The four-fold path

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As I get older, I fully comprehend that I’m not that bright. Don’t get me wrong, I never thought I was that bright in the first place. I mean, I could follow Einstein’s math in class when I was a kid (circa 24-25 I think), but that phase passed very quickly, and I just went back to being lil’ ole me. Most of what I have learned in life has been through trial and error and persistence, not great insight. The school of hard knocks as it were.

So as I get older, I understand that far brighter people than myself have tried to tell us the truth for a long long time, but we, not being as bright as they were, cannot discern the wisdom in their words. Or possibly worse, we do not believe them, and think we know better. Then we learn.

Cleobulus (or Kleoboulos) of Lindos in Rhodes was one of the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece. He was both the tyrant (absolute monarch) of Lindos and a scholar. Clement of Alexandria calls Cleobulus “king of the Lindians,” and Plutarch speaks of him as a tyrant. But Cleobulus is said to have studied philosophy in Egypt, and was the author of poems, songs and riddles. He advised men to be listeners rather than talkers, to do nothing by violence and to educate all children, both sons and daughters – extraordinary opinions for the times and for a man for which we now use the appellation “tyrant.” In fact, the city-state of Lindos, which also governed much of its neighboring area, reached its peak in the 6th century BC under the reign of Cleobulus, becoming a prosperous town known for its quality of life. Cleobulus is said to have lived to the age of seventy and to have been greatly distinguished for his strength and beauty.

Cleobulus is best known for one quote: “moderation is the best thing” (Μέτρον ἄριστον, which actually doesn’t translate well from ancient Greek, as the word ἄριστον is better expressed as “the best of all things”). When I was younger I scoffed at this, retorting with Heinlein’s quote “Μoderation is for monks, everything in excess!” I no longer believe that this is even remotely true.

It is very easy to get dragged into excessive practices, moreso in the worlds of martial arts and the esoteric quest. In many cases, this leads to catastrophe and a quick death.

Take Bruce Lee for example; he died when he was thirty-three. He is widely considered by many commentators, critics, media and other martial artists to be the most influential martial artist of the 20th century and a cultural icon. Let me quote from wikipedia, editing the text to describe his life in summary, in the context of this blogpost:

Lee’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, was one of the leading Cantonese opera and film actors at the time, and was on a year-long tour with his family on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. Because of this, Lee was born in the US in 1940 (San Francisco).

Lee’s mother, Grace Ho, was from one of the wealthiest and most powerful clans in Hong Kong, the Ho-tungs. She was the niece of Sir Robert Ho-tung, of Eurasian descent and patriarch of the clan; perhaps this factor influenced Lee’s stance toward Caucasians. The young Bruce Lee grew up in an affluent and privileged environment.

At the age of 18, Lee returned to the United States because of a fight with the son of a leader of the triads. With $100 in his pocket and the titles of 1957 High School Boxing Champion and 1958 Crown colony Cha Cha Champion of Hong Kong, he moved to Seattle in 1959, where he worked for Ruby Chow as a live-in waiter at her restaurant. In December 1960, at the age of twenty, Lee completed his high school education. In March 1961, he enrolled at the University of Washington, majoring in drama according to the university’s alumni association information; he never got his degree, but dropped out in the spring of 1964.

Lee began teaching martial arts in the US in 1959, almost immediately upon arrival. He first taught friends in Seattle, starting with Judo practitioner Jesse Glover, who later became his first assistant instructor. Lee opened his first martial arts school, named the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, in Seattle (Lee Jun Fan was his real name).

Bruce then moved to Oakland in the spring of 1964 to live with James Lee, a well known Chinese martial artist in the area. Together, they founded the second Jun Fan martial art studio in Oakland. James Lee was also responsible for introducing Bruce Lee to Ed Parker, organizer of the Long Beach International Karate Championships at which Bruce Lee was “discovered” by Hollywood. Because of his demo at Long Beach, Lee got the role of Kato alongside Van Williams in the TV series The Green Hornet. The show lasted just one season, from 1966 to 1967, with three crossover episodes in Batman. This was followed by guest appearances in three television series: Ironside (1967), Here Come the Brides (1969), and Blondie (1969).

