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January 8, 2010

Phillip Starr demonstrating an example of freestyle sparring practice (from his book Martial Maneuvers)

Phillip Starr has authored three books with Blue Snake Books, including Martial Maneuvers and Martial Mechanics, and is a regular monthly contributor to the Blue Snake Blog.

It occurs to me that many martial arts schools nowadays don’t really teach a martial art, per se.  Rather, they emphasize the development of martial technique as the be-all, end-all of a student’s training. Certainly, learning and practicing technique is important but I believe that a true martial art must go beyond mere physical skill.

The Eastern martial arts are different from most other art forms because they place high importance on the development of the practitioner’s character as well as his physical technique.  In the West we’re not accustomed to thinking of, or practicing any particular art with  this idea in mind.  In the West it’s all about technique, about getting from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible.  We rarely consider looking at everything that happens in the process of getting from A to B and how those things impact our character.
I know, it sounds pretty abstract.  Let’s put it into perspective by looking at one particular Oriental art; chado.  The word “cha” refers to  tea (in both Chinese and Japanese) and the word “do” (or ‘dao” in Chinese)  refers to a “way, a path…”  So “chado” means, “The Way of Tea.”  And it  involves much more than simply boiling a nice pot of tea.  Much.  More.

The process begins long before the tea is even made.  The chado practitioner (chadoka) must take time to center himself and prepare his mind and spirit for the task at hand.  If the event is to be conducted in a  traditional Japanese teahouse, the path leading to the door must be ceremonially cleaned before anything else is done.

All of the utensils that will be used in the making and serving of the tea must be scrupulously cleaned and all in accordance with certain “rules of technique and conduct.”  The tea must be prepared in a very specific way and it is served and experienced (I hesitate to use the word “taste”, as that simply doesn’t get the idea across…), and so on.  The whole event can be likened to performing a Japanese kata (form), not unlike those that are seen in the practice of myriad martial disciplines.

In the West we would see all of this persnickety-ness as a waste of time.  After all, isn’t the idea just to brew up some tea and drink it?

No, it isn’t.

The whole process is an experience.  It is disciplined, precise, and simplistically beautiful.  And doing it impacts the character of the practitioner.

When you practice a particular technique, you know that it must be done just so.  Perfection of any technique is a lifelong pursuit.  The same is true of forms.  Most people practice for a short time and then give in and give up.  Some of them are happy to settle for being mediocre and they lack the intestinal fortitude to continue to push and discipline themselves.

Learning technique isn’t too difficult and almost anybody can achieve some measure of skill with it.  But the true art is beyond that; it is a striving for perfection for its own sake that reveals the real art and develops the true martial arts practitioner.

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