By Yossi Sheriff
We have a saying: “don’t give steaks to babies”, this article is a thick steak. To a beginner who might read it, it would be unintelligible. “What is this all about?” he or she may ask, and we would reply “well, this is about something in the distant future. Now finish off your apple, you’ll eat this food many years from now “don’t worry”.
for years I have been receiving an occasional phone call from a brave student who tells me: “Yossi, I’m quitting training “it is just no longer suitable for me”. I listen and say “Mazal Tov! But “maintain your fitness, or otherwise you’ll never be able to come back”.
I think of it as a landmark of maturity, a road sign for what can be subtly referred to as: spiritual progression in martial arts.
I clearly remember this time, all of a sudden, getting onto the training mattress became the most difficult and loathsome thing in the world, like eating cockroaches. Every single movement during practice was a struggle. The body, the mind, the heart, no longer wished to be there, everything I am made of wanted to be elsewhere. The movements of fighting, the techniques that up until that point I was so enthusiastic about, now bored me to death. Randori, sparring, the center of dojo life, seems childish, tiring, and small. “How silly it is” I thought “to keep training in this situation is a waste of time, it may even cause spiritual damage”
– “I will start swimming or maybe run a little more, anything but coming back to the dojo”.
And then, if you quit, guilt filters in. Boaz Fyller wrote about this in the old newspaper, (I have to find it and post it), he wrote: “To feel like vermin”.
Today I received a phone call from Mr. Y. who told me he was quitting, that he had realized, in the past two weeks, he wants to be a man of peace, that it is no longer suitable for him to fight (In AKBAN dojos, lest we forget, we fight at every practice, there is not one training session without fighting). Then he said he was taking a break for a few years and that it was not yet clear whether he would ever come back to train. I listened; I have a big place for him in my heart. Y. has been training with me for many years; I thought that people have been training here together for so many years, that the problems we face in our school would not arise if students changed every five or six years. These are real and mature problems.
Beginners often quit after a week, a month or two years of training. But to quit after so many years is something unique, a watershed point in life. After tackling all the obstacles, after fighting and defeating laziness, the fear of being hit, the friends who leave the dojo, the break up in high school from the beautiful girlfriend, the looks from the wife before we head out to practice, the difficulty of leaving the kids in the afternoon and out to our place, the injuries and healing from them”¦ after all these victories comes something that can leave a sense of loss.
I don’t think it’s a loss; I think and feel this point in most of the veterans as great progress. This is the time when all the motives that brought us here, no longer exist, there is no motive, and there is no real reason to train. Whether we were interested in strength, speed, combat ability or peace of mind “ we have already got it “ now what?
People may imagine a Zen monastery as a cool and mystical place, Ha! Perhaps for a tourist, maybe for a month, but after a year, this is serious business. A monastery is the most boring place, that’s why it works, because it is so boring. There are no pictures, no television, and no “time after practice”, there is one day after another to sit and stare at the wall. The practitioner with himself, that is all. Confronting myself, not a practice partner or enemy, this is the most difficult task. In the middle of the ring, lights on, gloves on hands but without an opponent, without an audience. When you reach a point where practicing is like dry straw, no one is watching, no significance to an opponent, practicing is no longer interesting. Then it is very strange, very strange and very lonely, even if you’re surrounded by many people who continue, this is always a solitary and individual decision.
“What now? What do you do when there is no reason to train?”
What difference does it make, up until now it has been interesting, but something new is beginning, and what is it that begins only now? Do begins now, Zen, a “will“ begins, a place we haven’t been to before.
Sometimes the actual dojo experience might be confusing and contradictory to Do because at first it appears there is so much to be excited about, maybe it’s because of me, due to the explanations I give in practice.
It is difficult to be a teacher because I need to pretend that beginners’ interests really interest me too, I need to explain: “this is an efficient technique and this one is not”, “Ninjutsu can be a deadly discipline” “ as if this matters, as if I care. Well, this is the work of a teacher, there are babies who need appropriate food and if they don’t receive it at the beginning, they will not be able to eat properly at the end, they will not be able to eat the food of the masters. A child needs to work hard, “swords are made in fire” is what we say. You have to work hard and exhaust yourself in martial art, no matter which one, you have to do all this because there comes a point when “it doesn’t matter”. You cannot skip steps along the way, there are no short cuts, “there is no Kfitzat Haderech”.
When we get there, what do we do? What happens when we’re strong enough, when we are no longer scared of the bad kid on the block, no longer need the group for company?
There are those that simply sit themselves down with a thump and don’t get up, that’s ok. It is ok because being a veteran for many years entitles you to rest. And then there are those that having understood there is no longer anything to look for, just get up and walk around, like kids, just keep walking and looking. It’s a matter of character.
I simply love Zen stories since they fit anything.
One time, in the hills of Japan, during autumn just like we are having now, two beginner monks, children really, from different monasteries came to meet.
– “Hello there, my brother”, one child said, “Where are you headed to?”
– “I am going to wherever the wind blows” answered the second child “goodbye”.
The first child went back to the father of the monastery, told him the story of the meeting and asked him for advice: “I was speechless, please give me an idea, a spiritual answer, what do I tell the child tomorrow?”
– “Ask him where he will go when the wind stops blowing” advised the old teacher.
The next day the children met up again.
– “Where are you going?” asked the first.
– “I am going to wherever my legs take me”, came the response immediately.
The upset child went back to the father of his convent. “Sensei, the child said today that he was going to wherever his legs take him, I didn’t know what to say!”
– “Well then,” said the old monk,
– “ask him: Where will you go if you had no legs?”
The next day the child ran with great excitement and reached the crossroads in the woods long before the second. He waited there until he saw the other child approaching. Running, he went up to him and asked:
– “Where are you going today?”
– “I am going to the market to buy vegetables”.
See you at the crossroads, the dojo.