Sunday, 23 November 2014

The gathering place.....


Ippon Kumite, it's karate's answer to everything
It's fascinating to stand back and watch what others make of karate; how they move, how they think...how some don't think much at all and are happy to leave that part to others. With so many people these days standing up to be counted as karateka (reminds me of that scene from 'Spartacus'), it's kind of ironic that so many individuals put their effort into controlling the 'business' of budo, rather than learning to use budo to control their own nature.

The level of long-term dependency now built into karate, by individual instructors and associations, is a huge contradiction of the 'tradition' the very same instructors and associations claim to be preserving. There is nothing 'traditional' about karate associations, in fact, the early attempts in Okinawa to form them never lasted long, and usually ended in acrimony between the 'founders'. Miyazato Eiichi sensei tried being a member of a couple in his day, but he tiered of them quite quickly and left, telling me..."Too much talk, karate is about just do." and yet......

The Shinseidokan - Oct 2014
If you had no students would you still practise karate? If there were no grades or titles to be had, no status to be gained within a particular group (gang), and no money to be made...what then? Is karate practise enough for you? I dare say, given all the nonsense a great many use to justify the things they do in the name of karate, the money they make, the adoration they receive, and the belief that their karate ancestors would be proud of what they're doing...leaves little time for self-reflection, self-doubt, or even self-respect.

Karate was always a dojo based activity, even before formal dojo existed. It was a pact between you and your teacher; you promised to work hard and conduct yourself properly, and your teacher promised to teach you what he knew. The dojo, (the gathering place) is a fundamental idea for the passing-on of karate, and yet this has been left behind by the formation of the multi-national, global, karate empires we see today. It's a development that speaks more to the selfish desires of a few, than it does to the hopes and dreams of the many.

Empires are made up of individuals, and so is karate...you can chose to be a part of either or both, but not at the same time!

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Okinawan Experience....

The late Nagamine Shoshin sensei
In Okinawa in 1992, I met and interviewed Shoshin Nagamine sensei, the founder of Matsubayshi Shorin ryu karatedo. During our conversation we touched on the subject of changes in karate over his lifetime. Nagamine sensei was 84 years old at the time of our meeting, and had practised karate for 68 years; this is some of what he had to say…

        “In karate we have a principle called Shin Gi Tai. Shin means your spirit, Gi means your technique, and Tai means your body. To do karate well and to understand it properly you have to harmonise these three things within you. Today in karate training there is an over-emphasis on Gi and Tai, the techniques and the body. The Shin, spirit, of a person is often left behind. Technique and power seem to be the reason why some people are doing karate these days, but this was not the case sixty-years ago. Today there is a tendency to forget the building of a student’s spirit and character, but this kind of maturity is very important and I want to emphasise this point. 

         The development of karate as a sport or business is the reason for this decline. To adopt the principle of Shin throughout your karate training is very hard, and to be successful takes a long time. It is much easier to train your body without the discipline of Shin. Your ability to do karate techniques comes from your body and your knowledge and practise of them, but wisdom comes from your mind, and your heart. Your ability to make the techniques work comes from you feeling for karate, not only your knowledge of it. I would like to see more attention put on education, we must educate students on the importance of achieving a good feeling for karate through the development of Shin.”

No longer in existence, Nagamine sensei's Kodokan dojo
When this conversation took place over twenty years ago, many of  the leading sensei I met in Okinawa's were worried about the impact sport and business was having on karate. Nagamine sensei was from the last generation of Okinawan karateka to have experienced the learning of karate with the emphasis on Shin first. He was not alone in his view that too much attention was being paid to the physicality of karate. Over two decades on and it's clear Nagamine sensei's concerns were well founded. But it's interesting to note that he was not talking about foreign karateka, he was actually voicing his concerns to me about the state of karate in Okinawa.

Recent visitors to the island have nothing to compare how karate was conducted twenty or even thirty years ago: but I have. And let me tell you, the seminar related karate on offer in Okinawa today bears no resemblance at all to the dojo training of times past. The "building of a students spirit and character" has long since fallen by the wayside in the mind of many karate instructors; replaced by the notion of 'collecting' students in ever larger numbers, and as a result, Nagamine sensei's observation that..."The shin, spirit, of a person is often left behind." is now more obvious then ever.

The emergence of karate associations, and their business plan encouraging dependency rather than independence, has been the catalyst for karate's moral and spiritual decline. The dojo, once the hub of karate learning has been relegated to 'club' status, and karateka have become mere members. Instructors seek celebrity, and new students arrive with a list of expectations. So, who do you think is responsible for all this.....?

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Making connections.....

