‘NO!’ said the Master. ‘I fear you do not yet understand. Do not you Christians say, “Love thine enemy”?’ You must see competition for what it is — Co-operation. Without ‘Yin’, there can be no Yang’. And once again, we met in battle — and once again I was defeated.

There were times though when I was practising with the other students, that I sometimes felt I understood — when the battle became a dance and we seemed to move as one — when the goal was achieved without conscious thought. It was though I transcended Intention. At such times, the ever-vigilant master almost smiled; at least there was a slight crinkling of the eyes that conveyed a quiet approval.

Approval did not come easily. I will always remember when he presented my graduating class with our Black Belts.

‘Now, perhaps, you are ready to begin.’ It was as though he recognised our need for recognition as a necessary evil, an encouragement to toddlers on their first step.

Our martial art has no name. Amongst ourselves, we call it the WAY, though not in the hearing of the Master. It can best be described as eclectic, and proponents of such disciplines as Judo, Karate. Taekwondo and Kung Fu are quick to point out techniques they claim are ‘stolen’ from their art. Those with the greatest claim are those who espouse Aikido, for there is much in common with their philosophy and mindset. Unlike them, though, we have contests; paradoxically to demonstrate the futility of competition. They are a strange experience for both the participants and the onlookers. Though it is difficult, I will attempt to describe a typical match.

The Ritual is a strange one. There are usually only two contestants, though at the advanced level there may be several: The Victim/Hero (always singular) and the Assailant(s).

The match takes place in an open area, floored with the Tatami mats usually found in martial arts venues. It can contain furniture, formally represented by paper-mâché models of either indoor or outdoor objects.

The victim enters first, affecting unawareness of his surroundings. Typically, he will be reading a book.

The Assailant(s) will enter and attack, either physically or verbally. The attack can be overt—the usual preference of beginners—or covert, as in a surprise attack. Or a combination of both, in which a ‘Beggar’ role-play is transformed into a mugging.

In our example, he has decided on a street confrontation. He stands in front of the victim. The hero politely steps to one side—incidentally positioning himself for a deadly counter-attack. Let us from now on refer to them as A & B, with A being the Assailant.

A: ‘Give us your money.’

B: (politely) ‘I have no money.’ He stands relaxed but alert.

A: can either threaten or attack.

B: In the case of a threat, B will say nothing maintaining a calm gaze.

An attack will be countered with a kick, a throw, or an armlock.

The object is to render the assailant harmless.

As you will see, the possibilities are endless. It is customary for the B role to be undertaken by the most senior, or experienced of the contestants. In practice conditions, we each are given the opportunity to experience both.

The uses of the props are interesting, giving an opportunity for high comedy when B elects to hide behind a “tree’’ or in a “‘doorway”. High marks are gained for successfully evading an attacker. Confrontation avoided is a plus.

Sometimes the whole bout comprises Verbal Attack alone and it is interesting to watch how beginners deal with the most outrageous put-downs. To watch an advanced student blandly disregard the most scurrilous insults to his Mother is a lesson in itself. We were all very nervous when practising this skill with the Master, knowing that he could kill us with his little finger, but fearing his displeasure if we failed to perform it to his satisfaction. His smile becomes almost scrutable as we wrestle with this dilemma. The purpose of this exercise is to avoid contributing to Disharmony with angry words or disturbed emotions.

We argued amongst ourselves. Most of us were very anxious to understand the strange and disturbing concept. How could we, steeped in competition as we were, come to terms with the idea that all thoughts of winning were ultimately foolish.

Barnes, of the shaven head, was openly contemptuous.

T reckon it’s a load of bullshit. Stands to reason you gotta win — otherwise, why are we here. I came here to learn to kick butt.’

And kick butts he did, but progressively less of ours. Even the weedy Cecil was beginning to account for himself with the man who tended to bully him on principle.

‘With a name like Cecil, I’d have done martial arts too.”

‘I did, Barnsie, I did,’ said Cecil with a rare display of humour as he rendered him helpless. I noticed that he was far less anxious than in his early days. Come to think of it, we were all once a little intimidated by the aggressive Barnes with his tattoos and a broken nose.

‘When you think of it,’ said Goodenough, our theorist, ‘Why do we think he is so tough? Somebody must have broken it.’

Goodenough worried away at the concept of non-competitiveness like a terrier with a bone. ‘The desire to win seems to be fundamental to all forms of sport. How can we reconcile that with our teaching?’

‘Easy’ I said, ‘What we are doing is not sport.’

‘What is it then?’

‘Who knows? An attempt at harmony perhaps?’

‘What’s harmonious about ripping a man’s arm off and beating him to death with it?’ He always did tend to exaggerate.

I had a sudden insight.

‘Ah. But maybe that is the secret. By using self-defence, we are restoring harmony. The more violently our assailant has disturbed the harmony, the more drastic its restoration. Maybe the old man is right. We are cooperating with our attacker to restore the balance he has violated.’

‘But how do you apply this to sport?’ Cecil broke in. ‘Tennis, for example.’

‘By making it hard for each other to return the ball, you are cooperating with your opponent to create the perfect game. To be defeated by a champion is a learning experience. To defeat him is a test for your humility and his pride. Harmony can always be found.’

