Open Mind, Open Heart, Open Arms, Open Hand… Open Source? 5

Over the last 24 hours, something “clicked” and I had to write it down on my blog before I forgot it. So please forgive me if this wanders into slightly more metaphysical territory than my otherwise tech-laden blog generally frequents.

This has been an interesting year for my karate training. I “became” a black belt (see my 2004 Brown Belt paper to understand why I don’t say I “got” or “earned” a black belt) in May 2010, and since then I’ve been training for my Shodan (first degree) rank. Unlike other karate styles, Cuong Nhu starts numbering our Dan ranks after rather than at the Black Belt rank. And unlike the rank of Black Belt, training for Shodan places less emphasis on “hard” style karate and more on the “soft” style: anticipating, blending, redirecting, flowing – receiving the potential and kinetic energy of a conflict then redirecting it along a path that minimizes injury to oneself while generally (though optionally) maximizing it to the attacker.

I’ve noticed I train differently when focusing on soft style. And I’ve recently noticed that I’ve also started thinking differently about it, too. Plus, the fact that I turned 40 last week may also be contributing to this thought process… and maybe there really is something to that whole “with age comes wisdom” crap.

Last night, while watching my 13-year-old son take a rank test of his own at Komoku-ten dojo, my 9-year-old step-daughter asked Master John Kay “How come it’s called ‘Cuong Nhu’ instead of just ‘karate’?”

Master John answered:

Well, when Cuong Nhu first came to the US in 1971 it was actually called “Cuong Nhu Karate,” but as our style developed we added more things to it from Judo, and Aikido, and boxing, and grappling, and a few other styles.

He pointed to our style’s flag hanging in the dojo and mentioned how the old flag used to say “Cuong Nhu Karate Association” but that we now call it a “martial arts” association. He finished his thought with:

So we call it “Cuong Nhu” because calling it just “karate” would be incomplete.

That was a good enough answer for her, and she went back thinking about horsies and rainbows. I didn’t spend any more time thinking about his answer then, either.

Fast forward to this afternoon, when I was watching this video of Nhu 1 (the kata I’m working on for Shodan), which was posted on YouTube by Master Allyson Appen of Tuyê’t Tan Dojo in Berkeley, CA.

I’ve watched this video dozens of times over the past months as I try to improve my own performance and understanding of this form. As I watched today, I felt consciously appreciative of her willingness to expend the time and energy required to record and upload her performance (not to mention mastering the kata itself), and her openness in sharing it with the world, rather than keeping the “secrets” of this kata to herself or to a few select students, as do some other martial art styles.

Allow me to stop talking about karate for a moment and interject here that if you’ve given even the most cursory glance at the front page of this blog, you’ll know I’m a hard-core geek – the kind who refers to the old TV show starring Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as “ST:TOS,”  the kind who wears T-Shirts with math jokes on them, and the kind that loves to use open source software.

For my non-geek friends, “open source” means that unlike closed source or “proprietary” software, everything in an open source project is open and available for examination and scrutiny, and the projects tend to be open to contributions from any developers who are willing to help make the software better. Wikipedia itself is an open source project, and I like its current definition:

The term open source describes practices in production and development that promote access to the end product’s source materials. Some consider open source a philosophy, others consider it a pragmatic methodology.

It continues:

A main principle and practice of open source software development is peer production by bartering and collaboration, with the end-product, source-material, “blueprints,” and documentation available at no cost to the public.

Some of the world’s leading applications and technology platforms are either entirely or partially based on open source efforts: Linux, PHP, Firefox, Apache, WordPress, OpenOffice, Android, MySQL, and millions more that you may or may not have heard of.

So, as I watched the opening move of Master Allyson’s kata for the fourth or fifth time today, the voice of Master Ricki Kay (the “better” half of the only husband-wife team in Cuong Nhu who are are both 6th Dan or higher) echoed in my head like it did last Saturday at kata class as I practiced Nhu 1:

Sink… and keep your hands OPEN!

And that’s when everything clicked.

The word “karate” literally means open (kara) hand (te). And the concept of openness has a special place in Cuong Nhu, whose founder, O’Sensei Ngo Dong, lived and taught the philosophy  of Open Mind, Open Heart, Open Arms.

Yet so many of us in the martial arts seem intently focused on the hand part of open hand: punching, grabbing, pulling, chopping, grabbing, slapping, blocking, poking, striking, sweeping, sliding, pushing, deflecting, blending, twisting, grasping, pinching… while completely missing the true nature of what it means to be open. Many cling to their system of choice as the best, or the toughest, or the (insert hyperbole of choice here).

Yet I find myself surrounded by masters of the open. Master Ricki has opened her home, her business, her knowledge, her refrigerator, and her very soul to all of her students (including me) in such a consistent way and for such a considerable amount of time that when she yells “Keep your hands OPEN!” I know she’s only yelling to me, not at me.

And last night, Master John helped a little girl understand that the very nature of Cuong Nhu is to remain open to critique, feedback, and suggestion from any source, and how we must be open to integrating any techniques or concepts from other styles that will improve our style’s “source code.”

And Master Allyson showed me today that instead of keeping the nuances of a deeply subtle and complex open hand form to herself, or perhaps whispering them only to a handful of trusted students as the monastic martial arts masters of old, she was willing to digitally capture the physical expression of her ideas about the form (from multiple angles, no less) and broadcast them to every human on the planet.

So, today I realized that an open mind, open heart, and open arms are the essential elements of an open source open hand style. The ancient martial arts concept of “exchanging ideas” can only truly be experienced if both parties are open. Otherwise, the ideas flow in only one direction.

I remain unflinchingly open to your comments below.