Thursday, 30 October 2014

Right Minded.....

Last weekends visitors to the Shinseidokan
On Thursday the 23rd, a couple of old friends arrived from Brisbane, and with them, two new visitors I met for the first time in Okinawa last year. All four train together in Queensland and have managed to avoid the most obvious barrier to progress: forming a karate association! Instead, they alternate their training between two private dojo, and by doing that, have remained faithful to their desire to pursue authentic Okinawan karate and kobudo.

Long time training partners and best friends, Alan and Craig, (right) have been visiting the Shinseidokan for a number of years. Both are students of Minei sensei in Okinawa, and practice kobudo under Gaja sensei in Yonebaru. Travelling to Okinawa each year to improve their knowledge and seek correction, in between their travels north, they head south to Tasmania. As their karate teacher was a senior student of Miyazato Eiichi sensei, there is little difference in the karate we practice.

It was a first time visit to the Shinseidokan, and Tasmania, for Terry and Mikiko-san  (left & centre), and both seemed to enjoy the training and the location. Certainly for my part, it was a pleasure to have them in the dojo. Terry is also a member of the Minei dojo in Okinawa, but Mikiko-san is a member of the Jundokan.

The weekend wasn't all training
Over the years, the Shinseidokan has seen a great many visitors, some good, some not so; but each in their own way have provided a lesson, as well as received one. This past weekend was no exception in that regard. Fifteen hours of training spread over four days has a way of focusing a students mind on the physical techniques of their karate, but for me, it also provides an opportunity to observe individuals at close quarters, and to watch how they behave once the nerves have settled, and again, when tiredness creeps in.

All my visitors have, without doubt, a strong grasp of karate; but that has never been enough to ensure progress. For that to happen it requires a particular transformation in a student's mind about what karate is. Many karateka learn quickly how to practise their karate, but a much smaller number come to appreciate what karate actually is. I think my visitors are almost there, they have the right knowledge, they have the right physical ability, all they need now, is the right mind.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

A Promise Kept...

My sensei and me at the tomb of Miyagi Chojun 
As I was leaving the Jundokan dojo at the end of my first visit there, Miyazato Eiichi sensei spoke to me about returning home and training hard. He also said, "If you want teach others Okinawan karate ok! but, please teach Okinawan spirit same time." I promised him I would always do my best to pass on the things he taught me. Before I left him at the airport, he grunted at me (as he often did) one last time, "You come back again, this ok! " Over the years that followed, I came to learn that this was about the closest thing to a compliment I was ever going to get.

Since that day, well over twenty years ago, I believe I have kept my promise. My current situation reflects my resolve to be true to my word. I have not, for example, put any energy at all into building a karate empire here in Australia. I very seldom accept invitations to teach people who are not connected to the Jundokan in some way, and have stopped accepting casual visitors; and, you would have more chance of finding one of Willy Wonker's golden tickets than receiving a Dan certificate issued by me. I'm not against promoting people, but I've never believed in the equation so many employ, that time spent in the dojo equals promotion.

I have to witness a students improvement first, in both technique and character, before I invite them to display their karate in a formal grading situation, and so far, less than a dozen have made shodan and of them, only three have gone on to sandan. I could care less about 'passing or failing' a student, my job is to encourage Shinseidokan karateka to gain as much insight into karate as they can....and certainly, to be better than I was at their stage. Encouragement was the gift I received from Miyazato sensei, and it's all I have to give to others. It's not a great business model, I know; but it keeps my karate simple and uncluttered by the politics that suffocates the experience so many have with karate.

I'm still learning what my teacher taught me
In days gone by, when the kind of karate I am interested in was practised by a relative few; it was a dojo based activity. Machi dojo (neighbourhood dojo) and the sensei who taught in them, were the custodians of karate. When Miyazato Eiichi sensei opened his own dojo and named it 'Jundokan' (roughly: the dojo next in line after his teacher's dojo) his idea was that it would be a machi dojo. His son, the current kancho, feels the same way; but things have changed since my sensei passed away; the Jundokan is now in danger of becoming something else, and for some time it's name has been used shamefully by people outside Okinawa.

My promise to Miyazato sensei was to keep alive the spirit of karate that he exemplified; to pass on not only the physical techniques of karate, but the moral and ethical standards required of a karateka. Such things would have been less likely had I taken the familiar (and I think slightly lazy) route of turning 'professional'. The promise I made to my teacher would have been broken long ago had I allowed myself to become compromised by a dependency on students, and the cash they generate through memberships and mass-gradings. If I had put my energy into establishing 'Jundokan Australia' over twenty years ago, or given away Dan ranks to anyone able to stand without falling over and had a 'club' to add to my growing empire, I would no doubt have a little more money in the bank, but at what cost to my integrity?