‘But I want to win.’ Elaine, our only female student, often made this only too obvious. ‘I want to get better!’

‘They aren’t the same thing. Winning isn’t always a sign of improvement. Take the Master. If you beat him, and one day you might. It could be taken as a sign of improvement’ A cheer of derision broke out. ‘But if you don’t, it doesn’t mean that you are not better than when you first tried.’ I began to wonder why it was I who had to conduct these theory sessions. I tired of it, ‘Come on the mat,’ I said, ‘and I’ll demonstrate.’ The other guys looked envious. There was great competition amongst us to demonstrate to Elaine.

As our first, and until now only, female student, Elaine was the master’s daring experiment. Women had long been part of the Judo, Karate and Taekwondo worlds, but for this esoteric Taoist art form, she was a first. It was rumoured that in the old country a sisterhood of Taoist nuns had a secret school devoted to self-defence but there was certainly none in ours to represent them. Some saw the Master’s decision as bowing to societal pressure but those of us who knew him merely saw him ‘going with the flow’, as the Great Way unfolded.

Elaine was in her early twenties and the daughter of a friend of the Master. She was a well-built girl whose job as an aerobics instructor kept her rather full figure to ideal proportions. She was a keen and willing student: too keen at times to fully take on board the concept of non-competition.

In the practice session on this occasion, Elaine was the Assailant. She elected to sneak up on me from behind. It was a creditable attempt, the kidney blow was hard enough to hurt and the left arm that wrapped around my throat was designed to pull me back off balance. But she had failed to allow for my forward momentum.

My hands rose to seize her arm as I rolled forward and to my right. As I fell, I stretched my left fool in front of her legs. She spun over its axis and fell heavily with me on top. I converted my hold to an arm lock and she was forced to surrender. The whole exercise took less than two minutes. It had involved a sacrifice throw which can be a devastating counter attack, but disastrous if there is more than one assailant.

Elaine was winded and her pride was hurt. I realised how difficult it must be for her to follow the Master’s teaching of non-involvement in results. I was having enough difficulty in avoiding a feeling of triumph, however fleeting. To him though there would have been no feeling of winning or losing, just a perception of the incident, of a flow that had resolved itself. Both Elaine and I had a long way to go.

I had another problem. As we lay there on the mat I was intensely aware of Elaine as a woman, To my dismay I was responding physically.

I found this strangely disturbing, and I am sure this feeling figured significantly in my abject defeat at her hands when, as was usual, we reversed roles. This time i was the attacker, a simulated rape attempt. I’ll draw a veil over the sordid details. I’ll only say that a real rapist would have been very sorry indeed. I was!

The others, who had been watching, applauded loudly, glad to see the “Blue- eyed Boy” trounced for once. But worst of all was the Master’s frown.

I was learning to read him. It didn’t concern him that I had lost. After all, indifference to results was part of his creed. It was that he knew why I had lost the bout. I resisted the temptation to bounce hell out of Barnsie to relieve my feelings but that would just have compounded my error. I elected to sentence myself to a long session in the Meditation Bin. The Master’s frown lightened.

We called it the Bin because it paralleled the Sin Bin of sports such as basketball and ice hockey, but there the comparison ends. It was truly a peaceful place, more like a chapel than a place of punishment.

Of course, that was not its intention. We were sent there, not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to regain lost equanimity. The room was dim, fit only by flickering oil lamps whose crimson glass shades diffused their light. The two lamps flanked a small altar that held an incense burner. A woody smoke rose slowly from it, reminiscent of sandalwood, but with a subtle richness that spoke of other ingredients.

On the bare wooden floor were a number of square, horsehair filled cushions on which one was supposed to adopt the lotus posture. Behind the altar was a large wall hanging or curtain, concealing, it was said, the door to an inner sanctum. It was decorated with a large Yin Yang symbol.

There was already someone in the room. Protocol dictated that I should not look too closely at who it was. I quietly selected a cushion on the other side of the room and gave myself to self-examination.

It was not easy. The first challenge I must accept was Shame. I had to acknowledge that my reaction during the tumult of the tussle with Elaine had not only been emotional, it had been physical. In the darkness, my face burned. And she had known! The fact that it had been involuntary was of little comfort. Such reactions, even between heterosexual male combatants, were not unknown in the heat of battle. If they occurred they were tacitly ignored, but with a female opponent… ?

The fact that Elaine was the only representative of her sex, if anything made it worse. Somehow she was Womanhood and we had always been acutely aware that her gender made a difference. Was this another instance of Competition?

I smiled wryly to myself. I was sure that was not what the Master intended when he reminded us to ‘Love thine enemy’

I resumed my meditation, allowing myself to sink, at last, into that blissful state of unthinking awareness.

After what must have been a long time, the world returned to me — or I to it. The other person had gone but standing beside the altar, wearing his ceremonial robe instead of contest garb, was the Master. He was gazing at me as though to read my inner thoughts. I bowed to him.

He seemed to be satisfied with what he saw, and he smiled briefly before he drew aside the curtain and entered the inner sanctum.

I readied myself to face Elaine. It was time to restore Harmony.

The End

© Copyright H.St.V.Beechey January 05