The Resolution of Paradox – Life Mastery Through the Traditional of Martial Arts

My career in the martial arts started in 1964 with irony. I studied a martial art normally categorized as “soft” judo, but found that in application there was a lot of “hard”. Judo provided the toughest workout of any sport I had ever practiced including football. I had more sore muscles, more muscle strains, and more bruises in judo than in all my other sports combined. And, in contest application, the concept of harmonizing energy or using the other person’s strength against him was all but invisible. It was struggle, plain and simple. Later I added the “hard” art of karate and the “soft” art of aiki-ju-jutsu to my repertoire. Unifying them made me realize that at times karate can be soft and aiki can be hard. Teaching emphasis was one thing, application another. One’s personal interpretation of and skill at the art also had an effect on the resulting “hardness” or “softness”.

The apparent dichotomy of hard and soft was being homogenized and unified within me as a martial artist. Other major themes (long vs. short range, straight vs. circular movement, internal vs. external energy, traditional vs. modern practices, etc.) seemed also to be in conflict and yet existed within one martial artist, one method of instruction, one school, one style, or one art–this was a paradox. But I did not accept it as a true paradox since I believed that paradox is a statement of our own limitations in understanding. Something cannot be black and white at the same time, in the same sense, in the same context. That they may seem to be paradoxical but are actually ironic. Apparent paradoxes then should be able to be resolved.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the highest form of thought was to be able to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time. I do not agree. Conflicting ideas produce inadequate understanding, indecision, inaction, thus inadequate achievements. But apparently conflicting ideas which are resolved within the thinker–now that’s something else.

Certainly mastery and “high thought” are not achieved simply by taking a few conflicting ideas, figuring out how to resolve them to one’s own satisfaction, and then promoting oneself to twelfth dan (traditional ranks go up to only tenth dan which are very rare and are usually awarded to very experienced, very elderly, and usually very wise practitioners of the martial arts). Instead, mastery of any subject, especially those like the martial arts which are fraught with perfectionism, dedication, true believers, fidelity, and multitudes of methods and emphases –mastery of these arts means that the ironies and apparent paradoxes of that study must be understood and resolved.

Karate and Aiki each present us with a philosophical “paradox” when applying them in self-defense. Karate says “Do not fight until pushed to the limit. When there is no other choice, then fight full-out, to the death if necessary.” Aiki says, “Harmonize with your opponent and try to frustrate his aggression or, if necessary, control it through the use of his own overextended balance and strength.” If pushed to the limit Karate resists while Aiki accepts and redirects. And yet a technical direction in each art seems to contradict the philosophical route each prefers. Karate insists that the first movement should always be defensive. Aiki suggests that one can catch an opponent more unaware and off-balanced if one “attacks the attack”. Yet Karate is often seen as an aggressive art; Aiki is seen as a defensive art.

Of the perceived philosophical choices between Aiki and Karate, I tend to prefer the more peaceful Aiki route. But I realize that (a) a single perception may not accurately portray the art as a whole and (b) even if it did, sometimes a person is given no choice but to stand up for himself and resist! Aiki’s peaceful “redirection philosophy” means very little ethically if one does not have the cannon of karate “fight to the finish philosophy” in one’s arsenal. You do not choose a peaceful harmony if that is your only choice!

Similarly, there are challenges within the martial arts community which must be met one way or another: with resistance or with acceptance. Many martial artists are unnecessarily critical of each other, perhaps showing a lack of confidence in their own art, or, more precisely, in themselves. You can see this in the letter section of any martial arts magazine in any given month. Some who may appear uncritical politically, perpetrate a watered-down version of a martial art, inflate their credentials, make false claims about their history, abilities, etc. They don’t criticize, they brag. Another version of those who provide the fuel for martial controversy are the sales-oriented martial artists who care more about selling superficial knowledge and recognition than offering deep understanding and qualified skill. When these people present themselves in the martial arts, it is like a challenge not only to the livelihood of hardworking legitimately qualified martial artists, but more fundamentally to the reputation of the martial arts in general. But how do we meet this challenge with the philosophy of Aiki or Karate? If one uses “karate” to directly oppose because one feels “pushed to the wall”, one also becomes one of the criticizers of which there are far too many–a voice in the multitudes which cannot be distinguished. If one takes the more tolerant Aiki approach, one sees the quality and benefits of martial arts study gradually being eroded and the meaning of a black belt becoming ludicrous. What a paradox!

Not only is the idea of resolving paradoxes important to individual mastery but the method toward mastery may just be what we, as a society, need to balance our philosophical extremes. Great masters of the martial arts, notably Funakoshi (karate), Kano (Judo) and Ueshiba (Aikido) intended the study of their art to be a method of improving the individual so as to eventually influence society. They saw their mission as one of spreading their art so that the more individuals would improve, the more improved individuals would populate a society, and the more common ground the individuals in a society would have. Yet if this martial method gets corrupted not even the individual can improve, and certainly society can not be effected in a positive way. I would like to submit that individuals do have an influence on society but not by force of numbers alone, rather by positive example and by creating ideas and technologies which philosophically influence other individuals and thus indirectly influence their societies. I think the masters of the previous era might accept a small variation to their theme of peace and harmony through the martial arts: the martial arts provide one method by which paradox can be studied and eventually resolved. In my opinion, it is the method of resolving paradox which is the key to personal mastery, and a philosophical change in society.

