Friday, 2 December 2016

Dipping my toes in the Indian Ocean......

(photo courtesy of Garry Lever)
An Okinawan beach & the East China Sea...but it could be Western Australia.
This is the final public post...my public blogging days are done! Six years and 600 posts, it's been fun, mostly! For me the best thing to come out of the experience has been the contact I've made with some great people. People I have been able to learn from, disagree with, and discover a common bond....given their various locations around the world, I doubt I could have met them in any other way.

Since my last post, I've sold one home, moved 4000 kms west, and bought another. I've gone from a temperate climate to a sub-tropical one, and now find myself not only in the same time-zone as Okinawa, but surrounded by much of the same flora as those who live on the island. The proximity of the ocean too, lends easily to the illusion that I've somehow swapped countries instead of states.

In the coming months I'll establish a new dojo in my new home, and begin again the ritual of my early morning dojo practice. Living just 600m from the Indian Ocean, I can also foresee a lot of early-morning sanchin training facing the endless horizon....I look forward to it. Although the Shinseidokan dojo continues, this blog will go private in early 2017.

Thanks for stopping by these past six years, I wish you well.........

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Public Apology....

Almost time to go, but before I do.....
Writing this blog has been a good learning tool. It has helped me focus my thoughts, put forward my opinions, and, at times, vent my disappointment. But it has had it's day in the sun, and now it's time to move on. So the post following this will be the last. Before bowing out however I want to apologize for upsetting a great many people over the years. It was never my intention to deliberately do that, but such is the state of karate in the world right now, I believe any view that runs contrary to the established order of things is bound to appear offensive. That said, I'm inclined to believe that a greater amount of offence has been 'taken' by individuals, than 'given' by me.

As much as practicing Okinawan karate has been an important part of my life for over 40 years, and kobudo for the past 10, their role has never been more than therapeutic. I've never relied on either martial art to 'fight' in a physical sense. I was already good at fighting long before walking into a dojo, and had the criminal record to prove it. That so many in karate 'sell' it's techniques as a means of physical self-defense is all the proof I need of the mental disconnect between the martial and the artistic aspects of karate, and kobudo. Let me put this as plainly as I can....you can't learn to fight (and survive) without engaging in fights where the other guy(s) are determined to hurt you; and no amount of time in the dojo will bridge that (educational) gap.

But look, going to the dojo is not about learning how to fight, at least not in the 'street-wise self-defense' sense of the word. That you may (or may not) arrive at a place where your chances of surviving an attack have been improved by your karate skill and ability, is little more than a by-product of mindful and consistent practice, and should never be confused as the 'aim' of training. Again, I'll speak plainly here...your chances of living peacefully are greatly increased by improving the way you view, and move, through life. You do that by uncluttering your mind of the BS others would have you fill it with. If anything, this (emptying of the mind) is the first 'real' fight you face when you start to learn karate.

The notion of 'mushin' however, speaks less to having an 'empty mind' than it does to having a capacity for 'clear thought'; the subtle difference between the two revealing itself only through lengthy, mindful, practice. The lie that karate can be fast-tracked applies solely to the learning of it's physical techniques, and not to the stripping away of the ego that stops any real progress. The knowledge of physical techniques is of little value if the mind is underdeveloped and unable to apply them in the environment they are expected to work. As my dear departed dad often told me..."It's not the dog in that fight that matters son, it's the fight in the dog!" So, I'll take a strong mind over perfect techniques any day.

You can't have a strong mind if it's fractured by concerns over your image, your standing in the karate world, or your inability to be taken seriously. In the absence of authenticity, karate descends into roll-play, an activity that by the look of things, is all that many people want. That's fine, but it's not something that has ever interested me. I know, from the small amount of correspondence I maintain with other karateka around the world, that karate is alive and well. It exists in small pockets here and there, and is preserved by men and women who are working hard to practice what they know. It's ironic, to me at least, that the media driven push to establish Okinawa as the 'cradle of karate' (was that ever in doubt?) is pushing authentic karateka away from the island.

