Memoir in martial arts

I’ve been reading some memoirs lately. They basically come in two groups, Asian American and martial arts. I’ve added a few biographies for good measure. Now, I haven’t read every memoir in either category, nor do I think I have time for that kind of project. The thing is that in the martial arts category, the memoirs come in two varieties: those who’ve done something a really long time and those that did it about a year or two before writing. The latter usually is a writer who’s writing something to write something. The former is usually someone who’s pretty dedicated to their martial art, maybe they do more than one (that’s more common that you think), and they’re writing about it.

The first one I ever read was David Lowry’s Autumn Lightning in college. I also read his sequel too but that was much later. Also in college, I read C.W. Nicols’ Moving Zen and Gichin Funakoshi’s autobiography. I read Angry White Pajamas when I first moved to Boston. The most recent ones I’m reading/read are Me, Chi, and Bruce Lee and a collection of translated essays by Jigoro Kano, published under the appropriate title of The Judo Memoirs of Jigoro Kano. There are others, but I won’t bore you. The thing is while I enjoyed all of them, I really wonder who these are all written for. The long-time practitioners’ offerings are educational, often culturally and historically enlightening. Their insights are much deeper of their practice than the layperson might suspect of something that’s a “physical hobby,” but I often wondered if they were so engrained in their systems, that an audience of non-martial artists would really “get it.” On the other hand, the ones written by those who practiced a short time (less than three years) are often written in a way that describes the up-and-downs of those first few years, but the insights are a bit too light and are often grating to those who’ve lived a lifetime within the martial arts. I’m not really criticizing the books themselves, but rather the limitations of selecting a slice of life to write about which invariably creates a limited point of view. I’m not sure there is a real solution to this issue, but it’s something to think about.

The issue here is that different view points are valuable, but for different reasons. However, it would be a mistake to say that they have relatively the same value. Adjusting for dogmatic statements (dogma being a human failing rather than a systemic one), the more experience person’s view point is more valuable. They have a great amount of empirical knowledge and a larger experience base upon which to make informed determinations. A less experienced person has less empirical knowledge and only limited experience through which to analyze everything through. Brian Preston, for example, is more than justified in his criticism of Bruce Lee and the Buddha. In former, a young man on the make who’s basically a tremendous street fighter rather than an enlightened saint. In the latter, the Buddha as a young man was basically a deadbeat dad. They may sound harsh, and maybe even unfair, but he makes valid criticisms that should help him to guard himself from dogma. On the other hand reading interviews with Jigoro Kano, who built a martial art from the ground up and in the process help to lay the foundation for modern martial arts as we know it, was longtime educator, politician, member of the IOC, as well living to a ripe old age, gives us a picture of highs and lows over the long term. This is a long-winded way of saying while every view point has inherent value, some really are more valuable than others.

Martial arts techniques do have to be learned, and many of them are complex in the way they are efficient. The complexity of knowing which muscles the emphasize, timing your breath, and timing all of that to coordinate with another person’s actions is really hard to do—and is something only learned by experience. There is also truth in saying learning martial arts is only part physical. Training the mind and coordinating with the body is not a matter of mere technique, but technique coupled with experience not only to get into the right frame of mind, but also to stay there—the more you see, the less likely you are to get derailed by something. This is true of a lot of things, and why so many people screw up their 401k’s. So the person who’s been there and done that and survived it all has a much more valuable opinion than someone who’s just at the beginning, all things being equal. Of course, things are not always equal, and thus we have these two categories of martial arts memoirs. In any case, I enjoy reading them, and encourage others who practice to read them too. Often they all have different ideas than the reader does, and that’s something good to see too.

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