I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Adam Brooks Webber's reflection on dancing with the sunrise.
I gather my weapons. No one else in the house is awake yet, save only the cat, and he’s too concerned now with the contents of his dish to pay any further attention to me. I ease the back door open and slip outside. The dew on the back steps chills my bare feet. The neighboring cottages are quiet, and there’s no one in sight. Good. I’d just as soon not be seen. With silent steps I make my way down the path, past the parking lot, past the old hotel, and onto the empty beach. I place my weapons carefully on the sand. I kneel, preparing myself.
Preparing myself, but not for violence. I have never used a weapon in earnest against another creature. I am a student of a traditional martial art—Karatedo Doshinkan—and my weapons this morning are simple wooden ones: the bo (a six-foot staff) and the tonfa (a pair of short sticks with handles). Each morning, when I can, I come to this beach on Lake Michigan to train, sometimes with weapons and sometimes without them. Each morning I begin with an opening ceremony of kiotsuke (gathering ki, life-energy) and rei (showing respect), preparing for my daily training in the way I first began to study more than twenty years ago. And each morning, as part of this ceremony, I kneel and pray.
Hanshi Isao Ichikawa, the founder of my style of Karatedo, opened each training with this traditional ceremony, which includes a time of kneeling silence. I never heard him give any instruction on what to do with this silence; it wasn’t his way to tell when he could show. I don’t think he thought of it as a time of prayer, but that’s what it is for me. In fact, my whole morning training is often a time of prayer—a time of heightened awareness of God’s presence.
The training itself involves the practice of many kata, traditional training dances. To learn a kata, a student watches a teacher carefully and attempts to imitate the movements. Kata are ancient teachings, kinetic traditions passed on through generations. They bear wisdom from out of the past, and they reward close study. Hanshi taught these movements carefully, but also used to emphasize that technique isn’t everything. In one rare moment of explanation he suggested that we try to perform kata as a mother sings lullabies to her child. When singing a lullaby it doesn’t hurt to have the vocal technique of a professional singer, but that isn’t the most important thing. What really makes a lullaby beautiful, with or without perfect technique, is the mother’s feeling for her child. And I find that when I am properly mindful a kata can be an intensely prayerful dance with God.
This morning, I start with my time of kneeling silence. The lake, which was noisy with waves all night, is at rest now, and the sun is not yet up. I kneel in the cold damp sand, eyes closed. I reflect with gratitude on my shivering body: I am a 53-year-old man, no great athlete, no paragon of strength or beauty, yet all my limbs seem to be working this morning, and we are all, as scripture says, fearfully and wonderfully made. I think about my teachers—the late Hanshi, Shihan Dean, Shihan June, Shihan Leone, Hanshi Nobuo Ichikawa. I picture them in my mind and pray my thanks for them. I offer my training to God, and ask that God watch and receive my practice. I wait and listen in the silence. And when it’s time, I open my eyes, and rise, and begin.
I begin, of course, with physical warm-ups. Some of them look pretty silly. I must confess, this is the part I’d rather not have anyone see. I’m vain enough to hope that, if anyone does pass by this early in the morning, they’ll at least wait until I’m doing something more impressive than swiveling my hips and swinging my arms. And now I do hear an approaching noise. It’s a rushing, murmuring sound. I look around, but no, it’s overhead: swans! In a V-formation they pass above me, heading up the shoreline. Up where they’re flying, the rising sun already touches them, and they shine a brilliant white in the grey dawn. They don’t seem to have taken any notice of me and my ridiculous wind-milling.
Warm-ups completed, I move into a time of practicing kata. I begin with the seven Kyoku kata—the sunrise kata—and I pray them repeatedly to God with my body, wordlessly. In this time of prayer I do not communicate verbal concepts to God: no praise, no request, no thanks, no complaint. We show more than tell, and dance more than show. This is an essentially kinetic prayer, a dance to God and with God, an expression of what it means to be alive and incarnate, performed with full feeling.
The sun rises to touch me. The hour wears away. There is no room for fear or self-consciousness. My fearfully-and-wonderfully-made body becomes hot and tired and stuck all over with sand. And as I train, I become more aware of God, and I feel God’s eyes on me. And a slow elation rises."
Rev. Adam Brooks Webber Ph.D. holds a fifth degree black belt. He is the pastor of the Clare Congregational UCC in Clare, Michigan. He is also a husband and father, computer scientist, writer, composer, and entertainer. He blogs at adambrookswebber.com.