Kung Fu, Part I: Neo, Aang, and You
Sep 27, 2013
A reader writes:1
I’ve always had a love/hate perspective on martial arts. On the one hand, it’s so cooool! And I’m really into Avatar (the cartoon), which sort of shows some very different real-life fighting styles, and it’s all very interesting. And…I think it could only be a good thing to be capable of defending myself and others if need be. And anything that gets me in better shape is good.
On the other hand, I’ve got a gentle disposition. I’ve been called extremely phlegmatic, and I always favor amiableness over confrontation, to a fault…And while I’ll readily admit that I could stand to toughen up some, I also see a lot of good things in my peaceful nature.
So, while it seems prudent and valuable to be capable of self-defense, I don’t actually relish the thought of fighting itself. Plus, I get the sense that martial arts should be studied for the “right reasons,” whereas
I would admittedly be reveling in the “look at this roundhouse kick, I’m badass” factor a bit.
Even had I not previously corresponded with this reader, he would have instantly endeared himself to me by revealing his love for Avatar, and distinguishing it both from the Cameron glitzfest and the Shyamalan atrocity.
I think Avatar is a true work of art, and if you’re not sure how a cartoon that’s (ostensibly) for kids can be a true work of art, (1) that’s silly, and (2) how many kids’ cartoons do you know that have the artistic cojones to visually quote from Michelangelo, and can pull it off, too?
But I digress.
Let me address the coolness factor first. If a thing is cool, and is in no way morally objectionable, I think you should do it. Kung Fu is cool, and is in no way morally objectionable. Therefore, I think you should do it.
That’s a simple syllogism, but people who are thoughtful, serious, and sensitive (like this reader) are not always willing to accept that they should do something just because it’s cool, or fun, or enjoyable — but in the same breath will openly admire somebody who does things just because they’re cool, or fun, or enjoyable.
Sometimes we think we need a nobler reason to do something than just because we like it. This is because of a misunderstanding of virtue. A thing is virtuous despite being unpleasant, not because of it. If we were perfectly virtuous, virtuous actions would be perfectly easy and enjoyable — the way Glenn Gould not only played the piano exponentially better than I ever will, but (after years of practice) had an easier time of it, too.
Or we imagine that it’s selfish to do something just because we like it. While it’s true that it would probably be selfish to spend all our time doing things just because we like them, I doubt that this reader — being thoughtful, serious, and sensitive — lives a life of constant self-gratification. So Kung Fu is probably a good idea.
This business of “doing things for the right reasons” makes me think of Sihing2 Bengie, who is a black sash at my Kung Fu school, and claims that, had Neo mentioned a different martial art,
say, Tae Kwon Do, his own path would have been very different. Twenty-something Bengie saw The Matrix and decided to be just that badass, and so he was.
Thinking of Sihing Bengie reminds me of something else about “the right reasons”: just because you’re doing something you enjoy doesn’t mean you won’t be presented with opportunities to bring love and light to the world while you’re doing it.
Our Sifu3 is very much a father figure to us, and Bengie extends that fatherliness to those below him: he engages others in conversation, he offers encouragement during drills, and when he spars with you, he uses it as an opportunity to teach rather than to dominate. Whatever your religion, these things — care for others, giving of self — lead to saintliness.
I guess you could limit your activities to things you don’t enjoy, but that would be dumb, and you wouldn’t be any holier for it; you’d just be sadder. Or you could limit your activities to things that are only done 100% for the right reasons, but then you’d never do anything at all.
Kung Fu is a field where taking delight and showing love are often done at the same time and for the same reason. Like Heaven.
Stay tuned for Part II on Monday.