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Oldest Unbroken Chain of Human Learning

February 9, 2012

What say you about black belts?

In his Christmas card, my Korean grand-master told me I will be testing at mid-year for international certification as a master taekwondo instructor. To be certified as a fifth-dan black belt by the Kukkiwon, that splendid shrine outside Seoul, is to hold rank at the world headquarters of taekwondo — a signal honor.

Clearly, the arts are not for everybody. My standing joke: a martial artist is someone with a taste for ordeals, who wants to be a hero. But make no mistake, martial arts are the world’s oldest unbroken chain of human learning.

Let’s say, poetically, today’s martial arts are nothing less than the fruit of an immortal tree whose roots grow back into the unimaginable mythic darkness out of which mankind itself appears. Fighting styles are documented in Chinese written chronicles for nearly three thousand years, having been taught mostly by men to boys, from generation to generation, the chain unbroken, while entire civilizations rose up, conquered the world and then slowly crumbled back into dust.

So our traditional martial arts schools rival the world’s great universities as storehouses of humanity’s accumulated wisdom. Martial institutions of higher learning differ only in housing layers and epochs of mankind’s most meaningful motions — and not only those which harm. Books are read by eyes — martial arts, with bodies. No professor speaks every language ever spoken; and yet only the fact of our training being dumb-show disguises from masters the inconceivable pan-historic babble we are enacting.

Here is my truth. A hung-over strip-mall master teaching a small morning class in a failing school is more profoundly connected to the mystery of human being than is a priest. I say this, not as cheap blasphemy, but anthropologically, simply as a way of emphasizing that our arts are older than our 2,000 year old gods.


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