That which before our eyes defies logic astounds. When one cannot connect the dots from here to there and effect is without apparent cause what can fill the vacuum of understanding?
As anyone who has bandied around dojos for a better part of their lives can attest, strange things do happen, in passing, reality’s slights of hand; now you see it, now you don’t. I got to thinking about the “magical” aspects recently after reading Dan Djurdjevic’s article “Legend and the Martial Arts.” Like Dan, I also had a sort of magical seduction into the practice of the art. In my case it was the old Kung Fu series with Carradine. Of course, the seduction was short-lived; sweat, pain and frustration pretty much wrung it out, yet a lingering feeling of doing something out of the ordinary still persisted, there was always something “invisible” at play, if just for seconds at a time. It’s what keeps one going at it, that unknowable quality that promises to transport one out of one’s limitations, defy gravity, spin in space. The stuff that legends are made of.
I’ve never been able to appreciate the legendary and folkloric backdrop of the Chinese martial arts movies because my grasp of that culture is weak at best. At most, I’m mesmerized by the fluid technique and the spectacle. But I must confess that I am put off by the “supernatural explanations” although I cannot totally ignore the possibility of magic at play. And, of course, I fully acknowledge the fact that many practitioners and lay persons truly believe that this is where it’s at: that the true practice lies in attaining this magical power to defy the laws of physics. Many is the person who knowing that I practice karate has asked me if I am capable of doing all they saw in Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill, or any of the Bruce Lee movies, knowing full well that I can’t. It’s a pro forma way of saying that, ergo, I’m not really a martial artist. Where’s the magic?
Yet there are ineffable things in the marital arts and to deny them would be stupid and contrary to the very training you receive. And many of these ineffable things permeate the whole martial arts experience, but in very subtle ways, sometimes imperceptible. As Dan very well states, many of the uncanny techniques only seem so at first glance, the results of years of practice until the dots seems to disappear and only the results remain. The many years of kata, meditation, kumite and the like do have their effect of one’s perception of reality, how one receives it through the senses, digests it and responds. And this can transpire in seconds, hence the magical, the seeming slights of hand that are actually the product of endless hours, days and years of practice and the attendant honing of technique.
This can give way to myth and exaggeration and as a karateca I have also partaken of extending dojo legends and the occasional tall tale to make a point. But like all tall tales they carry a kernel of truth. And so we have the Sensei who can levitate his Johnson to evade the agonizing kick in the groin, the guy you kicked and felt his flesh yield like putty, the lad who experienced a spiritual transformation when touched by a teacher during a Sanchin testing, the third eye that saved one from being blindsided. All these are metaphorical explanations for very honed techniques born out of years of practice.
Can you read intent?
Can you know what the other person is planning to do in a combat situation or one where your life is clearly in danger? Can this be perceived from the faintest of evidence or total lack thereof? Years of practice develops a radar and nose for the harmful intentions of others towards your person. Can one literally smell trouble coming one’s way? All practice of martial arts, in my opinion, leads to this conundrum. But talking about it seems speculative, conjectural, eerily magical, yet it’s there. It can hardly be put into words. It can barely be suggested. And to take it a step forward, can one know it before it manifests itself even to the doer? Magic, right?
No one who has been practicing a martial art for a considerable span of time can say it has not altered their view of themselves and the world and how they approach reality and how they let reality approach them. No one who is truly a martial artist ever ceases to be one, practice or not. Much like any art, it molds its practitioners, making them move a certain way that always leads them back to the art itself. And you don’t have to be great at it; a third rate poet is still a poet, still wants to write that poem that has always eluded him or her whether he or she is capable or not, because that’s what art does, it transforms and tattoos their very soul. Anything else falls short of being art. These comings and goings are sure to spawn yarns, weave metaphors, exact similes. But what if at their very core they’re true, these legends, these tall tales we tell others and ourselves? I’m not talking about the flights through the air, the spinning kick that vanquishes three score and ten assailants, travel through the cracks of seamless time.
I’m talking about the natural magic of life as it unfolds around you, that seeks you ear on a darkened street, that beckons your eyes in a crowd. I’m talking about the martial art that teaches you not to take anything for granted in what you see before you, or better yet, what you cannot see but only sense. The intent of the other. Where is it going, what can I do or what should I do?
The many years of practice puts you before many people: short and tall, experienced and novice, male and female, fast and slow. Body language. Smiling, angry, stone-faced, open, misleading, readable. Each a book to be read and understood and filed away. These people move towards you and away. Someone can have you in their sights from an overhead window, or bump into you on the street. You don’t have to be in a movie to be killed. Then you have yourself, aging through the maze, clutching at straws, doing Sanchin on a fast moving train to nowhere. But where do you train this? I’ve just said.
You train to pull the rabbit out of the hat, whether there is a rabbit or not. That’s the magic.