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7 great martial-arts-as-a-path books

Pai Mei demonstrating a basic defence against the sword. From Kill Bill.
Pai Mei demonstrating a basic defence against the sword. From Kill Bill.

Martial arts are not just a set of skills, they are a way of life. I have always felt that to be true, but did not truly understand it until I moved to Finland and opened my school. Since doing so, I have been inspired by many books written by people who have shared the view that martial arts training is about transformation. This list includes seven such books; some deeply serious, some less so. But all have as an undercurrent the feeling that martial arts are not just about being good at hitting people.

These seven are all concerned with Japanese or Chinese martial arts; as yet there have been no similar works by practitioners of the Western way, that I know of. Whenever I teach a seminar on European martial arts in Asia, or when one of my Singaporean students comes to Finland, I wonder whether that will change.

So, martial arts paths, in book form: Here are my top seven, in no particular order:

Searching for the Way by Nigel Sutton

This book is about Sutton’s journeys in Asia, training in traditional Chinese martial arts. It has a lot of the nitty-gritty of training, and some excellent descriptions of life as a martial arts disciple. These people take their arts deeply seriously, and Sutton’s approach to them as a seeker after truth resonated with me.

Dueling with O-Sensei by Ellis Amdur

(Disclaimer: I know Ellis and count him a friend: he is a simply awe-inspiring martial artist, and a very nice man.) I first came across this book when Neal Stephenson described it to me as the best martial arts book he had ever read. So I bought a copy, and it was so good I read it in one sitting, and gave it away the next day. And now it’s out of print. Bugger. (I rate how much I really like a book by how insistent I am that my friends read it too.) This book is partly about Amdur’s training in Japan, and partly about the arts he trains, and partly about the mythology around Morihei Ueshiba. Amdur’s most recent book, Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power is a thorough description and analysis of the training practices of that extraordinary man.

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

This is a necessary book for all martial artists, because it is not just the story of Waitzkin going from chess champion to winner of the world push-hands title in Taiwan, but it  explicitly details how he did it. It is all about ways of learning skills of any type, with chess and t’ai chi used as exemplars. It should have gone into my post 5 essential non-martial arts books every martial artist should read, and only didn’t because it is not a non-martial arts book. Waitzkin seems to me to be less interested in the path, and more in the glory, which of all these authors makes him the least enjoyable to read. But he has real skills, and a lot to offer.

Angry White Pyjamas by Robert Twigger

The subtitle says it all: “A Scrawny Oxford Poet Takes Lessons From The Tokyo Riot Police”. Basically, Twigger, knowing very little aikido, joined the riot police training course. This is all about developing character, or training spirit, and not so much to do with learning “working” techniques. The book has some fantastic scenes in it, and shines a light on some mad Japanese approaches to training. All my students should read it to realise that really, my warm-ups are gentle, and I am a mild-mannered pussy-cat of a teacher. This book also has one of the best chapter headings ever: “Zen and the Art of Being Really, Really, Angry.”  Great fun.

Fight the Good Fight by Catherine Fox

This is a lovely book, about a vicar’s wife deciding to take up judo again after her kids are old enough, and the trials, tribulations and rewards of getting back on the mat, and working up from white belt beginner to black belt. Most martial arts books are about young men full of piss and vinegar. This is about woman in her forties who, frankly, is a lot more interesting to spend time with than the average 20-something bloke.

Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai by Dave Lowry

Lowry is one of the best writers on martial arts, and has been a seriously devoted practitioner since the sixties. This book has the classic scene of the student knocking on the master’s door, and being told to go away by the master’s wife, again and again, until finally the master is convinced that he is serious, and agrees to train him. Proof that legends can happen. Lowry infuses his story of growing up as the disciple of a traditional Japanese swordsmanship master with lyric beauty. It’s the kind of book that will either put you off training martial arts (because it’s too hard, or because you will never have the kind of luck Lowry did, finding such a master in the American midwest), or will fire you up to follow the traditional arts, making them not your hobby, but your path. Lowry’s other books are all excellent, and his Persimmon Wind  is sort of the sequel to this one.

And now for something completely different:

The one best fictional young-man-meets-old-master traditional kung-fu but with ninjas and sci-fi (I’m not selling this well, I know, but dammit, this is a brilliant book, one of the few I will pick up to re-read specific fight scenes), is the utterly fantastic in all senses of the word The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. It has old-school training, internal martial arts, secret strikes, and the immortal line: “Ghost Palm of the Voiceless Dragon Style, fucker”. And a twist that I never saw coming. Proof that you don’t actually have to be a martial artist to get traditional martial arts. Fabulous!

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