Why martial arts study is like scaling a magic mountain

posted in: Books, Self development | 6

Once there was a swordsman who thought to himself […] I’ve been deeply resolved in this Way and have practiced for many years. Still, I have not yet learned its deepest secrets or got to the heart of it. I should go into the mountains, meet with the demons, and carry on the highest laws of the Way.

Issai Chozanshi 

There’s something about mountains (and mountain metaphors) that fascinates martial artists. We’re enchanted by the myths and legends associated with the Wudang Mountains 武當山, or the Japanese Yamabushi 山伏 (literally one who prostrates himself on the mountain).

We use mountain similes in training – be stable like a mountain! – or enjoy more complex, extended metaphors such as this: Practice is like climbing a glass mountain covered with oil. 

Why is this such a powerful image . . . ?

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立石光正 (Kōshō Tateishi). By Kenzyo Tangyama via Wikimedia Commons. Kōshō Tateishi is a modern-day yamabushi and environmental activist living in the Kumano mountains.

Mount Analogue (Le Mont Analogue in French) by René Daumal is a strange and amazing little book. It’s not about martial arts at all – and yet through analogy it seems to say so much about our martial arts journey, that direct words can’t express.

It’s an allegorical tale about a group of friends who set out to find and ascend the mysterious Mount Analogue – an immense hidden mountain which connects Earth to Heaven.

Here are eight themes from the book which may shed new light on our study, through comparing it to this magical mountain.

Point number nine is not from the book – it’s a wise Karate sensei’s unusual slant (and warning) on the popular martial arts saying: Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon. (In other words, that all the martial arts can lead to the same point eventually).

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1. Mount Analogue is the bond between earth and sky


Mount Analogue is not like any mountain we know of – because it belongs to both heaven and earth at the same time.

Mount Everest and other “real” mountains belong to the earth; their summits have been reached by many people. The peak of Mount Analogue however, is completely invisible and unknown to any human being. This is what gives it its mystical allure.

At the same time, Mount Analogue isn’t just a myth or fantasy. It has to be real, so that we can access its base – and so that it can be our link between Heaven and Earth. Daumal writes: The door to the invisible must be visible.

How does this relate to martial arts training? Some people argue that the only way to access the spiritual realm is through our own body, as this is the only way we can experience anything. Gavin Flood argues that religions are the art of accessing the divine through the body, but you could more or less replace “religion” with “martial arts training” here:

Religions are concerned with the body as the locus of encounter with mystery, the invisible, or transcendence, through well-winnowed practices of prayer, fasting, breathing, meditation, and silence.

So we can think of the earthly base of Mount Analogue as our physical body – a real-life entry point to access the invisible heights apparently out of our reach.

2. Mount Analogue is invisible to most people, and can only be discovered by those who actively seek it

Mount Analogue is hidden from normal human view by a strange curvature of space, so that everything takes place [around it] as if Mount Analogue did not exist. Sailors in the area will just see an unbroken sea.

At a certain moment and in a certain place, certain persons (those who know how and wish to do so) can enter. But it costs the group much effort and hardship to find the hidden entry point.

Similarly, the mountain holds a rare and priceless jewel called a peradam. Peradams are so perfectly transparent that they normally can’t be seen by the human eye. Like the mountain itself, they can be found – but only by those who actively look for them.

Of the people who are fortunate enough to see the mountainside, most will never see the jewels lying upon it.

You may recognise this analogy as a martial arts practitioner. On the surface, anyone and everyone can enjoy the martial arts. They are displayed for our wonder and entertainment in movies, computer games, at the Olympics and so on. The training can also be experienced to a lighter or heavier degree at classes in most towns.

But different people will see different things when they look. There’s a different type of understanding that comes from actual, committed physical experience. Like the peradam, this may only dwell in the heart of the one who actively seeks it . . .

3. Mount Analogue can’t be found alone – you need the support of a group

In Mount Analogue, the narrator is guided by the wise Father Sogol who says: A man cannot reach truth directly nor all by himself.

As we saw above, the base of the mountain has to be accessible to humans. We also need support from those who have already found the base and started to climb. Father Sogol explains:

Its lower slopes must already be inhabited by human beings similar to us, for it is the path which links our present human domain to higher spheres.

Mme. Hyette Lannes commented in relation to this book that:

One of the most important “conditional principles” of this Way is the close binding together of those who wish to attempt the venture to the inner world, for “no man can work alone”.

Jackie Bradbury relates this principle to martial arts training:

Solo training is NOT the way to train as the primary way to learn martial arts.

[…] The big tragedy to solo training, is not the fact that you can’t be as good as live trained people, all things being equal.

A very real, but usually underappreciated, consequence is the loneliness and the lack of community that solo training brings.

[…] A few other benefits of training with other people is that you get to explore ideas you can’t figure out by yourself, you get to get exposed to viewpoints that are different than yours, and you get your assumptions challenged. It not only makes you grow as an individual martial artist, you also get that warm sense of community that such interactions bring.

