A New Start for Karate?

Thursday, 1 April 2010, 9:15 | Category : Uncategorized
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The following is a piece I wrote for the nascent American Amateur Karate Federation electronic newsletter. I’m hoping that interested readers will look out for the newsletter when it appears in the next few days.

On March 27th this year a meeting of historic importance for the martial arts took place at the University of Texas-Dallas, hosted by the Japan Karate Association and the AAKF Southwestern Region. I attended the seminar, and as a long-time student with more enthusiasm and years than talent and time I was curious to see how the Shotokan school would handle the great transition that the seminar marked.

A little over a year ago Hidetaka Nishiyama, the great sensei of the Shotokan school of karate, passed away after a lifetime of astonishing achievement in developing and spreading the ancient art of karate. He left behind a galaxy of martial arts talent and a great store of knowledge and expertise embodied in his students as well as in his published work.

I knew that traditionally martial arts schools have often broken up into rival fiefdoms after the era of a great integrating leader like sensei Nishiyama. I believe that what happened on the Richardson campus of the University of Texas and in meetings before and after the main occasion that weekend in March changed all that.

Significantly, the meeting was organized around an extraordinary teaching event. Robert Fusaro, Mahmoud Tabassi, Toru Shimoji, Albert Cheah, Dr. Tim Hanlon, Brad Webb and Alex Tong, the sensei of the Dallas club, presented, one after another, the distilled wisdom of perhaps two centuries of training, competition, and meditation. These were the true secrets of the art, presented in action and in training exercises, with remarkable clarity and new insight, by some of the finest athlete-artists in the world.

Other karateka reading this will be well aware of the changes that have been taking place in Shotokan: the adjustment of the stance to give more dynamical potential, the increasingly explicit study of internal body power and contraction, the analysis of the roles of different muscle groups, the work on breathing, timing, application. To the traditional spiritual, poetic, and alchemical vocabulary of China and Japan has been added the physics, dynamics, and sports-medical biology of the West, to the advantage of both. I foresee a further role for psychology, emerging from the combination of chi theory with Western neuropsychology. Many of these developing features of our art were splendidly on show at the seminar.

But what made the event unique was that each sensei built upon the work and ideas of the others. In a normal karate seminar each of these instructors would give profound knowledge and inspiration; but when the same basic yet subtle principles were illuminated in very different styles, metaphors, and physical action, suddenly karate seemed to spring from two into three dimensions, from the flat to the round. I learned approaches and methods that not only promised to improve my techniques, but also to avoid certain kinds of injury, and most important personally, to deepen my understanding of karate into the period of old age.

What was especially helpful was the creation of special sessions in which students both beginning and expert could ask questions individually of the instructors, and thus to get to know them and have them address the personal training needs of each questioner. This too was a change in the culture of karate, in the kindly spirit of sensei Nishiyama, but developed further in a way that extends extends the tradition in a new way.

What happened at the meeting, it seemed to some of us, was that the deep devotion of the leadership to teaching and to the art of karate itself had overwhelmed the traditional fiery independence and desire for precedence of the great masters. That spirit, though admirable and necessary in so competitive an art, has tended to prevent karate from speaking in a single voice. Perhaps the model of karate governance was changing from monarchy to a sort of democratic meritocracy, from rivalry in ranking to friendly and cooperative competition in excellence. Could we some day try once more for representation in the Olympics?

Whatever the further outcome of this meeting, the students were the beneficiaries, and we look forward to a new era of vitality in the fine old art of karate.

Being, Continued

Friday, 19 March 2010, 22:09 | Category : Uncategorized
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The conversation on being is getting interesting. This poem of mine from a couple of years ago might show how I like to use the word–playfully, and bringing out its linguistic oddity. Maybe a companion piece to Mary Freeman’s good poem in the comments to the last post.

Let Be

Weeding, I disturb a bee
That is bumbling in the sages,
But she has forgiven me,
Goes off to the saxifrages.

There I will just let her be,
And, since bee-ing is her being,
She will go on being free,
She-ing while I go on me-ing.

“Let it be” was how the king
In that strange old myth or story
Gave the bee its sweet and sting,
Set the heavens in their glory:

Was it permit or command?
Do we own, or was he letting,
Are we in or out of hand?
Was he making or just betting?

So he gave himself away,
Changed from he-ing into she-ing,
Where his “shall” became her “may”,
Time born out of unforeseeing.

If I weed around the sage,
Letting it achieve its flower,
Do I make a kind of cage?
Do I claim a godlike power?

But the weeds are weeding me,
Cells that are, in acting, dying;
Sage-flowers fertilize the bee,
Every selling is a buying.

So creation is a cross,
“Let” and “be” in intersection,
Where the gain is in the loss,
And the death’s the resurrection.

Being and Heidegger

Tuesday, 16 March 2010, 11:24 | Category : Uncategorized
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I am reading another dissertation on Heidegger–a rather good one, I might add. But I am struck by a disturbing thought about this very influential philosopher.

