Sunday, 10 July 2016

Toughen up!

 Helping each other take a hit
I've been thinking about what it means to be strong. I like to sit for a while after training and think about the things that came to mind during my practice. Just as I wind down from the physical side of things I like to take the time to calm my thoughts too. Having to listen to people going on, and on, and on, about karate long after you've left the dojo is (for me) disappointing. In Okinawa this happened a lot when I was 'invited' for a drink after training with certain sempai. While I'm all for post-practice socializing, having to take part in impromptu demonstrations in some bar was never high on my list of things to do.

Like most things in life, there is a time and place for 'getting into it', for having those fun, almost physical, conversations about technique, bunkai, and kata. But, I've always subscribed to the view that if you still have the energy for all that BS at 1 am in the morning and several beers later, then you probably didn't spend enough energy actually practicing when you were in the dojo. Besides, much of what passes for enthusiastic conversation, is nothing more than one person's ego taking an opportunity to impress its self  (just one more time) on a captive audience.

So, back to being strong, and how strength might manifest its self within the context of karate. Personally, I've never been impressed by a karateka's physical disposition. Big muscles and height don't count for much in my book. I've seen plenty over the years relying on both, because that's all they had to offer. Being strong in this sense is fine, for a while. But, as time passes, brute force and ignorance never serves you well, and you end up with the all too familiar 'bad back', 'sore elbow', 'busted shoulder', or 'damaged knees', etc, etc, etc...........

Okay, so the kind of strength that leaves you a cripple is probably not the best way to go about things, but what about internal strength? What about Ki/Chi power? I've been listening to the conversation about this stuff for over 40 years (I can already hear the theme from Enter the Dragon even as I write this). But look, I have no idea what Ki and Chi is or isn't. All I do know is this, whenever I've had an opportunity to have it 'used' on me it never worked. Perhaps they were doing it wrong (or was it me not being receptive enough?) I don't know. While I'm all for people believing in what they want about this stuff, don't ask me to believe in it too unless you can prove it....on me!

Here's the kind of strength I admire in karate. It's the strength shown when you really don't want to practice but you practice anyway. When life hits you so hard you can hardly keep it all together, but you still go to the dojo. When your teacher proves to be a god with feet of clay, and, having thanked him or her for their help, you move on. When you live up to your commitments, when you teach yourself the difference between a reason and an excuse, when you stop wanting, give more than you take, and last but by no means least, when you accept yourself for who you are, warts and all. Budo is not about combative strength, it's about balanced living. I read something recently that captured the essence of the strength I believe karateka should display.

"The awareness of our own strength, makes us modest..."

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Moving forward by looking back...really?

Benjamin Button couldn't have done it any better

Few pieces of advice left to us from past karateka have been used as frequently as the words said to have been issued by the late Gichin Funakoshi..."Look to the past to understand the future" (or something like that). But, like most things we humans come across, we bend and twist it to suit our own purposes, which is fine, so long as you're okay with having something that's different to the thing you first got your hands on.

Reverse engineering, once the pastime of only the most geekiest of karateka, is now entrenched in the mainstream of karate; the result of which has been a race back in time to validate what you're doing today. People are falling over themselves to reach an era when karate was a mysterious fighting art known only to a few, a deadly method of combat shrouded in secrecy. But let's take a closer look at the backward looking search being undertaken by so many today and ask a few questions that need asking...

How far back are you prepared to go?

What evidence do you have to prove the opinions you arrive at?

Are you familiar with the political and social milieu of the time period you're basing your 'knowledge' on?

Can you speak/read/ Japanese/ Hogen?

Why do you have confidence in the  sources you're relying on?

The list goes on and on, and touches upon aspects of human nature that the overwhelming majority of karateka today are too impatient to consider. I'm not sure why spending time in the dojo, or elsewhere, and simply practicing your karate/kobudo is no longer considered enough. My feeling is that it's related to a desire, in some, to make easy money rather than work for a living; which, just like the techniques and knowledge on offer, is hardly unique. So what's wrong with 'easy' you might ask? Look...if you don't know already, I don't have the words to explain.

