Sunday, 24 May 2015

Terms & Conditions...

This morning as I walked to the dojo
Over the past two nights the temperature here has dropped below zero, it makes for spectacular mornings, breathtaking sunrises.....and cold feet! "This is not the Okinawan way"...I said to myself as I walked toward a dojo I knew would be cold.

Crossing this little bridge each morning is significant
Leaving the 'everyday' of your life behind to engage with karate or kobudo, is no easy task, and few manage to achieve it. I say that, because I believe that so many who think themselves to be karateka are actually engaged in some other activity; it's a pastime that presents few challenges and leads, inevitably, to a dead-end.

Whichever path you take, it should lead you somewhere worthwhile.....

Friday, 22 May 2015

Alternatives...take them or leave them.

"You come back Okinawa again any time, okay"
These are the words Miyazato Eiichi sensei said to me when he dropped me off at the airport in Naha back in 1992. He often drove me to the airport when my early visits to the Jundokan came to an end, and I learnt a lot during the short drives from Asato. It was one of the few times in my life when I was happy to be stuck in heavy traffic.

There is an alternative to 'commercial karate', but it's not for everyone. Not because the alternative is too difficult, but because most people who want to be involved with karate want that involvement to be on their terms. Imagine for a moment if children wanted to be members of a family on 'their' terms...what madness would follow.

This is the situation when people chose to sell karate to make a living; they become hopelessly compromised leaving their clients free to engage with karate on terms that suit them, and the activity they are both involved in simply ceases to be karate. Commercial outlets may be the most common way to connect with karate these days...but there are alternatives.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Connecting the hands through the mind...

Some of the weapons and kigu at the Shinseidokan
One of the things, among many, that I enjoy about my training is the variety of tools and weapons I get to work with. This morning, I spent an hour practising with the Bo (kon)...kihon, and the kata Sakugawa no kon sho. Afterwards, I began to think about the amount of time I spend in the dojo; it was interesting, because I think of myself as a karateka so it would be reasonable to think that my hands are empty, at least most of the time...but that isn't the case.

A friend of mine training with a natural kigu on my land 
Hitting things, lifting things, manipulating weapons in order to defend myself....all this is budo training too. I'm less interested in keeping alive a name of a perceived tradition, than I am concerned with accepting the training I do as a natural part of how I live my life. I'm always mindful, and grateful of course, to those who came before me; to the individuals who by their example passed on the martial training that was a natural part of their life.

Training with the Bo at the Shimbukan - November 2013
Empty handed or with weapons, kigu training or kata; what matters the most to me is not the exact nature of the physical workout, but the connection I try to make with the spirit of my predecessors. For me, the concept of budo no kokoro, the spirit of budo, is not some long dead esoteric philosophy, it's an integral part of being in the dojo....


Saturday, 16 May 2015

Kanreki...time to start over.

This guy no longer exists!
The rather serious looking young man in the photo is me...or rather, he was me. Since that image was captured over thirty-years ago, every single cell in my body has been replaced....more than once! So, you have to ask, if the guy in the photo is me...who the hell is writing this post? This past week I had a birthday. Funny things birthdays, for some they can be an excuse to over indulge; and rather than a celebration of a life lived well, can simply re-enforce just how little a person has grown; older yes, but wiser...not necessarily.

60 years on the earth - 42 of them as a karateka
In Okinawa and Japan it's an important milestone to reach sixty, it's known as 'kanreki', and signifies among other things, the completion of  the twelve-year cycle of the zodiac no less than five times. It's a threshold that signals the approach of old age...but it doesn't provide an excuse to stop engaging with life, or karate. I read a statement on the okkb website recently stating that few people outside Okinawa continue training in karate after sixty: that's just not true!

The founder of Paramount Pictures, Adolph Zukor, famously said, "If I'd known how old I was going to be, I'd have taken better care of myself." Advice every karateka would do well to ponder....

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The number behind the name...

What would you say a belt like this means?
When my writing began to be published in various martial arts magazines, beginning with Fighting Arts International (Terry O'Neill's UK periodical) back in 1985, I specified that the 'By' line did not include my rank. I wasn't happy to have my work accepted or rejected by the reader on the strength of the rank I held. You see, back then, almost every article by-line I saw included the author's rank...."How I became a master": by Eric Bulldust 7th always seemed to me that the writer was depending on his rank to claim credibility.

Since the idea of rank in karate was introduced by the Japanese it has, in my opinion, been the cause of more ill than good. As a means of control and a point of income the concept has been an outstanding success; but no authentic karateka I know believes the colour of a belt indicates with any accuracy the skill or character of the wearer. Outside the relationship between a sensei and his students rank has little meaning; and if you don't see karate in terms of sensei and deshi...then claiming rank is even more ridiculous.

