I like to cook, and I have even been told I am ok at it. But what has aspiring to have the skills of a chef got to do with fighting?
I personally believe that certain elements of martial arts have lost their way and have lost some of the essence of what martial practise should be about.
Let me explain.
The Samurai (Bushi) as they were known were the ruling military class of the Edo period in Japan. Between 1603 and 18667 they were the highest-ranking social class. Schooled in weapons, empty hand, military tactics, and strategy these were formidable warriors with a skillset for violence unparalleled anywhere else in the country. Dangerous through training, and with an authority of rank the Samurai were the elite. Amounting to only around 10% of the population they held a power that was unquestionable.
Given the authority status of the Samurai, they needed a code to live by. A set of standards that meant their violent existence was tempered with wisdom, patience, and serenity. This code was called Bushido which is similar to the European ethos of chivalry.
Nitobe Inazo wrote the eight virtues of Bushido as a code of conduct which was to be strictly followed and was equally as important to the Samurai as their battle skills.
The virtues are:
Duty and loyalty
All admirable qualities and I would suggest standards we should all aspire to. It was important that they held themselves to these virtues and to not do so would mean disgrace. As part of the pact they had a personal responsibility for self-improvement and education. While they trained extensively in the arts of war, they also needed balance and so would look outside of the martial skillset to better themselves.
The Japanese called it Onmyodo, we would know the concept better as yin and yang. Taken from Taoism the principle is there must always be an opposite for balance. It is a natural law shown in obvious ways such as day or night or hot or cold. To ignore this principle is to invite an imbalance and the Samurai knew this, so they would seek out artistic pursuits and leisure activities to create beauty to counter the destruction. It is worth noting that this principle isn’t static, neither is it absolute. It is constantly in flux and we have to maintain the balance within ourselves to lead happy healthy lives.
The Samurai would look to several pursuits including flower arranging, poetry and painting. The practise of these arts would lead to a deeper understanding of self and awareness. Putting themselves in the moment and focusing on the beauty of what they were doing would be in direct contrast to the study of war.
The Japanese art of Ikebana flower arranging works to three main aims. The arrangements are designed to symbolise heaven, earth, and humankind. The simple beauty is what gives it meaning.
Haiku is a short form of Japanese poetry, again following three main aims. First is cutting or, kiru, which set out words that contrast one another. Secondly there are usually 17 syllables arranged into three lines of 5,7 and 5. Lastly there is a kigo, or seasonal reference.
They would also practise Sumi-e drawing, which again follows three main characteristics. The aim is not to offer a true interpretation of the subject but to capture its essence. They use stylistic features that may not be realistic. There is no colour and the nuances of the art are drawn by shades of black. This is delivered through the quality of the brushwork which gives the picture its spirit.
Individuals would spend hours in solitude working to perfect whatever task they had assigned themselves. Perfection was the goal which remained unobtainable. This led to more practise in the pursuit of the goal, and the mindset that every task undertaken deserved full commitment, energy and passion meant that all tasks had a value.
The need to find that balance was not just for the Samurai in feudal Japan, it is just as real now, and something we ignore at our peril. We must strive for excellence in our endeavours and attempt to be the best version of ourselves that we can.
So, what’s all this got to do with cooking I hear you ask?
For me it is the yin to the yang. I have studied martial arts for many years, since I was a teenager in fact. I have worked in roles where violence was an excepted part of the job. I have seen and done some dark things in my lifetime and at times was nearly swept away on the darkness that comes with that. I still study violence, and I still live and work in a world that is surrounded by it. I need the yang, and for me that translates into cooking.
That for me is a way to process and to quiet the mind. It is almost a meditation in movement. I am also building, not destroying which I believe is a very important part of our existence. We must create, inspire, and feed our soul with the positive energy that creating something unique from your own hands comes from. But the cooking is not just for me, it fulfils a deep-seated need and feeds a hunger that is within us all. Not just eating for sustenance but giving to others and sharing effort and resources which builds the trusts and friendships that we need.
Interestingly, like the poetry, painting and flower arranging of ancient Japan cooking also has three main components. All food in all its guises when prepared are a balance of salt, fat, and acid. How you weigh up those elements and in what arrangements will dictate the taste and structure of the meal. How you heat them, prepare them, and mix them all create an artistry that fantastic food can deliver.
It seems to be in modern martial arts that we don’t always see the need to achieve the balance and sometimes it seems by creating the warrior without the poet we are creating monsters that will never fully see the beauty in the world. Only teaching violence without teaching kindness seems to create a natural deficit that can only lead to unhappiness. Maybe we should look to the lessons of history and understand the wisdom of true warriors who saw the importance of knowing how to create as well as learning to destroy.