Five Fingers of Death

On Revenge and the Martial Arts

by Martin Scott

Reprinted by permission from The Fourth Genre, Fall, 2003.


1969, when I was in sixth grade, my brother and I liked to play kung fu in our shared bedroom at the top of the house. This was because the first wave of Hong Kong martial arts movies to hit America was pouring over the airwaves in a blitz of commercials for Five Fingers of Death, an especially violent entry in the genre. We never saw anything but the trailer, but that was enough: Lo Leih catching a samurai sword thrust at his face between two palms before breaking it with his forearm (symbolizing the Chinese arts beating the Japanese arts). This was pretty compelling, as was the wild variety of techniques—tiger claw, sun fist, willow palm, shadowless kick. I couldn’t understand the social implications, but in some visceral way I knew there was an incredible beauty to the discipline that could move with such exactitude and cause so much damage. And what was amazing to us was that the striking hand was often not clenched into a fist, but open, and the fighters were leaping into the air, not rooted to the ground like boxers. As fairy-tale in plot and cheap in execution as those movies were, they still formed a part of how my child’s mind conceived things: the underdog, by force of will and mastery of technique, could defeat all odds.

Kung fu, I was to learn, is all about perfecting movements written on the wind, revising form through strict self-criticism, and conforming gestures to a Platonic Ideal. It is a kind of writing with the body, an obsessive formalism, and a childlike adoration of hidden power. There was something about this discipline I wanted as a boy and I never got. Soon after landing my first real full-time job, after enduring the elaborate hazing of graduate school and the extended intellectual paddling necessary to obtain a Ph.D., I signed up for my first real kung fu school, and began my journey through several styles. I needed another challenge as difficult as the one I’d just been through, but one that was purely physical. But I wasn’t just looking for health and fitness, though those things did come, and I wasn’t just looking for self-defense, though there was much practical knowledge in my classes. I was looking to be dangerous, which is something else; I wanted to exude a kind of feeling you don’t acquire any other way. I wanted to remake my personality, to learn real strength.

Of course, when we were kids, my brother and I imitated the fake flight from the earth accomplished on wires by the magical movie fighters. We jumped on my brother’s bed, and began leaping about, flailing at each other with our winter gloves on, as if that gave us a secret power. It didn’t. Before long, the mattress collapsed through the frame like a continent sinking through an ocean. In a flash our stepfather was in the room angry as Bruce Lee, and he punched my nine-year old brother in his stomach hard, so hard Jay couldn’t catch his breath for a few minutes or cry. And I was terrified. Dick (my stepfather’s actual name) promised that after a while I would get mine, but I never did, and that was worse. Wide-eyed, I waited that night, waited and waited.

That sense of paralysis in the face of overwhelming force, all the more ironic because of our game, still hovers like a smirk above my universe. In order to taunt me and embarrass my mother, Dick used to say I had a “shitty grin” and I guess I did, having learned it from his mockery. He pointed out that my chest was sunken, and said that I used to have the tattoo of an eagle on my chest until the eagle flew away and left his asshole behind. Like Job, I didn’t deserve what I was getting, but didn’t have the right to complain about it. I only had the right to break or not. I suppose this gave me a sense of shame to overcome, a wall to scale or die beneath.

The term “kung fu” itself means, “hard work, a lot of energy put into something.” A lot of things in life are kung fu—if you put a lot of energy into something, you should get something out of it: hard muscles, a keen eye, special skills, experience. The Chinese usually use the term “wushu” to refer to martial art, the skills and techniques specific to warfare in the ancient world, both empty-handed and with weapons. If you train hard under circumstances of simulated warfare, and under increasing difficulty and speed, eventually you will be able to meet any challenge—all things being equal. Of course, the Chinese also have a deep sense of tragedy—no matter how good you are, there is always someone better, someone nastier or someone willing to cheat so they can destroy the mastery you have achieved.

Eventually Dick grew tired of toying with us, and served our mother with divorce papers so he could move on to new pastures of abuse. One day after he’d moved out during the legal negotiations, he called the house and I answered. He said he was glad he got me. I didn’t hang up, as he was still an authority to me, an adult who was supposed to have some sense of moral virtue beyond my grasp. He said, “If I tell you something, can you remember it? I love you, can you remember that?” And then he hung up on me, and I’m not sure he ever bothered to speak to me again. I am sure I never told my mother about it. She had more than enough to worry about, and it made me feel guilty as if I had participated in some betrayal of my wounded family.

