Thoughts on Philosophy: learning to die good

There’s this book that has had a great influence on my understanding of the martial arts: „Samurai Geist“, by Thomas Preston. Basically the book has an old samurai elaborate on the concept of bushido and the way of the sword. Excellent reading, definately a must for any serious martial artist (not necessarily for combat athletes, although II believe anyone can benefit from that book. What intrigued me most was something like this:

„Many beginners make the mistake of believing the martial arts will teach them how to fight well and defend themselves. This is not true – rather, it teaches one how to die well.“

Now it’s been years since I read the book (probably should read it again soon) and it was written in german, so the above is a rough translation from what I remember. Still, I think you get the idea. I even remember posting about this before, but I just can’t find the post at the moment. Those lines have intrigued me so much that I’ve been pondering them ever since I first read them. Just recently, they’ve come to my mind again – more on that later. For me, there’s a difference between unterstanding something intellectually and actually fully realizing it. My english skills fail me on this one – in german, there’s „verstehen“ (to understand sth.) VS „begreifen“ (to comprehend something). While the former is derived from „Verstand“ (mind, comprehension), the latter comes from „greifen“ (to grasp sth.). Hence, while one word points to theoretical understanding, the other marks actual practical realization. At least for me. However, my personal understanding of grammar ain’t the topic of this post, so back to the matter at hand.

Before we go any further on this, let me first explain what those lines do not say. Bushido (the way of the warrior) is the japanese interpretation of chinese confucianism. As such, it basically revolves around hierarchy, obedience and duty. Being killed for (or even by) one’s superior for reasons that are never questioned was a part of everyday life for the samurai. Looking at this social structure may lead to the conclusion that the martial arts back then were little but a military doctrine, a way to drive soldiers into blind obedience. While this observation certainly holds true to a certain extent, it fails to take the more subtle points into consideration. Those subtle points, however, are what makes a huge difference in understanding the true meaning of an apparently fatalistic statement such as „martial arts practice is learning how to die well“.

My trainer, Ronny, currently seems to enjoy a little sword fencing from time to time. Quite frankly, I’ve no idea how much time he actually spends on weapon training, but knowing him, it might be more than meets the eye. Anyhow, Ronny, being the non-confirmist he is, refuses to practice a particular style of swordmanship, rather breaking things down to their true essence. The technical base of swordmanship is pretty much the same as for most other weapons as well: 9 moves which serve both offensive and defensive purposes. Maybe some schools implement 10 basic movements, some might stick to 7 or 8, but in any case it’ll lok something like this:

  1. Downward attack (chop)
  2. Attack from upper right to lower left (slash)
  3. Attack from upper left to lower right (slash)
  4. Upward attack (slash)
  5. Attack from lower right to upper left (slash)
  6. Attack from lower left to upper right (slash)
  7. Atack from left to right
  8. Attack from right to left
  9. Frontal attack (Thrust)

Even when considering that each of those attacks can be executed against various targets (arms, legs, trunk, head, …), this still doesn’t give a lot of possibilities. You know, I was doing a bit of Kali back in the days. We spent the biggest part of the class on practicing striking drills. There’s a couple pretty impressive ones on Youtube. Still, during actual sparring, it was pure hit-and-run tactics. As Kurt Russel put it in the movie Big Trouble in little China, „it’s all in the reflexes“. If you don’t believe me, just take a critical look at videos such as this one. That’s pretty much what our sparring looked like. Pretty much like any true Kali/Escrima sparring I’ve ever witnessed looks like. Little sophisticated technique – just wait for the right moment, hit, score, retreat. That’s about all there is to it.

This is also what our „sword“ sparring looks like. We’d use foam-padded swords such as those and fight in a semi-contact like manner. First hit scores. Now while this might not be totally realistic with differences in „deadliness“ and all, I think it’s pretty close. After all, you’re not going to hit with that super-strong chop to the head after I’ve severed your biceps. This probably is less of an issue when wearing protective armor that covers the more vulnerab,e areas, like the samurai wore it. Still, without protection, I’m pretty convinced that a „sword-master“ wouldn’t fight quite a lot differently and prevail.

That’s exactly where „learning to die“ comes into play. As long as it’s all fun and games, everything boils down to reflexes and more than a bit of luck. However, if it’s about life or death, things look quite different. He who panics dies. Only a fighter with a clear head can prevail if even the slightest mistake can prove lethal. Warriors of all times and all cultures knew this. Bruce Lee said

“Forget about winning and losing; forget about pride and pain. Let your opponent graze your skin and you smash into his flesh; let him smash into your flesh and you fracture his bones; let him fracture your bones and you take his life! Do not be concerned with escaping safely- lay your life before him.”

Image courtesy of Giga Paitchadze

This means that in order to survive, you must first accept death so as not to be afraid of it anymore. Fear, doubt, anger… all of those are clouding the mind. They slow one down, cause him to make mistakes. In the above example of swordfighting, this means defeat and ultimately, death.

It’s one of those paradoxes that you’ll find plentifully in the martial arts: only death – or the acceptance thereof – will lastly save your life when the going gets rough. Accepting death and closing with life, however, might leave one bitter and fatalistic. Doesn’t have to, though. I find that by accepting the fact that I’ll die (you will, too, in case you didn’t know) somehow liberating in that it reminds me to live life to the fullest. The realization that I don’t have indefinite amount of time to my disposal helps me live consciously and appreciate each moment. Sometimes I understand why so many fighters are such firm believers. It’s probably easier for people to cope with the certainty of the inevitable when they believe in a life after death. Modern sports psychology speaks of the so-called „flow-state“, which is just another name for mu-shin (empty mind, as the zen people call it). Obviously, there’s quite a few different approaches to clear the mind – zen buddhist mind control, religious devotion and modern psychology are all just means to the same end. A calm state of mind that will keep you alive in a fight.

Anyhow, all of the above said can be looked up in just about any book on zen and the martial arts. Nothing new with that. However, this time, the realization overcame me so intensely it was actually a bodily sensation. As stated before, that’s a totally different level of understanding than anything that comes out of a book. Although the combat sports (boxing, kickboxing, judo, …) are a lot more forgiving than swordmanship when it comes to mistakes, the right state of mind is probably the single most limiting factor for any martial artist. A fight in the ring or on the mat doesn’t kill us. We might get injured, but then that’s nothing new for most of us. The true problem for most lies in the damage the ego takes in defeat. That’s what we, as combat athletes, need to overcome. Overcome the fear of being embarassed and humiliated. Also, overcoming the own ego step by step is what strengthens and cultivates the character like nothing else.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Feel free to post them in the comments section below, I’m looking forward to discussing those things with you.

So long,

take care

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