Getting things wrong from time to time is natural, apologizing for your mistakes is not, but the two are interlinked in subtle ways that need to be understood. Your relationship with karate is unique and any attempt to franchise the art is a mistake. Many karate instructors are doing their best to maintain the uniformity their group demands, that's a mistake. Many karateka believe they only have to do as they are told in order to learn karate, that's a mistake. But, how to make amends? That's up to you of course, but consider this...the karate you learn is not the karate you end up with, at least it shouldn't be.

Something to think about...right?

Saturday, 29 October 2016

In the race to the bottom, the winner is...

(photo borrowed from okkb webpage)
Nothing better to do than dress up and make a spectical of yourself?
After thirty-years, I stopped travelling to Okinawa in 2013. My sensei had passed away in December 1999, but I continued to visit the island. I still had many sempai and friends there, and besides, I love the food, music, and the geography of the place. But after each visit following my teacher's death, I left the island wondering why I was still going. In retrospect, I can see that my karate was continually pulled and pushed by internal dojo politics, but that wasn't the only thing causing me to question why Okinawa was becoming less relevant to me.

For some years I'd been witnessing, often at close hand, the corrosive effect of fame and fortune on the Okinawan karate community. I watched the emergence of a generation of instructors who began to revel in the adulation being pored on them by foreigners, who were now arriving on the island by the bus load. Instructors started to abandoned the morality of their cultural heritage in favour of big money, while explaining their behavior as merely the latest 'adaptation' to the foreign forces being brought to bear on them. Being shallow and greedy is hardly a great adaptation to make in my book, but then I could give flying-fig for the stuff these guys are chasing.

(photo borrowed from okkb webpage)
Aren't these the same people who are on the new stamps? 
Just to be clear, in Okinawa today, many senior karate instructors spend their time trying to get themselves into the Guinness Book of Records, and their images on postage stamps. This may seem like a great thing to do, to spread the word about karate to the world, but does anyone really believe there is anywhere in the world today that hasn't already heard of it? Bruce Lee solved that problem over forty-years ago! Besides, it's abundantly clear, that the more karate has been spread, the thinner it has become. Until today, where the lazy, the unfit, and the misguided...all call themselves 'karateka'.

In the meantime, back in Okinawa, the current crop of karate 'masters' continue to thrive. But it's interesting to note, that on their watch, big money sport-karate is welcomed with open arms. On their watch, exclusive deals are done with a foreign magazine publisher to splash their images all over the front cover and make them famous. On their watch, anyone can walk in through the dojo door, lay their money down, and get a photo at the end of it. On their watch, you can book a karate holiday and have them turn up to teach you (something?). On their watch, promotions are handed out like invitations to a party; and on their watch, so long as you 'play the game', they happily tolerate you.

New karate stamps - another point of sale in the marketing of (particular) instructors?
Karate in Okinawa may not be dead, but I believe it is mortally (or should that be morally?) wounded. Through my work, I've spent time with many of the 'masters' in these photos. To their adoring fans they can do no wrong, but to someone outside the fold they often adopted a different persona; a change of character that initially left me shocked, but sadly, I got use to! I've never believed bragging was a good thing, nor was I ever impressed by the things they told me 'off the record', after asking me to stop recording. If anything, I felt embarrassed to be in the situation I was, listening to their 'secrets'.

There is an argument to be made that whatever Okinawan karate teachers can do to promote the art is okay, well I don't see it that way. The example being set by many prominent Okinawan practitioners of karate today leaves a lot to be desired in my view. They will no doubt get their vain wish to be remembered, but it won't be in the same way previous generations of karateka are remembered. Being known is one thing, what you're known for is something else. All of these karate instructors could have said no when asked to lend their image to such shabby and shallow marketing.....but they didn't.

I expect they had a good reason...well, a reason anyway!

Friday, 28 October 2016

Iiwake...

