Monday, September 24, 2012

Drumming: The Sound of the Warrior

Among all other musical instruments, the drum has held the most important role throughout the history of mankind.  Being the easiest and most basic form of musical instrumentation, percussion instruments have been a cornerstone in human culture since prehistoric times.  A percussion instrument can be any instrument which produces sound by being struck. This can be anything from a log and a stick or two rocks to rattles, chimes, bells and drums.

A drum, which is more specifically called a membranophone, usually consists of hollow portion with an animal skin or other membranous material stretched across the top.  Striking the taught animal skin produced a resonating sound when vibrated through the hallow portion.  The repetitive striking of the drum in a rhythmic pattern produces an almost hypnotic effect on the listener.  It is for this reason that shaman, medicine men, priests and monks have often used drumming to accompany spiritual or religious activities.

The tradition of drumming to aid in spiritual cultivation can be observed in the Religious Temples of China, Tibet, Korea and Japan as well as in many western Religious Traditions.  The use of drumming by Native American Tribes is well known. In these traditions drumming can be used for healing, meditation, blessings and warrior preparation.  It is interesting to note that beat induction, the ability to make sounds in reoccurring intervals as to create a rhythmic pattern, may be unique to humans.  No other animals are known to be able to make distinguishable rhythmic-beats.

The use of drums in military settings is also well known throughout history.  Most Americans imagining a battle from the Civil War and immediately bring to mind the rolling snap of the military snare drum as the troops march on.  The tradition of the War Drum, however, seems to be ancient. The Dundhubi or Indian War Drum is mentioned several times in the Rig Veda, one of India’s earliest religious writings.  It describes the Arya Army charging in to battle to the furious beating of the Dundhubi-War Drums.  Dating back to 1500 BCE or before, this is thought to be the first mention of War Drumming in written history.

This tradition of drumming is seen in both Chinese and Japanese military history in the form of the Tài Gǔ or Taiko drum.  Meaning Great Drum, Taiko drums are large, round, deep sounding drums that would keep the pace of marching troop, call out orders and announcements and increase the moral and energy level in the soldiers themselves.  It has been noted in Chinese military writings that drumming for the soldiers in battle increased the chances of victory. 

The Drum is connected to the Way of the Warrior, both throughout history and within the primitive regions of the human psyche.  The beating of the War-Drums invigorated the Warriors for battle, and so too can they charge the Martial Artist for practice.  It is for these reasons that I like to playing drumming music for my Kempo students.  Whereas it can be boring practicing repetitive routines in total silence and somewhat distracting to working out to pop or rock music, Chinese, Japanese and Native American Drumming music can help increase focus, spark Warrior Spirit and allow the students to maintain a Traditional Warrior or Bushi state of mind.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Self Defense: Stopping the Spear

As a Buddhist and a Martial Arts Instructor, it is important for me to instill a sense of compassion and restraint in my students.  While learning any form of Martial Arts, it is important to remember that even the most basic punching and kicking combinations can be devastating when applied to live opponent.  A strong front snap kick to the groin can kill, and has killed, a person.  To refrain from violent outbursts, fits of anger and loss of emotional control has to be central to the teaching of Martial Arts if we wish our tradition to be harmony with the ancient Martial Arts traditions.

The reason most teacher refer to traditional Martial Arts as self-defense is not arbitrary or opinionative.  The idea that combative techniques should only be used in extreme situations and to defend one’s self or those innocent is inherent in the culture, language and written words of Ancient China.  A good place to start exploring this idea is by looking at the Chinese Character which is used to mean military combat.

The Chinese Character , pronounced in Chinese and bu in Japanese, is most often translated as war, war-like, combat, fighting, martial or military.   This Character is used in the Chinese term Wu Shu, meaning Martial Arts, and the Japanese term Bushido or The Way of the Warrior.  A deeper inspection of the Character itself, however, reveals much about the Ancient Chinese concept of Warriorship and the Confucian ideals of moral and social duty. 

The Spring and Autumn Annals is a Chronicle of the Zhou Dynasty State of Lu between the years 722 BCE to 481 BCE.  Here, the Character is described as meaning stopping violence.  The Character is itself composed of two other Chinese Characters, - zhǐ: to stop or halt; and - :  a spear, lance or halberd.  The character can therefore be translated as to stop a spear or to halt violence. Here, in the character most often translated as war or martial, we see the central morality of the Chinese Martial Arts – that combat skill is to be used for self-defense and never for revenge, out of spite or for personal gain. 

