“Past the half-century mark then, Yamaguchi’s hair covered his shoulders and his eyes were as wild as a temple guardian statue’s”
Raised in New York’s middle eastside in the only Jewish family in an Irish-Italian neighborhood, and with an inherited British accent, always one or two years younger than my public school classmates, I was ever on the lookout for some wondrous system of self-defense besides broken-field running. At seventeen in World War II in US Naval Air boot camp I learned some self-defense judo flips and promptly put the knowledge to good use against a bully cadet cadre almost a foot taller and bounced him down a flight of stairs and into the hospital, and myself to Captain’s Mast. (I got off.)
It all began to come together, ever so slowly, when I was living a two-year honeymoon in Japan in an idyllic fishing-farming village outside Hiroshima opposite the famed beauty spot, Miyajima, Shrine Island. I was trying to convert my cartooning style from occidental steel crowquill pen to soft oriental fur brush. I just couldn’t get the flimsy little bamboo brush to draw me a clean line. I was beginning to see that my whole western heritage had caused me to form a block against the technique of strength through delicacy the brush seemed to demand.
“Zen ken shu!” my white-bearded painting and calligraphy teacher said to me one day. “Zen meditation is the sword is the brush! Understand one and you understand all. But you cannot come to understand one without the other two.”
So I took to crossing bamboo swords with my aged painting teacher who, true to ancient tradition, was one of the highest ranking masters of Japanese kendo fencing. To remedy my Madison Avenue slouch over the drawing board placed atop the hori-kotatsu table over the heated sitting pit in the tatami-matted floor, he also had me learn to twang the great eight-foot bamboo Japanese long-bow with its yard-long bamboo arrows.
After months of strenuous effort wielding bamboo sword, bamboo brush, and bamboo longbow with its bamboo arrows I still wasn’t going anywhere. I had the same fault in all, old master said: too much concentration on the tool. “Think too much about sword, you lose sight of the end. Perhaps you understand easier if you see sword play without sword.”
So old master took me to see a movie of karate champion Mas Oyama killing a bull with his bare fists, which is how I start Zen Combat. After seeing it I still wasn’t sure of what he meant, but decided this “swordless sword play” was worth a look. He arranged for me to meet Oyama, writing the formal letter customary to all oriental introductions. Interspersed with the Chinese ideographs common to written Japanese, he drew in minute tick-tack-toe doodles I had never seen in Chinese or Japanese. I questioned these.
“Oyama’s real name is Yong-I Choi. He’s Korean,” old master explained. He folded the letter and handed it to me. I was reminded of my sensei’s considerable prewar travels in Korea.
What I took in my hands was to turn out to be a ticket to a seven-year pilgrimage among mystic strongmen down Tokyo and Kyoto alleys, to lonely Japanese villages, up mountains in Japan, across high passes in Afghanistan, to gyms in Thailand, dervish drill halls in Iran, yogi ashrams in India and Nepal; to temples, gyms, shrines, hermitages; to meditate like a Buddha, be thrown about like a rag doll, dance with dervishes, and walk on red hot coals with sweet old ladies.
I looked up Mas Oyama in the outskirts of Tokyo, getting lost in the warren of unnumbered streets and houses. He greeted me with a gusty “hello.” He read the letter of introduction. As it was in Korean, he spoke to me in a lilting, breathy speech that acquainted me with the garlic-and-pepper kimchi pickles he’d had for lunch. Getting no reaction, he switched over to the staccato but more familiar Japanese, occasionally trying a sentence in the English, he, as it seemed everybody, was studying.
Then he gave me a convincing display of raw power by breaking river stones with his bare fist, and told me some of the history, or legend, of the “Self-Defense Arts of the Empty Hand,” from their systemization by saintly monk Daruma in 7th century China, to the introduction of karate to Japan before World War II by Gichin Funakoshi, and of how he, an exiled hothead, found his safety valve. “Funakoshi kept me out of trouble, straightened me out.” Then he took me to the dojo of the Goju-ryu master he was then attached to, Gogen Yamaguchi, popularly called “The Cat.”
