Category Archive: This and That

The Importance of No Style

Breaking Walls

Breaking Down the Walls

Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do concept, which is philosophically rooted in Zen, was and still is outstanding.  The central aspect of it is to have no style, to avoid being limited by the confines of particular styles and to maintain a fully open mind with respect to everything.  It is only with an open or empty mind that one can see clearly, without being blocked by the boundaries of particular ideas and ways.

Are All Styles Bad?

It’s not that every style is all bad.  There are great techniques, training methods, and strategies in many styles.  But in order for a style to be a particular style, it must be defined.  It must be limited to particular ways.  And those limitations become your limitations.

If the style you practice only trains striking, then you won’t know what do to if someone gets you into a clinch or on the ground.  If the style you practice only trains grappling, then you won’t know how to handle someone who tries to strike you.  If the style you train only involves techniques to certain areas of your body, then you will be ill prepared if your opponent attacks you in an area that is off limits in your style.

Some styles only train stand up, and some only train ground.  Some styles only train strikes, and some only train locks.  Some styles don’t train with weapons at all, and some only train with weapons.

In order to train real “self defense”, no single style is enough.  Additionally, being limited by any single style is detrimental both mentally and physically, limiting what you are able to see and what you think about what works and what doesn’t work.  Whatever you train or think operates in two directions.  Your training and thinking influences how you see the world.

Breaking Down The Walls

This concept is also very important outside of self defense and martial arts.  Limiting yourself to particular ways of thinking or to particular ideas and ideologies blinds you to the truth outside of them.  You literally become a prisoner of your own imaginary walls.  Anything outside of your walls becomes either bad, wrong, or must be ignored in order to maintain the validity of your walls.  If you break down your walls, refusing to attach yourself to any ideology or way of thinking, then you open your mind to the truth regardless of where it originates.  Reality and the truth exist beyond any ideology or system of thought.  The only way to see as clearly as possible is to break down your walls.

This is far harder than it may seem, and very few people are able to come close to accomplishing it.  In Zen, breaking down the walls is “enlightenment”…100% freedom of thought, not limited by anything other than physics and biology.  Complete freedom requires destroying ALL of the imaginary walls.  It means destroying your conception of self, who you think you are, and therefore how you think you need to act.  It means severing all attachment to everything you have learned.

This does not mean that you should or even can forget what you have learned and experienced.  But if you want to be able to see whatever truth exists beyond what you already think you know, if you want to see where you are mistaken and what that you think is incorrect, then you must sever your attachments to any knowledge, group, or ideology.  If you want to see as clearly as possible, your mind must be free to do so.  It must be unattached to style, ideology, and doctrine.  The truth is beyond them.

The way you think determines what and how you think about everything.  Breaking down the walls will not only allow you to see beyond the limitations of various self defense and martial arts styles, but also to live your life as freely as possible in every moment.

What imaginary walls have you built for yourself?  This is worth seriously thinking about and applying to both your self defense practice and your life.  It will make you a better and more satisfied person in every way.

Martial Arts, Violence, & Counter Balance

Bruce Lee Dancing

Bruce Lee Dancing

Martial arts have always served a practical purpose for me, thus my emphasis on functional self defense rather than art or sport.  And this purpose has helped me to avoid being limited by or tied to any one system, teacher, or set of concepts.  Maintaining that focus has helped me to identify the fluff that comes with so many disciplines, physically and mentally, and to ignore it.  But martial arts have also served an equally if not more important purpose for me, to openly explore and expand my physical and mental capabilities, to know and express myself without the imaginary boundaries we tend to create for ourselves.

The vast majority of people live within a box made artificially small by their own imaginary boundaries, limitations, and expectations.  But when your practice has no rules and in order to move forward you must think outside of the box, if you practice deeply, it tends to spill over into everyday life.  The imaginary boundaries become visible for what they are.  Right now, we can do anything that doesn’t violate the laws of physics.  The past doesn’t matter.  The future has yet to be determined.

For me, these aspects of freedom and exploration are more beneficial and certainly more enjoyable than the self defense aspect.  Although, it’s possible that without the functional self defense emphasis to cut away the BS, real freedom and exploration would be limited.  In any case, I’ve benefited greatly from practicing martial arts, aside from developing practical self defense skills.