The Character does not describe a spear being thrust into a man or any other violent action.  It instead depicts the ceasing of a violent action. Therefore, the Character could be most accurately translated as self-defense or defending against an attack. The Warrior, then, was not be an aggressor thrusting his spear about wildly; but was to be a protector of the innocent, halting violent actions and stopping dangerous individuals.  A student of the Martial Arts should take this idea to heart, vowing to always stop the spear – and to never be the spear which need be stopped.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Spirtuality and the Martial Arts

Many American Martial Artists will recognize a sense of spirituality that accompanies Traditional Asian Martial Arts.  The notion of the Enlightened Warrior is a central theme in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and other East Asian cultures.  However, it can seem that there is a contradiction of Philosophy in the concept.  Whereas the characteristics of non-violence, pacifism and compassion are held as highly regarded virtues in these systems, the virtues of bravery, fearlessness and steadfastness in battle are equally praised.  To truly understand the connection between spirituality and the Asian combat arts, one must first seek the origins of the Enlightened Warrior Concept.

The Martial Arts of China have a long standing, albeit somewhat paradoxical relationship with the compassion-centric philosophy of the Buddhist Religion. This relationship is most obvious in the traditions of the Buddhist Monks of the Shaolin Temple.  Within the temple walls, notions of compassion, non-violence and temperance are taught alongside devastating and often deadly hand to hand combat techniques.  Weapons techniques, the effects of which would surely kill an opponent, are performed by the Monks with amazing accuracy, speed and power.  However, they vow never to kill any living creature, eat a vegetarian diet and perform their combat maneuvers only on the empty space in front of them.  This does not mean that the monks have never felt the need to use these amazing combat skills.  One story tells of a small band of one hundred Shaolin Monks defeating an entire army of enemy invaders.  However, as a matter of principle, the Shaolin Monks hold fast to a doctrine of compassion, avoiding a fight by any means possible. So, where does the Shaolin tradition of the enlightened warrior come from?  To answer this question we must look to the Enlightened Warrior himself; the legendary Bodhidharma.

Little is known about the life of the Buddhist Patriarch Bodhidharma.  He is held throughout Asia as the founder of the Zen School of Buddhism and as the developer of the Martial Arts of Shaolin Temple.  Legend states that Bodhidharma was a Buddhist Yogi who traveled from India to China in order to spread the teachings of the Buddha.  When he came upon the Monks at the Shaolin Temple, he found them lazy, out of shape and unable to remain focused in meditation.  He began teaching them physical and mental training exercises designed to strengthen the body, mind and Prana – Qi or Bio Energy.  Not surprisingly, these exercises would bear a striking resemblance to the physical exercises of Indian Yoga.  Yoga, meaning to ‘yoke’ or unite, is central to the Hindu Religion and to the Warrior tradition of Ancient India.

Although there is not definitive agreement among scholars, many believe Bodhidharma was born into a Kshatriya Family.  The Kshatriya were the Royal Warrior class of Ancient India and anyone born into a Kshatriya Family would surely have inherited many Warrior Family traditions.  If it is true that Bodhidharma was a member of the Warrior Caste, it would not be inconceivable that he would have used his family’s knowledge of combat in combination with Buddhist Yoga to train the Monks of the Shaolin Temple.   However, the link between Yoga, Hinduism and Warriorship seems to go back even further than Bodhidharma’s teaching of the Chinese Monks.  In fact, war is at the very Heart of India’s Religious teaching as presented in such great works like the Ramayana and The Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata, one of the great epics of ancient India, is thought by some to be the cornerstone of Indian spirituality.  It is often considered the template for many of the later writings which describe the various religious systems of the Indian Subcontinent.  The story describes the details of the Kurushetar war.  It tells of two Warrior clans battling for the Throne of the capital city Hastinapura. The epic centers on the Warrior God Krishna, a brilliant and divine military General.  Krishna is the definition of an enlightened warrior.  He is wise, compassionate and calm.  However, he is also brave, powerful and protective.  This blending of seemingly opposing traits is, in the eyes of the Indian thinkers, that which makes one a whole human being: A perfect balance of positive and negative energies.  One cannot cling to one side or another if one wishes to be whole.  One must balance the powerful and the graceful tendencies within themselves in order to create harmony and balance around themselves.  This idea of balancing the various aspects of being is central to both Indian Yogic Philosophy, as well as the Taoist Natural Philosophy of China.  This theme also runs throughout all of the Asian Martial Arts.   

Whatever the historical reasons are for the intrinsic spirituality of the Martial Arts, its presence cannot be ignored.  I train very often with a Sensei whose ambition it is to become a Christian Minister.  My Sensei, who I admire greatly, is a devoted Christian himself.  I, myself, converted to Buddhism after being exposed to its philosophies via the Martial Arts.   The goal of the Warrior is to become the Sage.  It is the hope of the swordsman that his blade never need shed blood.  This is of course, not always the case.  When it is necessary for the warrior to fight, he strikes like lightening.  However, his mind is so that his storm easily quiets to a calm breeze.

One who studies combative arts should always keep in mind the way of the Enlightened Warriors.  Whether you are a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Wiccan, Sikh or other religion, keeping a mind of compassion is very important.  In this way, we can be assured that we are training to be defenders, not offenders; protectors, not aggressors; and teachers instead of tyrants.