The martial arts are a relatively insignificant sub-culture in a world of political extremists, religious paradigms, and self-improvement methods. As a whole, one cannot say that the very study of any martial art makes one a better person or improves society directly or indirectly. Martial arts are not a direct means to a given end. Rather, martial arts offer one method for personal challenge and self-discovery through which time mastery can be attained. It is during the attainment of mastery that methods of resolving paradox are discovered. Those individuals who have reached the high goals of inner peacefulness and personal worth may choose to reach for yet higher goals outside themselves. These are the people (martial artists or not) who will change the world. Major philosophical changes have come from the influence of methods and experiences of much less significance than the martial arts. But for practicing martial artists, traditional budo may just be the most appropriate method of life-mastery and then of social renaissance.

Everyday we are confronted with experiences which are, in the larger world view, insignificant, yet these items challenge us with indecision because they make us face philosophical paradoxes.

Three teens in a banged up sedan zip into a parking place by entering the parking lot against the flow of traffic. Should one oppose them? Or should one say to oneself “teens will be teens” and tolerate it? Opposition would be difficult if the teens did not take kindly to verbal discipline, since there are three against one, and words would probably not influence their driving or parking habits in the long run anyway. Yet tolerance of little incidences like these encourages their repetition. The offenders convince themselves they can get away with inconsiderate behavior on a regular basis. Repetition of such behavior without any retribution creates in the offended party, an unconscious sense of disorderliness and, more importantly, helplessness to protect what one perceives to be a socially accepted right. In short, one takes a relatively insignificant situation and raises it to symbolize deeply important philosophical principles.

Should we tolerate the little things which challenge our individual rights or personal safety? Should we take the chance of opposing too soon and become like fascists? Resolving paradox, even in seemingly insignificant matters, is itself no insignificant matter. Ultimately, in this example, the paradox unresolved comes down to a permissive versus a restrictive society. By what guidelines does one choose the balance? I do not propose that in a little column about training toward martial arts mastery, I can offer the answer to this most difficult of questions or even more minor situations which are emblematic of these questions. Rather I intend to show that the traditional martial arts, properly studied, lead those who wish to achieve higher goals than learning how to punch, kick, throw and lock, to the confrontation with paradox. And that it is the resolution of that paradox whether it be through opposition or redirection, that makes one a master of one’s art, one’s self, and ultimately gives one a framework by which to tackle much wider philosophical problems.

Ultimately, paradoxes reduce to “What Should Be vs. What Is.” Either we are logically stumped because our reasoning, although faultless, is confronted with an equally faultless yet opposite reasoning (Light it has been proven is both waves and pulses simultaneously), or we are ethically confounded because our ideals, no matter how carefully parallel to apparent human nature, always seem to be frustrated by those who take advantage of them (“Treat them with discipline and they hate you; treat them with love and they take advantage of you, thus becoming undisciplined.”)

What Should Be vs. What Is: is it the ultimate paradox or is it just a larger cousin of the little ironies we face (and resolve) every day? In the martial arts such frustrating questions do not occur to the everyday practitioner. If they occur at all, it is to the experienced and dedicated martial artist who has more years in his/her art than most students have in their entire educational career. “What Is” in the martial arts is, for the most part, short term students studying a catalogue of physical movements in order to feel better about themselves. “What Should Be”, at least to this author, is that students become artists, who during the years of mastering their art, confront the ironies and seeming paradoxes and use these confrontations to master themselves and the living of their lives. How does one resolve the paradox of What Is vs. What Should Be in the martial arts? By helping create a path for some of the short term students to become long term students, for some of those studying physical movements to stumble into the grotto of intellectual and emotional self-development. And how does one do that? One begins by writing this article.

A martial artist since 1964, Tony Annesi holds black belts in judo, aiki-ju-jutsu, karate, and has studied numerous other arts. As early as 1977, Annesi received the title of Ichiban Deshi no Soke (#1 student of the stylistic leader) in aiki-ju-jutsu from Albert C. Church, Jr. In 1984, the Goshin-kai International, a French federation, and the International Brotherhood of Martial Artists, a German-based organization, both decorated Annesi for his dedication to the martial arts. In the same year, Annesi was appointed soke-dai (inheritor designate) of the Kamishin-ryu martial arts, a position he resigned in 1988 due to a conflict in leadership styles. In 1989, he founded BUSHIDO-KAI KENKYUKAI, a federation for the development of innovative traditional martial arts and shortly thereafter founded BUSHIDO-KAI BUDOYA to help broaden the martial education of practitioners worldwide.

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