Hitting People with Sticks
For Community Ministry Sunday 2018
A Sermon to Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist Sunday, January 28, 2018
In the 1970s there was a TV show called Kung-Fu starring David Carradine who played a Shaolin monk named Kwi Chang Caine. Like all Shaolin monks, he was a martial arts expert who had fled China and lived on the American Old West. Possessed of a deep ethical sense as well as a deep spirituality, Caine moved around the American frontier defending the less fortunate and growing in wisdom, insight and skill.
This show had a strong impact on me because it proposed that fighting could be more than just self-defense. As a young man I had a violent adolescence and fighting was part of this. The show Kung-Fu showed that the martial arts could be a way of personal self-improvement. I began to do some reading, and gradually moved from being a street fighter to someone who knew something about the martial arts.
Then the movie The Karate Kid came out in 1984 and I was hooked.
In the 1980s when I was the parish minister to our Oak Park congregation, I took my sabbatical to study martial arts formally, taking private instruction and then joining a school. It changed my life for the better, teaching me about self-discipline and respect, and how the mind could help my body do things that I had believed were impossible.
As a community minister who works as a medical hypnotist, that lesson about the power of the mind resonated deeply, for I’ve seen people learn to use the power of their minds to heal from terrible afflictions and to take control of their own lives.
I would end up as a multiple black belt. As I grew older I was attracted to the ancient weapons of Okinawa, Korea and Japan and would become the Traditional Weapons Instructor for my school for more than a decade. I taught a total of eight ancient weapons, specializing in the stick and the katana, or sword, what you would probably called the “samurai sword.”
These days I am not the only Unitarian Universalist clergy person who is also a martial artist, but at the time it caused something of a stir. I’d like to think I opened the door for some of my colleagues to also step into the training hall in order to try to become better people.
I retired from teaching in my mid-50s but continued to practice on my own in a home dojo, or training room. Although I still have my sword collection I transitioned to stick fighting as that is easier for an older person to do. Also, I developed soft tissue damage in both knees, and soon discovered I needed to use a cane much of the time so that my knees did not become inflamed.
Well, I figured if I had to use a cane I might as well have canes that were fun to carry and I was be proud to own.
There is a martial arts association dedicated to fighting with a cane, called CaneMasters International. I joined, trained and am now a Lifetime Member. In fact, the cane some of you have seen me carry on Sunday Mornings is actually a CaneMasters Grand Master Cane, hand made and engraved for me. While I have a medical reason to carry it, I exercise and train with that cane every day.
So hitting people with sticks has become part of my life. In fact, even when I was a swordsman, mostly we used specialized sticks, called bokken, to train and spar. You don’t actually use a sharp steel sword when training with another person for obvious reasons.
Today I want to talk about the spiritual aspects of the martial arts. I believe they teach a lesson that all can benefit from, even if you never intend to put on a uniform, walk onto the mat in a dojo and bow to a martial arts master.
Tradition and Meaning
I’ve got am amazing collection of sticks these days. Thanks to ancestory.com I learned that I am Irish—something I never knew and something that my family was actively concealing. Therefore, I added to my collection the traditional Irish fighting stick, the shillalah. I have one here <display>. This is a bata shillalah, made for me by the official shillalah maker of the Village of Shillalah in Ireland.
A true shillalah, like any any martial art tool, is a work of art. They are not the varnished blackthorn sticks you can find in your local Irish Store. It takes three to five years for a craftsperson to take a piece of blackthorn root stock and turn it into a true shillalah. The wood is soaked in special oils and waxes, kept warm for years until it becomes pliable, and then the craftsperson pulls it straight by hand over a period of months. No tools are allowed.
A martial artist treats his or her tools with respect. Swordsmen and swordsmen actually bow to their sword at the start of a training session, just as if the sword were a person. You do this to acknowledge that the sword is more than just a weapon or a tool. It is something you use as a path to personal improvement. Stick fighters do something of the same.
Martial Art v. Martial Sport
Unfortunately, in our time the martial arts have become, in my opinion, somewhat corrupted.
In many cases the respectful and spiritual aspects of the traditional martial arts are being transformed into a “martial sport.” The most obvious being “Mixed Martial Arts” fighting, where people bulk themselves up with steroids and weight training, enter an octagon shaped cage, and proceed to pound other people using pure strength with little strategy or finesse.
