Martial Arts, Formality and Personal Development

Many karate schools seem to miss the forest for the trees. Karate has many benefits but how many of them are useful and useful what proportion of the time. Many of us will hopefully never be involved in hand to hand combat. The primary benefit of martial art is in improvement of character. MA is a laboratory where we can test our ability to be better people. It is a microcosm in which mistakes and flaws are amplified and for which there is more immediate feedback for success. The challenge is to study our own motives and responses as closely as our gedan-barai.

Does your performance change when your teacher is looking directly at you? Do you try harder at that point? Why? What service do you do yourself in increasing effort only when you are being noticed? Is that not an expression of ego? It is an activity designed to impress others. Does this manifest itself more in front of certain peers in class? Maybe when a new student joins?

Carefully examine your desire to help and correct less experienced students. Is it an expression of ego? Do you do so to feel important, to impress your junior? Do you delight in the mistakes of those superior to you? Does that make you feel important? Have you improved yourself with these activities or just fed your ego? Can you separate the desire for self importance from teaching?

In order to work on these issues, traditional martial arts schools insist on either individual instruction or strict formal ritual and behavior. By removing social interaction, the traditional class provides a cleaner laboratory for self improvement. To be accepted in society individuals must follow many rules of behavior which encourage the expression of ego. An informal class leaves those rules in place, removing the opportunity to experiment in the laboratory of self improvement.

There is a counter argument to formality. It is a concern for formality of its own sake. We must ask, is the formality itself an extension of ego? Does the teacher use formality as a mechanism for self-aggrandizement? In reciprocation, do senior student require a fawning respect from their juniors? Do junior students feed their own ego by their participation in a strict, tough organization? Is there a feeling of being better than another school in part because of greater formality?

For each facet of training, we must critically examine both motive and result, the means and the ends, goal and path. Few of these issues are simple and training must include a lifelong attitude of critical examination. Even questioning in self-referentiality must be questioned. Do we question our own training methods or those of our teacher or school as an expression of ego? Is the questioning a way to feel more important? Traditional schools direct the student not to question the teacher. Such a stricture can be examined both in motive and effect. It is hard for the teacher to examine the motive of the student in questioning. Because questioning would be more likely directed out of an expression of ego, it is prohibited. That does not mean that a questioning may not take place in the right circumstances - the right point in class when not phrased as a criticism but as a lack of understanding, or outside of class, or most appropriately in the mind of the student. Or is lack of questioning a surrender to mental passivity, or to the ego and insecurity of the teacher who feels he should not be questioned. Each issue has many possible motivations.

Some schools will focus on technique for the sake of the technique. We study a martial art not some flakey philosophical hocus-pocus. The failure of understanding is that in order to be effective and parsimonious in the application of our martial art we must learn to improve our character. How great is a martial artist who possesses outstanding technique but injures his brother because of some minor disagreement? How great is the martial artist bent on revenge who is then shot and killed in reciprocity for the expression of that revenge? How great is the teacher who instills capability but no self confidence in his students because of a need to put down his juniors in order to elevate himself?

Conversely, does a school fill its teaching with philosophy but not technique? Philosophy is fine, but martial art is a testing ground for that philosophy. Without great physical effort and attention to physical details the testing ground is lost. Laziness becomes justified by a need to spend time on important philosophical effort. A need for self importance can be justified because the advocate of philosophical effort is more skilled in that arena than the physical. We must always examine the possible motives behind the opposite expression of an issue.