I’ve called this blog ‘What I talk about when I talk about karate,’ in reference to Murakami’s book ‘What I talk about when I talk about running‘ which itself is an obvious reference to ‘What we talk about when we talk about love‘ by Raymond Carver. Faintly ironic, then, is the fact that I hardly talk about karate at all.

In his preamble to dictating The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus Christ has this, according to the New International Version of the gospel of Matthew, to say about correct behaviour while in prayer:

Matthew 6;5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

At this point, I hasten to point out that I am an atheist; I don’t for a moment believe  Jesus Christ was divine, that the bible is the word of god, or that the gospels are accurate accounts of the life of a rabble rousing preacher in first century Palestine in any more than the most general and vague ways. I don’t think that, as a whole, the bible is suitable in isolation to use as the basis for a moral framework. That way lies the stoning to death of disobedient sons for wearing mixed fabric clothing.

I do think that like all works of fiction it condenses the opinions of its authors for the reader to consider; The reader may be appalled or inspired, depending of course on his own moral and ethical standards. The bible had many authors, of different ethical stripes, and quite a bit of the early stuff is pretty appalling to  modern sensibilities. Mine, anyway.

But this Jesus fellow had some good ideas, which means, even if he didn’t exist at all, that the men who wrote about him had those ideas too. Christ’s guiding principle is so universal that it is known in ethical philosophy as the Golden Rule: treat other people as you would expect them to treat you. He’s not the only human to have said it, nor the only god, but he is perhaps the most well-known.

Do you see what I mean by the way? Four paragraphs in and I’ve only even used the ‘k’ word once…

So, godless heathen that I am, there are nevertheless several things which Jesus is reported to have said that ring true for me, and please me greatly. For perspective, Christ hasn’t rung true for me in this way as often as Granny Weatherwax. The bit with the money lenders I always especially liked, and of late I’ve come upon the quote above.

I encountered it with reference to Tim Tebow, the quarterback who prayed ostentatiously at the side of the field before every game, and attributed his wins to the practice. Most unsympathetic commentary focussed on the arrogance of claiming that god listens to, and acts on, the prayers of a rich white himbo who got lucky in professional sport, but not, for the sake of argument, a starving child in Africa, and that’s a fairly easy shot to take. Other, more subtle, criticism highlighted Tebow’s disregard of this praying guideline laid down by the very entity Tebow believes is ‘answering’ his prayers with touchdowns.

In Matthew 6;5, Christ is not abjuring his followers from ever praying in public; it’s made quite clear elsewhere that people should get together and worship communally . He’s warning them not to mistake those who make their private prayers in public for being especially holy, when they are merely vainglorious. Tebow is not truly communing with a deity, or even benefiting from meditation, of which prayer is a variation; he’s just making sure everyone watching knows how pious he is and, once we know this , the  hollow and hypocritical nature of his faith is clear. That is his ‘reward in full.’

In a broader sense, Matthew 6;5 warns against bragging; against showing off; against the hubris, when doing almost anything, of insincerely attempting to make others aware of how brilliant you are at it for no other reason than to bask in their awe, respect or fear. If you’re doing that, the only benefit you get from the activity, be it praying or paragliding, is to your own vain ego.

I don’t go to church and I don’t pray. The dojo is my church and karate is my prayer. Perhaps I will now say ‘meditation’ instead of prayer. Some people may still find meditation in prayer, but for so many it only means wishing fervently to the sky daddy, or staring dully into space listening with half an ear for when it’s time to say ‘amen.’

These are not spiritual practices; they offer no fulfilment or enlightenment, only false hope, yearning and ennui. Alan Watts contended that it was once possible to be a Christian Mystic and meditate in prayer, but that translating the Eucharist into ‘bad English’ put paid to that; once you can understand the chanting, it loses its meditative value.

Karate then is my meditation. Meditation that is not sincere will be worthless. Just sitting on your heels with your eyes shut is not meditation. Walking through a series of funny body shapes at various speeds is not practising karate. Karate must be focussed and sincere. Karate practised solely to impress, or worse intimidate,  lacks this focus and becomes hypocritical, false, an empty vessel, and can never be anything more. Again, a ‘reward in full.’

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