Martial sports use the movements and techniques of a martial art, but strip away all the spiritual and philosophical aspects. If traditional weapons are used at all the routines have been changed from ancient philosophical patterns into showy and impractical movements that are little more than cheerleader baton twirling routines done with toys. I hate them.
The fundamental difference between a martial sport and a martial art is that the art is about something—a philosophical or spiritual principle. The sport is only about scoring points.
When Morihei Ueshiba created the martial art of aikido, he didn’t do it because he wanted to hurt people. He did it to demonstrate, in a way no one could deny, that all people are connected by an energy. In fact aikido is often translated as “the way of unifying life energy,”
What a practitioner does is to sense the balance and harmony in a room. If an aggressor disrupts that harmony, the aikido practitioner restores it. If the opponent pulls, the aikido practitioner pushes. If the opponent pushes, the aikido practitioner pulls, and in so doing pulls the opponent off balance and tumbling him or her to the floor. Harmony is restored.
When Miyamoto Musashi, who would come to be called “the sword saint” in Japan formalized sword fighting and wrote his majestic Book of Five Rings in the 16th century he didn’t do it because he wanted to be violent. In his philosophy he came to believe that time was an illusion, and he demonstrated that using the sword.
In a sword or stick fight things happen fast. Faster than the eye can track. It’s all about intuition and feeling. A person must anticipate what the opponent is about to do and begin to move to defend against that BEFORE the opponent has actually done anything. You literally have to predict the future. If you divine the future correctly, you win. In a sword or stick fight both people are attempting be, not in the moment, but in the future and to make the future now.
Toward the end of his life Musashi became so good at this that he would approach his opponents dressed in everyday clothing and carrying only two wooden sticks. The opponents carried live swords and wore armor. Musashi is recorded as having been victorious in over 60 duels. He died undefeated.
The point is that true martial arts are always about something. They exist to illustrate a philosophical or metaphysical principle and succeed because they demonstrate that such principles are real. Then they extend that to other disciplines and activities. Musashi was an educated and accomplished man; expert as an artist, sculptor, architect and calligrapher. His art survives to this day and always displays his profound belief in timelessness. He believed the sword showed that time could be transcended.
What Is Your Life About?
The take-away in this somewhat autobiographical sermon is that martial arts are always about something. That is the great lesson they teach. Instead of just being born, thriving as best one can and then ending life when death comes, they propose that one’s life should also carry a meaning. Regardless of whether or not one practices a martial art, our lives should not be about just surviving. They should be about something greater. Ask yourself what your life is about.
You start small. The first time you enter a training hall you are taught easy, small steps—how to punch, how to block, how to avoid. It is only in the most advanced stages of training that you reach for the more elaborate techniques. The martial mind has always understood that the small things matter most. Master the basics.
The most basic thing about a person is his or her character. It determines almost everything else. If you develop your character as a person you may or may not find a path to riches or fame, but your life will be about something.
As an example, one of the people I admire the most is Dr. Dwight Damon, the President of the National Guild of Hypnotists. As I am also an officer in the Guild I’ve known Dwight a long time. He is an accomplished man. A successful chiropractor, he then took over the National Guild of Hypnotists after the departure of its founder and built it into the largest organization of its kind. He raised a large and successful family—and he is a long time Universalist as well, growing up in one of our churches.
But all of that is not what he is about. How I would describe him is that he is about “putting the Golden Rule into practice.” He is one of the very few people I’ve met who I can honestly say constantly tries to treat other people in the way he would want them to treat him.
I’ve seen him insulted. I’ve witnessed people slander him and lie to his face. He always rises above that and reaches for the Golden Rule as his guide. The result is that he treats other people far better than they typically treat him, but he makes it clear that his life, his character, is about putting the Golden Rule into practice.
For myself, I am all about teaching other people to take control of their lives through the power of their minds. I care about all the other things I’ve done and do, but fundamentally I try to show people that they have more power over what happens to them than they believe.
I could go on but I hope I’ve made my point. Ask yourself about your character as a person. What do you take with complete seriousness. What is important to you? What are the things about which you have no sense of humor. That’s your core. That is what you are about.
Organizations should be about something too.