Yamaguchi Sensei, master of the dojo and dean of some two hundred thousand karateka looked every bit a “Cat.” He was 5 feet 5 inches tall, perhaps 135 pounds, including training suit and red belt. Past the half-century mark then, his hair covered his shoulders and his eyes were as wild as a temple guardian statue’s. When he walked, I’d swear his feet didn’t touch the ground. Most of the students were teenagers and most averaged 110 pounds, with few as heavy as 130. In tough neighborhoods such as this, police were wary of karate groups. Both Oyama and the “Cat” refuted the popular notion that they bred gangs, pointing out that no student in good standing had gotten into serious trouble—until today. There’s a natural tendency for a young sport to want to blood himself, but the dojo channels that tendency by contests for the coveted black belts. He knows if he fights outside, expulsion from the group is immediate—or worse. One had recently caused such a “problem” by beating someone up.
The evening class of about sixty had been going through its drills for some time when we arrived, and the air was pungent. An instructor shouted and everyone skimmered around to take places, squatting on their knees in neat rows. I was invited to join Mas at the front similarly sitting seiza facing the class, behind the Cat who was squatting in the lotus position of authority. The Cat went off into a lengthy lecture about responsibility and self-control. Three students sat to one side at an angle. The one in the middle looked worried. They leaned forward onto their knees and crawled toward the Cat. They bowed, the one center very deep and, I thought, frightened. The Cat purred to an instructor near him, who jumped up and barked at the trio.
Mas whispered to me, “He has ordered a shiai, a special match! Watch carefully.”The Cat commanded the Frightened One to throw certain blows “I hear you are famous for.” His target easily fended them off, obviously stunning him with his response.
“Where is the last minute pull back?” I asked, but Mas just grunted sullenly. “Seems this guy was showing off, bullying ‘civilians’. That is very big no-no.” The Cat barked again. Frightened One leaped to kick, but his target was faster, swept his feet aside and levitated to deliver two of his own to the chest. FO went down, bouncing on the tatami. This was looking serious. Mas frowned.
More purring from the Cat, more desperate attacks by FO followed by more full contact replies bouncing him on the mats. He got to his feet time and time again, bowing plaintively, deeper each time, holding back sobs. There was no blood. The Cat rose, walked over to FO who, chin on chest in supplication, was now trembling visibly. The Cat, in a mockingly gentle voice, ordered him to strike. Mas informed me, with a twinge of sarcasm in his voice, “It is an honor to face one’s sensei.” He did, feebly. The Cat just moved aside, ignoring it, and gave an order to “Do it with the fervor you used ‘that day’,” almost snarling the last two words. FO gathered his strength and lunged. The Cat bobbed, rose almost straight up as his feet shot out in double-quick time to his target’s head and chest. FO went down like a sodden sack of rice.
The silence in the dojo was palpable. Time seemed frozen. FO quivered slightly.
“Self-control is the hallmark of the true warrior,” The Cat announced to all. “Remember! The power in your hands is a sacred privilege. It carries a serious responsibility.”
He bowed. The audience responded as one, like a field of wheat in a summer breeze. The Cat mewed softly and two instructors dragged the hulk toward the showers. I never learned how he made out, whether he was even alive. I had a sick feeling I had just seen a ritual execution.
In Japan on the twenty-first of January, the time period known as daikan, or great cold, sets in, the coldest fortnight of the year. Some Japanese bundle up—others strip down to perform some of the strangest rites of purification, the kanmairi and kangeiko, winter pilgrimage and winter practice. Cold is ‘purifying.’ Kangeiko is for musicians, especially young geisha, hangyoku or ‘half-balls,’ who rise early and practice on the open veranda until their hands are numb and blue with cold, or preferably until they learn how to control the “inner heat” and prevent hands going blue-numb. It is for judoists, karateka, archers, kendo-fencers and track-and-fielders who work out every day at dawn in the open or in gyms with windows wide open, taking ice-cold showers afterward. I first did it one winter at the aikido dojo in Tokyo and came down with an almost fatal case of good health, have continued it since with archery, and modern plumbing notwithstanding, still in my late sixties take cold showers year-round. This, however, was not my first experience with playing Buddha in a cold shower.
Kanmairi pilgrimage is essentially a lay-religious act and may be either Buddhist or Shinto. It is usually led by a yamabushi, an ancient order of lay monks associated with the more exotic and tantric rites of modern Japan. They wear an animal-hide seat apron, an obvious holdover from pre-Buddhist practices, and strapped-on tiny box-hat, which have reminded some writers of Jewish phylacteries. I have heard them in cold season, just after supper, honking on their giant conch shell trumpets, calling the faithful out in a procession of white-clad ghosts from the primeval past, chanting their soulful “Zange-zange”—“repent, repent.”