Dan Inosanto Drumming

Dan Inosanto Drumming

But functional martial arts are harsh.  Practice often hurts, although over time the hurt isn’t an emotionally negative thing.  And, functional martial arts are necessarily about expressions of violence.  So despite how much fun practice may be or how much you may enjoy the company of the people you train with, martial arts are a violent pursuit.  Everything you do relates to injuring or at least beating another person.  You can and should, in my view, maintain a friendly and non-violent attitude, otherwise you’ll become a tense and unhappy person.  But there is a limit to the kind of things you can express though your actual practice.

I’ve written before about the similarities between martial arts, music, and dance.  They’re all arts that allow you to freely express yourself and to explore infinite possibilities.  For me, music has become a terrific compliment and counter-balance to my martial arts practice.  It’s another way to learn and explore in an infinite space.  But unlike with martial arts, music is not inherently harsh or violent.  With music, you can express violence if you want to, but you can also express happiness, sadness, excitement, tranquility, and so on.  If you’re into self defense and martial arts as much as I am, I highly recommend music as a complimentary discipline.  It’s no wonder that Bruce Lee was also a competitive dancer, and that world class martial artists like Dan Inosanto recommend their students learn to play music.  In addition to the complimentary benefits that relate to martial arts, balancing a violent pursuit with a peaceful one is great for happiness and peace of mind.

I’ve also written before about my primary instrument, the oud.  The fretless nature of it allows for limitless possibilities in terms of sound, and any kind of music can be played on it.  I highly recommend it, or any other instrument for that matter. To conclude, here’s a recording I recently made combining new beats with a composition written in 1610:

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud & The Jeet Kune Do Of Music

Istanbul

Istanbul

I’ve posted before on the connection between martial arts and music, and in this post I’m going to write about a particular type of music, the music of the Ottoman Empire, and why I consider it to be the “jeet kune do of music”.  But first, a review of my newest oud, an instrument particularly suited to this kind of music, which I just bought while on vacation in Turkey (thus the lack of posts recently).

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud

About a year ago I posted a review of my Turkish oud, built by Faruk Türünz.  It’s a beautiful instrument with a beautiful sound.  Although I love it, I also love the sound of Arabic ouds, which are typically warmer, deeper, and mellower.  I’ve seen a fair number of ouds in Turkey and a few from other parts of the world, but I have yet to see another built as well as those built by Faruk and his craftsmen.  So I decided to get another oud from Faruk…this time with Arabic tuning.  It’s a masterpiece of sound and design:

Faruk Turunz Arabic Oud

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud - Back

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud – Back

There is plenty debate and some disagreement on the characteristics of “Turkish ouds” compared to “Arabic ouds”.  Different makers from different regions make ouds with different sounds.  The “Turkish” and “Arabic” classifications are broad, and there is often overlap between regions and makers, along with sub-regions.  But in any case, my new Arabic oud sounds substantially different from my Turkish oud, even though they are both “Türünz ouds”.  It does have a warmer and mellower sound, but unlike some Arabic ouds, from my relatively limited perspective, it has a long sustain similar to my Turkish oud…something often considered characteristic of Turkish ouds.

Anyway, the instrument is awesome.  The craftsmanship and attention to detail, as with my other oud from Faruk, are unparalleled.  Every joint and connection is flawless:

Pegbox

Pegbox

Faruk Turunz Oud Pegbox

Pegbox

If you play the oud or would be inclined to try it, I very highly recommend getting one from Faruk Türünz.  You can read more about his unique and innovative method of construction in my first post on his ouds, here.  My new Arabic oud, for anyone who might like to know, has a bowl made of two types of alternating wood: santos and curly maple.  The soundboard is made of spruce, and the fingerboard and pegs are ebony.

