Thursday, 28 April 2016

A good teacher will....

My long-time friend, Sunagawa Hisao sensei, helping a student find a 'feeling' 
I read something recently that made me stop and wonder..."A good teacher will push you from behind rather than lead from the front." What I wondered was this, why would a 'good' teacher do either? Why would he/she feel it was necessary to push at all? Why would he want to have students who are happy to be 'lead'? And why, if the students are serious about learning, would they wait around to be 'pushed' or 'lead' by their teacher?

It made me wonder about the way folk like to structure karate, and divide it into those who know and those who don't. It's a construct that serves the people in the 'know' camp very well, for they now have a 'point of sale' through which they can pass karate on in dribs and drabs, and drip-feed their followers regardless of their ability to absorb the training. While this may be a good business model, it has little to do with passing karate on to the next generation.

Experience tells me that the longer you need to be pushed, pulled, lead, or drip-fed, the less likely it is you will ever come to understand karate beyond the kicking and punching bit. I believe a desire to help (sparingly) is okay, but a desire to teach, that's not so good. It distracts the mind from ones own practice and strokes the ego; and if left unchecked becomes down right unhealthy for the spirit. It's not uncommon for good karateka to loose themselves in a fog of good intention, but we all know where that road leads.

I still believe the best way to help someone become a good karateka, is to provide them with an example of what that looks like. Anything more...well, that's something for you to wonder about.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Things that are hard to come by...

With Hokama Testsuhiro sensei, at the tomb of Miyagi Chojun - 2011
As you age there are a number of things that become increasingly hard to come by. The level of physical fitness you once had, an ability to recover quickly from injury, and the boundless energy that fuelled the twenty year old body you once wore. But ageing isn't all bad, no sir! In fact, given the choice, I wouldn't swap the body I'm living in now for the one I was renting forty years ago...not if it meant losing all the experience I've accumulated since then. It might have been good years ago to have potential, but it's much better knowing you have lived up to it.

Never overly ambitious by nature, nor prone to the same desires most others share, I have long ago exceeded my dreams as far as karate is concerned. And because of that, I've been free to just be a karateka rather than live my life playing the role that so many have chosen, that of leader.  It has always seemed a strange ambition to me, to want to be a leader, for it insists that you accumulate others to follow you. Dependency on others has never felt like a smart thing to do. Others following your example is one thing....but you should never encourage others to follow 'you': it's not healthy.

It's hard to come by karateka who just practice karate, it's difficult to find men (or women) without ambition, it's rare to meet someone who has come to know who they are...but it has always been worth trying to find them. I don't see much evidence of sensei anymore, only instructors. I don't see much evidence of students either, only followers. I see 'fans' and folk who want to be 'liked', I hear excuses and I see those who should know better accommodating those who don't. Integrity has all but slipped if karate's 'way' isn't difficult enough.

Of all the things it's hard to come by in the study of karate, perhaps what's missing 'stillness'.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Oh dear...!

The last thing my sensei said to me was, "Follow your heart."
Once again the kuchi bushi have been busy overnight. I would have thought it obvious that I too ask myself the questions I posed in yesterdays post. Apparently, that wasn't as obvious as I thought for some of you. Nevertheless, if all you know about me is what you've read, then I guess misunderstandings are not only possible, but inevitable. Still, it's interesting how some of you feel the need to share your hatred with me. Interesting, because when you reach out to someone, for whatever reason, it says more about you then the person you're trying to connect with.

I'm aware also that people are often disappointed when they meet me for the first time. I should be taller, I should have more students, more dojo, more to say (boast about), more of just about everything in actual fact; after all, this is what they 'expect' when they meet someone with the external trappings of karate that I have accumulated over the past four decades. The last guy they met with the same rank as me (and often less) had several students in attendance, opening doors and buying beers for him. He was a 'somebody' and he and his acolytes weren't shy about letting them know. Me, I have none of those things...I'm just a karateka who practices karate.