Miyazato Eiichi sensei with some of his American judo students in Okinawa
A few years ago, I received an email from someone who had practiced judo in Okinawa with Miyazato sensei. In case you didn't know, Miyazato sensei was not only a karateka, but a judoka also. The email had a couple of old photos of 'our' sensei attached, one of which you can see here. The images reminded me of some of the conversations I'd had over the years with Miyazato sensei around the use of judo throws in karate. I always wondered if the two fighting arts could be blended together.

Miyazato sensei was a very generous man, but he could also be quite abrupt, even dismissive. He was adamant that I should not try to mix judo and karate; crossing his arms at the wrist and stating that "Karate, karate...judo, judo!" That said, he would also try to stop me thinking in such clear and ridged terms. If it came to a physical fight, the aim is to win, and that was best done by bringing the combat to a swift and decisive end. If my head was concerned with either 'karate' or 'judo' techniques, it's highly likely the fight would be over before I had a chance to make a choice.

Miyazato sensei training with ishi-sashi
When you practice you can only take things so far, You can only approximate the conditions under which a technique might be used, but you can't fight for real. To do that would see someone getting seriously hurt....so we evoke 'Iiwake' and suspend belief, we play...all be it seriously. In doing so you have to be careful not to drift away from the point of training, but, this presupposes that you know what the point of your training is. It's clear from the way many karateka conduct themselves, that there's a huge disconnect between the things they say, and the things they do.

I'm no expert on the Japanese language, but over the years I've been fortunate to have been on the receiving end of some wonderful lessons, Lessons that were delivered, in the first instance, in Japanese. Take the notion of  'Iiwake' for example. As a word it can mean a simple explanation, but it can also be an excuse, and in my experience, it's quite common to find that karateka have a problem understanding the difference between the first and the second. I think this may be a by-product of being right all the time.

Miyazato sensei training with the kongoken
While it's not necessary to be anything other than authentic if you want to understand karate, it's increasingly rare to come across karateka who are...authentic. The drive to be known, to be sort-after, to be respected, and a whole host of other desires that have nothing to do with karate, has diverted the gaze of many from the timeless value of karate practice. It's a pity, because in spite of all the posturing and opinions, karate continues to have a great deal to offer the world.

Iiwake can be used to evoke other things too. Commonly, Iiwaki conveys a sense of self-justification that many karate instructors take upon themselves. They conduct themselves as if they, by virtue of who they are and what they know, are excused the normal standards of behaviour an authentic karateka is expected to live by. By no ones authority but their own, they move through life strutting their stuff and dispensing advice; advice that they themselves never follow. Ironcally, Iiwake is also indicative of being apologetic, a notion that few modern karate instructors seem comfortable with.

If you identify as a karateka, rather than focus solely on techniques that can hurt others, why not educate yourself to be a better person than your were........

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Ryouyaku kuchi ni nigashi......

This guy's silent, if you want to hear him, you'll have to add the Grrrrrr yourself
I was often scolded as a kid for being too noisy, too disruptive. I grew out of it eventual, but not before being on the receiving end of a number of harsh lessons. That's okay, because you learn by experience: right? And if all your experiences are nice, then you learn nothing about overcoming disappointment. The Chinese call it..."Eating bitter!" In karate you sometimes hear the term "Nin Tai" as a way of explaining the necessity to 'endure' in order to learn. When I was a kid complaining about something, my dad often told me to "Shut up and get on with it!" In later years, his ability to point directly to the nub of things made me wonder if he wasn't really a secret Zen master.

Not everyone who writes about karate and kobudo give too much thought to the things they are saying. I can tell this by reading the statements they make and vagaries they wrap their language up in. For example, I read recently that 99% of all goju-ryu students and teachers don't practice or use the fundamentals of their karate. It's an absurd statement to make given that no evidence was presented to back this statistic up. Perhaps it's just an opinion, in which case the writer should, if he wanted to be taken seriously, have made that clear. The statement also fails to clarify if the 99% refers to goju ryu people in the UK, in Europe, or in the world.

