When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.
I came across this Zen story on the internet years ago it has stayed with me ever since. During my journey through the martial arts I have kept coming back to this story in my mind. This was mainly because the amount of ceremony that some martial arts have for little or no practical reason. Take for example bowing in to class. This should be a fairly simple action. Depending on who you are and what style you do you may bow in different ways, for some styles a short bow while entering is enough while other styles require students to kneel before they bow and they may have guidelines for when to place the hands etc. All of these are fine and essentially serve the same purpose of indicating the beginning of class or that you have entered a training hall.
But when there is too much empty ceremony applied to it that I believe it becomes a problem. There is a tendency for some teachers, especially in the ‘softer’ styles to present their art as mystical and something that is based more on faith than on physical evidence. They are then open to develop whatever routines that they want under the guise of spiritual training. Their motive for this and the type of students that they attract is a huge topic and worthy of another article all of its own.
It is not just the softer arts that suffer from this over ritualization and dogma. Take part in a hard style class and watch how they are almost fanatical about punching or kicking in a certain way for no more reason than that’s what their style did traditionally.
In my opinion as people who study martial arts we need to be constantly evaluating what we are doing and should never be afraid of asking or in fact being asked ‘why?’ if someone is telling you that the way that you hold your fist is wrong, or that you have to bow a certain number of degrees they should also be able to explain the reason behind such practices.
That is not to say that we should become the students that is always challenging the teacher and trying to catch them out, at some point we should have enough experience to be to notice the advantages and disadvantages of different techniques and make our own judgement accordingly.
Also it doesn’t mean that we should leave perfectly good schools just because students are required to bow at the beginning of a class.
It simply means that we should approach everything with a critical mind and look for the reasons in everything that we do. Through knowing this reasoning we can apply the appropriate amount of effort and attention and get the most out of our training sessions