My new book, Redemption, is poised to hit the shelves as I write this. But I'm already thinking about my next writing project. A tale of fantasy wrapped in comedy, with a rich vain of irony running throughout. I'm thinking of calling it, "Idiot Emails: a word to the wise from karate's keyboard warriors" can be in it if you like, what do you think? I'm kidding of course, wild horses couldn't drag me to spend any more time thinking about these folk than I'm doing right now. I'm posting this only as a pointer to readers who may still believe the world of karate and kobudo is a purely wholesome place to's not! Hence the need to populate your karate world with people who inspire, and furnish it with experiences that help you grow.

For some, this blog is a good thing, for others it's an intense source of irritation. I get that!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

What is it about you...?

What is this gate meant to be a symbol of again..?
What is it about you.....
That makes you believe you're on the right path?
That allows you to express opposing opinions with no sense of irony?
That accommodates asinine behavior because your teacher is "special"?
That excuses your own behavior while remaining intolerant of others?

How come you can.....
Say one thing and do another?
Be a physical wreck and expect others to look after their body?
Be mentally unstable yet profess to live a balanced life?
See what's wrong with everyone except you and your friends?

Do you really think it's possible to....
Fix the world?
Fix the world for others?
Fix your own world?

Why are you.....
Comfortable lying to yourself?
Living a fantasy?

Are you.....
Really living the dream, or just dreaming of what it is to be alive?

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

What's real...and what's not?

Large, multinational gatherings don't preserve karate
The photo above is used here purely to illustrate the point I'm making in this post, that large gatherings, be they in Okinawa, Japan, or anywhere else, do nothing to preserve and protect the essence of either karate or kobudo. To put it in the parlance of  a younger generation than my own...'seminars suck!' Oh sure, it's nice to catch up with folk and bathe in a communal sense of belonging, but what do such feelings have to do with 'you' coming to grips with your martial art?

Actually, I'm of the opinion that large gatherings do more harm than good, and here's why. They promote the 'status quo' which in it's self is a barrier to individual progress, they endorse 'who is in charge' and more importantly, who isn't! And they encourage an 'us' and 'them' mentality between the group and 'outsiders'. This kind of thinking has become increasingly entrenched with the commercialisation of budo. In short, I believe large gatherings increase the dilution of budo by papering to the lowest common denominators of human nature, rather than demanding that everyone step up to the mark and find ways to improve their character.

No, I'm not advocating that karate should breed a generation of super-street-fighting-karate-killers, but it should still produce folk who know how to conduct themselves with a level of common decency that is clearly no longer required in order to attract the mantle of 'senior'. Budo is diminished by the faceless movers and shakers who would sooner put their energy into building monuments to their own greatness, than quietly get on with preserving and protecting their heritage in the silent industry of their dojo. If they did, then at  least those who enter a dojo for the first time may yet have a chance of discovering something special.

The little world of karate and/or kobudo that you live in is not real; at least, it's no more real than any of the computer games children, and adults with an  I.Q. lower than room temperature, waste their lives playing. The little world of karate/kobubo has no meaning unless meaningful results show otherwise. So, are you still the self-obsessed jerk you always were, except now you have an 8th dan in kobudo? Are you still smoking like a chimney, even though you've spent years teaching others the importance of breathing in karate? Are you overweight and unfit, even though you stand before others and push them to physical exhaustion?  Do you keep count of how many times you've been to Japan or Okinawa and engineer conversations so you can let others know?

I haven't made any of this stuff up, I've come across it. I've heard it spoken and seen it done; I've witnessed first hand the embarrassment on faces of those who could have prevented it, and yet chose not to. I've seen concerns over money outweigh the need for moral behavior, and business plans kick to one side anyone who raised their voice to object. I've watched as good people compromise themselves terribly, and all for an ounce of moral courage that would have seen them forever free of the dilemma they faced. But none of this stuff is new! So who, you may ask, carries the burden of responsibility for changing all this?

Why....that would be you of course!

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Positive & Negative...

Her Majesties Prison Manchester - a.k.a. 'Strangeways'
When you look at the photo, what do you see? I see the place I was living when I turned 18 years old. I also see the place where I began to take a long hard look at myself and what I was doing with my life. I knew nothing of karate back then of course, nothing about self-control, nothing about 'not' getting what I wanted when I wanted it. Back then, I took what I wanted (or thought I wanted) from life, and I took the consequences too.