The Jeet Kune Do Of Music

As anyone who has spent much time on my website can see, my martial arts/self defense philosophy is nearly identical to the jeet kune do concept espoused by Bruce Lee.  That concept heavily emphasizes limitless freedom of expression.  Of course, in order to express yourself freely, you must have the fundamental tools and techniques to be able to express yourself at all!  You not only need a comprehensive system to provide those techniques, but also a system that lets you loose, that doesn’t restrict or limit you.  In my view, there is no better musical equivalent than the music of the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman music is very often referred to as Turkish music, but this isn’t quite accurate (despite the fact that I often do it myself), particularly if by “Turkish music” a person is referring to modern/popular Turkish music.  The music of the Ottoman Empire encompasses a large geographical area, from Greece and the Balkans to Central Asia and the Middle East.  During the reign of the Ottomans for more than 700 years, an amazing musical system was developed.  Ottoman music theory divides notes using the Pythagorean comma system (from Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician/philosopher), so that rather than having only 12 possible notes per octave as in western music, you have 53.  Ottoman music uses a “micro-tonal system”, leading to an increased variety of sounds, scales, and options.  In my view, this system provides more freedom for expression.  Due to the much larger number of notes, Ottoman music utilizes a large variety of scales that don’t exist in western music.  Instead of having only major and minor scales (with a couple of variations), Ottoman music has hundreds.

Ottoman music also has a strong emphasis on improvisation rather than strict memorization and repetition.  Written compositions are viewed only as guidelines, and good musicians may play a single composition differently every time.  But the skill of a musician who plays Ottoman/Turkish music is not based on his or her ability to play compositions, but instead, on the ability to improvise…to play what is called a “taksim”.

The Oud

The Oud

The Oud

For me, the oud is the ultimate instrument.  Its use dates back thousands of years.  As you can see, there are no frets on the fingerboard of the oud, which allows a player to create any sound and to utilize the micro-tonal system.  Although the oud does have a characteristic sound, it can fit in well with nearly any other instrument.  For example, in the video below you can see the oud being played along with famous American jazz musicians, in a non-Turkish/Arabic context:

The concept of jeet kune do includes having no limitations, and having no way as your way.  Despite being a beginner myself, these limitless possibilities are what makes the oud such an attractive instrument to me, and Ottoman music the perfect system to learn from.  They fit perfectly with the philosophy I use in FSD, and due to the commonalities between music and martial arts, they are equally enjoyable.

It may be unlikely to find an oud teacher in your local area.  But in this day and age that isn’t a barrier.  My excellent teacher, Mavrothi Kontanis, is available for lessons via Skype.  So if you are inclined, I highly recommend getting yourself an oud by Faruk Türünz, and contacting Mavrothi for lessons!  It’s the perfect compliment to martial arts/self defense.

Self Defense For The Elderly

A couple of days ago I received a message via my contact form from a 75 year old man.  Unfortunately he didn’t enter his email address correctly, so I can’t write him back.  I’ll post and respond to his message here, as other readers may have similar concerns.  Here’s the message:

I am a 75 yr old man and I am fair game for louts who always pick on seniors like me. I have been physically threatened by bigger stronger men.  Can I be trained to fight back?  At my age it seems ridiculous but it does happen.  Not just to me but to other seniors.  I am fed up being helpless.  I (and others like me) would  like to take down the bully.  Is it possible??   Can you help?  I tried taking martial arts when I was 70.  It was of no help at all. Thank you.

Prevention First

As I explain in detail on my prevention page and in my book, prevention should always be the first option.  If you’re getting picked on regularly it’s likely that you’re spending time in places that you should avoid.  If you avoid places where “bad people” hang out, it’s unlikely you’ll have any problems.  If you live in an area with such people, if it’s possible to move to a better place, then I would highly recommend it.  Life is too short to deal with such issues.  This applies to everyone, not just seniors.

If you haven’t been physically attacked, or a physical attack isn’t imminent, it’s far better not to “fight back”.  You wouldn’t be legally justified to use physical self defense.  So if you did “take down the bully”, you could be arrested and end up in jail.  It may not be fair, and it may not feel good, but walking away is a much better option.  Your goal should be to enjoy your life as long as you can, and not to unnecessarily risk your life and your freedom by attacking someone who verbally assaults you.

Beating A Bigger, Stronger, Younger Opponent

If and only if a physical attack is imminent and you’re dealing with a younger/faster/bigger/stronger opponent, then you need every advantage you can get.  Is it possible?  Yes.  I’ve taught a couple of men over 70 who were as tough as guys in their 20’s and 30’s.  They were exceptions though.  And in any case, we’re talking about self defense here, so there is no reason not to do everything you can to increase your odds.  Using a weapon is the best way to do that.  Again though, a physical attack would have to have occurred or be imminent, and escape impossible.  Otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up for much worse trouble, and misery.