That was 1975, a long time ago. But I can tell you there is a part of me that still wants revenge. I was forced to see my brother brutalized more than once, and we were all treated to a kind of bitter demeaning surgery that no one should ever have to endure. I remember Dick pushing me down the stairs, and choking my mother near to death. I remember the humiliation of the dinner table when we couldn’t get away from him, and him kicking my brother across the yard when we hadn’t picked up all the Sisyphean sticks fallen in the heavily wooded yard. I remember hoping every night for him to leave for some committee meeting for SODAT (Services to Overcome Drug Abuse Among Teenagers)—he was quite the leader in community organizations. I remember the terrible twisted fact that Dick was by far the smartest person I knew. This brilliant madman made us absolutely wretched. Dick was seriously in need of help, but not entirely useless in my intellectual development—he taught me salvation doesn’t come from logic or reason, since they are devices that rest as easy in the hands of the Grand Inquisitioner as in the hands of Buddha. If your enemy out-argues you, outguns you, and fits you into a twisted meta-narrative of family life, then escape is through the irrational. He was the best argument for Postmodernism I’ve ever seen.

My place in the family fiction was that I was lazy and uncoordinated, two faults I actually do not possess. Vengefulness, however, might be one. There are times I think that if I ever ran into Dick on the streets (Camden or the Atlantic City board walk, where he’s been sighted by Mrs. Tapken, our old neighbor) I would kill him. This would be my way of ripping out of my shame-chrysalis. But as Francis Bacon says in his essay, “Of Revenge”:

That which is past is gone, and irrevocable; and wise men have enough to do with things present and to come; therefore they do but trifle with themselves, that labor in past matters . . . This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.

Despite the clarity of Bacon’s reasoning, I must admit to the pleasure in the thought of hunting down and killing Dick with an eagle claw technique I’ve learned from my latter day training in Chinese kung fu. Your two fingers and thumb grasp the throat, surround the windpipe, lock shut like a vise and crush the cartilage. It is easy to take pleasure in the thought of revenge, hence the great delight the public has in the thought of capital punishment. The reality is repulsive, and I’ve decided it’s best to steer away from confrontations that tempt the burden of memory. Like fantasies of wild, casual group sex, violent daydreams tend to work best when the faces of our victims are impersonal and blank, abstracted by the tarnish of years griming the memorial face. One thing I’ve learned from my study of martial arts is that hurting people is not very glamorous; it’s a dirty, personal science, as Dick, in his way, well knew. We want to use violence for “closure,” but there is no such thing as closure. Many wounds stay green forever—perhaps accepting grief as green keeps us from becoming monsters.

I remember my real father, the man I’m named after, teaching my brother and me how to punch. You have to curl the fingers tightly into the palm, then wrap the thumb down over the index and middle finger so you strike with the knuckles clear ahead of the other bones. If you let your thumb drift around to the top, you are sure to break it on impact, as Dad illustrated by hitting the drywall in slow motion and faking the agony of snapping the thumb. Every weekend he wasn’t too drunk to pick us up and take us to his house, we would watch TV, and our favorite was the cheesy Italian movie series centered on the “Sons of Hercules.” My little brother and I watched in awe of the musclemen and their murders. Our father would chime in over a Budweiser: “Those guys are fake—those big muscles don’t make you strong. That’s not how you do that.” He seemed to know, but it was hard for us to believe him, since we were watching TV, the voice of Authority, and were not clear about what our father did for a living. It turns out he was a union goon, and he knew his business. He was a “real tough guy, who punched like a mule kicked”—such a metaphor my brother once heard used about our father conceals the real terror he instilled in people. He was a demon. All we knew as children was he drove a black Corvette too fast over the hilly two-lanes, and sometimes seemed to have a lot of money, sometimes none.

My brother went to visit him again when he was nineteen, troubled, and in need of guidance. I think it was my mother who arranged the affair. My brother took his new pickup and his girlfriend, and ended up locking one inside the other while our drunken father raved about how ugly our mother was, and how he had no use for us. Staring madly into Jay’s pale eyes, our father reached for the lamp beside him, and crushed the bulb between two fingers. My brother did the only thing he could: struck at his father with everything he had in hopes he could escape the house. The old man brushed that punch aside, and cocked a punch. Jay isn’t sure what happened next—Charlotte, the thin “diabetic” wife, slipped in between the intention and the act, and Jay got to the truck. He left his father behind him, but not without incurring the guilt of Absolom, the son who lifted his fist against a father.