On the face of it you might think my situation in the Spring of 1973 wasn't good but having read this post you may, as I did long ago, discover something else. I discovered, for example, that I could if I chose to, change my thinking and develop a better way of living; one that would allow me to handle the negativity life brought my way. In prison, I also learnt to live in the 'here and now'.

Karateka are always 'going places' always on the hunt to learn 'new stuff', but I believe that kind of thinking is a trap. An attachment to learning, over practicing, prevents you from understanding and instead of focusing on what you know, you become obsessed with the things you don't; denying yourself an opportunity to discover the positive in the negative, the good in the bad.

Miyazato Eiichi sensei told me often that in relation to practice its best to "Just do it!" Over the years, the more I've pondered the meaning behind his words, the more I smile to myself at how long it's taking me to fully understand the lesson my teacher gave me. Will I ever understand the depth of karate? Will I ever fully appreciate life ? Who knows?

Decades later I came upon on old Chinese tale that helped me catch a glimpse.....

"A farmer who was poor had only an old horse to use in his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer's neighbours sympathised with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, ’‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?" 

A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills, and the neighbours congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was the same, "Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?"
Then, when the farmer's son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone in the village thought that was bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, "Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”
Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found. When they saw the farmer's son with his broken leg, they let him off. So, was that good luck or bad luck? Who knows?
Everything that seems, on the surface, to be bad luck may be good luck in disguise. And everything that seems fortunate may not be as it seems."

Friday, 15 April 2016

Are Karateka Racisits..?

All is as it should be...right?
After practice this morning I got thinking about the number of karateka said to be in the world these days and how few of them, relatively speaking, are Okinawan or Japanese.

Where did the passive racism that permeates the karate world come from I wondered, that so many readily accept that Okinawan and Japanese karateka are automatically 'better' than their counterparts. 

Why are Westerners so comfortable playing a subservient role on the basis of race? It's interesting, this assumption that because of race you can either grasp the essence of karate, or you can't.

With such a willingness to be lead, Okinawan and Japanese instructors have no need to lead by example...but who is responsible for that situation, them...or you?

When  karate relies so heavily on foreigners to preserve it's teachings, why are they often treated like children? And why is it that so many Westerners are happy to accept such treatment? 

As I slid the dojo door closed this morning and walked home through the garden to begin my day, I was grateful to my sensei for his insistence that I learn to take responsibility for myself.  

My karate may not be great, but at least I'm not a racist.... 

Monday, 11 April 2016

Ai and karate...

My wife with friends in the dojo, c2014

Last week my wife and I celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary. I hope you'll forgive me for mentioning that fact here, because you may well be wondering what it has to do with karate? Well, marriage and budo (as opposed to bujutsu), depend on an ability to stick with it and see things through in order to be successful. Budo training is not concerned with winning, it's about not losing. It's not focused on 'efficiency', but instead points toward the 'less obvious'; a task undertaken for the sake of doing it to the best of your ability, rather than completing it as quickly as possible. It's the care you bring to your practice, and marriage, that makes all the difference.

When your attachment to karate is driven by pugilistic results, it's like walking up a downward facing escalator. The more effort you make the less ground you loose, but at the end of the day, the best you can ever hope for is to reach the top. But consider what would happen if you chose to take the upward facing escalator in the first place. You see, making good choices lies at the heart of budo. If you can learn to do that, then you don't need to concern yourself with 'an opponent' to do battle with. When I was a younger man, I made a lot of poor choices, and even when the consequences became obvious, I still figured I didn't need to change my 'thinking' in order to change my life.

In this months excerpt from my upcoming book, 'Redemption'. I'm relating a short passage that goes some way to explaining where I got my sense of balance from, and why I have no need to be a 'somebody' in the tiny world of karate. My struggles with karate, kobudo, and life, are all reflected in each other. Lessons learnt in one often help in another, and I've come to understand that the important thing is to 'learn the lesson', and not hold on to where I learnt it. In 31 years of marriage I've learnt a lot about myself, my shortfalls and my strengths, and I'm still learning!