Pepper spray is probably ideal for an elderly person with no prior training.  In fact, two days ago I saw a young drunk guy hassling an elderly couple at a streetcar stop.  The woman pointed a can of pepper spray at the guy, and he backed off.  He did continue to verbally harass them, but from a distance.  So I would consider carrying pepper spray, and having it in your hand or easily accessible.

Your first line of defense is to avoid people who might pick on you.  If you can’t, then I’d try to walk away or say something like “It doesn’t take much to pick on old men and little girls.  If you want to prove how tough you are, why don’t you pick on someone your own age.”.  If the guy tries to touch you, or you feel a physical attack is imminent, then I’d soak him with the pepper spray and call the police right away.

There Is No Magic

I say it all the time.  It’s unfortunate, but true.  There are no magic techniques that work better for an old man or woman than for a younger, stronger, faster man.  If you want to learn how to physically defend against an attack, especially unarmed, it requires skill.  You’re only going to get those skills through functional training, using functional techniques, and sound strategy.  You could get lucky with a simple and effective technique, like this eye strike.  But what if it fails?  What if your opponent blocks it?  What if it lands, but he then attempts to tackle you?  What if there are multiple opponents?  I’d much prefer a relatively unskilled/untrained person attempt to use a projectile weapon like pepper spray instead of a single physical technique.

If you do want to learn physical self defense, and you’re physically capable of doing so, then my website and book are a great place to start.

Launching Pagodāh

Pagodāh

Pagodāh

I’ve mentioned before on this blog, and to countless people via email, that my book has taken much longer than I anticipated due to other business commitments.  My wife and I have spent the last year working hard on starting a new business, and today we’re beginning to launch it.  The business is Pagodāh.

We’re producing a line of all-natural body care and home fragrance products inspired by our travels to Southeast Asia.  Everything is made in the US.  And 20% of the profits are going to outstanding charities that do an amazing job, getting kids off the street, out of sexual slavery, and providing them with the skills and opportunities they need to make both their own lives and their communities better.

I won’t go into great detail here, as you can read about the company on the website if you’re interested.  But, this is what has been holding my book back.  If you know anyone who may be interested in Pagodāh, I’d really appreciate you spreading the word.  Our products are outstanding, and support great causes.  🙂

UPDATE:  We were scammed by a company called RainShadow Labs, who produced 80% of our products defective.  We ended up having to dispose of thousands of products with no refund/compensation by them, so Pagodāh has ceased to exist.

Self Defense & Physical Fitness

68 Year Old Iban Man

68 Year Old Iban Man

I’m currently working on the second to last chapter (Physical and Mental Fitness) of my book, and wanted to post briefly on that topic here.  This week, like almost every week, I received an email from someone asking about self defense techniques for people who are not fit.  The fact is, physical self defense (vs. prevention, implied in the question by the use of the word techniques) is hard.  Physical self defense is like a full throttle sprint in most cases.  Not only is your heart rate and breathing likely to be raised, but you’re going to be exerting near or at 100%.  It’s far harder than boxing or grappling in the training room.  So, unfortunate as it may be for many people, physical fitness is a requirement for physical self defense, at least if you want to have greater than minimal chances of success.

I recently read an excellent and very interesting book that highlighted the main cause of so many people being out of shape today, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease.  I’d highly recommend reading it.  The author, Daniel Lieberman, uses the term “mismatched diseases”, explaining that our modern lives are a mismatch for our bodies.  We did not evolve to be inactive, to sit at desks all day at work, to come home and sit in a chair for dinner, and then to sit on the sofa until bed time.  When you add modern food (specifically sugar, see here) to modern lifestyles, you end up with a very unhealthy combination.

The book reminded me of people my wife and I have seen on our travels, particularly tribal people who live a life closer to what our human bodies were designed for.  In 2008 my wife and I hired two brothers from an Iban tribe living deep in the jungle of Borneo, through another Iban man who had moved to the city of Kuching, but still had contact with communities in the jungle, to take us on a trip up a remote river.  We stopped at the last longhouse on the river, where no one was living beyond.  There were only two people left living in it, and elderly couple.  My wife took the picture above, of the man.  (If you’d like, you can see more pictures from the trip on my wife’s much neglected photography site, here.)  He was 68 years old, and had just returned from killing a wild boar…with a spear.  He cooked up the heart for us.