So why do people make such a big deal of their rank, never failing to mention it at every opportunity? I can of course only speculate, but I have yet to meet a genuine karateka who talks about his, or her, rank...let alone writes it after their name. I have yet to meet a genuine karateka who believes that increased rank bestows upon them anything other than an increased responsibility to be a good example to others. And yet, I am aware of a great many 'karateka' who are egotistical and vulgar enough to wave their rank in the face of anyone unfortunate enough to come in to range.

To me, such behaviour is indicative of low self-esteem, a low I.Q., and a weak grasp on the whole notion of karatedo. I believe when you realise no one is taking you seriously, no one respects you, no one is interested, then you grab on to anything that counter indicates that painful reality. In truth, the concept of rank has never been a good indication of progress; it diverts the mind away from the purpose of training, it introduces a false sense of achievement, and it provides currency to those who would us it for their own unscrupulous reasons.

If rank is the best of your achievements in karate, then to my way of thinking you have achieved very little.............

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Not losing - it's healthier for you than winning!

 Miyazato Eiichi sensei was uncompromising in his wish to pass on what he had learnt
Since withdrawing from the Jundokan dojo in November last year I continue to receive a regular stream of emails from foreign affiliates, many of whom remain unhappy with the internal politics that now dogs a once powerful home of authentic karate. These days people outside Okinawa use the Jundokan name with impunity, and boast of their connection to the karate of Miyazato Eiichi sensei, even though they never met him, and came to the dojo long after he had passed away.

During one of my many conversations with him, Miyazato sensei spoke to me about why he chose the name 'Jundokan' for his dojo, and what it meant to him. Given the number of people around the world who are now using it for their own self-serving purposes, they might as well know what my sensei had in mind when he first thought of the name. Of course, if people had any credibility at all, they would never have stolen the name in the first place, but then...desperate people do desperate things...right?

In the days when the dojo served as hombu to the O.G.K.K.
Sensei didn't like karate organisations, telling me once he felt they never really worked..."Too much talk!" he would say. His idea with the Jundokan was to establish a 'machi dojo', a neighbourhood dojo where local people could go to practise karate and preserve a part of their heritage. "On one level the name means that my dojo is the next dojo to come after Miyagi sensei's" he told me, "but, on a deeper level it means that I am complying with the way of spiritual law. We need this spiritual law, this morality, if we have this we will never be defeated, even if we lose a fight."

Ju Gi - morality is important...signed, Miyazato Eiichi
Wanting to win reflects a desire to see others lose, it's a concept pushed hard by those who would have you believe that they know a method by which you (like them) may become a winner; and for a price, they are willing to help you reach your full potential. I have to shake my head when I think that there are adults out there in the karate world who still believe in such garbage...but there are, they are in the majority, and I can do little about it even if I had the will to try.

Gone, but never forgotten - I have yet to learn all that my sensei taught me
As I prepared to withdraw from the Jundokan, one of my sempai in Okinawa pleaded with me not to leave, "Many people are watching" he wrote, "It might look like you ran away!"  I reassured him that I knew exactly what I was doing and the consequences of the action I was about to take. Given the political game-playing that has come to dominate the foreign affiliates relationship with the Jundokan, I can safely say that I never "ran away", nor did I "lose". My dignity remains intact, as does the promise I made to my sensei long ago: to simply pass on what I have learnt.

Next time.....Why do you keep telling everyone what your rank is?

Monday, 4 May 2015

Not worth a post.....

Where did that triangle lettering come from anyway..?
I've had a few emails asking me about my recent trip to England, and why I haven't posted about the karate people I met who were less than inspirational? Well the short answer to that is...what's the point? But clearly that kind of thinking falls short of some folks expectations. So in an attempt to say something without being too judgemental, here are a few things I observed at the two 'traditional' karate clubs I visited.

At the first club they were preparing for an upcoming grading and so were focused on getting the choreography right. The problem was the instructor was a little unclear about what was in fashion and what wasn't..."We used to do the kata that way, but they've changed it and now it's done like this."...was something I heard often. For most of the evening the instructor referred to the sheet of paper held tightly in his hand, it contained the latest instructions from HQ...

The second karate club I visited was a real shock. It was supposed to be the seniors class, but apart from a 'thirty-something' female beginner, the group consisted of pubescent teenagers, one of which was far more interested in texting on her smart phone than practising her techniques. Every chance she got she took the opportunity to grab her phone from the bench and continue her conversation. If karate depended on having a powerful set of thumbs, I would have been in the presence of a true master.

At the first club I was disappointed by the lack of ownership and the shallowness of the conversation, as well as the ease with which seemingly arbitrary changes from on high were nevertheless begrudgingly accepted. At the second club I was shocked by the lack of discipline, but not surprised at the dreadfully low standard of karate on display. At the end of training, the instructor simply put on her boots and pulled on a hoody, and walked off down the high street in her gi without a care in the world: I didn't know whether to laugh or cry!