I was so timid in junior high school I was afraid to stand with the other kids at the bus stop, so Dick suggested I take karate classes to give me more confidence. But I was far too timid to consent. I mostly liked to sit in my room and read books my grandmother bought me on nature and rockets and World War II. I had friends, but I was not good at talking with people. I read H. P. Lovecraft and wrote horror stories in imitation of the Universal and Hammer epics I watched late on Saturday night, as if I could block out the familial lives spiraling down around me with their analogues in film. As Keats says, “The Fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do”—wherever you run in your mind, your imagination reminds you of exactly who and where you are. It’s like when the narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher” reads from the old romance to distract the madman from his obsession about his “dead” sister, and that arbitrarily chosen text mirrors what is happening in the basement (the escape of Madeleine from the vault). Everything we imagine takes us back to what we perceive and experience, and back to what we remember, as there is no getting away from who we are and what we feel. We are drawn to entertainments that return us to the conflicts we cannot resolve. It’s all about fighting and murder, spilling blood so you can survive. I was living a horror movie, so I watched horror movies and read horror tales. They made perfect sense to me.

A few times as an adult in authority, I’ve had to intimidate people. There was the stalker who came into my classroom. One of my students had approached me before class, nearly shaking, to tell me the father of her son had been causing trouble, and she might have to leave class early. After she took her seat, a well-groomed young man came in the room and walked up to her while she whipped out her cellular and mouthed, “I’m calling 911.” I caught her eye, she nodded vigorously at me, and I got up to tell the little guy in my most Professional Voice that he had to leave the classroom, which he did quietly and quickly. And there have been a few times in bars where I needed to make somebody go away—like the guy who wouldn’t stop bugging some mini-skirted friends of mine. I just asked him to go to the bar with me where I offered to buy him a beer.

“Okay, I’ll go away. I’m a nuisance. And I don’t want a beer.”

It was that easy. My friends seemed to think I was magic, but it wasn’t me at all. And I’ve seen friends do this much more directly. I remember a table in the Deadwood bar in Iowa City, and a little mute huckster who wandered in through the back door in an attempt to sell a few of us poets a broken watch. Cindy Nichols and I, between whom he stood, laughed at his antics despite their longevity, while Eric Pankey lost patience with the malevolent bore.

“Take the watch, turn around and get lost. Now.” He had to repeat this several times despite the threat in his voice derived, no doubt, from his study of Northern Shaolin kung fu.

I felt strangely unmanned by this, as if I should have been the one to scare off the annoying little fellow since I was closest to him and Eric would have had to go over the table, a theory confirmed later that night by my girlfriend of the time. The best way I can spin this is to say I have a different style in dealing with these problems, but I’m not sure that’s true.

When I was fifteen, I taped a cover I cut off the magazine Famous Monsters of Film Land to my bedroom door. It was cool, a large bloody-fanged still of Christopher Lee as Dracula from one of those Hammer Studios stylish masterpieces of the sixties. Dick promptly ripped it down. It was, after all, a metaphor for him, as he well knew. Consciously I thought I liked images of vampires and werewolves, the creatures who looked like men but who turned on you when you were most vulnerable and transformed you into nosferatu, monsters like them, heartless and self-involved, cold and powerful beyond reasonable means. Why did women succumb, why did no one in the village understand who the obvious villain was? Would the young hero himself become what he hates, a human lamprey sucking the life out of his loved ones? In art, revenge seems easier to accomplish, at least in terms of moral culpability, than in life. You just put a stake in somebody’s heart, and your problems are over.

People are always looking for the magic in martial arts—they want to know how to do those flying bicycle kicks they’ve seen in the movies or how to knock somebody down with a Mr. Spock Vulcan grip. There is always that nut in kung fu class who thinks he can defeat anybody because of his “iron arm,” or that guy who shows up once and then disappears because he realized that kung fu is a lot of work, not magical hand waving. If you’re not completely movie-deluded, you quickly pick up the idea that the magic is in the basics, the boring exercises, stretches and repetitions you do week after week until they become second nature. You never get over the magic because the magic is right here, right now, the strong foundation you build slowly, step by step over a long time. If you get the basics right, then the hard things are easy. Inside crescent kick, outside crescent kick, tornado kick, over and over again, like a complicated mantra for the entire body. You can’t be thinking about the past and doing kung fu at the same time. You have to be in the moment.

