fear and pain in the dojo, and out of it

Posted on: Fri, 02/10/2012 - 17:36 By: Tom Swiss

One of the most memorable scenes in The Karate Kid (the original, not the Jackie Chan remake) was when Daniel and Mr. Miyagi visit the Cobra-Kai dojo. John Kreese, the nasty Cobra-Kai sensei, yells to his students, "Fear does not exist in this dojo, does it?"

"No, sensei!" they reply.

"Pain does not exist in this dojo, does it?"

"No, sensei!"

"Defeat does not exist in this dojo, does it?"

"No, sensei!"

Putting the idea of "defeat" aside for the moment, I guarantee you that fear and pain exist in my dojo! They exist in any dojo where I've ever trained, because I carry them in with me.

I'm neither brave nor invulnerable. But the objective of budo training is not to eliminate fear and pain, but to be able to go on in spite of them.

One of the things that's always attracted me about Zen (including its manifestation in the martial arts) is its emphasis on humanness. Zen "masters" are not perfect beings who never know pain or fear or other "negative" emotions. They are supremely human beings who are comfortable with their human failings, while still not letting them get in the way of doing what is needful.

For example Ikkyu, my favorite Zen lunatic, wrote "I like my anger my grouchy furious love". He didn't let his anger ruin him, nor did he deny it; he acknowledged it, experienced it fully, and even saw it in a positive light.

Can we do the same with pain and fear?

When I'm in the dojo, people who are strong enough to shatter wood and concrete with their hands and feet try to punch and kick me. Fear? Hell yes. Pain? Affirmative. But I've learned to keep going.

Outside the dojo, there are dozens of things to fear: financial ruin, social ridicule, death, dark rooms, closed-in places, nuclear annihilation, the Sun going nova and swallowing the Earth -- my fears are numerous and diverse. And there are dozens, probably hundreds, of sources of pain: thwarted desires, jealousy, abandonment by those I love, the inevitable physical pain.

I'm going to feel those fears and those pains. I'm going to scream when it hurts, and quake when I'm afraid. But I hope that when it comes time to decide, I will have learned that pain and fear are not reasons to quit. Maybe they're even reasons to feel more alive.

And what about defeat? Tadashi Nakamura, founder and chairman of the World Seido Karate Organization (the style in which I train), wrote that "...[N]o matter what problem or dilemma you may face, each day the sun rises anew and the universe is before you. Nothing is so terrible that it affects the basic reality of existence. As long as you are here and the sky and the sun are before you, you are never defeated."

So pain and fear? Definitely exist, in the dojo and out of it. Defeat? If you're still here to ask the question, then no, defeat does not exist for you. (Nor, it should be said, does death imply defeat...but that's another topic.)