Both clubs are part of worldwide karate organisations, one of which promotes itself as the keeper of karate's highest traditions. I can't help but wonder what such a statement says about the rest of us. now you know, normal service will be resumed as soon as I get a moment...

Saturday, 2 May 2015

A sincere heart - a straight way!

Seishin Chokudo
My apologies to readers who read Japanese, as I have mentioned previously I like to write, and what I lack in skill I try to make up for with enthusiasm. The above maxim has long been a favourite of mine. Recently a student at the dojo gave me a large piece of wood, an off-cut from the trunk of a pine I began to think of carving something on it.....I think I've found it!

Tsushingen - develop insight
This is the last  kanji I carved in to a piece of wood, it hangs on the dojo wall just above the kun, and is a reminder to ponder the advice below. I believe such personal research coupled with a sincere heart will result in a straight path toward the full appreciation of budo. Concern yourself with the facile and in time you'll become a master of the unimportant. Budo is not insignificant and those who try to make it so reveal their true nature for all to see.

The study of karate contains far more than physical techniques
Casting a straight shadow, having an unambiguous past, points toward a straight future. So many who believe themselves 'traditional' karateka these days rely solely on a list of names to establish their linage, and what connections that do exist, do so by the most tenuous of threads. Having an instructor is not the same as being accepted by a sensei, learning a syllabus is different from absorbing principles, and pursuing an idea (budo), is unlike anything you will ever encounter in a 'karate club'.   

Next time....never mind winning, learn not to lose! 

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Progress & promotion...

A formal shot with the students at the end of the gasshuku
Gasshuku are not camps, they're not seminars either; nor are they an excuse to behave like bunch of adolescent children on a school excursion. For karateka, gasshuku are an opportunity to immerse yourself in your training; to train more often than your normal routine will allow, and to discover if you have what it takes to "forgive those who trespass against us". Spending so much time with people who may not be close friends, can be more testing than the training sometimes.

Mitch and Matthew - Sandan gi training
With progress comes an obligation to keep what you know polished. I use to believe karate was easy for yudansha, after all, they "knew" what they were doing, and looked really good from my perspective. Like many of you reading this, I came to learn that having a black belt hanging off your hip meant little if you were lazy, egotistical, or walking around with a head full of dreams. The belt has no power, gives no insight, and bestows no skill. A belt without the character to endorse it, is a bit like a car without an engine...useless!

Matthew with his shodan certificate - indicating he is ready to begin
There is a well established myth in the karate world that promotes a black belt as the sign of mastery, but only children and idiots believe that; still, I'm no longer surprised at how many of both inhabit the karate world. Where a desire to make progress should provide the impetus to return to the dojo time and time again, promotion is much more likely to be the cause. Can attitudes be turned around...who knows? On reflection, I doubt the past, or the future, would stand up to scrutiny any better than the present. As I've said many times, I have no desire to change the world, only to live well in a world of my own making.

The study of karate is undoubtedly difficult, but it's not impossible.....

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Gasshuku...Pt 1

Jesse training with the chi ishi
Over the past weekend, from Friday evening through to Sunday afternoon, students at the Shinseidokan spent a lot of time in the dojo. All but two of the eight students made it to Tasmania for the gathering, most of them travelling from interstate and at some considerable cost. But isn't that a part of the learning process...developing the notion that in order to make progress you have to put yourself in the right place at the right time?

Each training session began with junbi-undo, followed by kigu-undo
Gasshuku, at least at the Shinseidokan, are not social gatherings with a little bit of karate on the side; they're just the opposite. Training is the main activity, socialising is an important element, but it is never allowed to equal or surpass the time spent on the dojo floor discovering karate, as the late Shoshin Nagamine sensei once said..."Through the ecstasy of sweat". This past weekend, the Shinseidokan has seen a lot of sweat!

Over the life of the gasshuku each part of the body was tested 
 I sometimes wonder why karateka believe they have a strong technique when they never take the time to develop one. Karate based on an ability to 'score a point' is a world away from conditioning the mind and body to deliver and to some extent, take, a determined blow. Without ever acquainting themselves with the concept of absorbing impact, it's unclear to me why so many karateka believe they'll know it when they feel it; and in that very same moment, develop the ability to deal with it.

Kakie...sparring - or a lesson in subtly 
I'm not against the idea of sparring, I just don't understand where it fits in with the notion of budo. At the Shinseidokan, engaging with another person is addressed in a number of ways, kakie being one of them. Regardless of how 'real' it may appear to some...all karate training is contrived, or how else would it be possible without descending into chaos? That said, it's vital that karateka focus their attention on the principles at play, rather than the techniques being used. The idea is to become familiar with karate, not good at training in karate; you do understand the difference...right?

Next time...Progress and promotion, and why one isn't the same as the other.