In college I hated gym even more than in high school, if that was possible. I’d taken the Intro to PE required course, and since I was attending an Evangelical Christian College, I had learned all about how the book of Leviticus prefigured modern day health standards. This proved God’s providence and the inspiration of the Pentateuch. I also took the jogging class, which was boring, and archery, at which I excelled in incompetence, sending arrows everywhere but the target. The wrestling coach taught the class and didn’t like bookworms like me, so I couldn’t do it right from the get-go.

The instructor also had a thing for Arthur Ashe, the tennis pro, so we learned all about how healthy he was from exercise and how whenever you worked out you should always move your limbs in the “full range of motion” to get the benefit, because Arthur Ashe said so. That semester in 1976, Arthur Ashe had a heart attack, so we were then advised how there must have been something wrong with his diet to cause this, as his Leviticus-inspired exercise program would have made him live forever. When I saw on TV a few years ago how Ashe was HIV-positive, I couldn’t help but think of my old Christian PE teacher at Wheaton College, how disappointed he must be in his hero and exemplum.

Then I took three quarters of Japanese Shotokan karate for physical education credit, and finally discovered something sporty I could really love. It was as if I’d found the physical thing I was supposed to do. I must have been pretty good at it, because they elected me vice-president of the Karate Club at the end of the year. The idea of punching and kicking imaginary opponents made a lot of sense to me, as did the art involved in practicing certain movements with application outside the gym. We worked a lot of drills: front kick, side kick, roundhouse kick, reverse punch, forward punch, and there was even a makiwara board (for toughening the knuckles). Our practice room was walled with mirrors, which was great, because you could watch yourself move and try to perfect the delivery of your techniques. We also did kata and sparred a little, under strict control. But we did nothing with open palm formations: no tiger claw, crane’s beak, or snake fist, the fascinating Chinese strikes I remembered from watching Five Fingers of Death.

My brother learned the arts of fighting on the street. For years, his knuckles were white horn calluses and his jabs faster than tiger paws. He was big and frightening. It’s not surprising that, after training as a bartender, he was turned into a bouncer at bars and strip clubs. The underground embraced him for a while, as it will do, until its use for him ran out, then it spat him across the country. He’s still fast with his hands—when we pretend to spar, and I throw fast kicks and punches his way, he slaps them aside.

“I’ve still got it,” he laughs. “From all those years in the business, I’ve still got it.”

I remember seeing footage of a Tiger style instructor talking about the time he was attacked by a mugger on the street after leaving a Chinese restaurant. By the time the martial artist’s friend had pulled him off the unlucky assailant (here’s a hint: never attack somebody coming out of a Chinese restaurant), he had already crushed the mugger’s throat and stuck a couple of chopsticks in his eyes. Of course, the guy was asking for it: if you attack people, especially people you don’t know, they might attack you back with more ferocity than you can imagine. And you made it morally OK for them to do so; they were defending themselves. But intense training can take you places you may not want to go. I remember a few Shorin-Ryu black belts laughing about a colleague of theirs who had to take a month off from karate class because every time he entered a public place, he instinctively imagined how he could kill everyone in the room as quickly as possible. And I’ve had moments during times of intense training when my thoughts revolved around technique so much—sweeping the legs out from under passersby if they jumped me, elbow strikes and choke holds on random shoppers entering a convenience store after me—that I wondered if there wasn’t something wrong.

“Maybe what you think is aggression is really confidence,” an Aikido master told me one night at a dinner party when I shared my fears with him. I believed him until his wife told the story of aiming her prize .44 Special Bullpup at the windshield of a car she thought was following her home.

For a year I learned Hung-Gar forms off videos I bought through the mail—Lau Gar, Heart Penetrating Palm—and other styles I learned out of books—Southern Shaolin, Wing Chun, Lohan. Once I finally obtained a teaching schedule that left my nights free, I found a traditional school for Kung Fu—Classical Chinese Martial Arts Academy. The sifu had studied with Grandmaster Madam Wang Ju-Rong, the daughter of the best friend of Sun Lu Tang, and that was as authentic as you get—Long Fist as synthesized at the Nanking school, Tan Tui, Hu Herr (Southern tiger-crane style), Sun Tai chi, and Hsing-I.