At the time, two of Lee’s martial arts students were Hollywood scriptwriter Stirling Silliphant and actor James Coburn. In 1969, Lee made a brief appearance in the Silliphant-penned film Marlowe where he played a henchman hired to intimidate private detective Philip Marlowe, (played by James Garner), by smashing up his office with leaping kicks and flashing punches, only to later accidentally jump off a tall building while trying to kick Marlowe off. The same year he choreographed fight scenes for The Wrecking Crew starring Dean Martin, Sharon Tate, and featuring Chuck Norris in his first role. In 1970, he was responsible for fight choreography for A Walk in the Spring Rain starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, again written by Silliphant. In 1971, Lee appeared in four episodes of the television series Longstreet, written by Silliphant. Lee played the martial arts instructor of the title character Mike Longstreet (played by James Franciscus), and important aspects of his martial arts philosophy were written into the script.

Not happy with his supporting roles in the United States, Lee returned to Hong Kong. After negotiating with both Shaw Brothers Studio and Golden Harvest, he signed a film contract to star in two films produced by Golden Harvest. Lee played his first leading role in The Big Boss (1971) which proved to be an enormous box office success across Asia and catapulted him to stardom. He soon followed up with Fist of Fury (1972) which broke the box office records set previously by The Big Boss. For his third film, Way of the Dragon (1972), he was given complete control of the film’s production as the writer, director, star, and choreographer of the fight scenes. Warner Brothers then offered Lee the opportunity to star in Enter the Dragon, the first film to be produced jointly by Golden Harvest and Warner Bros. Filming commenced in Hong Kong in February 1973. However, only a few months after the completion of Enter the Dragon, and six days before its 26 July 1973 release, Lee died. Enter the Dragon would go on to cement Lee as a martial arts legend. The film sparked a brief fad in martial arts, epitomized in songs such as “Kung Fu Fighting” and TV shows like Kung Fu.

But Lee knew nothing of this. He was dead of a cerebral edema, most likely due to overtraining. He had enjoyed international fame and prosperity for precisely two years.

One wonders if he would have thought it was worth it, knowing he would be soon dead and unable to enjoy fame, knowing he would be dead at 33, knowing that his son would also die young and he would be unable to protect and guide him.

Watching episodes of Longstreet or his interview with Pierre Berton, one cannot help but be impressed by the depth of Lee’s philosophy and the scope of his learning, decades before such wisdom became commonplace. He was truly a driving force in the union of eastern and western culture. But he never got to see Enter the Dragon in its finished form. He never witnessed the publication of the Tao of Jeet Kune Do (purchased with glee, among others, by a young Kostas Dervenis). His own fame and passion were a platform capitalized on by others to develop their own fortunes.

So the question remains: do you think, that he would think, that it was worth it, being dead at 33, with his son’s death following on the heels of his own?

Incessant training, pushing the boundaries of the human envelope, is a function that requires a goal. Why are you training? Why are you doing what you are doing? Is it to be powerful? There is no point to this. As we have seen, tactics and science have always been definitive of human power, not speed and strength: otherwise, the dominant species on the planet would have been the cave bear, and not we human beings. Are you training for fame and wealth? A viable option, but one should always recall Bruce (and many others) if this is your goal. Are you a professional warrior? That is another matter entirely, and incessant training is a necessity in such circumstances – but one must always live close to death having made such a choice. Are you a spiritual seeker, a monk or meditator? Then your goal is driven by theology, and we have no right to discuss same on this blog.

Ι myself trained in excess for a decade. I now wish I had not done so. I now believe it is pointless, and will explain.

My intention then is to discuss an overall successful strategy for life. And the ancient Greek word metron (μέτρον), which really loses a lot when you think of it in the context of “moderation,” reflects profound wisdom in dealing with all aspects of life. Perhaps a better contextual interpretation of metron would involve concepts of “balance” rather than restraint.

In Pammachon, the way we study martial arts if as follows: we first train our bodies. When we complete this, we are said to have finished Level One. We then insert emotional context into what we do; when we complete this stage, we are said to have finished Level Two. Then comes mental training, Level Three, where we seek the still mind in the face of conflict. Finally, we may, or may not, choose to address Level Four, because at the end of the day, Level Four comes to you whether you address it or not. Or it doesn’t, whether you address it or not. It is not up to you or your efforts; Level Four comes from something beyond our own selves and opinions.

Confusing? Let me make things a bit easier for you with a diagram. We are physical, emotional, mental and spiritual beings whether we want to be or not, so the four levels overlap as shown. (You can leave the spiritual out as you will, it makes not one shred of difference in the end, as we will see.)

Look at the drawings. Assume the Levels are indicated as shown, 1,2,3, and 4:

So you see the overlap? Do you see how mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual share evident common ground? Let me make it easier for you:

So let’s assume physical, emotional, and mental training are represented by circles 1,2, and 3 respectively. As you can see, Part 4, the spiritual quest, is there whether it wants to or not, whether we want it to be there or not. You don’t have to strive towards it; it is already there.

