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Rules and Freedom in Traditional Martial Arts

When I first read Shunryu Suzuki's work 20+ years ago, it stuck with me. His book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind felt important, even though it also mystified me. I've gone back to it several times since that initial encounter. One quote that I return to is this one:

“As long as you have rules, you have a chance for freedom. To try to obtain freedom without being aware of the rules means nothing.”

In the west, particularly in America, we have an idea that rules are the opposite of freedom. We have the pioneer spirit and forge our own paths. However, Suzuki teases out a different idea here. My reading is that once we have embodied the rules, we find the cracks in between them that are uniquely ours. For example, no one will ever have exactly the same body structure as me, so when I operate within the rules of, say, the zenkutsudachi stance, what is left after the basic requirements have been met is entirely mine. No one else can ever have my stance.

This is echoed in the Shu-Ha-Ri teaching method that we see in Japan. Beginning students copy and adhere to the rules, trying to mimic the teacher (Shu). In the middle stage (Ha), they bend the rules, finding out how to accomplish the same feats with less effort and smaller versions of techniques. And finally, in the most advanced stages, they transcend or break with the rules (Ri), using their bodies in whatever way arises in the spontaneous moment. I tell my students that they don't really ever break with the kata so much as they become the kata in this stage. They don't do martial arts: they are martial arts.

However, all of these stages takes place within the context of rules, even transcending rules. Because we have rules, we can transcend them. Because we have standards and guidelines, we can learn when to step outside the boundaries. Rules aspire to keep us safe. Transcending them means removing your safety harness and purposefully taking responsibility for your own risks and rewards.

Having said all of that, one of my rules as a teacher is to give students the room to explore. I encourage them to play and discover as they learn how to fit karate's rules into their bodies. If you're a teacher, I encourage you to consider this second quote from Suzuki: “Even though you try to put people under control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous.” I was a mischief maker long before I read Suzuki!


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