Sifu Butler was a very good teacher and you could tell this because his top students were awesome. There was Harry, who was Number One out of thirty or so: a Houston Police Officer, he loved his guns and knives and would bring his favorite Glöck to class in a special fanny pack, following department policy, and show it to us during break if we asked him. He would explain why the Glöck .40 was the best handgun in the world, and tell us about the time he had to shoot somebody in a firefight. He said it all seemed like slow motion, just like in the movies, and he seemed to relish the memory. He was very good at kung fu, and had a ferocious focus, as if he had nothing else in his life of importance, and he probably didn’t. And there was Andy, who was Number Two: he wanted to fight, and had a kind of inborn talent for the art. Harry looked better at everything he did, but Andy was the scary one: he knew what did and didn’t work in a street fight from hard experience. Then there was me: I was Number Three, at least twelve years older than everybody else and anxious to do well at something complicated and dangerous. I had almost never been in a fight my whole life, except with my brother when we were little. But I worked really hard at what I was learning: sparring exercises, anatomical toughening, complicated forms and their applications. We took what we were doing way too seriously, but that’s how you do it if you want to learn.

I remember practicing spin kicks (and landing on my ass a few times) and takedown techniques (called “Shuai-Jiao”). And the drills, the drills, the drills: crescent kick, slap the hand, step into horse stance with a punch. Block with the right hand; kick his knee with my right foot, phoenix-eye fist to his temple with my left. “Sho ying sha fa bu!” the Sifu would yell. “Use your full body motion when you strike!” I suppose this is the kung fu version of Arthur Ashe’s “full range of motion,” the adage my college PE instructor was so obsessed with. “Sho ying sha fa bu” is not easy to do. You have to watch yourself in the mirrors as you acquire new movements so you can submit your body to the form, and then eventually make that movement yours. Sheer repetition makes odd and sometimes bizarre techniques second nature. Often based on the movements and personalities of animals, such as the tiger (strong and aggressive), the snake (soft and sneaky) or the eagle (bold and grabby), the forms fit the novice like new shoes, awkward and uncomfortable. But after years of practice, the masters gain a buttery-like smoothness to all their routines and movements, both beautiful and terrifying to watch.

The main thing that distinguishes Asian martial arts from Western boxing, besides the use of kicks, is the devotion to prearranged forms of movement, called kata in Japanese and tou-lu in Chinese. These forms are an important part of traditional practice, and are often elaborate and exhausting to perform. In the hands of the inexperienced, such energy can seem stiff and useless for fighting, a kind of ancient academic exercise that relates to nothing on the street. But in the hands of a master, the forms are water in water, smooth flowing patterns of attack and defense that, when perfected, don’t even seem like martial arts. The applications are seldom obvious. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “Wow!” when some subtle movement was explained to me, while my eyes darted across a world that had suddenly shifted just a little bit. Just when you thought you were getting to know the blueprint, you find out there’s a whole other vista in the room.

These traditional forms in martial arts are rather like traditional forms in poetry (sonnets, blank verse, etc.): they aren’t meant to be done “perfectly,” whatever that means, but rather are meant to be adapted to your body and personality so that they fit snug, but not too tight. You have to find the style and method that works with you. This usually takes place after imitating a master until you find a way to make what you are doing yours. One uses a sonnet or the Tiger-Crane form to do something you need done, to communicate through words or fist.

But why put so much work into this? One day a particularly ugly white trash kid was hanging around the convenience store next to the school, riding his undersize bike back and forth, spewing forth racist remarks while flirting with a thirteen year-old girl who giggled back at him. While we walked past to buy some Gatorade for the second half of class, the sifu sneered and said, “This is why we study, so we can beat the shit out of guys like that.” Which is not entirely a bad reason, if you stop and think about it. If the righteous don’t stand up to evil views, then evil views will prevail. The only problem is that the line between righteousness and evil is notoriously slippery. My sifu went on to say, “If one of my daughters ever dated a boy like that, I’d strip her naked in the basement, whip her good and not let her out of the house for a year.” The quest to root out evil always ends badly. The school started to fall apart when the sifu’s marriage was also falling apart and he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to run away with his estranged wife or his girlfriend to Mexico. He stopped coming to class, and then so did we.