Hokusai's most famous print
The famed artist, Hokusai Katsushika, although a prolific artist, is best remembered today for a series of prints viewing Mt Fuji from various locations. The image above is perhaps the most famous of them all; but he produced art all his life from the age of just 6 years old. Once he began drawing, he never stopped.

His skill was not only technical, for Hokusai had real insight into how an image was made, as well as the power of suggestion. For example, one day he was summoned to the palace of the Shogun, Tokugawa Iyenari, there, he and another famous artist of the day were set against each other in competition by the Shogun. Iyenari was determined to find out who was the best artist. Hokusai was aware of his opponent's skill and knew he would have to make a real connection with the Shogun if he was going to win.

Each artist had to create a  work right there in front of the Shogun, but instead of reams of paper, brushes and ink, Hokusai asked for a large piece of paper, some blue ink, a small pot of red ink, and a chicken! As his opponent worked hard to produce something truly wonderful, Hokusai simply ran a swathe of blue ink across the paper, dipped the chicken's feet in the red ink, and dropped the bird in the centre.

When the allotted time was up each artist was asked to explain their creation. The intricate work of Hokusai's rival was an impressive example of the artist's skill, leaving everyone present in awe of his technique. Compared to Hokusai's piece it seemed the likely winner. When Hokusai was asked to explain his piece, he said..."It's the autumn leaves of a maple tree floating down the Tatsuta river." Hokusai was declared the winner!

If you measure your progress in karate by your level of technical skill alone, then you're missing out on how it really works.....

Monday, 17 November 2014

A lesson in E.I.

Many have their photograph taken under this, but how many stop to ponder it's meaning?
I mentioned previously the concept of emotional intelligence being a crucial element in the understanding of karate; like, for example, the notion of 'wabi sabi', you can not hope to move beyond mere kicking and punching if either is missing from your education.

Here is a short music video of one of my favorite musicians. Kei comes from Hokkaido, but is playing a traditional song from Ryukyu, on a western instrument. The effort of his task is clear by the focused look on his face but his skill as a musician is also clear to see; look carefully, and you will notice that even though the music is a challenge for him, Kei and his guitar have become one with the music he is creating.

Music is not just a series of  remembered notes, just as karate is not only a series of remembered techniques. The subtle tones that come from being in the music, the gaps between each note, all point to where Kei is in his mind. Karate contains the same level of 'being'; but if all you see is a guy playing a guitar, then you're right....that's all there is to see!

Friday, 14 November 2014

When you look, what do you see..?

"Tsu shin gen" - the piercing eye of insight
As well as writing kanji (shodo) I enjoy carving them into wood. This example was done a couple of years ago on an irregular piece of Blackwood I found in a pile of waste off-cuts from a saw mill. Making something out of nothing is an element of karate training that few modern karateka have any understanding of; which is a shame, because without that kind of thinking, karate is destined to continue along it's present, one-dimensional, course...downhill.

I chose the term "Tsushingen" as a reminder to look beyond the superficial in karate, to apply not only common sense, but good judgement too when it comes to the things I am asked to do or believe. It took a while, but thanks to Miyazato Eiichi sensei's patience, I came to understand that the karate world is full of people with agendas, with beliefs and opinions: sensei was asking me to look beyond the words people use, and to pay more attention to their actions.

Insight comes from experience, and experience needs time to develop; depending on the length of time you have been practising karate, and with whom, the education you receive may or may not help you develop insight. People today are all too quick to consume karate, but few seem able to digest it. A certain level of emotional intelligence (E.I.) needs to be in place to absorb karate fully. Looking around, I don't see E.I. in any great abundance.

So, what kind of education are you getting..?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

NHK report on Okinawan karate today......

Worth a look if you have an hour to spare

You might imagine, from my previous post, that I'm somehow upset or unhappy with Okinawan karate at the moment...but that would be wrong: very wrong! 

Okinawa has given me a couple of truly wonderful gifts in the shape of karate and kobudo, and my withdrawal from one particular dojo should not lead you to believe I have withdrawn from Okinawa altogether. I remain a student of Akamine Hiroshi sensei of the Shimbukan dojo, and so Okinawa continues to play a key role in my ongoing education in the fighting ways of the island.

Above is a T.V. documentary recently broadcast by NHK, Japan's national broadcaster. Be sure to watch it soon, as the last time I posted something of theirs it was taken off the Internet quickly afterwards. I've shared this from O.K.K.B. and thank Miguel-san for making it available. For those of you who don't know Mr. Da Luz, this program is a good introduction; "Domo arigato gozaimashita!"