The shaded area reflects metron. It represents the epitome of virtue, of a life in balance, according to the principles of a man who is remembered 2500 years after his death, who ruled a people with benevolence and led them to prosperity and independence, and about whom not one negative word has been said over millennia.

You decide whether or not this man knew what he was talking about. Then decide whether you want to follow his advice or not. You will have to face the consequences of your choices one way or the other.

For myself, I will try to comprehend metron and make it my flagship. Pammachon functions whether one is a superbly trained athlete or a desk jockey – that has already been proven. The art does not rely on exceptional physical prowess (though many students are unbelievably proficient physically) but on an understanding of human nature, of our body, emotions, mind and spirit. Maybe I had Cleobulus’s words in mind, I don’t know. But in any case, you have to decide for yourself whether you want to embrace moderation or pursue a path of excess. Who knows? Excess might even work out for you.

5 Comments

5 Responses

  1. Evaggelos  •  April 9, 2012 @2:38 pm

    Very insightful what you say here sensei!

  2. Chris o avstriakos  •  April 29, 2012 @4:53 pm

    Let me add another angle of thought to this discussion – the question of what defines the very point of moderation/ balance? I would argue that the moderation we find depends very much on the extremes we have known before. Striking the point of balance means returning from the peaks of excess – our personal ones as well as those defined by society. Thus, it is necessarily a very personal matter defined by our own history as well as the time and place we are born into. Maybe an example is due:

    Let’s look at the historical Buddha, not as a metaphysical saint but rather as a human being who has drawn conclusions on what moderation might be. This is especially interesting as the Buddha’s teaching as a whole is often summed up (even by himself) as the “Middle Way”. We find proscribed a life of a chaste mendicant, not possessing much more than two sets of robes and a begging bowl and going for alms once a day – for most (including the author of these lines) probably a rather ascetic perspective. And yet, the Buddha himself calls it a recipe “for living comfortably”. As he points out, it strikes the balance between the luxuries of his child- till young adult life as a royal prince and the following complete denial of life as a spiritual seeker of his time (he almost starved himself to death). From his perspective then, eating once a day a full meal is really comfortable compared with the one grain of rice per day which should have led him to certain death.

    And yet, the Buddha’s idea of moderation is miles apart from the idea of Kleoboulos of Lindos. I take it that both men have seen life and considered right and wrong. Still, their respective answers are different – owing to their very personal life story as well as to the larger world around them. So, too, the very personal conclusion of what this moderation, this balance, this middle way might be right here, right now, will necessarily differ in appearance for each and every one of us. Though the essence of every deliberate conclusion will certainly always show finding moderation from our own peaks of excess.

  3. Kostas Dervenis  •  May 2, 2012 @8:30 am

    Hey Lama Chris! Hope all is well with you.

    I don’t think The Buddha’s approach was very far from that of Kleoboulos. The difference is dogmatic – while Kleoboulos believed in karma (The Moirae), he did not believe in rebirth or escape from same. Hence the emphasis was on “life in general” rather than theological aims, and the lesson was on how to maximize the efficacy of “life in general”, including but not limited to spiritual goals.

    Kleoboulos, Socrates, Anaxagoras, Marcus Aurelius, Lycurgus, Kazantzakis (and Kostas Dervenis after looking at things inside and out for a very long time) all had the following spiritual belief: we arrive from the Source, and we return to the Source when we die. Trying to describe the Source is pointless, as that Other Dude said with his parable of the blind men and the elephant. The ground rules for success in the Source have been passed down in all the generations of Man again and again, the point being, be nice to each other and don’t get caught up in materialism. Everything else is just toothpaste, as the Greeks are fond of saying. Somehow I think the Other Dude would be inclined to agree.

  4. Chris o avstriakos  •  May 6, 2012 @3:59 pm

    Hey Kosta,
    I am going just fine, thanks for asking. Hope your situation is not too bad either, given the news on Greece.

    It’s exactly that appearance level I wanted to point to – the obvious differences people have come up with in how to live a moderate life due to their very personal experiences.

    On a more fundamental level, “be nice with each other” and “don’t get caught up in materialism” are indeed the corner stones one which a moderate life should be build. Anybody considerate has agreed to that recipe through the ages. But I fear that it takes an experiential taste of the ultimate dimension/ the source, in order to be able to see (and some additional good gulps more in order to fully appreciate) that the rest of it, king – beggar, family father – monk etc., is indeed nothing but toothpaste.

  5. Home support  •  June 11, 2012 @8:14 am

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