Saturday, 20 September 2014

Karate's loss...?

The Shinseidokan dojo as it looked a year ago
I think there is some truth in the idea that every time something is gained, something is also lost. Certainly, in its transformation from a provincial martial art practised by a relative few on a tiny island in the East China sea, to a global industry with an estimated 50 million followers, karate has gained many things...but have the loses been worth it?

As the businessmen pushing to turn karate into an Olympic sport regroup after their recent failed attempt for inclusion, and prepare themselves once again to complete their occupation of Okinawa's cultural heritage; a separate group, including Okinawans, has formed with the aim of establishing the Okinawan "Brand" of karate; and with it, another way of claiming ownership of something that is essentially intangible.

Just as China has turned the Shaolin Temple into a multi-million dollar enterprise; and South Korea have made the Kukkiwon little more than a bank to handle the vast amounts of money flowing into Seoul, it would appear that Okinawa may be following a similar path, and moving to establish its self as the "owner" of karate.

But you can not own that which lives within the heart of another, nor lay claim to that which you have not yourself endured hardship to understand. Karatedo, the way of karate, is not something you learn, it's something you come to realise.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Today's karate masters...who are they?

The late Izumikawa sensei of Goju-ryu
I'm not a big fan of the term "Karate master", it conjures up all sorts of things I'm not entirely convinced human beings are capable of. I know it's a description attributed to a great many karateka from the past, and to a lesser extent, to some of the better known karate instructors alive today; but as I said, I am yet to be convinced.

The term 'master' is not a rank or title, it's a subjective description, and as such, the karate instructor you may think of as a modern day Miyagi, may be, as far as others are concerned, nothing more than a con-man with a highly developed sense of self importance, who just happens to know a little bit more karate than you do.

Actually, I thought the consensus of opinion among 'traditional' karateka, is that the essence of karate is found in an individuals effort to continue training; and yet, so many clearly feel that simply training is no longer enough, and seek instead to attain mastery, bestow mastery on others, or allow others to bestow mastery upon them.

Another example of the duality of thought so rampant within karate perhaps? Or a symptom of just how lost many karateka are these days?  

Friday, 12 September 2014

Karate begins in the feet....

Iron Gata at the Shinseidokan dojo
I've often been advised that karate begins in the feet, that being the case it follows that there is a need to develop strong, dexterous, feet; feet that connect you to the ground as well as move and support your body. So, how much of your regular training is spent developing your feet?

The junbi undo I practise each day begins with several exercises involving my feet (toes and ankles), and only then do I shift my focus higher, to my knees and legs, before involving my hips, torso, arms (shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers), and finally my neck.

As much as I have always accepted the advice I was given, that karate begins in the feet; I have come to believe otherwise. For me, karate begins in the mind, and from there makes it's way to the feet and back up again to the brain. It's a cycle that mirrors the symbiotic nature of life, of thought and action, and of action and consequence.

Without a mindful approach to karate training, what you're left with is a physical activity closer to Tae- Bo or Boxer-size, which is fine if that's what you think you're involved in, but if you believe yourself to be a karateka, then you are obliged to train like one.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Seven times down.....

The Shinseidokan shoman
There are times in the life of every authentic karateka, when continuing to practise becomes a burden; and for many, that burden can become too much to bear. Ask any karateka with 30 or more years of training behind them, not just teaching but actual training, how they have managed to continue for so long, and they'll tell you...with some difficulty!

I've often stated that authentic karate training is not easy, nor is it for everyone who imagines they want it; to be quite frank, authentic training is just too difficult for the majority of people who think themselves karateka. You see, it's not the physicality of the training that stops people from continuing, it's the simple act of continuing that proves too much.

To disguise a lack of training, many turn to teaching in the belief that they are still "doing karate", but that's just silly; if you're not actually training, then whatever it is you're doing in your do-gi, it's something else. The way of karate is experienced through training and practise, and not through teaching and demonstrations.

There are times in the life of every karateka when stopping seems like an attractive alternative; and when I find myself in such a place I always ask the same question....will stopping improve my life? So far, after 40+ years of being a karateka, the answer has always been the! I have no doubt I will face that question again at some point, for such is the nature of life-long training.

The essence of karate is not found in achieving success, but in overcoming obstacles, and above all, continuing......

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Comfortable Karate...

A poor image from a great nights training at the Shimbukan, c 2012
I've been looking at the stats for this blog recently, and noticed how many times it is read in the Ukraine. Unless you've been living on the moon, it won't have escaped your notice that the Ukraine has been visited by war these past few months.

It made me wonder about the role karate plays in people's lives; and how many people are fair-weather karateka. I'm often amazed at how little it takes for some people to abandon their training, it's as if they can only practise when conditions are perfect.

To readers in the Ukraine, and to readers elsewhere in the world where conditions for training are far from perfect, let me say..."If visiting this blog has helped keep you connected to a familiar point of normality, then I'm very happy for that."

