Martial Arts and the Meaning of the Blind Master

Martial Arts and the Meaning of the Blind Master

One morning when I was about 4, I went to my parent's room to play with my father. I teased him about something to make him chase me and I bolted down the hallway. As soon as I cut right to hit the living room- BANG! I ran into the wall. I did not see the wall. My parents took me to the Dr. I needed glasses.

To say that I needed glasses was an understatement. I could barely see. Keep in mind this was in the 70’s when glasses were designed to be utilitarian, big clunky, hard, heavy plastic. I felt horrible inside. I was already super skinny. Twenty-pound glasses did not help. And I needed them, so, there was no faking it. To this day, I can only see about 7 inches past my nose.

Then I turned into the TV show called Kung Fu. I watched the main character be repeatedly bested and taught by an older, wiser man. The man was soft spoken, his name was  Po. Po changed my life forever.

When I first saw Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, I was moved by how small Helio, Carlos and his brother were. At the time, I was doing eskrima, a stick fighting art from the Philippines. I was horrible at it. But I loved it. My friend Jaime showed me some basics he learned from a videotape of jiu-jitsu and I was hooked. A few months later I signed up at Ralph Gracie’s in Mountain View. The thing that really drew me though was that I could grapple without wearing my glasses. Jiu-jitsu is super up close. I can see fine while ground fighting. It was one of the biggest things that drew me to the art. The idea that I could be like Po, truly dangerous, but kind.

Later, while training under Charles Gracie (Raph's brother) as a blue belt Charles would sometimes have us spar, blindfolded. We would start in the closed guard, but on our blindfolds and begin guard pass drills. As we would spar Charles would repeat to all of us "You must believe in your technique. You must believe in your jiu-jitsu." Every person felt like Charles was talking directly to them. It was a huge confidence builder. It was also the time I realized on a personal level that I did not need my eyes to defend myself.

I finally understood the work of the self-taught swordmaster and scholar, Miyamoto Musashi, when he wrote that one must be able to "perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye."

As I got into jiu-jitsu, Po’s image flickered in my brain. Over the years, I noticed that the idea of a blind fighter has a long history in film.

Then one day I went to Judo legend Willy Cahill’s in San Bruno, CA. He had an entire team that was blind. They were all devastating fighters. One of the main things I noticed, was that you could never rattle them with appearances or feints because they could feel the truth of your balance. His team is amazing. Many years ago I saw the dominate at the Titan Games in San Jose.

Today women like Jordan Mouton (a blind woman who has immaculate judo) inspire the blind and the sighted alike. Grandson of Helio Gracie,. Ralek Gracie, did an amazing short film on a blind man named Nathan Russell who trains jiu-jitsu at the Gracie Academy HQ in California

One day after teaching chess to a bunch of students at Cherryland Elementary in Hayward,  Dr. Itoco Garcia and I were talking casually. He mentioned his love for a show on Netflix called One Hundred Eyes. One Hundred Eyes is a character in the Marco Polo series. He too is blind. Until just this weekend I had forgotten about it and then I stumbled into it and I am late, super late, but loving it.

Over the years, movies like Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, or watching RZA as Snake Eyes in GI Joe Retaliation , always made me smile a little bit more. It was after seeing Donnie Yen play the character Chirrut Imwe that I got the deep childhood Po flashback. Be accident, or by design, this came off like an obvious homage to Po.

At least I thought it was. Talking to the LA Times Yen told the story:

“How Chirrut ended up being blind was a collaboration of me and Gareth. During the process, we were talking about different possibilities and he was asking my opinions. I said, “I want this character not to be so clich├ęd. I’ve played this character thousands of times — this type of bad-ass, skillful warrior hero. I want him to be grounded. I want him to be human, even vulnerable. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have him blind?” He liked the idea, Disney loved it — and Chirrut ended up being blind.”
I wish it was a little deeper than this. I wish I could interview him one day about that character. But if that is the story. In any case, I got the Po flashbacks from Rogue One. Beyond the story there is a bigger question.

Why are this blind characters a recurring thing in martial arts films? I don’t know. For me, I think the blind fighter is a symbol of an individual who is unmoved (like the judoka) by appearances. They are not lost in the height, weight, skin tone, flamboyant outfits, or religious symbols etc., worn by their opponent. The blind master can accept the true you and helps you to be better. The blind master is kind to all who approach.

May we all aspire to be like them in body, mind, and spirit.

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