In the 1990s when those of us who were here then decided to build this building, we knew that there was something we took with complete seriousness. We wanted to make it obvious, and so we wrote it on the wall in the foyer. Our covenant says that as a congregation we take seriously: (1) the bonds that unite all people, (2) human dignity, (3) reverence for life and (4) faith in a creating, sustaining and transforming power. That is our congregational character.
We didn’t invent those words. They are drawn from the theology of a great Unitarian Universalist theologian who taught at the University of Chicago. His name was Henry Nelson Wieman and he died in 1975. One of the people he taught was the Reverend Dr. Ruppert Lovely, our late Minister Emeritus.
Our covenant isn’t a complex theological document. What we are about is simple. Unity among people. Dignity. Reverence for Life, Faith that there is something more. Just the basics behind a profound spirituality.
When you fill out your pledge card this season you have the option of making these things something you are about too. I hope you will give until you are proud.
Unitarian Universalism is having a tough time these days. Many of our congregations are faltering, the national denomination has just suffered through a financial scandal regarding departing leadership. More than two thirds of our congregations have fewer than one hundred members and cannot support a full- time minister.
I’ve noticed if you ask the people in those congregations what their church is about you don’t get a clear answer. Usually you hear something vague about “liking the people.” When you go into a larger congregation and ask that same question you get a different answer. They tell you about what they are doing. They, like Countryside Church, try to be about something.
Being about something protects you from getting distracted. That’s a big deal.
Likely 90% of the people in this room carry a smart phone. They are incredibly useful devices and like the personal computer and the internet, they’ve transformed our society. Probably a lot of you have a gaming console of some sort in your home as well. They can be a lot of fun.
But there is a danger too. Mental health professionals now talk about “smart phone addiction” because some people end up spending so much time on their phones they neglect real time relationships and obligations.
The World Health Organization has now officially recognized a “Gaming Disorder” citing evidence that some people become so involved in their video games that playing them “takes precedence over other life activities.” In fact, some specialists wonder if part of the reason why some people in the upcoming generations seem to lack ambition or a work ethic is because they are getting their sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from success at computer games rather than real world activities.
People are subject to distraction, and there are things in our world that are very distracting. Our smartphones, computer games, advertising, television, the 24 hour news cycle, and much more. While these things gave great value, as a practicing hypnotist I can tell you they also pose a great risk. It’s possible to become so entranced by distractions that we forget what we thought was important.
In that distracted state we become subject to manipulation by societal forces that want us to be little more than sheep and make no trouble while they enrich themselves.
The man who began the positive thinking movement was also a great social philosopher. His name was Napoleon Hill and his classic books Think and Grow Rich and The Laws of Success have continuously been in print since the 1930s. In his last book, Outwitting the Devil, he argued that the tendency to become distracted was so strong that if we are not careful we end up “drifting.” That is, we lose all perspective and purpose and go through life letting other people and forces set the agenda for us.
We become about what others want us to be about.
He thought that was deadly. The only person who ought to set the agenda for your life is you. He thought that a person who knows what is important to him or her was a person of fearsome power. So powerful, that oppressive forces in society conspire to prevent people from becoming that powerful. Therefore, they fill the environment with noise, bread and circuses, distractions to keep us so occupied we fail to notice that we have been suckered.
The antidote to this is to know what one is about. What is really important to you. If you know that you can resist the distractions that make so many easy to manipulate.
I’ll close with the martial arts image of a person breaking a thick board with a strike of the hand. When a martial artist is tested for promotion to the next rank he or she will be asked to break one or more boards in this way. This is used as a test because the board will not break unless everything about the punch or kick is perfect.
Breaking a board requires that one be so focused there is no distraction. You aim so that your target is actually on the other side of the board, and you strike with full confidence and belief that the board is not really in your way. If you do that the board will snap. However, if you lose your focus your subconscious mind will see the board and become fearful that you are about to hurt yourself. You will instinctively pull the punch or kick in self-protection and the board will not break.
When you address the target board you have to know what is important to you in that moment—keeping your mind on the target on the other side of the board. You must resist all distraction. You must know your purpose. If you do that, you succeed.
That is what I have learned from my decades as a martial artist. That we need to be able to resist distractions of every sort. That we need to know our purpose and what is, and is not, important to us. That we need to live so that we are about something. Then, we can resist the forces who would keep us distracted so they can have their way with the world.
Perhaps others may find that observation helpful in their own lives too. And that’s my sermon.