My first winter in Kyoto I hunted out a group and hiked up behind the magnificent Miyako Hotel, then the grandest tourist hotel in Japan—in which I was not staying. I cut through Nan-zenji Zen temple with its gigantic ancient Chinese-style gate that stands alone in the middle of a field, now being neither exit nor entrance to or from anything, a true ‘Gateless Gate.’ I continued on under the Roman-style aqueduct, built in the last century when Roman and Greek set the style, uphill in the dark silence past the Buddhist nunnery and the temple and little candle-lit mountain shrines. Then I heard a mysterious, deep, rhythmical moaning: Fudo’s followers. Continuing on toward the sound, I saw a tiny light flickering through the trees. In a low shed, offering-candles burned before several tiny niches in the rock wall—snake holes. The cult of Fudo is a remnant of ancient cults, worship of the Earth deity and its messenger, the snake.
Ahead, to the left, stood a fenced enclosure into which a column of water fell through icicles from the cliff above, to flow on out under the fence and drop in another cascade into the ravine below. It was this enclosure from which came the odd sounds I soon recognized as Buddhist sutras, scriptures, being chanted by someone near hysteria. I crossed the ravine by a small bridge and headed for the protection of some bushes. Then, from behind, a deep voice froze me in my tracks— even though it bade me welcome.
An elderly woman stepped calmly from the enclosure, clothed only in an inadequately small face towel held up to her ample breasts. She looked my way as the man behind ushered me out of the darkness toward the shed. I was politely invited to warm myself over their tin-can charcoal brazier while she stepped into the darkness to don her peasant kimono. The warmth of the coals and the hospitality soon routed all goose pimples. They were the last of a larger group who came every night—heat or snow the lady walked three miles each way to commune with the one deity through the intermediary of Fudo.”
After a pleasant, if difficult, conversation, we started to leave. The old man asked, “Wouldn’t you like to strip down and go under the purifying water?”“No, thank you,” I politely declined, “I bathed earlier this evening.”
In the succeeding four decades I was to see countless other rites of midwinter immersion—most of which I cover in my guidebook, Japan Inside Out (Personally Oriented, Ltd., 1992). Thousands of youths dressed only in skimpy loin cloths march through snow and into freezing rivers up to their necks, then come ashore to dance around madly until clouds of steam rise from their bodies and all become so “hip” that some of them climb up onto a third-story balcony and leap down onto the steaming, milling mob, unharmed, un-harming. I have seen the elderly farmers of our village march calmly into the Inland Sea. I have followed our college karate club as it paraded en mass into an icy mountain river. I have, myself, participated in kangeiko at the aiki dojo in Tokyo; there ice cold showers substituted for the nonexistent mountain waterfall. And I visited Mas Oyama during one of his periodic mountaintop seclusions in winter, when mountain waterfall replaced nonexistent plumbing. In all, we kept in mind the ancient sage Yen Hui’s four steps to mental stillness:
(1) let limbs and frame go slack;
(2) close all avenues of sense perception: shut up, don’t listen, don’t look, don’t bother, just don’t —;
(3) shake off material forms;
(4) dismiss knowledge.
Mas took mountain training at least once every winter. One year he took along a sparring partner, Andre Nocquet, French savate expert and holder of a high-rank blackbelt in judo, who had been sent to Japan by the French national judo organization to study karate, aikido, and Chinese kempo. (I was to meet him some years later in 1954 in the main aikido dojo, become good friends and look him up again in France.) Andre said Mas had them out barefoot in the snow. Before dawn every morning they did an hour of exercise and freestyle karate-savate-judo and anything-goes grappling. “Then,” says Andre, “we’d eat a breakfast for a medieval monk and spend the rest of the morning yelling poetry at each other, me in French, Mas in Korean or Japanese, before our midday workout and hermit’s lunch.”
I recalled this poetry recitation when years later I learned that the giant sumo wrestlers, as part of their rigid training, memorize and shout Chinese poetry, and how the Pahlavans, champions, of the Persian zur khane, below, belted out Persian classical poetry in their marvelous basso. Then, at my old kendo sensei’s insistence, I took up utai, or reciting noh play librettos. That’s when I really learned how to breathe.