How many 68 year old men do you know who look like that!?!?  Yet, most of the tribal people we’ve met look similar.  Why?  Because their lives match what our bodies evolved for.  They’re very active.  And they eat natural food rather than processed trash loaded with sugar.  It’s a good reminder of what our bodies are capable of.  And, staying in such shape is a necessity if you want to maximize your chances in physical self defense.

Music, Dance, and Martial Arts

Chinese Dongxiao

Chinese Dongxiao

I bought this Chinese flute, a dongxiao, on a recent vacation.  The particular form seems to be relatively rare in Chinese instruments these days, but it’s nearly identical to a Japanese shakuhachi.  Not only does it sound beautiful, but it’s made from the root end of bamboo, so the inside is very thick and solid.  It’s about the length of a typical kali stick.

I started playing the clarinet as a kid, and did it passionately for years.  When I began seriously practicing martial arts, I thought of it as a substitute for music.  To me, martial arts were like physical music.

Music, martial arts, and dance have the same underlying roots: rhythm, movement, timing, the manipulation of volume or intensity, expression, and hopefully, exploration, improvisation, and creativity.  Music uses all of the above with sound, dance with physical manifestations, and martial arts with physical manifestations against an opponent.  Played with others, music requires coordination, adaptation, and flexibility relative to others.  So do dance and martial arts.

On the surface, the execution of functional martial arts may not look much like music or dance.  Exchanges don’t have a consistent rhythm, because practitioners are attempting to stop the music of their opponent with music of their own.  So you generally end up with a quick clash or clashes that don’t appear to be musical or dance like.

To be successful in martial arts or self defense, a practitioner must start their own dance of destruction either before their opponent begins, or around and into their opponent’s dance, adapting as necessary, possibly changing the beat or switching to another scale, but staying on the same improvised line.

BAM!!!  It may be over in a single beat.  ba – BOP.  A beat and a half.  CRASH – puuuullllll – ELBOW.  It needs to be timed with your opponent’s motion.

The trick is to get ahead of your opponent’s dance/music, and control it.  It’s challenging.  It’s a bit like trying to play an instrument with another person attempting to beat you with their own instrument.  From the outside, it likely won’t sound pretty.  But for the practitioner who can dance through his opponent, there is very little difference between music, dance, and martial arts.

Because the roots are the same, practicing any one of them can help you with the others.  Ultimately, they are different windows on the same landscape.

Faruk Türünz: Master Oud Maker

Faruk Türünz

Faruk Türünz and I

This post will stray from the usual subject, but it is tangentially related.

I’ve just returned from a short trip to Istanbul, where I went to pick up a Turkish oud made by Faruk Türünz and his incredibly skilled crew.  I was so impressed by their knowledge, skills, and particularly, by Faruk’s dedication to pushing the boundaries of oud making, exploring new and revolutionary ideas that put his ouds and their amazing sound at the top of centuries of evolution.  People in every field can learn from Faruk’s continuous exploration, inquisitiveness, and his use of the scientific method to test his theories.

Faruk Türünz Oud

Faruk Türünz Oud

I haven’t written about it here before, but playing the oud has become my favorite hobby and pastime.  There are many similarities between playing music and martial arts (rhythm, timing, improvisation, volume, and even melody)…and I need to do a post on that soon.  But back to the subject at hand, I had read about Faruk’s amazing ouds, listened to them on his YouTube channel, and eventually decided I had to see and hear them for myself.  After emailing with him for a while, I decided to fly to Istanbul (a city my wife and I have visited a couple of times before, and love), and arranged to meet him at his shop.

Istanbul

Istanbul

The oud is well over 1,000 years old.  The European lute (from the Arabic “al oud”) and descended from it.  It has an amazing range, and because it has no frets, micro tones can be played that are between standard western notation.  The making of the oud has been passed down from maker to apprentice for centuries.  It’s possible to find relatively cheap ouds for the tourist market throughout the Middle East, Turkey, Northern Africa, and Central Asia but top quality ouds made by master luthiers are harder to come by, and often only custom made.  And there is no comparison between the craftsmanship, sound, feel, and playability of a cheap tourist oud and a top quality masterpiece.

