Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Little Gods....with feet of clay.

A sacred grove in Okinawa - but, does Okinawan karate hold any mysteries?
When you travel to Okinawa for the first time, you can't help but get swept up in the mystery of it all. Almost everyone looks like they could be a karateka, and every old wooden building looks like it could be a dojo. The truth is, compared to the size of the population, the percentage of Okinawan's who practice karate and kobudo is rather small and always has been.

I've written before about the problems involved in not taking responsibility for your self as you study karate - here, here, and here, and at the time I did hint that I would return to this subject at some point, so he I am. This time, it's not karate, but aikido (?) being used to fulfill a fantasy, and make a pile of $'s in the process. Here is a great article articulating why people are open to such nonsense. Unfortunately, the site may try to display an advert, but get past that and you'll find some very interesting reading.

There are a great many charlatans thriving in today's karate; not all as dumb or as obvious as the 'masters' you've come across in this post; but remember what the common denominator is in the success of all these characters....people who believe it's possible to get something for nothing. Their desire to belong to 'the group', coupled with an ego driven reluctance to change even when they know things just aren't right, this is what keeps the karate world full of little gods!

Of course, you're no doubt too smart to fall for anything like this, right? Well...maybe you should read the article again and ponder a while on why you're so confident about that.....

Friday, 16 January 2015

Choice...how much do you really have?

Images of me being used in a two-page ad in Blitz Magazine
Even an old guy like me can wonder at the marvel of modern technology, and see in it many things that improve the way we live and how we get things done. But, with the speed of access and the overwhelming nature of content now available, I also wonder if the essence of karate is getting lost in the way information about it is accessed. Is so much choice a good thing? And if so, whatever happened to the concept of ' less is more '?

There is research showing that with more and more choice people tend to choose less, and instead, stick to the things they are familiar with. Finding a karate sensei willing to teach you was once a difficult proposition, but with the rise of  karate associations this is no longer the case, and the karate world is now awash with groups teaching all manner of styles and methods, and all of them advertising for new members.

This difficulty, when faced with too much choice, is something the commercial world has understood for many years and is the reason why 'Branding' is so important to them. Walk into any supermarket today for instance and you'll see a dazzling array of items on sale, but when you go shopping you're still as likely to walk out of the shop with the same brand names you always buy! And there you were, thinking you had freedom of choice...!

Hirokazu Kanazawa sensei teaching in Tasmania
The way the majority of karateka engage with the art today, through the medium of karate associations, takes this idea of implied choice, and wraps it neatly up in esoteric tales of budo, bushido, and semi-mystical masters from long ago. But step back for a moment and what you begin to notice is that regardless of which association 'brand'  of karate you're buying, you're just as likely to be purchasing an identical product. The packaging may be a little different, but the content (experience) is almost always the same. Can karate still be considered existential if the only experiences available are identical?

If you're going to accept responsibility for your karate, exercise free will, or as Heidegger would have it, 'make your own path'; you're not going to find these possibilities available to you in a karate association. For they are never established to propagate the art of karate; their aim has always been to distribute karate techniques to an already existing customer base, and if possible, to grow that customer base in the hope of gaining market dominance. The thinking found in the hombu dojo of many karate associations is identical to the thinking found in the boardrooms of McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and Woolworth's.

Chojun Miyagi sensei, c1950 (?)
The speed with which people can now connect with each other has no doubt improved the act of communication, but I would argue that the 'art' of communication has suffered as a result. Information is now commonly confused for knowledge and knowledge is mistaken for understanding; just as you walk the isles of the supermarket in the mistaken belief that you are freely choosing what you want to buy, as a member of a karate association, you are no more free to discover karate for yourself after decades of training than you were on the first day you walked into a dojo.

Karate is not an intellectual exercise, nor is it a solely physical pursuit; rather, it's a blend of physically challenging training supported by mindful introspection. Apart from lip-service, you won't find much time allotted to pondering such notions as a fully paid up member of a karate association. Instead, your dependency on the association leadership will be nurtured by regular promotions and the acquisition of status within the group; which in my book is just fine so long as you're honest about what's going on.

"Choice...exercising the power to choose alternatives" As a member of a karate association with decades of training behind you, try running that one past hombu and see how it works!

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd....

The Shinseidokan dojo, settling into it's surroundings: winter 2012 
When I walk up the small rise and enter through the gate into the dojo garden, the path I take won't lead me straight to the door, it will instead direct me sideways at an angle to the dojo; inviting me to slow my pace and take in the views the garden has to offer: in short, I'm encouraged to leave the demands of the day behind. This is always the first lesson to be learnt whenever I go to the dojo.

