Royce Gracie celebrating victory at UFC 01 in 1993
I was recently having a conversation with a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism here in Italy and I used an analogy in our conversation which I would like to expand on here to explain further the reasoning behind a post-traditional approach to Buddhism and the sort of ideas we are exploring in the Imperfect Buddha podcast.
The teacher made two standard concessions when we spoke about traditional Buddhism and the sort of approach I and others take. They were Authority and Tradition. Implicit in his discourse were three factors;
- Authority is a given and unquestionable. The guru/master holds authority
- Expectation others ought to recognise this authority as it is given, followers must act on blind faith
- History tradition is ancient and this antiquity justifies its position and guarantees the first two
Needless to say, I find such factors problematic and emblematic of the failure of western Buddhists to critically evaluate their own traditions. I will explore why developments in martial arts may offer a means to reflect on necessary change in western Buddhism.
Kung Fu is an umbrella term for Chinese martial arts and includes a multitude of variants that developed over the last centuries. There are regional varieties and world famous styles such as Wushu, as well as innovation in the form of Jeet Kun Do, created by the martial arts legend that is Bruce Lee. Each style has its own legends and myths and until very recently each tended to define itself as the best in an enduring theoretical competition that included the other martial arts. Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris exemplified this in their 1972 film The Way of the Dragon, which culminates in a dramatic showdown between these two styles.
Before having to stop for health reasons, I practised a multitude of martial arts styles for twenty odd years so the amount of time I have dedicated to Buddhism and the martial skills is almost identical. The discourse of superiority has been near identical in both worlds. During the 90s, the members of Buddhist groups in the UK that I visited would point out that their form of Buddhism was the best, or the purest, or the most authentic in a very similar fashion to martial artists. This was expressed explicitly by over-eager followers but teachers would almost always be guilty of the same indulgence. Both Buddhism and Martial Arts come from the ‘exotic’ East with all its connotations of otherness so I guess it should come as no surprise that there would be some shared history in their reception in the West.
Mixed Martial Arts or MMA is the latest development in the martial arts and it started in the 90s, although attempts to combine different fighting styles have taken place throughout history they have never even come close to the cross training that is an integral part of this new approach to combat. MMA is a relatively new ‘sport’ or fighting concept that continues to evolve ever since the first Ultimate Fighting Championship aired in 1993. The original mandate of the UFC was to test the long-standing abstract debate between different martial arts styles in order to finally discover which was best. All styles would and could compete but they would fight for real, and with no holds barred. The first editions of the competition were pretty brutal for a variety of reasons, one being how bad so many of the fighters were in the face of a real fight, away from the imaginary spaces they had inhabited in their gyms. The arrival of the UFC signalled the end of such fantasy, and of a new dominance of pragmatism in the martial arts landscape. It is fair to say that if a traditional karate or kung fu fighter from any time in history and from any of the schools were to fight competent mixed martial artists today, he or she would lose.
The UFC went through various phases and as fighters came up against reality, many adapted. The first winner was a man called Royce Gracie who introduced the world to ground fighting, specifically Brazilian Jujitsu. Later wrestlers began to dominate and they were followed by kick boxers. As time went on, all of the fighters coming into the UFC, or other MMA contests, began to train in multiple styles, refining and experimenting to find the most effective methods, tactics and training to ensure they would win real fights in real competition. Rules were made to bring the sport closer to the mainstream and three styles became the basis for almost all fighters; Freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling, Brazilian Jujitsu and a standing style that was Kickboxing, Thai Boxing or western Boxing.
MMA is a post-traditional approach to combat and it has changed the landscape of martial arts dramatically and irreversibly. Traditional martial arts still exist of course and they are likely going nowhere, although it is debatable whether some of the more abstract styles, which relied on a heavier dose of fantasy, will continue. Traditional martial arts are the basis for MMA and MMA could not exist without them but MMA is undisputedly the evolution of traditional martial arts. Even when karate based fighters have reintroduced lost techniques into the MMA cage or ring, they could not have done so without having the other styles as the basis for doing so.
Similar abstract myths to those once indulged in throughout martial arts gyms continue to burden discussion of the pragmatics of practice, awakening, change and social engagement in Buddhism. In a generic sweep across traditions, we might say that abstract, institutional discourse is not truly tested, the claims of teachers and long-term practitioners do not have to confront reality, romantic fantasy regarding teachers flourish and fantastical claims about the end results of a given path are held up as never-to-be-achieved goals. If we were to playfully compare the martial arts styles to Buddhisms, it could look something like this; Tibetans as karate practitioners (Buddhism at its purest & highest), Theravadan practitioners as Kung Fu fighters (The original and authentic), Zen could be Aikido (The simplest, most direct & minimalist), and so on. What’s relevant in the analogy is that each, when isolated, makes great claims and draws on a combination of abstract, theoretical sources and calls to authority, with very little real challenge. One claims history, the other evolution. One claims the highest teachings, the other the most direct, even as they feign mutual respect.
My view of Buddhism is that it is slowly approaching a similar process of change to the martial arts. The field in which the results of practice, belief and praxis play out is partially a public one. Discussions at sites such as Buddhist Geeks and the Secular Buddhist Association can be weighed against discussion, articles and comments at sites such as The Dharma Overground, Speculative Non-Buddhism and David Chapman’s Meaningness. Twitter plays its role too, less so Facebook, and academia is increasingly present in the ongoing discussion of what Buddhism is, what it can do, what it can’t do, and how it should evolve. A public arena in the form of an Ultimate Buddhist Championship does not exist of course and there is no UBC. Whereas all committed martial artists will likely know of the UFC, scores of long-term Buddhist practitioners in the West can be oblivious to all activity, debate and critique going on outside of their dharma centre walls.