Faruk Türünz Oud

Faruk Türünz Oud

Faruk has taken his ouds, made by himself and his skilled craftsman, to the highest possible level, by using revolutionary ideas, modern software, and custom tools to get the best possible results in sound quality, every time.

Early on, Faruk discovered that he could make ouds with the same materials and dimensions, but the sound would be different each time, because no two pieces of wood are exactly alike.  Looking at a mechanical engineering book, he came across formulas related to the vibration and frequency of various building materials.  His “aha moment” was realizing that the frequencies of the components of a musical instrument, which determine the sound quality and resonance, would be different due to the differences in wood, even with identical sized pieces of the same wood.  So he set about figuring out a way to first determine the ideal frequencies of the component parts of an instrument, and then to build the instrument based on those figures.

Brace Tuning Method

Brace Tuning Method

He calls it the “brace tuning method”, and you can see one of his craftsmen using it above.  With custom tools and software, he is determining the frequency of a single piece of wood that will be used to make an oud.  Each brace is custom made to create the perfect frequency to achieve the desired sound when added to the oud.  This revelation is what makes his ouds sound so consistently incredible.  But he doesn’t stop there.

Carbon Fiber Additions

Carbon Fiber Additions

In the image above, one of his craftsmen is adding carbon fiber strips to both strengthen and perfectly balance the neck of an oud.  And when you pick up one of his finished ouds, the balance is perfect.  It’s another step along the evolution of the oud.

Custom Fingerboard Leveling Machine

Custom Fingerboard Leveling Machine

Faruk uses ebony for the fingerboards of his ouds, and in the picture above you can see the use of his custom built machine that sands the fingerboard to make it perfectly smooth and level, every time.

Oud Making

Oud Making

Every step of the process has been explored, tested, and refined, and you know it the moment you see one of his ouds in person, the moment you pick one up, and especially, when you hear the sound.  They are technical masterpieces, and works of art.

Peg Box

Peg Box

Aside from his revolutionary work, the amazing thing about Faruk is his willingness to share his discoveries.  He’s happy to tell anyone about his formulas and exactly how he and his crew build their ouds.  Yet, few oud makers are listening.  Just like in martial arts, people are limited by tradition and unwilling to question, explore, test, and evolve.  Eventually they’ll be passed up by people like Faruk and his crew.  What they leave to chance, Faruk has found a way to engineer to perfection.  I would think that all makers of musical instruments would benefit greatly to hear of Faruk’s discoveries.  I hope he or one of his craftsmen will at least write a book on the subject to make sure his knowledge will be passed on.

Peg Box

Peg Box

I don’t play well enough to do justice to his ouds, so I won’t include a video of myself playing to this post.  But if you’d like to hear them, check out his YouTube Channel.  In person, the sound is far better than what you’ll hear in the videos.  If you’d like to get one for yourself, which I highly recommend if you’re even slightly inclined, here is his website.  He does ship them around the world, but using the purchase as an excuse for a trip to Istanbul is also highly recommended.  🙂

UPDATE:  10 months after writing this post I also bought an Arabic oud from Faruk.  I’ve written a review of it here.

Taiwanese Aboriginal Atayal / Truku Knife

Truku Aboriginal Knife

Truku / Atayal Knife

I  recently spent a few weeks on vacation in Taiwan, and with some difficulty managed to find a large knife or small sword made by the Truku aboriginal tribe, formerly classified as part of the Atayal people.  Aside from it being a unique weapon, I thought I’d post directions to the blacksmith shop for anyone who may be in Taiwan and searching for it, since it was relatively difficult to find.

If you’re like I was, you primarily associate Taiwan with the Chinese, the country where Chiang Kai-shek fled to escape the communists.  I was interested in visiting China without the Cultural Revolution, to see traditional Chinese culture that hadn’t been wiped out by both the Cultural Revolution and the extreme modernization where “to be rich is glorious”.  And in that sense, Taiwan didn’t disappoint.  The National Palace Museum in Taipei contains the largest collection of ancient Chinese artifacts in the world, for example, as when the nationalists fled mainland China, they brought many treasures with them.  Traditional Chinese culture seemed to be alive and well in Taiwan, and talking with locals, they voiced the same idea regarding having a better preserved traditional culture than what you’ll find in much of the mainland.