Part of the Shinseidokan garden
This image was captured yesterday, it's summer time here right now, and the garden is beginning to establish its self. The pathway coming out of the Japanese black pine on the right directs me from the gate to a small wooden bridge, when I cross it, I consciously leave my everyday life behind and approach the dojo mindful of the need for 'Mushin', and the clarity of mind necessary to gain the most from my training.

Entrance to the dojo
Having crossed the bridge I come upon a large stone blocking my way, the path leads me away from the dojo before turning back toward it; symbolic of the obstacles faced in the learning of karate, and how remaining on the path is the the only way to move beyond that which would halt my progress. Progress is seldom made in a straight line, and once this was understood my karate practice became less of a mystery and more an expression of my quiet resolve to simply practice...one day at a time.

The genkan (left) allows for the removal of  my shoes, and leads to the changing room
The Shinseidokan is not a large dojo, it was built with my own training in mind and was never intended to be a public dojo. The 8 x 4 meters of training space is ample for the type of training I am involved in, and when students are in the dojo the lack of space is conducive to developing Zanshin. In Okinawa I have visited a number of dojo that were even smaller than the Shinseidokan, and always preferred them to the larger training halls.

Okinawan kobudo, as well as karate, is studied at the Shinseidokan
Understanding where I am relative to my surroundings is a key element in my budo training. Kobudo kata in particular tests this to a fine degree. Although only two years old, the dojo already shows signs of enthusiastic training. You may wonder if the wood panels on the lower part of the walls are merely decorative...no they're not. Without them, the walls would have several neat round holes, put there by an over zealous thrust with a Bo, or a misunderstanding of how much space was available. 

The dojo Shomen
The focal point of any dojo, the shomen, serves to remind me to be grateful to those who have gone before me, and who laid the foundations for the fighting arts that have been so beneficial to my life. At the end of this month I will reach my 41st 'karate' birthday. Since becoming a karateka I have never taken time off, and even when forced to refrain from physical practice due to illness or injury, I continued to read and learn, and in that way maintained my karate education without a break. 

The schooling karate has provided, has taught me that I don't need the trappings, or the titles, to benefit from practice; I don't need the rank or the status within a particular group either. All I, and you too for that matter, ever need, is a desire to express your true nature through the medium of budo, and to one day come to know what others knew: the essence of  Budo no Kokoro.....    

Friday, 9 January 2015

In my thoughts....



Morio Higaonna sensei, Makishi Okinawa - 2008
There are few teachers of goju-ryu karate outside Okinawa who are better known than Morio Higaonna sensei. He was my first teacher when I made the change from Japanese Shito-ryu, to Okinawan Goju-ryu, back in 1984.

As impressive a karateka as many believe him to be today, back then he was in his prime, and each training session was a lesson in self-reliance, endurance, and determination.

I'm sad to say that recently, shortly after his 76th birthday on Christmas day, he became seriously ill due to a ruptured Aorta, and is now in the Intensive Care Unit in a Naha Hospital. His wife and son are with him as he deals with this latest challenge.

I hope you will join with me in holding Higaonna sensei in your thoughts, and wishing him a speedy recovery back to good health.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The "How's" and the "Why's"...

A much younger me conditioning my body - and mind
A karateka's early training is spent learning 'how', but only a small number progress to asking themselves 'why'; I would argue this is just as it should be, it's karate's natural filter system in action. Continue focusing your efforts on the 'how' of karate and you'll eventually loose yourself in an ever complicated and intricate web of detail....the paralysis of analysis, as they say. As for asking questions, the sooner you stop doing that of others the better! 

There really is nothing esoteric or complicated about karate, except that we (in our eagerness to learn) make it so. In an effort to achieve something 'special', it suits the ego to believe that extraordinary abilities stem from being an extraordinary person; but exactly what does it mean to be extraordinary? Clearly, not being the same as everyone else...right? And yet so many karateka today live lives that are indistinguishable from non-karateka. It's a puzzle (of sorts), but not a mystery so complex that the answer is beyond reason.

When you learn to write you begin by learning the alphabet, but once learnt your writing skills are not improved by learning to write the alphabet again using different fonts or  fancy letters. Once learnt the alphabet has served its purpose...it's time to move on. Most people succeed in learning their alphabet, but few go on to become poets; poets are rare, because their grasp of words lies beyond mere communication. The essence of karate is the same as the essence of poetry, both flow from a deep connection to the art in question. Conscious thought, based on memorising technique, kills the spontaneity needed for karate (or poetry) to live.

