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Monday 13 April 2009

Sensei Farted

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Sensei Farted

All the students were excited about the new technique application they were about to be shown. Few were as enthusiastic about the new move as young Eimaj, a green belt known for his boundless energy and his curiosity. His usual affable nature was further heightened when sensei turned to him and said “Eimaj, you will be my uke”. Eimaj jumped up from the seiza position and walked towards sensei. Sensei smiled and began to explain the technique to the rest of the class as he put Eimaj into position. Eimaj was instructed to put sensei in a bear-hug. Sensei would then respond with a gakune pressure point attack to Eimaj’s hand and set him up for the sankyu arm lock. Eimaj went for the bear-hug and clamped it on hard. He thought he heard a gasp from sensei, the sort of noise someone would make if surprised. This was not possible, he thought, sensei was always ready. Sensei was probably putting breathing into his technique, centring himself, using ki or something else that Eimaj had never been able to grasp in his own training. Then suddenly Eimaj smelt something. It was a distinctive boggy odour that had sharply gone straight up his nose. He didn’t have long to think about it. Within a split second he felt the sharp pain in his wrist and then all of a sudden his elbow was being twisted towards the ceiling. He tapped quickly and sensei let go. There were many times that sensei wouldn’t let go and would just give the hold a bit of slack while cracking jokes to the rest of the class before putting it on a few times. Often he would use it to drive Eimaj or whichever other hapless uke he was being tortured either into the mat or into an ukemi (fall). This time, however, there was no showboating. Sensei just released Eimaj and moved the class over to another part of the dojo to further discuss the technique. The only thing going through Eimaj’s mind this time, however, was not the pain in his wrist or elbow, just an undeniable fact he had just experienced: sensei had just farted!

After the lesson Eimaj joined the rest of the club down the local pub for a drink. It was a regular ritual and despite not being a drinker Eimaj would sit with his classmates and engage in some lively discussions. Curiously the discussion rarely centred on martial arts. This was something Eimaj had difficulty understanding. The worst subject he could raise was whether or not a certain technique would work in a real-life situation or to discuss self defence in general. Tonight Eimaj began this line of discussion again. It just seemed like the natural thing to do. After all the techniques were done hypothetically or theoretically surely this meant that they were ripe for testing in some way. The conversation was struck did a few seconds. Sensei furrowed his brow at Eimaj, the way he often did when the young green belt started talking about real fighting. It wasn’t an angry look, more a look of barely veiled condescension. He smiled at Eimaj like an adult might do to a toddler. Sensei was in his 40s, Eimaj was in his early 20s, but at this particular moment Eimaj felt like he was looking up to a wizened old mystic with limitless knowledge and experience. If sensei had a long wispy beard he would be stroking it now, thought Eimaj. Ignoring the questions Eimaj was asking, Sensei asked, “What do you want from the training?” Eimaj wanted to say to be a better fighter or to at least know how to protect myself properly, but knowing the general feeling among his colleagues he mumbled something that sounded vaguely spiritual.

A student who had recently been graded above Eimaj took advantage of the awkward pause that followed this unconvincing reply and made his own unsolicited response: “I don’t train in martial arts to be a better fighter; I train to be a better person”. It sounded so profound and Eimaj was humbled by such responses. Eimaj often felt that mentioning real world violence or discussing the practicality of the martial art was the conversational equivalent to what sensei had done before the sankyu technique. Eimaj really felt like he was missing something that his older and clearly wiser companions understood. And yet it all seemed so contradictory. Sensei would often explain the application of a technique and even adjust it for a “real life situation”, but he wasn’t willing to discuss it much further than that. Then after class everyone seemed to be more into beer than discussing martial arts.

Years later and Eimaj found himself with many senseis that farted. They didn’t seem to try to cover it up and some were even quite sadistic with it. They were quite different to Eimaj’s previous sensei in many ways. Low on ritual Eimaj noticed that these senseis invited debate so long as the students were willing to test their argument. He also noticed that they loved martial arts. When lessons were over they could be seen regularly grappling on the mats with each other and other students. Eimaj had seen his previous sensei spar, but it was just so different from these instructors. These instructors encouraged their students to try to beat them and the more inexperienced the student was the more chances they gave them. Eimaj’s previous sensei also always won, but sparring was more one-sided. You started the bout mentally accepting that sensei would win as you had already seen him easily beat the other students. You did this almost in the same way as you allowed sensei to put painful holds on you and then joke about it as you permitted him to keep hurting you in front of everyone.

After sensei farted Eimaj went through several phases. It didn’t take him long to start to dismiss the incident. This was common with Eimaj, he understood denial all too well. Perhaps it was another student, perhaps he had done it. However, in his heart of hearts he knew that it had been sensei, and this made Eimaj think of many other times he had questioned his sensei’s infallibility. Sensei always seemed to say the right thing. He always had the right answer and, crucially, he knew how to make you feel bad for asking the question. This was not something just embodied by Sensei. Under him the descending ranks were not to be questioned and always seemed to be right. This was the hierarchy of the dojo; it was a type of feudal table, where everyone knew their place. However, you could aspire to be a higher grade and over time you would attain these grades, but as you attained these grades you became more agreeable with the other belts. You all learnt how to tow the line together.

Within a few months of leaving his dojo Eimaj’s whole outlook on training changed. Some of his new classes still had a hierarchy, but this was more like a race. There were never moments in Eimaj’s training, where he felt he could have beaten someone or that he had given up because he felt that was the right thing to do. All his victories were hard earned and all his defeats were truly undeniable. Grades were generally very transparent, but there were times when lower grades did overtake the senior grades and the senior grades had a job to catch up again. There were social events, but much of the students’ spare time with the club was spent enthusiastically trying to improve each other’s training. When Eimaj left the mats he knew those who were staying on after him would be those who beat him or would be beating him soon. As Eimaj climbed the grading ladder he became very aware of his own mortality. He couldn’t just rest on his laurels with a lower grade. In fact, he knew a lower grade was often hungry to prove his ability.

Outside of class Eimaj often thought of his old school. He knew he could probably beat all the students he used to train with and was tempted to return just to knock that smug grin off all the higher grades’ faces. This idea passed though. After some time Eimaj met many people from different martial arts and soon started to understand the type of subculture they wanted. He found students who were scared to leave their schools and others who once they had broken away sought out similar schools. Eimaj could still never really understand why someone would want to study a martial art for any initial reason other than for self defence or as a sport. Surely, he thought, there are enough other forms of exercise, schools of philosophy and religion that would better cater for every individual’s non-combative needs. As Eimaj looked back through history he started to discover that most martial arts were originally created as a means of combat. That was their original purpose. Suppression through politics, religion, occupation by another country and a need to recruit larger numbers of students had been some of the reasons why the arts had altered their combative objective. There were other reasons too. Over time old warriors become sick of violence. They loved practicing their arts, but the limitations of violence were restricting them. So, they used martial arts as a channel for expressing themselves. This approach quickly replaced the old combative side and soon a generation of students emerged that had never experienced any form of combat.

This last point reminded Eimaj of the sage words his old sensei had said to him, “You cannot stay in the forge forever”. It sounded very profound at the time and seeing what history had done to these warriors and how they had mellowed over time he could appreciate it. However, Eimaj couldn’t help thinking, “Yes, but you have to get into the forge first!”

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