The first concerns the central importance for his philosophy of the word “being” (“Sein” in German). I wonder whether there is such a thing (quality, action, process, event) as “being” at all. Heidegger may be right that the Greeks after Socrates had a bad habit of reifying bits of language, a habit shared by the German language and its over-easy facility for making abstract nouns. But suppose we take his critique a bit further. What if the words “be”, “is,” “einai,” “esse,” “etre,” etc are just a piece of Indo-European grammar, a copulative or a sort of preposition or article, like “and,” “of,” “with,” or even “the”? What if it got turned into a verb for convenience as a poetic metaphor or trope, then turned into a noun–“being”–and thence into a divine seal of authenticity?–and then became a huge and empty non-issue? Might not “with-ing,” “with-ness,” “of-ing,” “of-ness,” “the-ing,” and “the-ness” easily have turned into similar linguistic junk bonds or credit default swaps?

There is no verb in Chinese for “to be,” “is,” and no noun for “being,” and this great civilization has got on pretty well for the last 4,000 years or so without it. Moreover it is a civilization historically based on poetry–you had to pass a poetry exam to be one of the ruling mandarins–which casts some doubt on Heidegger’s claim that poetry has a special relationship with “being.” Science doesn’t really need the verb “to be”–the equals sign works perfectly well.

So maybe the real value of all this fuss about “being” is as a huge and splendid game, but with darker overtones lent by the European habit of denying authentic “being” to one group of people or another, and then exterminating them.

Who is the Best Film Maker in the World Today?

Saturday, 23 January 2010, 11:52 | Category : Uncategorized
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That, in my humble opinion, is Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki mines all human myths, all genres, even our dreams. His peaceful flooded landscapes–Spirited Away, Ponyo–are the landscapes of the physical soul, where we can see the prehistoric fish of our own dreadful and beautiful submarine powers swimming calmly below the surface of consciousness. One third of our lives is lived below that surface anyway–the flooded landscape is everyday reality seen truly. Powerful and charming as Avatar is, Cameron’s philosophical imagination as regards nature, the environment, and the human role as technologist and maker is utterly outdone by Miyazaki’s The Princess Mononoke. Howl’s Moving Castle is as sophisticated a study of human sexual relationships, aging, war, and spiritual power as any current mainstream novel. And the animation is great art, amazingly fabricated out of the most vulgar materials of anime and children’s stories.

It’s very interesting that the best art of our time is very often in genres regarded by our elites as childish. What is going on?

Evolution and Natural Law

Tuesday, 12 January 2010, 22:41 | Category : Uncategorized
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I sent this little book–which contains my thinking about how natural law, both moral and legal, might be revived and put to use in the chaos following modernist and postmodernist attempts to generate binding principles of human conduct–to two publishers, one conservative, one liberal. The conservative one politely turned it down, though it had come recommended by a leading conservative intellectual. The liberal one offered me a contract and sent me a small advance. The publisher, however, overruled her very liberal editors because she found ideas in the book that she could not stomach. So I figured the book probably has things to say that might be of value and interest to the public at large. Here it is, then.

Rinse and Repeat

Monday, 30 November 2009, 8:58 | Category : Uncategorized
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The “rinse and repeat” instruction line on shampoo bottles is a beautiful illustration of the tight interconnection of self-inclusion paradoxes, time, quotation marks, levels of abstraction, consciousness, and the evolution of the universe.

Very few people are found dead in showers, their heads rotted away by infinitely iterated applications of shampoo. But the instruction line on the bottle would if followed literally lead to this deplorable result. Idiots, we know, don’t know when to stop. Computers are brilliant idiots; every time one freezes, it is because it has run across the equivalent of the instruction line and gotten itself into an infinite feedback loop.

In fact it is difficult to see how the line could be amended to avoid the error. If one added “Stop” to the end of the line, the idiot (acting as a Turing Machine) might go on repeating forever and never get to the “Stop” instruction. Or if one added before the repeat command “stop after two repetitions”, the idiot might take the injunction to repeat as applying to the reading of the instructions as well as the lathering process, and on returning to the instructions would read, again, “Stop after two repetitions”, and reset its counter obediently to two. If it had a counter. And if it didn’t simply crash as a result of getting two contradictory commands.

A counter is one level up in abstraction; it implies an overview of the process, a summing-up rather than just the execution of the process. But even a simple counter won’t work in this case, as we have seen. Another level is required, to recognize and solve the self-inclusion paradox. The paradox is similar to Russell’s famous paradox of the village barber who shaves everybody in the village who doesn’t shave himself. Who shaves the barber? The issue is whether the command “repeat” applies to itself or not, and whether, if it does, its efficacy somehow ceases after the first iteration. Gödel’s even more intractable paradox, “This statement is unprovable”, contains the same implication, of a self-nested logic that goes on unendingly: “This statement: ‘This statement: “This statement: ‘….’ is unprovable” is unprovable’ is unprovable.”

The simplest components of the physical universe, quantum events, don’t seem to have a “repeat” command, which is what you need to have any kind of coherent time. But the moment enough of them reach a consensus to repeat, classical matter is born, and with it time as we know it. In the competition for survival in time between repeaters and non-repeaters, repeaters of course win, but they do so by idiotically repeating themselves into the future, rinsing and repeating, generating the next moment’s version of themselves as fast as time will allow as described by Planck’s constant.