But anyway, Taiwan is much more than the Chinese who fled there.  There is a large population of native inhabitants, or Taiwanese aboriginal tribes.  Driving along the east coast, in the Rift Valley, or in the mountainous areas of the country, the smaller towns are more aboriginal than Chinese.  The scenery is spectacular, particularly in and around the the Taroko and Yushan National Parks.  There are countless hikes on well maintained trails, including very long and high suspension bridges:

Walami Trail

Walami Trail

In the aboriginal areas, most towns have statues like these at the entrance on the main streets:

Taiwanese Aboriginal Statue

Taiwanese Aboriginal Statue

Every one of the statues we saw included the traditional knife/sword:

Aboriginal Statue

Aboriginal Statue

Before I left for Taiwan, I did a search on Netflix for Taiwanese movies, and came across a movie called Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale.  The movie is about the Wushe Rebellion, an uprising against the Japanese by the Seediq tribe in 1930.  Here’s the trailer:

The movie may not be entirely accurate, but I highly recommend it if you like action movies.  It was filmed in Taiwan, and the scenery is exactly what you see there, particularly in the aboriginal areas and national parks.

After seeing the movie and the unique blades of the Seediq, I figured I’d have to find one for myself.  The Seediq tribe are from the Hualien area of Taiwan, and were previously grouped together with the Truku tribe as Atayal people.  The weapons of the Atayal, Seediq, and Truku are indistinguishable, at least from what I can tell.  So I searched and searched, found a few pictures of the traditional knives being sold in Taiwan, but was unable to locate them where they had been previously seen.

At our hotel in the Taroko National Park, I met an Atayal man and asked him if the knives were still being made and where I could find them.  He gave me directions to what may be the last aboriginal blacksmith in the country who is still making these weapons.

Tonglan Blacksmith Shop

Tonglan Blacksmith Shop

Here is an article I found in English about the shop.  The only way to get there is with your own transportation.  My wife and I had rented a car, but even with directions it was difficult to find.  Hopefully the following images will make it easier.  The shop is located on Huadong Rd. in a village called Tongmen.  Here it is on a map:

Tonglan Blacksmith Shop Map

Tonglan Blacksmith Shop Map

And here is a closer satellite view of the town:

Atayal, Seediq, Truku Knife Shop

Atayal, Seediq, Truku Knife Shop

If you’re coming from Hualien and taking Highway 9, you’ll see the big lake, and should be able to find the shop from there.  The problem for anyone, such as myself, who cannot read Chinese characters, is that even with a GPS you will not be able to enter in the location.

The shop was empty when I arrived.  I got out of the car and walked around a bit, saw a girl walking down the street, and gestured toward the shop.  She slid the door right open and sold me the knife pictured at the top of this post.  Here’s another image:

Atayal Truku Knife

Atayal / Truku Knife

I had actually hoped to purchase a full sized sword, as they’re made with the same design in a variety of sizes.  A Google Image search for “atayal sword” will pull up several examples, such as this one from a site displaying Atayal cultural items:

Atayal Sword

Atayal Sword

Unfortunately though, it seems like the swords are no longer made.  However, the knife I was able to purchase (for about $100), is fairly large at 22 inches.

From what I’ve read, the unique open sheath design is used to keep moisture from collecting inside the sheath.  Taiwan is extremely humid, and it rains often.  So this makes sense.

It’s sad when quality elements and arts of traditional cultures die out, so I’m posting the information above in hopes that anyone else looking for a Taiwanese aboriginal knife or sword will be able to find the shop and keep them in business…keeping the art alive!

Doxology: What You Think You Know

Papua New Guinea Battle Shield

Shield – Papua New Guinea

I’ve been disappointed with a couple of people recently.  Sometimes, for moments, I find it hard to understand how someone can seem so right in one regard but so wrong in another.  I figure it’s a common case of cognitive dissonance.

Years ago, I came up with a saying that I think is very important to keep in mind: The only thing I know is that I don’t truly know anything, and I don’t even know that.

When you think you know something, you close your mind to alternative possibilities.  When new information comes to light, you’re unable to see it.  It’s essential to realize that you don’t truly know anything.  Doing that allows you to maintain an open mind.

And a mind that is open is necessarily in a constant state of change.  There is no such thing as “changing your mind” when it’s open.

But there’s more to it than that.