I'm less concerned with which side of this (imaginary) statistic I stand. I'm more interested in who the 1% are who are getting the fundamentals of goju ryu right? I could take a guess, (the writer and his gang?), but  doing that would place me in the same situation as the writer, i.e.....basing my karate knowledge on opinions that happen to suit. Although I took no umbrage at the implication inherent in the statement, that implication is crystal clear, 'if you're not practicing goju ryu the way we do it, then you're doing it all wrong!' From my perspective, statements like this stem from a breathtaking level of arrogance...or perhaps it's just ignorance? Making a point is fine, having an opinion is wonderful, but neither have much meaning if they are ill thought out or poorly conceived.

Reading this criticism you may think I'm being hostile; but that's only because many of you have invested so much of 'who you think you are' in a virtual (social media) world: a world calibrated for you in 'likes', 'shares', and collecting 'friends'. With little or no time standing before a teacher who only ever presents you with problems to solve, rather than giving you the answers you're paying him for, criticism has become a trigger to 'take offence'. The concept of 'Hihyo' (criticism) is no longer seen as a signal that your teacher is interested in your progress, unless  of course, you're infatuated by the person you have handed your 'self ' over to.

Time, and training, bring with them rewards that are lost when searching for short cuts. Having all the answers is a sign you have been asking the wrong questions, You can't gain height by pulling others down. You can't claim authenticity if you're worried what others think. You can't  apply karate if your head is full of techniques. You can't pretend to be a leader when you yourself are lost. You can't know the things you never struggled for long enough to learn. Short cuts lead to quick results, but none that last. Growing older is not the same as growing up!

It's impossible to go back in life and start again, but you can start again and end up somewhere else.....


Thursday, 20 October 2016

Getting more out of letting go....

The old, the new - it's just a matter of time.
Regular readers of this blog may remember the dojo at my previous home. You may also remember the various posts documenting the building of the present Shinseidokan, the one you see here. It was a big investment to make, both in time, money, effort, and materials.  When the dojo was established, in 2012, I expected to be training in it for at least ten to fifteen years...that was the plan. But life has a way of interfering with even the best laid plans.

I'll be moving soon, leaving the dojo and my home to their new owners. I doubt the building will be used again for the purpose it was built, but that's okay. For all the time it was in my life, it was the dojo I spent most mornings in, it was the place where I practiced together with friends, and welcomed visitors. It was the space that challenged me to stay each winter when the temperature fell below zero; and again each summer, when windows and doors pushed wide open, still refused to allow sufficient air to enter and give my bursting lungs something to work with.

From the age of 57 to 61, this incarnation of the Shinseidokan has been a wonderful home for my karate and kobudo, but I won't miss it. I won't hold on to its memory and burden myself with thoughts of having 'lost' something. For there is nothing to be gained from such thinking, and everything to loose. Once gone I will never get it back, so what purpose would be served longing for something that won't happen? The next dojo, in my new home, is where my thoughts are already turning. If my mind remains attached to the building in the photo, how can I enjoy the new space I intend to create?

There is an energy in giving denied to those who only take, just as there is an emptiness in those who defend their status-quo, rather than remain open to change. As permanence doesn't exist anywhere in the universe, it seems like such a childish thing to hang on to every little thing that comes your way in life. I'm not sure emotional intelligence can be taught, and yet without it karate and kobudo remain little more than physical maneuvers, often choreographed to such a degree that in many cases, both have lost their connection to reality.

In all that industry you call your karate, can you identify anything you can do without?

Monday, 17 October 2016

What's your opinion....?

At 61 I'm still young, and I'm still training!
I have to hand it to some in karate, they have made a career out of very little and a virtue out of achieving nothing much. It's a funny thing about we humans....when you want something really badly you can, if you're not careful, convince yourself that you've found it....even when you haven't. Karate people do it all the time! It's a way of deflecting a sense of inadequacy.