It was only when higher forms of computational difficulty arose, from whose perspective mere repetition could be recognized and put a stop to when system survival dictated it, that higher forms of matter, especially living matter, and quintessentially conscious living matter, could begin to appear.

Which is why, except when we default to the old logic of OCD, we don’t go on lathering up.

A Better Reading Version of the Tang Poets

Tuesday, 4 August 2009, 13:51 | Category : Uncategorized
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There is now a better version of my Tang anthology.  I hope this works.

The Chinese Tang Poets: A New Translation

Thursday, 23 July 2009, 7:33 | Category : Uncategorized
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I am uploading my collection of Tang period poetry in translation as a gift to my Chinese friends and to lovers of poetry everywhere. It is a unique translation among the many that have been attempted, since it is the only one that tries to reproduce the metrical form and sound and cadence of the original. The introduction explains how I accomplished this, how I worked with my very fine collaborator, a Chinese scholar, and something about the background and authorship of these extraordinarily beautiful poems.

See the page listed on the right.

Poems from Vietnam

Thursday, 16 July 2009, 22:53 | Category : Uncategorized
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Hot Days in Vietnam
A Travel Journal

Tokyo Narita Airport 7/6/09

So maybe old men ought to be explorers;
I sit among the naïve Nippon young
On my quixotic journey to Hanoi,
Hearing the birdsong of another tongue.

What are you searching for, for all these years?
Perhaps that ancient gasp of wonder you
Gave when you saw at dawn Ascension rise
Over the ocean sixty years ago.

The rain-clouds clear toward the West as we
Climb in pursuit of the still-fleeing sun.
This strange long day is like my restless life
Unending, but as always re-begun.

Cockcrow in Hanoi 7/7/09

Jetlag’s luxurious exhaustion shows
The city in its frank and open light.
The foolish fowl cries what he always knows
And the old man takes up the work of sight.

An Asian city under the monsoon,
A little French, with wrought iron and croissants,
Some new construction, hooting of a horn;
Again he must give himself up to chance.

What else has he to give his gentle hosts?
Somehow he left his poetry at home.
He must have given over all his ghosts,
To shape his life once more into a poem.

The River of People 7/8/09

At dawn the shutters open and the coals
Streetside glow under pots of pho,
Fig-roots, festoons of wire clog the poles,
On tiny stools folk eat before they go.

A maiden in a cone hat balances
Seventy pounds of melons in two pans;
Nothing’s as elegant as her passage is.
Fresh basil’s stuffed in empty coffee-cans.

Now motorcycles pour down Le Thai To
In a fresh torrent of humanity;
Young and clear-skinned, enthroned, they do not know
How perilous a single slip would be.

How could we have made war on such as these?
How could their parents think we meant them ill?
What fire is in these gentle Vietnamese?
What use to them is my delayed goodwill?

The Pale-faced Lady and the Full Moon 7/8/09

Our hostess sees, at dinner, my distress.
It is the night when Buddhists go to pray.
She leads us to the shrine. A dark recess
Holds a gold Buddha, seeming far away.

He glows against the crimson temple wall,
His lips composed in something like a smile
Of infinite compassion for us all—
I stand quite tame and humble for a while;

And then we turn a corner, and nearby,
Under the white moon’s blaze of bluish light
The old cathedral rises to the sky
As if its pillaged stones yearned to take flight.

One is a dwelling, one a pointing spire;
But they are neighbors, red shrine and the white.
One knows the root of suffering is desire;
One knows the fruit of suffering is light.

The Women of Vietnam 7/9/09

The singers in their purple silks so sway
As these green willows do in the warm wind.
Their slim hands modestly give all away,
Their voices, shrill as birds, are unrestrained.

Dawn in Halong Bay 7/10/09

A flock of dove-grey clouds drifts slowly through
A primrose sky that fades to eggshell blue.
A darker flock of islands silently
Lies on the levels of the silver sea.

The Poets 7/10/09 (for Hoang and Kha and Cuong)

Through all the politics, through all the grief
Of life, their tragic clownish faces smile,
Because they bear the great gift of belief
In a sweet hard truth that defies denial.

Partying 7/11/09

This road-trip’s getting stranger by the minute;
Suddenly we’ve all turned into hams.
Music breaks out—who knows what will begin it?—
The boss’s gorgeous daughter feeds me clams.

We’re lighting incense at a dead man’s shrine,
We’re scribbling poems in a traffic-jam;
We’re eating Haiphong squid with white moonshine,
We’re home now in poetic Vietnam.

Goodbye, Goobye 7/12/09

My poet friends come out to see me off.
Two of them fought us forty years ago.
To make us brothers, maybe it’s enough
To see a brave man’s simple tears flow.

To Vietnam

Saturday, 4 July 2009, 22:16 | Category : Uncategorized
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I’m off to Hanoi tomorrow, to meet some old and dear acquaintances in the world of literature. I will be back in a week or so, and will blog it then.