Doxology

When I use the term doxology, I’m referring to the old use of the word doxa (common beliefs), and not the new use (praise or glory).

The Kunsthistorisches Museum (Ethnology Museum) in Vienna, Austria is one of my favorite museums.  In the catalog for an exhibit called Fetish Modernity, Mats Rosengrens wrote an essay titled Doxology: For a Contemporary Protagoreanism.  That essay does an outstanding job of pointing to the problem not only with common knowledge, but especially with what is so ordinary to us…so ordinary that we don’t even think to question it.

About knowledge in general, he writes:

…our knowledge is always formulated and/or preserved in some language, institution or ritual; practiced and upheld by one or many individuals; in one historical moment or other and within the admittedly diffuse framework of an ever changing but still specific social situation.  All these factors codetermine our knowledge, make it a part of a fluctuating, always changing doxic situation.  So we have no reason to believe that our alleged universal human nature would be privileged and exempt from these aporias pertaining to all knowledge.  Each claim to universal knowledge is in fact always dependent on specific historical, social, and epistemic conditions.

And regarding why this is so rarely even considered, he writes:

Doxa is that which is never questioned, simply because nobody in the group ever thinks about questioning it.  Every group or domain that is more or less delimited has it’s own doxa – scholars as well as businessmen, politicians as well as artists.

Papua New Guinea Shield

Another PNG Shield

We may know there are certain things we don’t know, but there are many other things we don’t know that we don’t know.  The only way to get around this conundrum, is to admit that we don’t truly know anything.  Otherwise, we let the social conditions around us (society at large, family, friends, groups we belong to, etc.) dictate what we believe to be true, and how we see ourselves.

Practical Knowledge vs. Real Knowledge

Of course, we have to use our current understanding of the way things work in order to get along.  For practical purposes, we do have to assume many things are practically true.  We assume that the sun will shine again tomorrow, that 2 + 2 = 4, and so on.  Based on our experience, we can make assumptions.  And these assumptions may be generally correct.  At least, correct enough for our current, practical purposes.

But that is different from real, absolute knowledge.  When you make the distinction, understanding that all knowledge is situationally limited, you maintain your open mind and your ability to learn…your flexibility to change around you.

Question Everything and Everyone

Hold no one above you.  Question everything.  Question everyone.  Continuously.

This is where my disappointment arises.

In the first system I taught, although I would have done so by nature anyway, my instructor told me to question everything.  He was ok with that, as long as I wasn’t questioning what he was doing.  When it was his doxa, it wasn’t my place to question.  It was disappointing.  He knew better, and I needed to follow along.  So I quit.

I took two other instructors along with me.  And although they both realized there were problems with believing what we had been teaching was functional, the pull of doxa was too much for one of them.  Un-knowledge wasn’t nearly as attractive as believing, or somehow pretending he did.

It’s unfortunate, but I’ve had very few long term teachers.  I’ve had a couple more that also said one should ask questions.  But once those questions came up against their doxa, things became rather sour.

Sifu, Sensei, & Master Titles and Implications

This applies not only to martial arts/self defense:  You’ve got trouble when your teacher has you call him sifu, sensei, or master.  Or, when you call him Mr. Smith and he calls you Bobby.  He likely holds himself above you, and he wants you to do the same.  He wants you to believe him, not to question him.  When you do that, you’re on the path to martial arts group-think.

But the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing can be even more insidious.  Some instructors will tell you to call them by their first name, pretending to be open to questions and questioning.  However, they’ll be sure to let you know that they know something you do not.  They’ll try to reinforce their desired position regularly.  They’ll try to assert dominance in ways you may not realize.  They’ll be your master, and you won’t even know it.

In either case, if you don’t fall for it, if you question their doxa, things will quickly sour.

The Qualifications Trap

It shouldn’t surprise me, but it still does.  When I see that a person has certain qualifications, often many of them, especially when those qualifications include “real life” applications, I have some expectation that their ability will match their qualifications.  But it very often does not.  Or, the qualifications were meaningless to begin with.  It’s surprising how often that is the case.  Qualifications are meaningless.

The Importance of Doxology

According to Mats Rosengrens, doxology is a model for understanding that all knowledge is situational.  It may be practical, but it’s also relative.  It is not absolute.  Remember that.  Question it.  And most definitely, question me, too.