But, that quiet, self-doubting, look in your eyes when you look in the mirror, tells you that you haven't been able to do what needed to be done, nor have you found the intestinal fortitude necessary to change and grow; all of which points to an internal struggle you have yet to win. Sure you know about more karate 'stuff ' than you once did, but what good is it doing you?

With age and the years of training, comes a responsibility to preserve and nurture the benefits you've gained from karate. Selling what you've gained to anybody willing to pay you is, in my view, a very poor response. Still, if you feel no such responsibility in the first place, perhaps a desire to sell what you know seems perfectly reasonable. That's the thing with notions like 'gimu' and 'giri'....you either feel them toward karate: or you don't.

Having a big opinion of yourself, only proves how small you really are....


Sunday, 9 October 2016

Changes afoot.....

Makiwara training at the Higaonna dojo in Kiyose, Japan, 1986
I've always considered balance to be an essential part of healthy living; have a drink but don't become a drunk, eat well but don't become obese, exercise but don't get hooked on owning 'the body beautiful'. Extremes of anything are seldom healthy for you, so having a sense of balance is important. When I was a young man I, like a great many others, found it difficult to grasp the notion of balance, and even harder to apply it in my daily life...for that there was a heavy price to pay: and I payed it!

Some of you who write to me believe I'm a kind of  'karate hero', the guy who tells it like it is and stands up for the 'traditional values' of karate. Others (and there are a lot of you) write to tell me I'm a f**king jerk who knows nothing. I've received a number of threatening emails over the years, all promising to give me a good kicking should the writer ever get to meet me. One 'fan' promised to post my beating at his hands on Facebook..."for all the world to see." Not bad coming from a guy who fancies himself a karateka and teaches children. I have to say, neither view of me is correct, I'm neither a champion of all that's right and good with karate, nor am I unknowing or unskilled.

One enterprising 'karateka' has turned this image into a poster and sells them...apparently, my permission and  a fee are not a part of his business plan!
The internet has become a great leveler, with idiotic words and behavior now standing shoulder to shoulder with words of  real wisdom and examples of great inspiration. The avalanche of choice for those who spend time on the net has not delivered on it's promise of greater access to knowledge. Human beings are not sufficiently evolved (emotionally mature enough) to filter the good from the bad, the supportive from the corrosive, the truth from the lies. Couple this with an inbuilt desire to 'belong' and the scene is set. People strive to be 'liked', and take endless 'selfies' to 'share' with their internet 'friends'. I know...it sounds like the bleating of an old guy feeling crusty with the world, but that's not the case at all.

You've heard me say it many times over the life of this blog..."I can't change the world, but I can change my world." Well, I'm about to make a number of changes to 'my' world, and one of them is to withdraw from the public side of karate. I've been published somewhere in the world every month for over 30 years, in languages as diverse as Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, and French...as well as my poor English. My books have attracted a dozen or so awards, and my magazine articles are received as well now by editors and readers, as they were in 1985 when I submitted my first piece to Fighting Arts International in the UK.

Outside practise at the Shinseidokan
I will continue to practice my karate and kobudo at home as always, and I will continue to help and work with the karateka who look to me for the little guidance I am able to provide. With a number of projects in the pipeline I will continue to write, I just won't be writing about karate. The magazine editors I work with know and understand why I'm making this change, they have articles of mine on file that will continue to appear well into 2017, so my 'disappearance' from the 'karatesphere' will be more like a gradual withdrawal. Soon, this blog will go private. It will become more of a newsletter for the karateka associated with the Shinseidokan. They are spread across the entire continent of Australia, from Broom in the northwest, to Launceston in the southeast, from Perth to Canberra, and from Adelaide to Melbourne.

I have a few things I'd like to talk about before the blog goes private, one of them being the change that happens when something (or someone) becomes popular. Although change is one of the few certainties in life (along with dying); popularity alters the speed with which change occurs. Not only that, but 'popular change' corrupts the very thing that people are attracted to. Anyone who has spent time training karate in Okinawa prior to 1990 will know what I'm talking about here. While some will no doubt hold the view that things are better now, more open and advanced...others will look back on times past and sigh at the amount of loss that has occurred in the rush to popularisation.