Ironically, convincing yourself that you're different from the guy up the road running classes in mixed martial arts, kung-fu, yoga, ground fighting, stick fighting, panjek silat, first-aid, kendo, Zen Buddhism, origami, and resuscitation techniques known only to the ninja, is nothing new. Cultivating masse appeal is a long and trusted commercial tactic. It's why Hollywood and fast-food joints form partnerships to peddle their 'food?' with a free Star Wars figure. It's an easy way to make a lot of money because it taps into a desire to be a part of something. The easier a desire can be satisfied the more attractive its appeal.

But wait a minute, 'wanting' runs contrary to the thinking found in both Budo and Zen, so you see the problem for karateka, right? "Karate and Zen are One." is another of those sayings left to us from the past. Hmm...doesn't suit your thinking, right?  That's okay, just make a few adjustments to how you think and you can have both. Change what you're doing into a product, then you can get what you want by selling it. Meanwhile, busy yourself in your backward looking 'research' as proof that you're the genuine article. Forget for a moment that history is littered with examples of people making the same mistake you're making now and you'll be least until you wake up!

The most profound piece of advice I've ever had in over forty-years of  practice is so succinct, so simple, so clear, and yet at times so difficult to follow. It was something the late Eiichi Miyazato sensei said to me, and others, quite often....."Just do it!"

Now there's an idea..!

Sunday, 3 July 2016

A little more on Principles...

Matthew has been living in Japan for the past year, learning to see the invisible stuff
When it comes to making sense of karate, or any martial art for that matter, it's very often not the stuff you can see that really's the invisible stuff! To me, making sense of karate means the ability to absorb the core principles of  the martial 'art' you believe you are pursuing. Like all art, karate depends upon a sense of acceptance rather than denial. Giving in to the meaningless distractions of 'styles', 'techniques,' 'kata', and 'past & present masters', is evidence of someone who has yet to truly 'see' what it is they're looking at.

Nothing you do on the outside can ever compensate for things that are missing on the inside. You may believe, as so many do, that an athletic body coupled with an inquiring mind are enough, but then, what of your karate when your body ages and your memory is not all it once was...what then? If your karate has a 'shelf-life' attached to physical fitness, or a 'sell-by' date calculated by the amount of 'stuff' you can show to others, what value is your karate to your spirit? Shin (as in shin-gi-tai), has long been considered a prerequisite to appreciating karate.

Principles appertain not only to the physicality of karate, but (and far more importantly) to the way you appreciate karate as a part of your life. A friend and fellow karateka once wrote, "You can't see principles", and he's right. But you can see the results left by someone who knows how to live by them. Likewise, when your principles change you have no alternative but to change your mind, and in turn, your nature (shin) too. The karate world has always attracted individuals wanting to 'be someone' they can't be in the real world; it's an aspect of human nature driven, not by principles, but by ambition.

The late philosopher and teacher, Krishnamurti, cautioned his followers against the nurturing of ambition when he wrote, "We all want to be famous people, and the moment we want to 'be' something we are no longer free." Such a principle is often difficult for karate people to accept, after all 'they're different', at least in their own mind. But remember, minds change to suit a change in the principles you chose to live by. While change is inevitable as we move from birth to death, changes made with too little thought, is an unstable way to live.

While many karateka expound the need for certain principles, fewer are willing to live by the principles they defend.....

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

It's not new - it's just your first time......

"Dan Sha Ri - Living an uncluttered life
I've become aware of a generational shift taking place in karate right now. I think becoming aware of things like this is normal as you age; with most of your life behind you, you get to see further back than younger generations. I have no problem with younger folk stepping up and leading the charge...after all, it's not like they're going to do anything new. My generation too thought they could return karate to it's 'rightful' place, and look at the mess we've made of things.