In Tokyo, at the Ueshiba dojo kangeiko in 1954, it snowed heavily. The outer walls of the low Japanese “barn” were taken off so that at the dawn class a whisker of snow lay on the edge of the outer tatami. I had been reading a lot on Tibetan practices, and the generating of “inner heat” fascinated me. I told some of the Tibetan tales to my instructor, Tohei’s then-main deshi, Tamura (since then in France). He understood the Tibetan descriptions immediately, hopped out onto the snow to plop down in lotus position, hands clasped before his chest, forefingers pointing up. Mist rose around him as the snow beneath his seat vaporized. He hopped back onto his feet leaving what appeared to be an elephant’s footprint in the snow. Soon all of us were sitting in the white fluff generating clouds.
The first thing I did upon my arrival in Tehran during my worldwide search for ancient sports was to look up a zur khane, a House of Strength. Friends offered to take me to theirs. Not the biggest nor best known, they said, but it was considered the most traditional, and for this distinction they were willing to go a bit out of the way. So was I.We drove out the broad new boulevards of Tehran, with worse-than-New-York-London-or-Tokyo traffic, to the narrow streets and narrower dirt kuchehs of old Tehran, stopping at a common, two-story building of sun-dried brick. We ducked under a low doorway—subtle reaction to the Arab conquest of 1400 years ago to make the foreign Arab Muslims bow before entering Persian holy space—into a large, high-ceilinged and skylighted room. Gongs and drums rataplanned an oriental welcome and all stood to salute us in throaty Arabic and somnambulant Persian blessings. Shown to a couch of rich tribal carpets we kicked off shoes, squatted down and sipped aromatic tea through chunks of beet sugar held in our teeth.
An explosive cacophony of drums, cymbals and gongs—all played by one man beside the door. Wild shouts, as into the room streamed a line of youthful men dressed in what looked to be ‘harem pants’ but which were large red and blue towels in an intricate diaper-like wrap. The center man began muscle-toning exercises to the music. Tempo slid from one paradiddle to another and the athletes moved with it through a series of squirming push-ups, legs positioned in a full split, shoulders and hips rippling in a sensuous one-two roll, now straight down, now to one side and down on first one arm, then the other.
All the time the one-man orchestra continued his symphony of strength. His voice operatic; clear, strong and masculine, his song epic poetry chanted to music. He was reciting some of the sixty thousand rhymed couplets (all of which he had memorized) of Iran’s great epic history, the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, written about the year 1000 by the national poet, Firdosi. He sang of battles and loves of Persian and Aryan heroes from the days of legend, through the exploits of the historical Xerxes and Darius and the blessed foreigner Iskander, our Alexander the Great. Here in meter that makes one’s pulse throb is the tragedy of Sohrab and Rustam, the duel to the death of father and son. As I watched the martial dancers, a picture of a Japanese temple came to my mind. In the gatehouses of most Buddhist temples flanking the main portal are two statues of guardian gods. Japanese call them nio or deva-kings—deva is an ancient Persian word for god, as Latin (feus. They are dressed in the sarong-pants of the zur khane’, of western features and wear the topknot as worn in ancient times by Iranian warriors.
Finally, the leader raised a great iron bow with “string” of chain above his head and broke into a fierce yet graceful dance, much as the sumo wrestler does in Japan at the end of the day’s bouts. Many of the dance calisthenics seemed familiar, similar to, but slightly less refined, than those I had myself learned in the aikido dojo, in Tokyo. Was this because seven hundred years ago the zur khane of Iran and Taoist shadow-boxing halls of China—and through perhaps expatriate Zen Chinese teachers, Japan—had formed one great world-wide undercover network?
The next morning, as I sat down to get my observations down on paper before the dawn—I’d taken to the local schedule of early rising and afternoon siesta—I heard a song outside my window that suddenly was familiar. On previous mornings I thought it was the muezzin’s call to prayer from a nearby minaret. Now I realize it to be many of the radios of the neighborhood turned up full volume to allow the exotic sensuous rhythms of the zur khane broadcast to rise over the city and greet the morning sun. I see the shadow of my host on the balcony; the silhouette of a neighbor on his roof, bread delivery boy and household servants are in the courtyard. The bread boy’s donkey brays a downbeat and shadow, silhouette and courtyard forms begin the movements of the dance of strength.
Excuse me. I think I’ll step out onto the balcony and stretch.
To be continued
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