Karate without morality, without ethics, and without decency, is just business: it's as simple and as ugly as that! Next year I will enter a new decade of life, my seventh; and with that transition will come changes to the way I engage with the karate world: I'm really looking forward to it....

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Time.....

At Taira sensei's bar after training, c 2005
There are things that happen in karate that take time. History can be written to reflect almost anything the writer wants it to, but as Salman Rushdie once said..."What's real and what's true aren't necessarily the same." An observation realized by the fact that even though many people have trained in karate for decades, the training hasn't made them all karateka.

In the photo I'm sitting with my sempai from the Jundokan, Tetsu Gima, Tsuneo Kinjo, and Masaji Taira; also in the photo is the present kancho of the Jundokan, and a junior from the dojo as well as a student of mine. Such gatherings after training are not a nightly affair, at least not for me, but they happen frequently enough to be humbled by the generosity of my sempai.

When you're in Okinawa as a visiting dojo member, it's important to be mindful of the generosity coming your way, and never to abuse it by behaving badly when you return home; that so many do is a sad reflection on the character of a good number of karateka these days. I've witnessed it so many times...the serious student in Okinawa, who behaves like a complete a**shole when he gets back home.

It takes time, not rank, to become an authentic karateka, it takes integrity too; and even thought your position in the karate world might be 'real' in one sense...the 'truth' of your situation may be a different matter altogether.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Picking a Fight...

Karate...fighting with a twist
There is no denying the drift away from the functionality of karate these days, the preference is clearly concentrated on form and having fun; indeed, it is quite possible that most karateka you meet today will have little understanding of how to apply the karate they have learnt...except perhaps within the confines of their karate club or at a tournament.

I'm no great fan of karate being taught only as a way of fighting, I truly believe there are better, more efficient, ways to damage people, but then, maybe that's just the psychopath in me coming through; however, if you're going to waste your life fighting other people, and facing the consequences of doing that, you might as well decide from the outset that you're going to walk away afterwards, and that means the other guy never does!

Karate training is budo, and as such is neither just about fighting or just about revealing your true nature. Time in the dojo ought to develop in you a strong sense of balance. Discovering if you have the strength of character to devote yourself to that task, is a fight a great many karateka today are reluctant to engage in; preferring instead to dwell on the physical techniques alone, and how 'mastery' of them projects an image of something they just don't have as a karateka: authenticity!

Karate is not complicated, it's honest. Overt displays of toughness and aggression are windows to the inadequacy that lies within, for truly powerful karateka never show their strength. There is nothing noble in conflict, no concept of fairness or of compassion...just a desire to win! Wrap your karate up in 'tough-guy' notions of defeating other people, and you have already lost the fight karate was encouraging you to have.

For all the time you spend training...are you honest enough with yourself to pick the right fight?


Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Karate magic...

Basic application from suparinpei kata
I trained for a decade in Tani-ha Shito-ryu (Shukokai), and never once encountered the word bunkai, let alone worked on any. I had friends who held high rank in Shotokan karate, and they never heard of bunkai either; but these days it's different, because everybody knows about bunkai, and oyo, and any number of other ways to mine the fighting techniques of karate from the kata...except!

Well....except many who play the bunkai card don't really understand the kata, so it's unlikely that the moves they make have much to do with the conversation each kata is having with you when you practice it. Some karateka believe every single move in a kata can be applied (with devastating effect) in a fight...but I'm not one of them; you see, I was once a very good fighter, so good in fact that I became a guest of Her Majesty the Queen for a while.

For many karateka there's a big attraction to fighting, but not so many find brutality quite as appealing. Like a good many things in life, the idea is more attractive than the reality. Authentic karate training not only educates you to the absurdity of fighting, it acts as a natural filter, weeding out the pretenders who find the reality of training too much to take. You can fool yourself, perhaps, but you're fooling no one else with your high rank and fancy title, not when your conduct reveals your true nature.

The simplicity of authentic karate training is so straight forward and honest, it remains beyond the reach of many, who, as if by magic, claim to have not only grasped the essence of karate, but to have mastered it! Precisely what has been mastered is up for debate...but, as if by magic, it always seems to be what a new student just happens to be looking for.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Disillusion...

Tsuseishin Hissho Nari
Success comes from a pure heart
Apologies for my poor hand to all those who can read Japanese; just like my karate and kobudo, I'm not very good but I am enthusiastic. I find attempting to capture the spirit of each kanji as I write it, connects me to the same feeling I try to have when training, i.e....free and spontaneous while continuing to be respectful of the nature of my technique.

