Like many men of my era, the quest to learn the martial arts began with Bruce Lee films which led the imagination then along the path of ninja and Shaolin monks on forgotten Tibetan mountains. Mystical Chinese masters and austere Japanese sensei might appear to Westerners in the guise of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid or as Ras al Ghul training Bruce Wayne to become the Batman. For a boy who devoured books and films on an island in the northern Atlantic Ocean, these ideas seemed as reasonable as the laws of gravity or the rules of baseball. Why couldn’t you learn ancient secrets from poorly printed textbooks at the local library? Surely, the five-finger death touch was equally available to an industrious reader as the recipe for Swedish meatballs that no one else could master, either.
I loved the martial arts of the 1980s. Few things gave more pleasure than building my own nunchaku to learn mutant turtle skills in the backyard by moonlight. Bruises and genital smashes aside, I felt like I had gained great skills. I dabbled in judo at age 12, karate at age 20, tai chi at age 30 and failed to become great at any of them. Still, I knew that I was a trained killer and was ready for the night when my wicked skills would be called upon to save myself or a damsel in distress.
And then I turned 43…
Brazilian Jiujitsu was the new cool class to take, and the outfits seemed far more fashionable than the aikido option I had also considered. Within my first class of jiu-jitsu all of my illusionary prowess was crushed and I realized that martial arts grounded in spirituality and mysticism were not going to assist me in avoiding the armbar from a guy one half my size. Help me Bruce Lee, save me!
Simply put, Brazilian Jiujitsu, boxing wrestling, Muay Thai and judo are the martial art systems proven to be effective in the MMA crucible of fighting, and as appealing a Drunken Monkey King Fu styles are to the narratives we like to connect ourselves to, it simply does not work in live combative situations. Magical systems might work against a much weaker, clueless attacker, but once you roll on the mats or experience how effective a double leg takedown is, it is clear that most people are unable to develop the skills needed to defend themselves with Wing Chun or Aikido. Sparring at realistic intensity alters how one sees fighting; there is little that can be found to be mystical when fighting a bigger, stronger opponent. The pressure is intensely awful with a 250 pound man crushing your chest. Sitting in a darkened temple, performing kata forms to chanting is not awful. These are different pursuits. One is for practical usage while the other is idealistic and perhaps spiritual.
However, I have made pilgrimages to many of the holy places throughout India, Japan, Thailand and Cambodia. I have seen their gods in magical spaces and their beauty and intense power is undeniable. I read the works of Sun-Tzu, Confucius, the I-Ching and many of the first “secrets of the martial arts” manuals that flooded the markets in the 1970s and 1980s. I even seem to recall taking a bus across Montreal one wintry Saturday to retrieve a kung fu treatise for a friend who had moved to Saskatchewan. Surely not all of the mysticism is bunk and bother; even old gods must hold some sway in a mechanical world where guns, chemistry and computers reign? Is there any place for such arts against the leverage and physics of Brazilian jiu-jitsu?
As I watched the latest Doctor Strange movie on my in-flight entertainment system, I did wonder whether there could be both. What is the place for the mystical martial arts? Is there a place in the modern world or have they all become sad cults, McDojos or a place for frail people to delude themselves into believing that they are safe? As I watched a Kung Fu video link sent to me from where I studied Tai Chi for a month, the testimonials resonated the simple fact that none of these students could even process how far their activity is from actual fighting. I felt embarrassed for these accountants, lawyers and retired Boomers, even as I was in a similar position a few years earlier.
The shadows and temples filled with incense may be where the outliers continue to teach ancient systems of martial arts. There will always be Westerners seeking enlightenment in those Eastern realms, for we always look for meaning in places that are foreign and offer up an alternative paradigm. While I truly love BJJ and all that it has brought me in terms of strength, actual combative experiences and body mobility, I will continue to seek for ways to meld the knowledge I gain to the analogue philosophies of the past. Even though I now move in ways that I could only imagine before, I still know the value of what has come before, so while I doubt that I will join an Inebriated Zebra Kung Fa Chi cult, I believe that the mind benefits from the escapism of magical thinking and the soul reaps the harvest for all that can act as a balm for the difficult world we navigate. Perhaps we will find all of the answers we seek in Marvel’s new Netflix series, Iron Fist? Perhaps not…most definitely not.