I have to say, that my feelings about this program are mixed. While the underlying point is made, that karate is a quest for personal growth as a human being, I'm not totally convinced the message was conveyed strongly enough not to be lost in the 'gloss' of production.  Still....I support whole-heartedly the thinking behind this documentary, and would urge everyone who believes them self to be a karateka, to ponder on the message this film is trying to convey. 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

As one door closes, another......

A Shisa stands guard outside the Shinseidokan dojo
As some of you reading this already know, after twenty-three years as a member of the Jundokan in Okinawa,  I withdrew from the dojo earlier this week. It was not, as some might assume, a difficult decision to make; the difficulties I faced were sorted out some months ago, and as a result, my action this week was straightforward and given the circumstances: inevitable.

I remain grateful to my sempai and friends at the Jundokan, and throughout the dojo's worldwide following; many of whom are great examples of what it is to be a karateka. By the same token, I'm very relieved, at last, to no longer have my name linked (however slightly) with a number of characters connected to the Jundokan whose "Honne" I find repulsive.

My training continues each morning without pause, and I have no doubt it will go on sustaining me for many years to come. I'm only mentioning all this because I receive a great many enquirers each year about the Jundokan, and I'm hoping this post will stop them.

I  have nothing further to say about this, although I'm sure others will. I've long understood that the character of a budoka is not measured by rank or title, nor by the number of followers they have amassed...but by their behavior in daily life.

As I move ever closer to my 60th birthday I'm determined more than ever, to fill my life with only Big Rocks!

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Random Thoughts....

Miyazato Eiichi sensei (1922 - 1999)
A good teacher is always ready to lose a student...Miyazato sensei was never interested in keeping me happy; actually, he was never interested in keeping me at all. Nevertheless, he invested his time in me, he encouraged me, and he provided me with lessons that I would either come to learn, or inadvertently allow to pass by unnoticed.

His insight into human nature was profound, and after training he would often invite me upstairs to watch sumo and eat my fill from the table of food laid out by his wife. At such times he would talk to me about many things. My gratitude for such an education has, so far, kept me connected to the Jundokan even though Miyazato sensei passed away fifteen years ago.

I often think of the lessons he provided, and of the subjects he brokered over the many meals I shared with him; Miyazato Eiichi was not a karate instructor, he was a sensei, and from him I came to understand what it is to be authentic, a true reflection of who and what we are; and not, like so many in karate today: mere caricatures.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Time, is of the essence...

The Gates to Sogenji - the same gates, different street!
Between the time this image was captured and now, much has changed. The road runs a little further back from the stone steps these days, and the railway track has long since gone. Still, an increasing number of visitors to Okinawa today will know this location well, for the Sogenji gates stand almost exactly half way between the Shureido store and the Dojo Bar; two of the islands most popular venues for karate and kobudo tourists.

Looking at the image for the first time a few days ago, it occurred to me that the person who took the photograph would have had a totally different experience on the island than me. I've walked past these gates countless times over the past thirty years, never knowing that once upon a time a railway ran where my feet were walking. Time, it makes all the difference in the world to the experience you have.

I'm so grateful that I experienced training at the Jundokan dojo when Miyazato Eiichi sensei was alive. His dojo, like the gates of Sogenji, still stands, but in either location there is little left these days of the way things once were.


Saturday, 1 November 2014

To be or not to be......

The Jundokan's foreign affiliates gather in Naha, Nov 2013
If  the success of a dojo is to be measured solely by the number of followers it can attract, then isn't it wise to look at what those attractions are? When failure and disappointment are removed from the existential nature of learning karate, is it still budo? And at what point in the life of a dojo does the desire to keep it open outweigh the purpose it was established for?

Jundokan dojo shomen
Before I arrived at the Jundokan for the first time in January 1992, I was required to seek nomination from an existing dojo member; I was also obliged to write a personal letter of introduction to Miyazato Eiichi sensei, requesting permission to visit his dojo. Simply turning up wasn't an option back then, and even when my entry was gained, the situation was by no means guaranteed to be a permanent one. Miyazato sensei knew what wrong looked like, and he wasn't afraid to right one when he saw it.

Eiichi Miyazato sensei - what would he make of karate today..?
Zen teaches that the root of all suffering stems from 'attachment', and yet, many karateka seem unable to detach themselves from the immoral, and even illegal, behaviour being accommodated for the sake of an image of karate that, at least in mainstream karate circles, appears in decline.

Budo is an expression of the 'middle way', of compromise if you like; and so I'll end this gentle rant with a quote from Adlai Stevenson's 1952 campaign speech; it foreshadows the comments that will no doubt arise elsewhere from this and future posts.....

"I offer my opponents a bargain; if they will stop telling falsehoods about me, I will stop telling the truth about them."