4. You also need a guide to ascend the mountain

Mme. Lannes wrote, again in relation to this book:

Before making any real start, however, preparation is necessary, a preparation often given by those who have already understood enough of the basic ideas, and who have been deeply touched by them.

This could be taken as a definition of the word Sensei, which literally means: one who has gone ahead.

We may also need different guides at different times. Father Sogol is learned enough to pull the group together, calculate where the entry point to Mount Analogue lies, and lead the expedition to the foot of the mountain. But he knows nothing about the mountain itself, or how to climb it.

In a very important passage, Father Sogol realises he has reached the limits of his knowledge and says:

I have brought you this far, and I have been your leader. Right here I’ll take off the cap of authority, which was a crown of thorns. […] Far within me […] a little child is waking up […] looking for mother and father, looking with you for protection and help […] in order to become what he is.

As he says these words, his eyes are opened, and he suddenly sees a tiny peradam in the sand. This is the first peradam to be found by any of the group, and it’s a richly symbolic moment.

Like the rest of the group, Father Sogol willingly submits to the help of the experienced mountain guides, who explain the ways of this strange country, and help them get started on their ascent.

5. It’s hard to explain Mount Analogue to your friends

When friends ask you how your training is going, you might tell them it’s going well and perhaps mention a grading or other special event. But if they’re not into martial arts themselves, it’s probably not appropriate to give most people an in-depth account of the techniques you’ve been practising, or the exciting little ways you’ve seen yourself changing recently.

It’s not that you’re lying or hiding anything. It’s just basic common sense and social skills not to bore people with this kind of detail. Because you don’t necessarily have to demand deep understanding from all your friends.

Alain de Botton tells us that the great writer Marcel Proust was an expert in the art of friendship, believing that the finest friends:

approach the bond with more realistic expectations. They avoid talking at length about themselves […] they have no resentment about asking rather than answering questions, seeing friendship as a domain in which to learn about, not lecture others.

Proust did not see his friends as having any obligation to listen to or appreciate his own deep thoughts:

I do my intellectual work within myself, and once with other people, it’s more or less irrelevant to me that they’re intelligent, as long as they are kind, sincere, etc.

For those of us not blessed with Proust’s level of insight, it can sometimes feel like living two lives – those who “get” your martial arts (and people who don’t practise any martial art can still definitely fall into this category) and those who just don’t get it. This duality is captured perfectly in Mount Analogue:

We had agreed not to speak to our friends of the exact goal of our expedition, for either they would have thought we were crazy, or, more probably, they would have believed we were inventing stories to hide the true purpose of our enterprise.

So instead, the travellers tell people that they are simply going off to explore a few South Sea islands and other places.

6. “The path to our highest desires often lies through the undesirable”

The travellers set out in high spirits, but soon find out that the journey is full of hardship:

We were by no means cut out to be sailors. Several of us were seasick. Others [were] unnerved by the little ship’s long slidings down the watery slopes.

The path to our highest desires often lies through the undesirable.

The parallels with martial arts training are easy to see – from the effort of consistently getting to the dojo week in week out, to the burn and exhaustion of body conditioning exercises, to the constant feeling that you’re just not that good, and will never progress along this infinite path.

And many will fall by the wayside. In Mount Analogue, four of the original group quickly drop out before even setting off, with what Daumal dismisses as “lame excuses”.

Later on, when the group reaches the base of Mount Analogue, they find many people who have sincerely tried the ascent to the best of their ability, but become discouraged by its hardships, and settled on the lower slopes as farmers, dock workers, shopkeepers and so on.

Unlike the original “four fast fade-outs”, the group is warned several times not to criticise these people. Firstly, their help and their trades are essential for those who want to climb the mountain. Secondly, they have been trailblazers in their original efforts, and are now making it easier for others to reach the foot of the mountain.

In any case, the desire to climb can always be reawakened, despite the known hardships of the journey. When Father Sogol finds his first peradam on the beach, the elderly head porter is astonished and inspired:

A hope, which he thought long dead, glowed again in his heart. That man would try again one day.

7. Prepare the way for those who will come after you

Tengu statues on Mt. Takao. By Blue Lotus (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
At the end of their first day ascending the mountain, the travellers reach the first encampment, and can’t believe how nicely it’s been left, with fresh milk, cheese and clean straw all ready for them.

In fact, this is a strict basic rule of Mount Analogue.

To reach the summit, one must proceed from encampment to encampment. But before setting out for the next refuge, one must prepare those coming after to occupy the place one is leaving. Only after having prepared them can one go on up.

In martial arts terms, this is about being welcoming and supportive to newer students as they seek to find their place in the dojo. It’s also about staying in touch with the basics, so that you can help newer students to study them.

And on a really simple level, it’s just about keeping the dojo clean, neat and well organised according to your club’s preference – leaving it as you would like to find it.