For a couple of years I wandered around to different schools, and started a couple of different styles: Choy Lay Fut and Southern Praying Mantis. Henry Poo Yee, the Mantis Sifu, was an eccentric old Chinese guy who chain smoked during class and, as is the kung fu tradition, sat in a chair the whole time watching us perform our forms. He had pictures all over the walls of the school of his famous friends, and he would stop class to talk about them and how good at kung fu they said he was (he really was; he wasn’t lying). Occasionally he would get up and correct one of us, and we’d all gather around and absorb whatever nuggets of wisdom he was allowing us to hear. We’d listen wide-eyed at every offhand remark he made, because that was the only deep instruction he gave. You either were smart enough to pay attention, or you weren’t.

Then in September 1997, I found a new school while driving my friend to a body shop off I-59 in Houston. Upstairs was a Wing Chun school in the lineage of William Cheung—I already knew his books and had tried to learn a few things from them. The instructor was an incredibly good fighter who was world champion in his weight class for Chinese San Shou Kickboxing, which he also taught. I was forty years old and I needed something to remind me I was not ancient yet. I had started looking for—and finding—gray hairs in the mirror.

Traditional Wing Chun kung fu is a very subtle system of close-quarters combat, where the slightest movements of the stance and limbs can have very powerful effects. You get inside and stick to your opponent so he can’t get away from you, and use his energy against him so you can open up an avenue of attack. When you learn a system of martial arts like this, you realize it has a life of its own, a kind of hypostasis: some styles are a lot smarter and cleaner than others, some more daring and aggressive, some more beautiful and flowery. As Sifu said, Wing Chun is off of Mars: it teaches you that the opposite of everything you think would work does. The blocks and strikes are almost feminine (according to legend, the style was synthesized by a woman out of white crane and snake kung fu styles), but they can knock down the largest attacker. You have to relax and flow to let the style do the work it was designed to do. It’s like golf: if you put muscle into it, you mess up the shot.

This was a sweet time in my single life: I was lonely but I had a lot of time to do what I wanted, which was fight and drink a lot. Fortunately, the two never went together: for all my presence in bars, I never got close to really fighting anyone. If you’re not looking for trouble, it generally doesn’t find you. I was mainly looking for cocktail waitresses to flirt with, and hanging out with my boss so we could trade stories about the women who were not part of our lives.

So I have never gotten anything remotely like revenge out of my study of martial arts, despite my pent-up anger and the loud model of every kung fu movie ever made. You know the formula plot: a young student endures the brutal murder of his friend/lover/relative/teacher, and so must study harder to learn the techniques needed to destroy the evil villain before he is himself destroyed. This is clearly a metaphor for survival in life, and best not taken literally. Revenge is a tricky thing: once you get it, you've tipped the karma over against yourself. And to kill your antagonist is to take away your pleasure in contemplating his painful destruction. As Montaigne says in “On Revenge,”

Every man clearly feels that there is more defiance and disdain in beating his enemy than in finishing him off, and in making him lick the dust than in making him die. Moreover, the appetite for vengeance is thereby better assuaged and contented, for it aims only at making itself felt. That is why we do not attack an animal or stone when they hurt us, because they are incapable of feeling our revenge. And to kill a man is to put him in shelter from our harm.

Of course, Montaigne ignores the fact that in the moment of finishing off the enemy, we triumph completely and finally with no possibility of reversal of fortune (us licking the dust). One must also imagine that our opponent, so defeated, is aware of his fall for a very long eternal moment, a suspended moment before death, in which he must experience a humiliation both deep and eradicating, a feeling he must carry with him to the afterlife, should one exist. Indeed, revenge is all about this moment, as Poe has Montresor say in “The Cask of Amontillado”: “I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” Montresor makes sure that Fortunato both dies and feels his revenge. And further, contra Montaigne, people do, in fact, kick dogs and stones after bites or trips, and seem compelled to do so generation after generation.

Just so, when I was at my most dangerous at the height of my training I sometimes fantasized about going to hunt for my fathers and finding vengeance for the past—kicking that rock hard. But then, all I would have done is put them out of their misery, or scare them in some unsatisfactory way. Or been beaten up myself. And beyond that, there’s no such thing as “getting even” because feelings are not spreadsheets. To think you’re in the red or black is to miss the point of emotion’s ambiguity. But to think of that moment, with someone’s life in your hands, a moment in which your victim is completely aware of his helplessness, in which he is nothing but dependent on your mercy, is very tempting. This has nothing to do with justice, but rather with power. On the side of civilization, however, the more you devote yourself to martial arts, the more you do the ancient tou-lu, and the more techniques you learn, the less you want to use them because you know what you’re capable of. The forms erase your need to use them.