Back to 'Redemption'; I've left Manchester, England, where I grew up, and I'm now living on the island of Jersey off the coast of France. I'm still training in Shito-ryu, but, after ten years of walking up a downward facing escalator, I am beginning to loose interest in the Japanese way of practicing karate. It's here that I meet a woman who changes my life.

Read on.........

'When I was young, I truly believed anger and aggression were the most powerful of emotions; possessed of either it was possible to achieve anything, to get my way in almost any situation. But I have come to learn how small a view of power that is, and over the years since meeting my wife, I am reminded constantly of an emotion powerful enough to calm my anger and subdue my aggression: love. I'm  not talking about romantic love or the infatuation that draws two people together and then fades like the darkness of the night before the rising sun. The love I speak of empowers you to endure the unendurable and to face insurmountable hardships.

The extremes of life are often met in unequal measure: adversity and disappointment can outweigh the good; but met together, extremes can be navigated and life returned to better times. It was the Russian writer and dramatist, Maxim Gorky (1868 - 1936), who, back in 1914, wrote. "When one loves somebody, everything is clear - where to go, what to do - it all takes care of itself and one doesn't have to ask anybody about anything." Even in those very early days, when our love was indeed still young and full of excitement, we both understood that regardless of what lay ahead we would face it together. Today, our eyes still light up when the other walks into the room.'

While I don't expect younger readers to fully understand the nature of my words, I would be saddened to meet an adult who didn't.....

Friday, 8 April 2016

Training partners....

Kihon-kumite practice with Hirokazu Kanazawa sensei 
An aikido friend of mine and I were talking about the differences, and similarities, in the practice of karate and aikido. Finding similarities was easy, as both methods rely on good timing, distance, angles, and intention, to work properly. In both karate and aikido it's important not to try to stop an attack, but to divert your attackers energy someplace else. As my friend said, "You accept their energy and give it back to them." I thought that was a great way to put it.

Where I thought karate had a tiny advantage over aikido, was in the fact that I could practice karate on my own, and unlike my aikido friend, I don't need a training partner all the time. This lead to the usual query about how karateka practice things like timing, distance, angles, and intention, without a partner. Easy...kata!  Not that kata training alone will hone your skills in these aspects of karate, but, if practiced mindfully, kata do help you maintain them. 

I pointed out too that, at least in the Okinawan tradition, there are a great many kigu to work with; and they provide all the resistance you need to discover the weak spots in your posture, or the lack of harmony between your body, breath, and mind. Bringing the three together requires a good sense of timing. Manipulating the kigu requires a good understanding of distance and angles, as well as the right attitude (intention) to move smoothly while dealing with the kigu's natural resistance.

I enjoy training alone, I enjoy training with a partner; I enjoy training with kigu, but most of all....I enjoy training!

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Uncommon commonality...

If only this kind of attitude was confined to cartoons
Part of my work involves researching current trends in the martial arts, it's a depressing task at times. Take YouTube and Facebook for example, but you could easily be looking at any other 'social-media' site, and what you notice straight away is the amount of anti-social behaviour going on. Comments are often childish, sometimes sick, and very often highlight the utterly pathetic side of human nature...and yet social media remains popular.

Of course the Internet can be a safe place as far as being physically attacked is concerned, harsh words hurt only those with the thinnest of skins, and such people, IMHO, have no place pursuing any kind of martial art. I would argue that many folk spend their time sitting at a computer because they can indulge their fantasy for the arts without facing any of the consequences associated with learning them. A dojo is a place were inappropriate actions lead to highly appropriate responses.

I read recently on a karate blog, that in a 'real' fight, you are only as effective as your weakest technique. It's an interesting idea, but not one I could agree with. The world is awash with folk who can hit hard enough to kill you. When it comes to surviving in the real world, I would argue that you are only as effective as your weakest thought; and that if you are incapable of using your mind to weigh a situation and then correlate an appropriate response...then you haven't been learning karate at all!

Common wisdom isn't always wiser...