I posted recently about the desire to stop training, but there are times when quitting isn't the answer, because for many karate instructors, standing at the head of the class is the only place in their entire life where they get any respect....even if it is coming from a class of  7 & 8 year olds! So, when disillusion with karate sets in it's a reminder that your grasp of karate has yet to mature. No one, for example, ever suffers from disillusion with karate when they are promoted....even when they really should not have been.

There is a direct link between disillusion and maturity, the first arising from a lack of the second. Disillusion with karate stems from a feeble mind, a mind not yet tempered by self-discipline. Karate, that is 'authentic karate', is what it has always been, and disillusion is nothing but your own lack of character making its presence felt...what you're actually feeling, is an awareness of the gap between who you thought you were in karate, and what you actually are...a failure!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Joys of Spring...

The Shinseidokan has it's own backyard
I spent a wonderful two hours practicing my karate and kobudo this morning. Spring is well and truly in the air in my part of the world, and with no students to worry about I  took the opportunity to indulge myself.

I know most people say goju-ryu preserves twelve kata, but I've always practiced two distinct forms of the kata sanchin, the version taught by Higaonna Kanryo (that's the longer version with the turns), and the kata passed on by Miyagi Chojun (that's the shorter version with backward stepping), so I always consider I have thirteen kata in my karate.

I also practise six kobudo kata; two with the kon, two with the nunchaku, and one each with the sai and tekko. This morning I reviewed all of my kata. Each kata was performed three times, the first time it was done slowly (calmly), with the focus on being as technically correct as possible, the second and third times however were done with no focus on correctness at all....just feeling!

With all my kata done, I turned to kigu undo, and worked my way through a deck of cards, each suit represented a different tool, with the number of each exercise corresponding to the number on each card as it was turned over.

My final twenty minutes or so was spent outside facing the makiwara which stands in the dojo's own back yard that you see in the photo. Actually, if you look carefully, you can just make out the makiwara at the base of the oak tree, and in the far corner, the ude kitae (pounding post) I use to develop my arms and shins.

Footnote: The rocks you see in the wall were gathered from around my property and later used by me to build the wall. The effort involved connects me to the Okinawan way of thinking, of making something from nothing, of using what is available and of acquiring what you have, not simply by buying it, but through sweat and ingenuity.

Friday, 10 October 2014

A little post

Okinawan kids training in Naihanchin kata
Kids doing karate is nothing new as you can see. But, over the past century much has changed, perhaps most notable is the change in motivation for many who are teaching karate to kids these days, and the lack of motivation in many kids who are learning it.

So what's going on...?

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Time for training...

Who put the shin in Shinseidokan...why me of course!
The time you have for training will vary as you progress through life; work, family, partners, children, they all demand your time. Miyazato sensei would often talk to me about the importance of achieving a balance between work (making an income), family (the reason I made the income), and karate; get the first two right, he would say, and my time in the dojo would be my own.

While Miyazato sensei was big on me taking responsibility for myself, and my karate, he was also keen that I understood I would only appreciated karate properly once my responsibilities to others had been taken care of. It was a lesson I could have done with learning a couple of decades earlier, but then, I've never put myself forward as the smartest guy in the world.

Most people train karate in the evenings
Before making a living from writing I worked all kinds of jobs, and as a result, 99% of my training took place at night after work; but over the past twenty years or so I've been able to establish a way of life that allows me to practice my karate in the morning. The exact time each morning differs a little depending on various other commitments I may have, but mostly, it's the time of year that dictates the exact time I walk the short distance from my home to the dojo.

Regardless of what time of day you practice karate, I think it's important to be mindful of what you're doing, and part of that includes understanding that your body and mind undergo subtle changes throughout the day. Adjusting your practice to the time of day you're training will bring you closer to the essence of what you're doing; but, get your timing wrong, and that essence will remain forever out of reach.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Some thoughts on the reality of combat...

Not a bad read - or a cure for insomnia?
I suppose the answer to the question in the caption depends on what you think you're involved in when you "go training". Regardless, one of the most important things about karate training is that your mind and body work together. It's sad therefore that so many karateka think one way, and train another.

The result of the disconnect between mind and body, rather predictably, leads to all sorts of confusion, with many karateka developing a huge array of strange ideas about what karate actually is. Over the years trends come and go, and like every other form of fashion, the initial excitement of something new attracts a great many.

My publisher, YMAA,  has recently posted a small excerpt from my book, Shin Gi Tai; you can read it here. If you do read it, why not take a moment afterwards to reflect on your own feelings, not about me, the writer, but the subject I have written about...