As each generation matures there's a feeling of being held back... by the old guys. Younger generations never fail to grow restless. They develop a sense of entitlement, and can't see why they're not just allowed to get on with improving things, Except they don't, improve things that is: they never have. It's an inter-generational myth that things get better with the passage of time, they don't, they just change. Change is not linear in nature, it's cyclical, so at some point you end up back where you started.

When you return after all your exploring, (as per T.S. Elliot), you may come to believe that you understand karate in a different way, as if you are experiencing it for the first time; but that's only because you missed out on so much while you were away doing your own thing. The belief that each generation develops, that they're on the cusp of doing something new, stems from their own inexperience. The irony is, they can never fully grasp this 'truth' until they have practiced karate long enough for a younger generation than theirs to develop behind them.

Enthusiasm is never wasted, but it is often misguided.....

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Karate: principles or techniques?

Kyoda Juhatsu sensei and Miyagi Chojun sensei; same teacher, different karate
If you believe the advertising, it's important to find a good instructor, preferably one with a bit of celebrity attached to them. that way you know you're getting the real deal when it comes to what's right and what's wrong, what's real and what's not. Find yourself someone famous, and you can be the worst student they ever had, but you'll always have their notoriety to lean on.

Whenever I look at this image, all I ever see is the kick that Kyoda sensei is about to plant firmly on the side of Miyagi sensei's head. Miyagi sensei has both his hands occupied so the chances of success for Kyoda sensei are high. I'm speculating of course, but then, speculation and old images have always gone hand in hand, so there's nothing new here. It's interesting all the same, to ponder what has been, and continues to be, handed on from one generation to the next.

It begs the question, is karate based on principles, or techniques?

Friday, 17 June 2016

Love, and other telling blows...

Always remain a student
I just noticed the first part of a two part article of mine on the notion of love, can be found on my publisher's webpage, here.

It's funny isn't it...that karate is full of guys acting out their alpha-male fantasies, and endlessly discussing the many different ways they can kill or maim; not many have the courage to openly express their love for another human being though.

I remember being in solitary confinement for ten days in a prison 'block' as a punishment. In all that time I was never to see my fellow inmates, but I drifted off to sleep most nights listening to one or more of the tough guys crying for their mother.

'Go' and 'Ju'...the understanding of opposites!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

"What if..?"

Practicing sanchin at the Higaonna dojo, Kiyosei, Tokyo, 1987
There have always been a lot of "What if's" in karate. It's a situation that you don't get so much in other schools of fighting. In Judo, if you do things well, there is no 'what if ' because your training partner is on the floor. In Kendo too, if you move well, you make the cut. But for some reason, karate people like to talk incessantly about the 'what if '. "What if I hit you like this?" "Yeh, but what if I did that instead?"....and so it goes. This is the kind of thing that happens when people don't have a good understanding of what they're they talk about: "What if ".

You can't train to deal with a 'what if ' because no matter what kind of a response you come up with...'what if ' I think of something better? You can't know all the options open to you, because 'what if ' I change the rules of engagement? The idea of 'what if ', is based on stuff you don't know, but your karate and kobudo is based on the stuff that you do know, and it's because you 'know it' that the 'what if's ' fall away and the question becomes irrelevant.

Here's a few 'what if's' that might help you with your training...

What if I'm lazy?
What if I'm too sure of myself?
What if I'm fine with the way I am?
What if I'm not?
What if I want stuff?
What if I don't?
What if it's his fault?
What if it's mine?

Like a map reference, we need three things in order to get a sense of location; we need to know the 'what' the 'where' and the 'when'.  So rather than focus so much on the 'what' in your karate, try putting equal emphasis on the 'where' and the 'when' and see if that helps you might be surprised by the results.

Then again...what if ?

Friday, 10 June 2016

A Pilgrim's Progress....

