Just in the final stages of the book I’m writing on Kung Fu Saber. I had an insight about why I’m fascinated by weapon’s work. Below is a rounding out of some of these thoughts.
I’ve mentioned a few times that I have a slightly different idea about the relation of weapons play to martial arts and, even, human life. Usually I focus on the cliché that any weapon is “an extension of our body.” Of course there’s truth here but it’s not exactly a revealed secret.
However, looking at weapons training in a different way we can actually gain some insight by saying “the human body can be an extension of the weapon.” We all do it. Think of the spear, for example, as a ten foot extension of our fingernail. But we forget that if we want to really master the spear we will have to make our bodies fit into the spear’s nature, not the other way around. The arms do not move too much. The hands must work in accord. Most importantly, we must do incredibly small movements to get the correct big effects. If we work too big, the spear will leave our service and may even turn against us.
Think of Bushido, the cult of the sword, as being at least one example of human life molding itself to a weapon. This is because, in part, the social world was built on the ability to defend one’s group or nation. This washed down until those who wielded the weapons were themselves the extension of the daimyo’s intentions. In that moment the Ronin became the intermediary between the lord and the sword.
We all do it, we think of using the weapon in a certain way. I am barehanded then I pick up a stick and the stick makes me a superior threat. But if you have ever had the experience of picking up a weapon to fight someone who is much better than you, you realize that you might have been better off with no weapon. It’s still true that the weapon is an extension of the man, but now it might mean him instead of you.
It’s a little like what we say about those wonderful but dangerous and annoyingly unpredictable “soft” weapons, such as the triple stick, the Yin Yang flail, the single and double steel whips. Right after almost being knocked out by a fugitive section of the three-sectional staff you begin to think that these weapons might be extensions of your enemy, not you, for all the good it does you.
For a very different take on this I sometimes tell my students about a new and different way to look at things. Let’s not even concern ourselves with who is an extension of whom. Rather, let’s concern ourselves with the realm of the extension itself. Of course if, for instance, we have a saber in hand we naturally assume the extension to be in the front, toward the opponent. This is the body forward.
But what if we default to one of our basic concepts and measure from the Dan Tian. As much as we expand to the front we also expand to the rear, and even above and below. Remember how many times we hold the saber parallel to the ground and behind us? It’s actually very common. Why? Is someone sneaking up from the rear? In the case of the saber, it’s almost obvious that when it tangles with its sworn enemy, one of its key tasks is pulling that spearhead to the rear so it is in the soldier’s PAST while he attacks. The spear has a similar feeling when you use the butt suddenly, or employ the middle section to block. The entire arc of the straight sword is part of the attack, even if no one actually sees you using this mental image.
It all starts in the mind. I remember doing standing practice, the whole group in a Horse, arms to the front, everyone relaxing supposedly and concentrating. Adam Hsu walked out behind us and, in the most off-handed way—almost mumbling to himself—said, “You all think your are embracing the world. What about the world BEHIND you?” Then he walked away, giving one of his special hand waves that meant something like ‘go and think about this.’ And I did.