8. Coming back down the mountain is as important as ascending it

Jon Kabat-Zinn (JKZ) writes:

You can’t stay at the top of the mountain. The journey up is not complete without the descent, the stepping back and seeing the whole again from afar. Having been at the summit, however, you have gained a new perspective, and it may change your way of seeing forever.

In fact there is a rule about coming back down Mount Analogue:

Before setting out for a new refuge, we had to go back down in order to pass on our knowledge to other seekers.

JKZ writes:

In a way, that’s all any of us do when we teach. As best we can, we show others what we have seen up to now. It’s at best a progress report, a map of our own experiences, by no means the absolute truth. And so the adventure unfolds. We are all on Mount Analogue together. And we need each other’s help.

This is about sharing knowledge, Chris Thomas tells a sad story of one Kuniba-sensei, who withheld his knowledge of pressure point techniques from others until shortly before his death – and then changed his mind too late. Price says that Kuniba died with regret that he had not had enough time to fully transmit his knowledge to his heir.

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9. Choose your path up the mountain carefully – and then stick to it

Talking about martial arts and mountain analogies wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the very famous saying:

Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon.

As Jesse Enkamp explains it:

Karate can be likened to the journey up a mountain […] There are several paths that lead there, and the path I’ve chosen is called Karate […] Eventually, the higher you climb on the mountain, the more clearly you discover that all paths lead to the same summit. Karate, Judo, Taekwondo, Kung Fu – the name of your path is unimportant. The important part is you – the traveler – and what you learn about yourself on the journey.

On the surface this is a wise saying, and often quoted by martial artists. However, I’ve recently been blessed to encounter a little of the wisdom of Tanigawa Takeshi (谷川 武) Sensei, who often gives an unexpected twist to apparent truisms.

Tanigawa Sensei once described this notion of the many paths up the mountain to an aikido sensei, a jujitsu sensei and another karate sensei. He noted that the paths are indeed closely intertwined and have a lot of commonalities.

But he then explained that some people make the mistake of thinking that because all the ways lead to the top, and are interlinked, they must also be interchangeable. So they flit about between paths instead of just focusing on one path and following it all the way towards the top. In effect, they’re just circling around the slopes, sometimes for many years, but not getting any higher.

He advises therefore to discover the path that’s right for you – which can take a long time – and then follow it with single-minded dedication. If people wish to cross-train, they’re better off waiting until they’ve actually mastered their own art to a certain level.

Tanigawa Sensei teaches that:

When we are all at the top we can share as it does not change our path.

As Miyomoto Musashi says:

Pursue a genuine path to its consummation […] As human beings it is essential for each of us to cultivate and polish our individual path.

On a related note (although it misses Tanigawa Sensei’s point that there are many ways to waste time on the mountain), here’s a trenchant quote from Sensei John’s blog:

There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading to the same place, so it doesn’t matter which path you take. The only person wasting time is the one who runs around the mountain, telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.

– Hindu proverb

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Conclusion

When reading about Mount Analogue, you may feel a sense of brushing up against truths that you’ve already sensed to some degree, but haven’t yet been able to articulate. Analogy is a powerful tool, and can convey so much more than direct explanation, through its appeal to our poetic and emotional sides.

Frustratingly, Mount Analogue was never finished, as René Daumal died in 1944 at the age of just 36.

From some notes that Daumal left, we know that the last chapter was going to be called, “And You, What Do You Seek” – but this chapter was never written.

There’s a strong invitation here, which is all the more beguiling for its open-endedness. Perhaps this lack of an ending is appropriate however, and an essential reason why Mount Analogue is such a perfect analogy for the never-completed journey of martial arts training . . .


 

Books referred to:

Issai Chozanshi. (2006). The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts and other tales. Translated by William Scott Wilson. Shambala. (Chozanshi’s original text was written in the 18th century).

René Daumal. (1952). Mount Analogue. Translated by Roger Shattuck. Penguin Metaphysical Library. (The quotes from Mme. Hyette Lannes are from Jacob Needleman’s foreword to this edition.)

Alain de Botton. (1997). How Proust Can Change Your Life. Picador.

Gavin Flood. (2012). The Importance of Religion; Meaning and Acton in our Strange World. Wiley-Blackwell. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn. (1994). Wherever You Go, There You Are. Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life. Piatkus. 

Miyamoto Musashi. (1993). The Book of Five Rings. A Classic Text on the Japanese Way of the Sword. Translated by Thomas Cleary. Shambhala. (Musashi’s original text was composed in 1643). 

 

6 Responses

  1. So much to think about! Thank you for the insights, Professor Kai! 🙂

    • Hi Sensei Ando, cheers for the random promotion to “professor” – struggling primary school pupil is probably a more accurate comparison but always nice to have a boost from a friend 🙂

  2. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! Thank you so much!!!

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