Today marks the start of my 20th year as a martial arts practitioner. I don’t say “as a martial artist.” My skills and abilities need further development to reach “artistry” level. But attainment of a certain rank really isn’t why I walk the martial path.
I remember the day - March 31, 1993 - when I attended my first class, for the tragic reason that I share it with untimely death of Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee. Brandon and I were both born in 1965.
Like many of us who grew up in the 1970’s, Bruce Lee’s iconic image encouraged an interest in the martial arts and Asian philosophy. Though, as a white, middle-class, Catholic, suburban kid in Erie, PA, I never even had Chinese food growing up, let alone the chance to study kung fu or karate. The closest thing was watching Kung Fu on TV every week. I found inspiration, however, in these two books from 1976 which I still have in my library almost 40 years later.
It wouldn’t be until I became an adult that martial arts became an option. Oddly, during a time of high kicks and Karate Kid, Part III, I chose the complex and difficult internal style of Tai Chi Chuan, a Chinese martial art.
My first teacher, and current, teacher - Ed Matthews -wasn’t Asian but he had trained, in Taiwan and the US, with many of the best tai chi teachers. He also displayed amazing abilities without being intimidating or threatening. (See more about Ed on this blog or at www.bodyawarenesstaichi.com)
His basement school offered a Zen-like experience each week as I tried to master an internal art based on relaxing and not using muscle. Both incredibly hard demands for a hormone-fueled twentysomething. When a job change prevented me from continuing my training, I began looking at other styles.
Being young, I figured the hard-style of tae kwon do (America’s most popular martial art) would provide me with “fighting skills” though I never saw myself as much of a fighter.
My first TKD teacher pushed competition over self-development. I learned how to punch and kick but it seemed rather soulless. So again, I began looking around in the typically American fashion of shopping for my martial arts teacher as one would look for a new car or refrigerator.
Master Park didn’t care about the trophies or the awards. He busted me back down to white belt to learn everything over again. Master Park taught us meditation and performed acupuncture in between forms, brick breaking, and side kicks. He is a gentle man who can cut you two.
I would train long, sweat much, hurt often, and eventually earn my black belt. He would also teach me sword skills. Master Park even cut the cake at my wedding.
However, a new job stopped my regular daytime training at Park’s school. My body, now hitting 40, also had become a bit banged up. I took another short break in training but continued to study the philosophies of the martial arts.
Then a friend, who shared similar interests in Asian cultures, asked me about tai chi. I told him about an incredible teacher I knew. If he wanted to attend a class, I would go with him.
That was almost 10 years ago. My friend dropped out after one term but I continued studying a martial art that is both immensely rewarding AND frustrating as hell. Tai Chi is never quite what you think it is. Through Ed, I have also been able to train with some his teachers, incredible masters like Dr. Yang Yang and Master William C.C. Chen (pictured below).
At times, I wish I had stayed with tai chi back in my younger days. But - to paraphrase a famous maxim - the teacher’s message doesn’t register until the student is ready. I probably wasn’t ready then.
The martial arts teaches you time and time again that it is isn’t about the belts, the titles, the awards, or even the styles. It is about the journey - and those you train with on that journey - that is important. Here is to a strong and deep 20th year.
The idea for this blog came to me while listening to this excellent Martial Arts Lineage podcast (click on link to listen) with Bruce Lee’s god-daughter, and the daughter of martial artist Dan Inosanto, Diana Lee Inosanto. She is a talented director, writer, and martial artist in her own right.
During the interview, Inosanto talked about how her father and god-father had many philosophical discussions about the martial arts. There were many concerns by these two men about the spiritual part of what they taught and studied. She says in the podcast that she is concerned that is being forgotten today.
(Diana Lee Inosanto)
My interest in the martial arts is rooted in the mind-body connection. Today, most of the emphasis in the martial arts world is focused on Mixed Martial Arts. Newsstand martial arts magazines that once had pages that looked at the philosophical elements now devote pages and pages to what works best in MMA combat. It is understandable because violence is what sells in the current marketplace. It is pure Yang energy.
However, when you have Yang, you also need Yin to balance. This blog is my small attempt to add that balance. I have spent years sparring and learning fighting techniques but what has lasted with me longer has been the deeper thoughts and ideas. All of my teachers and idols have stressed that the hardest part of the martial arts is not to conquer others but to conquer yourself. Or several old masters may have said, “the art of fighting without fighting.”
As I get older, this is what sustains me as I continue to walk the martial path.
To quote one of the masters of Tai Chi, Prof. Cheng Man Ching, “the most important reason for learning Tai Chi Chuan is that when you have finally understood what life is about, you still have enough health to enjoy it.”