Today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be 88 years old. As with basically everything in my life, this day has me thinking about martial arts (bear with me). The foundation of our art, Budo Taijutsu, is a way of compassion. It is a path to refine ourselves so we can “get what we need while making the world a better place.” That’s how our 33rd Grandmaster described the purpose of our art, and it has shaped all of our curriculum.
As John Lennon observed, we all want to change the world. But many of us hold back, perhaps all of us hold back for some of our lives, because we fear the effort we put out could backfire. Perhaps we have memories imprinted from childhood of times when we jumped into something with full force, only to be defeated. Perhaps we fear the work we put into improving the world could inadvertently cause destruction. But living from fear is not sustainable.
A few years ago, I found myself nervously searching for a book in the Houston airport. It was to be a gift for the Shihan (aka 15th black belt and word-class martial artist) who had graciously offered to “show me the ropes” as I traveled to Japan for the first time, to train with our current Grandmaster, Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi.
So this book had to be just right. Something classy. Something sophisticated. Something “hip” and with a spiritual edge. Departure time approached as I paced the store. And then I saw it, a slender hardcover, with a sleek black and white design entitled, The Tao of Wu. This is good, I thought. Wu must be an ancient Chinese philosophy. Hopefully developed by a martial artist too! Then I flipped to the back cover.
It was written by the RZA, a hip-hop rapper from the ’90s. And “Wu”? That was just part of the name of his rap group. With embarrassingly little knowledge of the RZA’s background or what else Wu might mean, I decided the book couldn’t be the spiritual gem I was looking for….it was probably too hip. I carried it around the store intending to put it back, but as the announcement sounded for my flight, I found it was the only thing left in my hands. So, I got the book.
At the gate awaiting flight time, I cracked it open. The first quote I read was set on a separate page like a poem and entitled “Idea Traps”. RZA writes: “Wisdom is words, and words are used to trap ideas. But once the idea is manifest, you don’t need the trap. When the bear is caught, let go of the bear trap”.
The words swam in my mind as I flew over the ocean, for 14 hours, as I made my way through Narita airport and found my guide, still considering whether this was the book for her. The words stayed with me as I finally crashed on the hotel bed, awaiting two weeks of hard training. When I woke up, it was time for my first class with our Grandmaster.
Born just three years after Dr. King, this 85 year old man moves as nimbly as a teenager, each step imbued with the wisdom of his age.
“You do not need force to have control,” he said, as he danced his Taijutsu across the floor. We were training on hardwood and I was likely forcing everything, and feeling no control over my training partner whatsoever. He went on, “You do not need anything you think you might need to have control.” When someone attacked him, he tied them up in knots with no effort. He seemed to not be touching them, yet they had no power to attack him anymore. What I understood from his message was that in letting go you have control, but that letting go is NOT the same as giving up. He was certainly very much in the fight and operating fully for his own protection, but he never pushed anything. He knew when a technique had been effective and then he stopped and moved to the next thing.
I went back to my hotel and wrapped the book. I also decided I needed to listen to more Wu-Tang Clan.
Like a hunter releasing his trap or an artist releasing his manifest idea, our Grandmaster let go of each technique as soon as the opponent was no longer a threat. Of course, his opponents were attacking him full force, so for them to no longer be threats, they were tied up with their own belts and their heads on the floor. But Grandmaster did so very little to protect himself. Just enough. In our training, there’s a saying, “Do only as much Taijutsu as you have to”. This is not only about conserving energy, but also about putting out into the fight only what is necessary to negate the attack and be safe.
That way is compassion. But it’s also necessary for our own survival. If we want our waters to be safe, we don’t send out any more force against the waves than what they put out against us. All we have to do is receive and neutralize.
Of course, whenever I turned around to try to do this on my opponent, I didn’t do it at all! I wrote to my husband in a letter about my first night training, “I was so forceful and pushy at first. And then when I tried not to be, I was just powerless and didn’t have any control at all. It is so strange to feel I really understand the principles but know that I must not, truly, since I don’t apply them.” All those fears that hold us all back, they certainly came true for me in my training that first night. When I jumped in and put out my effort to “change” my opponent, it backfired on me. So, I tried holding back. But you know, that resulted in defeat as well. I realized, holding back was not the answer. But charging forward mindlessly certainly wasn’t the way either. So how on earth was I going to find this place of balance? This place where I knew when to wield the bear trap, and when to let it go? The answer was all around me. Just keep training.
I continued in my letter to my husband, “I see the Shihan around me and they are truly people I would want to be. And all they have done is simply train. They have kept their heads in the game”.
The “game”. It is no coincidence that after showing a technique and inviting us to try it, our Grandmaster always says, “Okay? Play!” This may be the best path to becoming someone who can “change the world”: Just practice, and see your practice as play. Keep attempting to find that balance point between control and letting go, and having a light heart about failure.
I love watching my dad play sports. He makes many great plays and I cheer him on. But something I’ve always loved is how he handles his failures. From a missed pass to a pop up foul with the bases loaded. He always claps his hands, rubs them together, and moves on to the rest of the game with a smile.
It’s how Dr. King lived, and how he ultimately made such an impact without the use of violence. He knew the power of words, and actions, but he also knew the power of play. Of perseverance. Was every speech the “I Have a Dream” speech? Was every march the March on Washington? Not even close. But he moved like water: a persevering, playful power that creates lasting change.
It’s how I hope to live my life. Keep training, keep playing, and keep opening up to the possibility that I could release what I *think* I need for creating change, and end up making the world better. First though, I’ll work on throwing my partner across the training hall, with a smile on my face.
— Posted by Sensei Nesta