It was ever thus of course...because things 'change!'

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Try not to trip over yourself....

Me and my former Shito-ryu teacher, Keiji Tomiyama sensei
I stopped practicing Tani-ha Shito-ryu over 30 years ago, but I've never stopped referring to the man I'm standing next to in this photo as sensei. Whenever we meet, whenever I have spoken to him, and whenever I speak of him to others....I always refer to him as sensei. Almost 40 years ago, as we traveled through France together, he said..."You can call me Keiji, it's okay" I replied, "Thank you sensei."

When people join the Shinseidokan dojo I let them know that from then on they should refer to me as 'sensei', Not because I want to establish a level of superiority over them, and not because I feel I need a title; I ask this because I want them to come to know the freedom to be found in humility. I want them to discover that giving of themselves, even in this small way, is far more beneficial to living well than taking everything they can get.

Recently, I have been helping a stranger connect with a small group of karateka who I respect. The first email I received addressed me like so..."Dear Michael Clarke sensei", the next  "Dear Clarke sensei", and then a couple of  "Dear sensei" followed after that. This week, the stranger has been invited to meet with one of the group to discuss if he is suitable to join them.  I know this because I received an email from him thanking me for my help. I smiled when I read it, because the email began..."Dear Mike".

I don't have a problem with this, it is my name after all; and besides, I've said the same thing to various people over the years that Tomiyama sensei said to me...so it's not the end of the world! But things like this should not be taken lightly in the context of your karate education. The matter here is not that I want something (in this case, to be addressed as sensei), but that others who want something from me are not prepared to give a little something back (humility). Only stupid people take and give nothing in return.

Having read this, I hope the stranger I've helped doesn't get the urge to write and explain himself, it's just not necessary. I've moved on, and now that the matter has been aired I'll forget about it very quickly. But there's a lesson in this that everyone can learn from. The way you behave reflects the way you think. The way you think is governed by the things you want. What you want stems from how you see yourself in relation to everyone else. Karate training can help you with all this stuff, or make things worse: that's up to you.

As you walk the path, try not to trip over yourself along the way......


Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Specifically Vague...

The Shinseidokan dojo, sitting gently upon the earth
There is nothing vague about sincerity, nothing uncertain about authenticity; you either are or you're not. You can argue semantics if you like, prattle on endlessly about what it is to be either, or both, but that would just highlight you're reluctance to admit (to your self) that you're neither. You simply can't be mostly sincere or nearly authentic....no matter how hard you try to convince yourself otherwise.

Something you notice about karate folk with a desire to be 'someone', is their use of vague statements; here's a few of my favourites:

When I was training in Japan/Okinawa...

When I was training with...

I've met many of the big names in...

My research has revealed...

When I compare...

Without specific follow-up information, such statements are meaningless. How long was the stay in Japan/Okinawa? How frequently did you practice while you were there? Who did you train under?
When you trained with 'someone', was that in a small group or a room with 200 others? Name the big names you've trained with, and the circumstance under which the training took place. Cite the sources of your research, and provide evidence to validate your comparisons.

When it comes to the use of vagaries, karate wannabes are often more skilled with words than they are in karate. Still, no matter, a vague grasp of things is all that many karateka require these days. You get the heroes and teachers you deserve. The people you give your attention to are a reflection of your own nature. It's a continuous loop of re-enforcement between those who wish to lead, and those who are only too happy to follow.

If you make a statement, then back it up with facts, names, dates, places. Don't claim to have done something based on a half truth. Don't claim to know something based on little or no experience. Because when you do this kind of thing you reveal your true nature, you expose your true self, and you invalidate the better aspects of your character. In short, you loose the sincerity you claim to aspire to, and make redundant the authenticity you say you live by.

Be specific in the things you say, it may not win you many friends, but, as someone more grounded than me once said...."It's better to be disliked for who you are, than liked for who you're not."