Friday, June 09, 2006

Christian Faith and the Martial Arts - Part II

In part I of this series, I mentioned my past history with martial arts, at least in terms of my affiliations. I haven't really delved into what karate and kung fu meant for me or how they shaped my character.

Until I got involved with SKA, martial arts practice was all about being a bad ass, about having some mystical knowhow that allowed me to somehow fold the space-time continuum and to bend my leg in such an impossible way that it would kick somebody's ass all by itself while I was reclining and sipping a gin and tonic (or maybe a really good microbrew).

Okay, not exactly, but I did have a distorted view of what karate was about.

However, when I got involved with SKA, I got a whole new perspective. I was still agnostic at the time but heavily influenced by eastern mysticism. However, shotokan didn't dwell overly much in mystical aspects of martial arts. They occasionally gave a philosophical nod in the direction of Zen Buddhism, but even the terms you'd expect to carry a mystical aspect had more to do with the material. For example, "spirit" was not something apart from the body but the intensity with which one put oneself into the practice. Emptying oneself was simply clearing away distractions and focus. While certainly some Japanese arts contained a bit more mysticism (such as Aikido, with its Shinto practices), shotokan karate had very little. The practice was about working on one's own character, to dig deeply when needed, to focus single mindedly, and to put oneself fully into the moment.

When I started practicing kung fu, I had long gotten over my flirtation with Hinduism and Buddhism. I simply wanted to get back into training with a group. There is something about a group setting that forces you to buck up and take a more severe look at yourself. What's more, if you don't spar with people regularly, you lose your skills. So I jumped back into practice with both feet, got in with a good bunch of beginners, and headed down the shaolin path.

Shaolin-do has an immense wealth of material. I've explained it this way to people: shotokan is a book (almost literally for SKA shotokan, as nearly all techniques and forms are in Karate-Do Kyohan). Shaolin-do, on the other hand, is a library. I've already mentioned the numerous weapons we practice (and some have several forms). There also many styles within the overall practice: tiger, crane, bird, whirling hands, preying mantis, pa kua chang, chen tai chi, yang tai chi, hsing i, Hua fist, drunken fist, monkey, eagle claw, and so on. We learn a little bit of each at different levels. As we advance, we're exposed to more challenging material. We're also introduced to chi kung exercises and meditation.

Here's where things have started to get a little difficult for me. I returned to the Church in 2002 and was confirmed (finally) in 2003. Prior to this, I didn't think much about the chi kung and meditation practices. Many of these practices have Taoist and Buddhist roots. (One form, i chin ching, is the set of exercises that Bodhidharma taught to the Shaolin monks before he could teach them to meditate properly. According to legend, this practice set the shaolin monks on their path of martial arts training.) In the first 18 months of practice, we learn basic meditation. These are really more like breathing exercises. We're not told to visualize anything or empty the mind but simply to focus on our breathing and allow the mind to be calm. This is referred to as the breath after birth.

However, as we progress, the meditation practices become more esoteric. The next step in meditation practice is the breath before birth. This practice does require visualization, and there's more emphasis on chi. I'm at the point in my practice where I'm supposed to be taking this class. (It's required for my next belt level, along with a number of other Taoist-based styles and techniques.) I have been asking myself whether I can really go any further down this path without falling into syncretism, and I've decided that here is where I need to stop.

I'm debating what this means for me. Do I go back to shotokan? Do I continue to practice the lower level shaolin material and content myself with the excellent physical conditioning it provides? Do I go find a jujiutsu group and learn some grappling? Or do I hang up the gi and find another way to stay in shape?

I still haven't answered that question. However, I do know that what I do needs to conform to my Christian life and my Catholic faith. The aspects of discipline and respect that I've gotten from karate and kung fu have been beneficial, and I doubt I would have become the person I am had I not gone down this path. The single-mindedness that martial arts require is much like that single-mindedness we require to turn our eyes to Christ and to want Him and heaven more than anything else. There's also an odd paradox in both realms. In martial arts practice, you find that your skills give you the will to walk away from conflict rather than engaging (or as some have said, "Judo gives you the skill to run with confidence"), to accept circumstances as they are. In our spiritual life, we ultimately cannot grasp what it is that we seek until we let go, stop trying to do it all ourselves, and let God take control of our destiny. We grasp when we finally decide not to cling.

[Technorati tags: Karate, kung fu, martial arts, Christianity, Catholicism]
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