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Growing up....

As your karate matures, so should you
One of the first things a new student of karate learns is how to make a fist and from that moment on the fist becomes, for many, the weapon of choice. The problem with that is, when all you have is a hammer everything begins to look like a nail. There is little subtly involved in the use of the fist so it's the perfect weapon for the unskilled.

When you open your hands you also open up a whole range of possibilities denied you when your hands are clenched tight. It's almost like the closed hands mirror a closed mind, or at least, a lack of 'feeling' for karate that is limited to the basic ballistic capability of a punch. Indeed, immature karateka often believe that a powerful punch is the pinnacle of karate power.

Not far from the hand is the elbow, a part of the arm that affords far more leverage in defence, and a great deal more impact in offence. However, to use the elbow effectively you have to close the gap between you and your opponent, you have to understand angles and distance, and this is where the maturity of your karate comes in. Regardless of your rank, if standing back and throwing a punch remains your best method of striking, then perhaps you need to grow a little....

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Life Less Ordinary......

Karate...a dojo based activity: or an excuse to form a gang? 
I got into karate training over 40 years ago thinking that it would make me a better fighter than I already was...but I was wrong; karate did not make me a better fighter, just the opposite in fact. Real fighting is brutal and unforgiving, savage, and lighting fast. I've seen a great many karateka who are fast and hard hitting, but I've never witnessed the same kind of callus indifference to suffering in a dojo that I saw all the time on the street.

Within a few years of regular training, I came to understand that karate was about more than learning how to fight, the real challenge is not to be found engaging others in bouts of ritual combat, however demanding they might be, no, the real challenge of karate is to live a life less ordinary, and it's a challenge that is increasingly avoided by many today who think themselves karateka.

If you have failed to accept the challenge authentic karate offers, such a life is still possible; you can't go back and make a new start, but you can start again from today, and make a new ending...

Friday, 22 August 2014

Asking the right questions.....

Karate is a series of small steps forward...
I received an email last week from someone in the U.K. asking what kind of karate I "did". The writer was confused because he had been reading my articles in Shotokan Karate Magazine for some years now, and yet, as he said, "I thought you were doing Goju-ryu!"

I wasn't sure how to reply because I thought it was a poor question, it displayed a lack of understanding on the writers part of what karate is, reducing it to a mere physical activity wrapped up in 'styles' and 'associations'. I was reminded of a quote attributed to Michelangelo:

"The problem with man is not that he aims too high and misses, but that he aims too low and hits..."

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Every now and Zen...

Why the long face..?
Every now and then, and sometimes more often than that, people get upset with me....I know, it's hard to believe, but it's true. So anyway, many year ago, if people got upset with me I always got upset with them. These days however I'm really particular about who I get upset with, and just as I don't teach karate to people I don't like, I wont get upset with people I don't like either.

Here's a little story from the Zen tradition that explains what I mean.......

The Zen master, Hakuin, was admired by all who knew him for his sincerity; the villagers who lived close by often praised him for living a pure life. But one day all that changed when a beautiful, unmarried, local girl was discovered to be pregnant. Her parents became angry and demanded to know who the father was. The girl was terrified that her boyfriend would be hurt, and so after much emotion and shouting, she named Hakuin as the father.

"I knew it!" the father said, and before long the whole village was up in arms over the affair. The parents lead a group of villagers to confront Hakuin; "You made my daughter pregnant" the angry father said in a fit of rage, to which Hakuin replied, "Is that so?"

When the child was born the parents took the baby to Hakuin and said, "Here, this is your child, I demand that you look after it, the child is your responsibility." To which Hakuin replied, "Is that so?"

After a year, the girl could stand it no longer, and confessed to her parents that she had lied about who the father was,that it was in fact one of the young men from the village. The parents realised they had been wrong to treat Hakuin as they had, and went to him to apologise, and to ask for the return of the child.

"We now know you are not the father, and we would appreciate it if you would let us have the baby back." Hakuin, having listened to the parents replied, "Is that so?" The child was then returned to its mother without fuss.

There is a strong message for karateka in this story, a massage of accepting that others will behave as they will, but what really matters is how you behave. It highlights the power of the truth, and how lies have to tell an ever evolving story to prove a point, while the truth has nothing to just quietly is!

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Okinawan least part of the story anyway.

Thanks to Andreas Quast for use of the photo
This week N.H.K. television in Japan transmitted the program below, looking at karate on Okinawa today. The presenter is an Aikido sensei, and his approach to martial arts comes through in the questions he puts to the various sensei he meets.

The film presents a very nice picture of karate, and it's followers, a picture that in truth is only found in very small pockets within the karate world. These days many teachers and students of karate pay lip service to the ethics being discussed in this film, unfortunately, the reality of karate in the world today is nowhere near as wholesome.

Sorry, but the video has now been taken down from YouTube, hope you didn't miss it.