Kung Fu, Part I: Neo, Aang, and You

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?

Katara and Aang recreate the Pieta

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.

1 As always, I have asked the reader’s permission to publish his email, and would never publish private correspondence without explicit consent. That being said, feel free to let me know preemptively if you wouldn’t mind seeing an email of yours appear here.
2 “Sihing” means “older brother”. It’s the title by which we refer to a male black sash. Some systems use this title for any student who is more senior than you.
3 “Sifu” means master or teacher or father.

12 Comments on “Kung Fu, Part I: Neo, Aang, and You”

  1. “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.”

    Well said! I’m reminded of something a very wise friend once said to me: the holiest thing is not necessarily the hardest thing.

  2. Bill Burns says:

    I stopped practicing kung fu at the point where my school began stressing Taoist meditation practices (when preparing for 3rd dan or 3rd black going by the belt system they use). A lot of Chinese and Japanese martial arts can veer off into these spiritual practices, and I’m not so comfortable once the emphsis goes in that direction. When I practiced shotokan, such practices were minimal if not nonexistent. So it really depends on how your school trains and their emphasis. I did train in Krav Maga after that for a while—nothing overtly spiritual about that method.

  3. LaLaLand says:


    Dude. You just became about 10 trillion times *more* awesome. 😀

    And for the record, I’m 25 and it’s my favorite show. 🙂

  4. richard says:

    Live life to the fullest. Recognize and develop one’s perceived talents to the best of one’s ability.

  5. Ryan Gooseling says:

    Great post Joey,
    The Jansenist impulse substitutes guilt for love and that’s no good. Heck, I could guilt myself into watching some great piece of film that I hate and come out with nothing but a feeling of superiority, or I could watch the best kids show ever and be happy…
    Keep up the good work bro!

    1. John says:

      I would totally be a Jansenist but it seems like way too much fun.

  6. Ichen says:

    Thanks for the reminder. I’m reminded of what Melinda Selmys once wrote
    “the danger of being an intellectual: you forget how many problems can be solved by watching comedy, digging in the dirt, and having a beer”

    But the real question here is “Thoughts on Legend of Korra?” And how excited are you for Book 2??

  7. JBT says:

    Plus if you have a reasonable competency in the martial arts, then you immediately get the establishment of your “coolness credentials” out of the way, and young people who might otherwise be bored by talk of spiritual matters are much likelier to listen to you. And that’s not just a theoretical statement; I’ve actually had this exact experience many times – as well as being on the other side of the equation when I myself was a young people.

    Also, @ Bill Burns, your comment reminded of an article on Krav Maga that I read awhile back. It described the KM method of disarming a gunman as, “Push the gun out of the way and punch him in the *$?#ing face!” Hard to get more hardcore than that.

  8. Christina says:

    That is one of my favorite shows and I’m in my 30s and, although a nerd to some degree, not the kind who watches a lot of TV. One of my coworkers mentioned how he first saw Avatar while home sick, and when his wife came home made her watch it because he wanted to know if it was the illness/meds or if the show was just that good. She agreed, it is just that good.

    I take taekwon-do just for the joy of it (and exercise, self-defense (or more correctly, knowing to avoid situations) and the cool day dreams about being able to bend). I really like my school since it’s non-contact and instead challenges me to become better than I was last time. I really have no interest in doing competition fighting (in real life where hits really hurt).

  9. Alex says:

    Thanks for the post, I’m looking forward to part 2! And that’s totally true about the Pieta–I was rewatching those episodes recently and my jaw dropped; somehow I missed that the first time around! Now that one of the other commenters mentions it, I’ve heard some stuff about krav maga that’s got me very interested in that as well…so many martial arts options, so hard to choose.

  10. Chris says:

    Judo student here. 20 years in and I still get a thrill stepping on to the mat. It’s had a huge positive influence on my life. I met my husband through Judo (he has 30 years experience and is officially in the bad-ass category) and it’s our favorite activity to do together.

    Keep up the good work. It sounds like you’ve found a great group of friends to learn from.

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