Almost twenty-five years after my first karate class, I joined yet another dojo, this time in the small Illinois college town where I now live and work. Sad to say, I am more than a bit pudgy, and I really need the workout. Any exercise would do, even walking the hills and ravines surrounding Eastern Illinois University as my hiking wife prefers, but the only thing that rouses me is the study of combat. The style is Kempo Jujutsu, a mixture of Okinawan karate and Japanese grappling arts, in some ways very different from the other systems I’ve studied. The sensei, Mitch Sarin, a pleasant, shaved-headed man who can’t resist a bad pun, listens to Rush Limbaugh before class when not discussing some experience from his many lives as cook, radio talk show host, bouncer or Airborne sergeant. And he knows his business: he’s built like a rock and I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of his punch. Traditional Okinawan kata are, of course, a part of the syllabus, and I enjoy them as much as the drills or practical techniques and escapes. Shortly after getting my yellow belt, Sensei taught me the second kata in the system, Pinan Nidan, and I learned it almost instantly, almost like a marble rolling down a well-worn groove.

“Have you learned this kata before?” Sensei had an almost amused look on his face.

“No—it just seems easier than Pinan Shodan. And I’ve seen the yellow belts doing it for a month.”

“But you studied shotokan—this is the first kata in that style. You forgot you know it.”

And he was right. The shotokan version varies in details, but it’s definitely the same kata. My muscles remembered what my brain did not—my form was bad only in the points of variance between shotokan and kempo. Pinan Nidan had been inside me for twenty-five years, waiting for an opportunity to show itself like an angel possessing my body. I take part in this terrifying beauty, an ancient choreography based on street brawls and philosophy.

In contrast to kata, vengeance is a ghostly abstraction. But the question remains: why would someone like me, educated and middle class, as well as middle aged, be so interested in the arts of fighting? I’m not sure I know, beyond the obvious and clichéd sense of “empowerment” latent in knowing how to defend yourself. I suspect there is something primal in the genes that tempts me to combat, as most of the males in my family were quite violent in their lives and professions, or perhaps there is some anger that needs expressing, as in the stepfather I never got to fight. But there is also an aesthetic issue, because there can be a great beauty to violence, a true meeting of terror and grace. The classic definition of the sublime is a meeting of terror and beauty in one moment, and if that is so, then I know I have seen the sublime in sparring with a few masters. And then there is justice: when I was younger I believed in pacifism, until it occurred to me that such a philosophy meant the morally low would win in every case. They’d just kill the good guys, because they have nothing moral in them to stop that action, and the good guys had nothing aggressive in them to stop it, either. So if you have to fight, it is best to be able to fight hard. Plato in The Laws allowed only the study of practical, truly martial arts for physical education:

To come to wrestling, the devices introduced into their systems by Antaeus or Cercyon—or again into boxing by Epeus or Amycus—from mere idle vainglory, are useless in encounters in the field and unworthy of celebration. But anything which comes under ‘stand-up wrestling,’ exercises in the disengaging of neck, arms, and ribs which can be practiced with spirit and gallant bearing to the benefit of strength and health, is serviceable for all occasions and may not be neglected.

Of course, it’s ridiculous for intellectuals like Plato to pass judgement on what is a good martial art, and what is not. I doubt very much that he had a grip on what was “useless in the field” and what was not, but his point is well taken: if you’re going to study martial art, make it something that could really hurt people, not just something that looks good. If you’re going to study fighting—or any art, I would argue—it’s better to be dangerous than pretty.

The central problem of martial art is the central problem of everything else: form. Once I know what I have to do, how do I do it most efficiently? How do I put down whatever’s bothering me? If, as the Heart Sutra has it, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” this doesn’t mean that form isn’t important; it means that form has no identity outside of the moment. We give what we are doing (fighting, loving, writing, etc.) our form as we are doing it, and then the form is gone. It is here and now or nowhere. I once asked a gunsmith what the best gun for self-defense is, and he said, “The best gun for somebody to have in any situation is the gun they actually have.” If somebody’s shooting at you, the AK-47 you wish you had isn’t as good as the .22 you do have. You take the path of action that appears, since everything else is theory and smoke. The center of the fire is where you want to get, if you can.


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