Occasionally Miyazato sensei would ask...."Show me what you know!"
You hear the word 'journey' being used a lot in relation to karate, but I sometimes wonder where folk expect their karate 'journey' to take them? Are you going far, or aiming deep? You see, although your destination may never be reached, it's no less important to know 'what' that destination looks like. If you don't, then how do you know which direction to travel in? Where do you point your efforts, and how do you gauge your progress if you have no clue where you're headed?

Ideally the example set by your sensei will provide you with a sense of direction, but their karate should never be your should be aiming to go much further. Not only that, but your teacher should be making this clear to you from the very beginning. There is no place in karate for leaders and followers, only fellow pilgrims, some of whom have made a little more progress than others. If you consider karate to be a personal journey then you can't rely on others to provide signposts, nor can you travel in groups.

To walk you need two legs and two feet; but you also need your mind to direct them. In karate, people forget the role their mind plays in walking, they just lean forward and move their legs quickly enough to stop themselves from falling flat on their face. It looks like walking, but it's not, it's just keeping your mind out of the dirt. There is no control to moving this way, and few options open to you once you start. Sure, you can cover a lot of ground, quickly too, but is that the same thing as progress?

Before you start moving, it's always best to know where you going, and how you're going to get there.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Ask the experts....

Working on establishing three points of engagement using Suparinpei kata
Apart from my normal work, I'm sometimes asked to contribute to magazines as an 'expert'. It's a bit embarrassing for me when this happens as I consider myself a student of karate not an expert. Oh, I realize many of you experts reading this weren't even born in 1974 when I started practicing karate, but still, it's a little uncomfortable (for me) to be put in such a situation. It's not simply modesty or humility on my part, oh no; it's the people I know who are so much better than me that makes me feel inadequate wearing the hat marked 'expert'.

So anyway, it seems my thinking on this is in the minority. From Facebook to YouTube, Twitter to Instagram, the internet is overflowing with opinions and judgments from all manner of sources. Rather predictably, given the kind of folk who are attracted to karate these days,the majority of sources are either ill informed, or just plain stupid. I'd like to think it was the first of these conditions that give rise to the diatribe, but I tend to think it's the second. Opinions are fine, but only when they are based on something more substantial than opinion!

You guys....really, get over yourselves!

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Saviour Wanted...No Experience Necessary!

Who needs who the or these guys?
Mario McKenna asked an interesting question on his blog recently..."Is the traditional dojo dying?' The topic was picked up later by Garry Lever on his Facebook page and from there the conversation developed into how new students might be enticed to start, and then stay. The two separate, but kind of related topics, got me thinking...'Does it really matter if karate dies out?'

I think every generation of karateka looks for a saviour, or saviours, to emerge from within their ranks, brilliant young masters who will stop the erosion and return karate to it's former glory. The only problem is, I'm, not sure karate was ever 'glorious'. Certainly it has been different things at different times and in different places, but glorious...well, like I said, I'm not too sure about that. Besides, even in my brief time as a karateka, I've seen enough 'brilliant' masters rise from glorious obscurity, only to become less than brilliant examples of humanity.

At 61 years old, the value of peaceful practice far out-way the din of noisy training. 
If ever I asked Miyazato Eiichi sensei a question, he would return fire with a number of things, "What do you think?" and "Just do it!" being two of his favorites. I'm not sure what a younger generation would think of such instruction, not much I suspect. Still...Miyazato sensei wasn't all that interested in teaching karate, his efforts were aimed at trying to get people to develop themselves enough so that they could then go on and discover karate for themselves. For him, karate was all in the doing!

So, is karate in crises? Is it at a cross-roads...perhaps facing extinction?'s just one generation emerging from behind the previous one. It's always a noisy, smelly, messy, process; and just like puberty, it's always full of angst and "what would you know anyway!" If the traditional dojo is in trouble, then it's only because folk are too lazy, weak, or both, to conduct themselves properly in accordance with the tradition they feel they're a part of. A lesson my sensei gave me..."Fix yourself, and you fix your problem." 

Too difficult..? No worries!