Saturday, 14 March 2015

Martial Art Speed

Original Sources:

he distance from A to B. The Zeno syllogism claims that by continually dividing the distance between (ad infinitum) it would be logically impossible to arrive at B. Or A, if you started out from B.

Quantum theory, on the other hand, asks us to believe that certain singular molecules can appear both at A and B…at the same moment.

Aikido, Jiu Jitsu, Jeet Kune Do…in the martial arts world, we use both of the above examples. In the sparring zone, movement becomes so slow that a Zeno type fist settles into an infinite crawl in relation to our base position of mind (which is, I guess, part of the more modern notion that speed and time are relative).

Yet a punch, a “pure” act – if logically, there is such an event – seeks for a union of A and B with no space between. Here A = B…without the thought of the equal sign appearing. This is the speed-no speed concept. Or the stillness/movement experience. Or the “beyond stillness and movement” experience, where stillness and movement are no longer partners in a dichotomy. No movement toward a Hegelian synthesis here. They simply don’t matter.

At this point your question might be –“Am I being punched in the nose by a fist or by a whole lot of paradoxical gibberish?”

I’m not just playing with you. When I was first taught about speed, I swear…the instructor’s fist was lying against his thigh…and then it was in my face.

Of course, I wanted that level of skill, the very same. It had to be the same. I went home and snapped my fist around in the air. I even tried to hit a fly on a window pane before the fly had a chance to think about moving from point A to point B. I’m certain the fly escaped; not so the window pane, which landed in pieces down on the walkway.

So I went back and humbly suggested that I had a great desire for this form of speed. Again, fist and (my) face merged effortlessly.

“Go meditate,” he suggested.


I did, for two hours. Not like the Buddha under a Banyan tree but in front of an open second floor window. The cool thing was that after about an hour, life outside was running through my body via my breath…sounds, vibrations, colours. But still no speed.

Then I read in Black Belt magazine about how Japanese business executives would doff their suits at lunch for the traditional uniforms of Kyudo, ancient Japanese archery. They meditated. Even entering the shooting range outside, if I can call it that, was a form of meditation. Everything was meditation.

The surprising find was that at the precise moment before the arrow’s release, - when I would most dearly want to look straight at the coveted target – the archers looked away!

It was as if the target itself didn’t matter, or the hara, the body, the spirit, the mind, the bow, the arrow and the target had become one and looking at the target was simply unnecessary.

Reading about this practise reminded me of what the instructor did. Before punching, he actually looked down, or away, or kept his eyes half shut…as if he didn’t seem to care.

As a high school kid, I wasn’t much of a sports enthusiast. The football coach tried to talk me onto his team but I had the feeling it was more like a Dutch-dam recruiting manoeuvre, you know…plugging the holes up front so the sea couldn’t come in. But martial arts for me were different. In high school athletics, you were expected to want that touchdown so badly, you’d put your head through a field full of tacklers at the last minute just to see your school take the championship.

But here was a man, in the dim light of the kwoon, the smell of sandalwood sticking to the old chairs, who advised me…not to want.

Relax. OK, I can appreciate that. If part of me is tight, I have to relax the muscles just to fire them up or move the limbs in a new direction. Empty the mind. Of what?

Curious, I delved into the history of the Samurai.

Question: if two Samurai are equal in skill, and they face each other in a duel, who might (forgive the pun) have the edge?

This question obviously concerned the Samurai. The meditative aspects of Zen Buddhism had a significant impact on Japanese martial arts, particularly in the study of the sword. We read Takuan Soho’s Unfettered Mind, a Zen master’s advice to master swordsman Yagyu Monenori.

P 13 and 14 of the Shambhala edition translated by William Scott Wilson reads:

                            THE ACTION OF SPARK AND STONE

“There is such a thing as the action of spark and stone…No sooner have you struck the stone than the light appears. Since the light appears just as you strike the stone, there is neither interval nor interstice. This also signifies the absence of the interval that would stop the mind.

It would be a mistake to understand this simply as celerity. Rather, it underscores the point that the mind should not be detained by things; it says that even with speed it is essential that the mind does not stop. When the mind stops, it will be grasped by the opponent. On the other hand, if the mind contemplates being fast and goes into quick action, it will be captured by its own contemplation.”

In those days too I read that the founder of Kyokushinkai Karate, Mas Oyama, had two Black Belt students who were equally matched. He asked them to face each other in Kumite. But first he requested that they train hard for a period of six months. The one trained as always – basics, bag work, weights, stretching, lots of Kumite…while the other followed the same regimen except for one added variation: lots of meditation.

At the end of six months, the two met in Kumite. Like the Samurai with a mind unfettered by fear, worry, doubt, etc., the one who had passed that extra time in meditation prevailed.

There’s I want. And then there’s punch, as a verb. If I place I want or anything ego-related behind the punch or in between the punch and its target, speed becomes sticky. My punch has to pass through the medium of my ego in order to reach the target, which slows things down.

It’s best to have a “pure” space between punch and target. Indeed, target isn’t important. And “best” is inconsequential, as is the word “between”.


In the Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War also by Shambhala translated by Thomas Cleary written by the same Yagyu Monenori referred to above we have on Pg. 117:

“It is sickness to be obsessed with winning, it is sickness to be obsessed with using martial arts, and it is sickness to be obsessed with putting forth all one has learned. It is sickness to be obsessed with offense, and it is also sickness to be obsessed with defense. It is also sickness to be obsessed with getting rid of sickness. To fix the mind obsessively on anything is considered sickness. Since all of these various sicknesses are in the mind, the thing is to tune the mind by getting rid of such afflictions.”

Speed? Don’t want it. Just do. Let the technique live, without ego.

In the next post, I want to explore some of the analytics of speed, and delve a little into the internal arts of China, and why too much “fa jin” with speed is as debilitating as being consumed by one’s own ego.

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