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.”
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