A not so younger me...still conditioning my body - and mind
As karate moved beyond the isolation of it's homeland on Okinawa, many changes took place, and today's karate training produces a very different kind of 'karateka' then it once did: why is that? I'm going to put forward an idea here that goes some way to articulating the drift karate has been experiencing at an ever-accelerating rate; moving it away from budo and even a martial art, and setting it squarely within the realms of 'sport and recreation'.

It's a phenomenon known as the "Normalisation of deviance", and you can read a short but well articulated explanation of what that is here. Even though the article is not discussing karate or even budo, the parallels are clear; we humans are not always good at doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do. If you ponder on this notion you'll easily notice that karate too suffers from the same normalisation of deviance; and it is seen most clearly when a sensei, dojo, or association's, original aims are incrementally compromised for the sake of maintaining the status quo.

Karate dojo and associations are established for a purpose, if that purpose becomes secondary to keeping the dojo or association going, you have to ask yourself, 'how could that happen'.....but more importantly, you have to ask:  'why are you happy to go along with it?'

Thursday, 1 January 2015

A New Year...but what's changed?

The essence of karate is in the daily training of it...
On this, the first day of the new year, it is all too easy to follow the crowd and indulge in the obvious...the drinking, the noise, and the excessive behavior that characterizes the world a great many karateka inhabit. You'll get back to budo later....right? Once you've sobered up and your karate club opens for business again later in the month; how very authentic of you!

Before you lies another year, but what will it bring? More of the same for most karateka I expect, for few today concern themselves with matters that don't bring them pleasure. It's a feeling that is often confused for 'happiness', but the two are not the same. I'm always happy to be in the dojo, but it isn't always a pleasure to be there... Besides, seeking pleasure is narcissistic, it's about taking, being a juvenile....acting Justin Bieberish!

On the other hand, being happy, seriously happy, stems from helping others, from giving, from the neural connections made from being altruistic. Happiness and pleasure stem from two different ways of thinking and lead to two very different places in life.

If all you got from your karate last year was a new rank, a bit more information about kata application, a few more followers, or a couple of plastic trophies, you have to ask yourself...is that it? Oh I see....you don't ask yourself questions like that...right! So like I said: for many karateka nothing much changes from one year to the next.

Me at 56 years old, doing stuff that makes me happy!
And so, as 2015 begins to get underway, and you pat yourself on the back for having completed another year of training, are you happy about the choices you made in the previous year? Are you content to know that your karate is continuing to adjust its self to you and the way you live your life? Are you satisfied with the progress you made last year (if you made any that is?) and the situation you find yourself in today? Have you solved the problems that faced you? Have you repaired the mistakes you made? Did you do anything over the past year that you can be quietly proud of?

I don't need to know the answer to any of the above, nor does anyone else...but you do! No, really...you really do, because if this kind of stuff doesn't enter your head, then I'm not sure what activity you think you're involved in; but it isn't karate!


Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Being in the world...

Springtime in Canada - May 2014
Not long after I became a karateka, in January 1974, I bought a book written by Masutatsu Oyama sensei, called, 'What is Karate?'. I had little idea back then of the differences that exist between the various schools, or of the importance some of them placed on sport and commercialism; rather naively, I believed all karate training was budo. I look back with some dismay at how long it took for the penny to drop, but remain grateful for the comfort and space provided by my ignorance.There comes a time however when 'waking-up' is not only desirable, but necessary.

"But I am awake"...I hear you say! Really? If that were so your karate would not be dominated by dreams, would it? Dreams of being a famous karateka, a sensei, a leader of men (and women); a master of the martial arts, or someone who wants to be, the founder of your own style, head of your own organisation....the giver of rank and title! These are the dreams of many in karate today, but they are seldom endorsed by truth. For just as in your night time dreams, where movement from one unlikely environment to another is entirely possible, karateka who have yet to wake-up, shift endlessly from one persona to another without missing a beat.

Renshu - the physical means to a spiritual end
Although the school of karate I was involved with back in the 1970's  (Tani ha Shitoryu), and my new book featuring the Kyokushin method of training, depicted karate very differently; each system shared a number of kata. It was confusing to discover that the same kata could be performed so 'differently' and yet still be considered 'correct'; back then I had yet to understand that karate is based on principles that work, rather than techniques that often don't. So, the answer to the question, 'What is karate?' remained an enigma to me; it was a situation that would not change for quite some time.

