The 2019 Warrior Tipon-Tipon is coming up in just over one month in Bellvue, WA. It is a day of weapon sparring inspired by events like the Dog Brothers Gatherings held in North America and Europe. If any students are considering attending the Tipon Tipon, the following reflections on attending a Gathering may shed enough light to help you finalize you decision, pro or con.
On July 21st of 2018 I attended my first Dog Brothers Canada Gathering in Montreal. More than 40 men and women attended from Vancouver, France, and many points between. For anyone unfamiliar with how a Gathering works, the protocol is as follows: two people agree to a fight with a specific weapon (single stick, espada y daga, etc.) and a rule set (a “technical” fight where the purpose is testing the pure application of technique and eschewing advantages had by differences in size, strength, or speed; a “no grapple” event, usually due to ongoing injury recovery; etc.); they enter the mat area, they cross weapons and fight, either until time is called (usually two minutes) or someone quits, whichever happens first.
The first question, almost every time I tried to explain this event to people who have never experienced anything like it. “Why?” usually with bewilderment, some vicarious distress, often followed with “doesn’t that hurt?” I understand the thrust of their questions: to quote the boxer Zachary Wohlman, “In the ring, it’s pretty simple: the other person is there to hurt you, and you’re asking for it.” Reflection lead me to conclude that these reflexive questions from the uninvolved are often a stand-in for what the questioner may truly want to know: “why are you making yourself so vulnerable?”
That is an excellent question.
If you are alive, you are vulnerable. It is inescapable, and we fear anything we cannot out-think, out-run, out-fight, or out-last. While everyone is vulnerable, no one likes feeling vulnerable. Yet this is exactly what participants subject themselves to when walking onto the mat. I knew I could get hurt, and possibly seriously injured. I went anyway. I have been physically brave for much of my life, but the sense of impending body pain was, for me, the lesser part of it.
What if I’m terrible at this? What if I came all this way, spent all this time and money, just to find out I can’t perform there (under pressure around strangers) like I do in Fight Lab on Sundays (learning while surrounded by friends)? What if I’m so bad, one of the teachers I respect reassesses their opinion of me downwards? Never mind my body, can my ego take that kind of bruising? Speaking of ego, why am I even worrying about all of this? If I’m worrying about “succeeding”, am I here for the right reasons? What does success even look like for me, here, now? Does the word even apply?
All of this swirled in my head while I waited in the queue for my first fight (single knife) against someone I’d just met that day. My partner summed it up as “I feel like we’re waiting for them to open the gate at the coliseum.” A fair assessment, and a good approximation of “vulnerable”. Moments from the head of the line I experienced the strongest anticipatory adrenaline response I can remember: a sense of tightness started in my chest, a compressed spring spreading towards my shoulders; time seemed to slow for a few heartbeats. Vulnerable! Then everything snapped back into place, I pulled my mask down, and stepped forward.
I fought seven times that day spread out over knife, single stick, double stick, and technical aluminum espada y daga. None of them were easy; all of them made me confront my feelings of vulnerability. But despite the frisson and hurt, they all taught me something about the arts I practice, the community of which I am a part, and myself.
The weapon arts of southeast Asia are myriad in name, style, focus and feel. One of the major lessons about those arts demonstrated that day is that two people can practice the same art (perhaps even taught by the same instructor) but have very different individual understandings and expressions of that art. There were several members from Tuhon Phil Gelinas’ school in Montreal fighting that day; their expressions of style were extremely different, and all were “right”.
If asked to describe that day in a word, I would choose “community.” We fostered a feeling of kinship arising from sharing interests and goals. Everyone was there to learn. Everyone was there to improve. No one was there to dominate, diminish, or lessen the efforts of others. Accomplishments were universally celebrated; injuries were worried over, commiserated about. The stand-out moments for me were the conversations I had off the mat, where whomever I fought told me what I’d done that worked; the free-flowing compliments on particular techniques; analysis of good exchanges, smart tactical decisions made in the heat of the moment. That feeling of togetherness was ever-present, and lasted well past the celebratory meal at a local pub at the end of the day.
Lessons learned about myself run the gamut of physical, mental, and emotional. When I get tired, I stop moving; even in the presence of someone who wants to hit me with a stick. My grappling needs quite a bit of work; size can count for a lot, but is far from everything. There is deep beauty in what we do: I actually enjoyed being adroitly taken apart during my technical espada y daga fight by someone with much more skill and experience. Repeated exposure to fights and fighters also quelled my swirling doubts. After several fights, some sore spots in evidence but nothing truly worrying, I found myself feeling like I was holding my own against someone who moved like an experienced fighter. Okay, I thought amidst footwork, blocks and counter-cuts, okay, I can do this. Accepting that I was performing how I wanted to, that I was not just at the Gathering, but here, right now settled over me. I stopped worrying about what might go wrong, and focused on what was: I am fighting, and I know what I want to do to get better.
So back to the abbreviated question: why? Why do I choose to make myself so vulnerable? Because that is how I learn. Confronting vulnerability teaches me not just about my weaknesses, but my strengths. I am a poor grappler, but a good puncher. I am weak with a weapon in both hands, but hard to knock down. If you want to build something, knowing how a material will fail means you also know under what conditions you can rely on it. The Gathering showed me what parts need shoring up, and what parts can be further developed to be even stronger.
Looking back through both text and time what I wrote feels both sufficient and woefully incomplete. It was a rich experience, with just as many aspects that lend themselves to explanation as ones that are best served reflected upon personally. While the Gathering was an excellent way to test myself, it serves me much better as a lens to focus on my own path of improvement. For those considering attending a Gathering at some time in the future, all I can say is: it will try you; you will learn; and if you let yourself, you will grow.
by Dan Evans