal considerations of fighting (protection, seizing opportunities, “ring strategy,” etc.). It is, in fact, to me a rather profound question as to why it constitutes fighting at all. Why, after all, should the unique solution to every problem posed, arrived at, as it is, without martial consideration, be one so invariably martially astute?

For this is in fact the case. Although I have seen many instances wherein I or someone else failed to do T’ai Chi Ch’uan properly because of stupidity or physical inability, I have never seen an instance in which the correct move called for by a proper following of the principle, if actually executed, did not result in a superior position. I have many times thought that I found such an instance, but always, upon reflection, I discovered that my response in some way actually violated the principle through some mere error or, on occasion, an important misunderstanding. When these errors or misunderstandings were corrected, though again, entirely in the abstract, the practical result was always one of the greatest martial sophistication.

If ever something fit my previous requirement or certain indicator of art, that is, doing a million different things while at the same time demonstrably doing exactly the same thing over and over, it is T’ai Chi Ch’uan. In terms of this process it stands at the highest level because the thing that it is doing over and over again is so simple and fundamental. At every level of function of the body and brain, there is some process of which it is descriptive, so that it can spread to the deepest levels of mentality without resistance.

A plea could be made for simplicity itself being such an important factor as to be the only one of significance. The obvious greater simplicity of the T’ai Chi principle in comparison with an animal imitation means that it can be taken to levels of behavior deeper than a mere recapitulation of phylogeny. But suppose, for instance, that one based their martial art upon being a wall. That’s really simple! It’s even simpler than yin and yang. Whatever happens, just ..... become a wall.

Well, I no of no examples of this martial art but I’m sure it would be a pretty bad one. Walls are just not complex enough, deep enough, sexy enough to make martial arts out of. Someone suggested to me once that I should study Wu Chi Ch’uan. When I asked if he knew anything about Wu Chi Ch’uan, he said no, but that Wu Chi was an empty circle and T’ai Chi was a yin yang, and that the empty circle was definitely more profound. Yes, I told him, it represents a Universe in which there is no movement, a far more profound universe than our own. I told him that I was not ready yet to prepare for life in this movementless universe although, by doing T’ai Chi Ch’uan, I probably was anyway.

As a final note I include this anecdote about a former friend, the best street fighter I ever encountered. I have mentioned him before; he was the guy who liked to beat up gangs of self-styled hoodlums while holding one hand behind his back. He had nothing but sneers for the whole martial arts scene, although I did finally get his attention when I took him to a class of William Chen’s. (“That guy,” he told me, “knows something.”)

This was long before that, though, before I ever even heard of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and was studying Karate with Peter Urban in New York City. I was doing math downtown at NYU and my friend was doing physics uptown at Columbia. I had always endured his kidding about my martial arts obsession, mainly because I had to; after ten years of training, I still knew who was tougher. But at Urban’s dojo in downtown Manhattan, I felt I merited a bit of respect. This was definitely not a bunch of cream puffs. I had bones broken sparring at this school! I did an unbelievable regimen of calisthenics morning and evening, plus a three-hour class every day. For at least two years I spent every Summer evening walking alone in Central Park, trying to get mugged, and only succeeded in getting arrested. Still my friend refused to take me seriously. (“Don’t show me that fancy shit, man. You’re never going to do any of that shit.”) I decided I was never going to get any respect.

Then one night at Urban’s we spent the entire evening practicing kneeing someone in the balls. It really was overkill, or overknee, or something. I don’t know what got into Urban that night but after I realized that we were going literally to do nothing else the whole class but knee each other in the balls I thought “he can’t call this a bunch of fancy shit! This is down and dirty, real stuff.” So after class, I took the subway uptown to the dormitories at Columbia. I found him pouring over some quadratic equations.

“Listen, I want to show you what we did tonight at Karate class.”

He painstakingly completed the problem he was working on before looking up, a mild, slightly amused smile on his face.

“Fine. You show me how the Karate man does it, and I’ll show you how the Kentucky Bar Man does it.” He got up from his desk. Thrilled that I would at last impress my friend with some practical stuff, I was naturally taken completely off guard when, coming up next to me, he grabbed both my shoulders and dropped me to the ground with a vicious knee to the groin.

Always one to appreciate the irony of any situation, I gasped desperately for breath on the floor, and, after several minutes watching my friend continue his homework, the whole scene viewed diagonally from my awkward position on the ground, managed to get out a few words.

“Man, you don’t understand. That’s just what I was going to do to you!”

Slowly he rose from his desk, an expression of quiet disgust on his face.

“No, man,” he said, with infinite patience, looming above my still prostrate form, “you don’t understand.” He bent over, his final words on the subject coming out in a hoarse whisper. “The Kentucky Bar Man does it first.”