All my sensei did their best to teach me, to train not only my body but my mind, however, it wasn't until I met Eiichi Miyazato sensei that finding an answer to the question became even remotely possible. You see, he was the first of my teachers to give me space to make mistakes, to get lost, and to discover if I had it in me to find my own way back when I did; before Miyazato sensei, all my teachers put their energy in to 'correcting' me. Although I was always pleased to receive corrections, I became more and more frustrated by the constant changes to the kata that were, so I was told, being made due to progress and research...really?

Looking a little the worse for wear these days
Today, 40 years after I ran, bursting with excitement, up stairs to my room to read the book for the first time, I believe I have an answer to the question posed in the title. It's an answer that is applicable to many karateka around the world, although not I believe, to the majority of the 50 million who call them selves karateka: for karate, at it's most simple and authentic best is......a way of being in the world.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Private Lessons...

Private Lessons were once the norm, not the exception
Have you ever paid 'extra' for a private lesson? If you have, you've been ripped off, and I'll tell you why. Every time your teacher talks to you, or demonstrates for you, or adjusts your posture, that's a private lesson...even if there are fifty others in the room with you.

I used to think I was the luckiest  karateka in the world when I found myself in the dojo with only Miyazato Eiichi sensei for company. Around 4pm each afternoon, he would spend an hour training by himself, and leave me to do the same, but sometimes he would amble over and help me 'fine tune' my kata. His lessons were short and to the point, and would often include asking me why I was doing something the way I did.

Looking back, I now understand that the private lesson was not the time I spent in the dojo with my sensei, instead, it was the time I spent alone afterwards with my thoughts. Miyazato sensei rarely taught me techniques, he was more interested in getting me to a point where I could work things out for myself.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Road to Nowhere...

Karateka - or - Kaicho?
When I look at images from karate's past, I often ponder the reaction of the people in them, and what they would think of the things being done in their name these days. Would they even recognise the karate they practised in anything they saw today? Who knows for sure?

I think there's a misunderstanding about karate, people seem to think it's a product, like a car or an expensive pair of sport shoes; at any-rate, there is a firm belief today that you can buy or sell karate for cash. And even though there is no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that the exchange of money will result in skill and knowledge, most karateka today still believe in paying cash for karate.

Good news for the sellers...right? But here's the thing, I've yet to meet anyone who is happy to admit they're making a good living from selling karate. Even though they often maintain a mortgage, and run a car, pay the rent on their 'dojo', and in some cases send their kids to private schools, yet they still insist that they are making very little money. I've always figured that's the kind of money I wouldn't like to be making too!

Karate wasn't always practised in a designer dogi
You have to hand it to the budo business men, they know how to create a market for their product, and how to sell it too. Branding, marketing, celebrity, and the cultivation of dependency, have all become part of karate over the past fifty-years, all of which have found an eager audience, happy and willing to buy what's on offer from the humble master selling it.

The number of FIFO (fly in - fly out) sensei in Okinawa and Japan has risen substantially in recent years, with each calendar month witnessing any number of seminars being held around the world. The number of package-tour karate holidays to Okinawa is steady, although a consistently low participation rate suggests that they may not last much longer, unless the sales campaign expands into Japan.

When you use the term 'the way of karate', do you know where that 'way' is leading you? Do you have a destination in mind...or are you content to hide behind the misconception that 'it's the journey that counts'. Well that's fine if you are, just so long as you don't apply the same logic to the rest of your life; otherwise, you're going to die having spent your entire life on the way to somewhere other than where you were....you'll have missed your own life!

From time to time it's good to check that your 'way of karate' hasn't become a road to nowhere.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Wanting Recognition...but as what?

A class 'A' War Criminal - or head of the World Karate Federation?
Researching the way karate has been selling itself to an unsuspecting public over the past 30 years, one of the big selling points to emerge is 'recognition'. That is to say, no matter where you might live in the world, if you become a member of a particular gang, then you'll be recognised....but as what? Another prominent claim made by karate is the development of ones character...now there's irony for you!

Let's take a look at one of karate leading lights of the past century, former head of the World Karate Federation no less; depending on the circumstances in which you encountered the late Ryoichi Sasagawa, you might have 'recognized' him as a man of good character: or a monster. Certainly the karate world elite welcomed him with open arms, but I'm not sure his reception would have been quiet so warm in certain parts of China.

No one is perfect, I'll grant you that; but you are a karateka...right? And if that's the case then you're obliged to try to better yourself, become a person of integrity...right? So why the addiction to the superficial; the external trappings of karate what were once meaningless, and only became important after the colonisation of karate by commerce and sport. If you can develop a karate body, what's stopping you from developing a karate mind as well?

Observing what some do in the name of karate, (thank goodness the K has gone away!), I have no problem recognising many karateka for exactly what they are....