Monday, 3 July 2017

Teaching and lineage

In my previous life as an academic, I taught sociology for twenty years. Now I teach karate. Obviously, there are necessarily stark differences in curriculum and pedagogical methods between the classroom and the dojo, but I’ve learned there are also profound differences between their very conceptions of teaching.

Just as obviously, there are many kinds of teachers and teaching in the university, so generalizations are always suspect, but I still think that the cultural concepts and foundations of teaching karate are distinguishable from those of the academy. And while I would never claim that the former are essentially better than the latter, I do believe that the differences can illuminate the nature of teaching in a singular way.

Any karate ryū (school or system; literally, “flow”) is identified by its keitō 系統 (lineage), the succession of sensei who taught the karate of that ryū and passed it down from generation to generation. It is keitō which establishes the legitimacy of a practitioner. Its importance is regrettably demonstrated by how it is counterfeited. The generally warm and welcoming karate masters of Okinawa have learned to be leery of foreign karate tourists who ask to be photographed with some sensei and then go back to their own countries and claim to be disciples. I have the privilege of being descended from the highly respected Seibukan lineage of hanshi 範士 (master teachers) that runs from Matsumura Sōkon 松村宗棍, through Kyan Chōtoku 喜屋武,Shimabukuro Zenryō 島袋善, and Shimabukuro Zenpō 島袋善保 to my own sensei, Dan Smith. The authenticity of what I teach is unimpeachable, regardless of the limitations of my teaching.

Yet there is another crucial relationship of lineage to teaching, one that turns on the special relationship of sensei 先生 (teacher of the Way) to deshi 弟子 (apprentice to the Way). While sensei is conventionally translated as “teacher,” that translation misses something crucial about the divide between Okinawa and Japan, on one side of the Pacific, and anglophone North America, on the other. In Canada and the United States, it is doctors, lawyers, and CEOs who are the prestigious professionals. Teachers rank far below them in the social hierarchy. It’s very different in Okinawa and Japan, where there is a traditional reverence for teachers. If someone is a highly accomplished and respected surgeon, lawyer, or business person, they are called sensei. Even a young man who is popular with women is lauded as sensei, although sarcastically. The esteem accorded to the sensei is such that no one there calls themselves sensei, for they would be regarded as vain, arrogant, and terribly ill-mannered. In North America, things are different, even in karate. Here, people sometimes sew patches on their uniforms that say “SENSEI.” I know one idiot who signs his e-mails as “Sensei ________” and another whose Facebook name starts with Shihan 師範, which means “master teacher.” They think they are asserting their stature, when all they are doing is advertising their ignorance.

Real teaching in karate-dō is nothing like that. Each time I teach, in my mind I hear the voices of my sensei and my sensei’s sensei. Their teaching always animates mine; their spirits are manifest on the dojo floor. I glance to shōmen 正面, the front of the dojo, where the photographs of the hanshi of Seibukan hang and watch, and get filled with resolve. It is not merely the expertise, generosity, and patience of the instruction I have received from those sensei, although I am deeply grateful for everything they have done for me. It is the realization that these extraordinary teachers have devoted their lives to karate, and now they have entrusted the teaching of it to me, among others. In the lineage of my ryū, I have become the link between them and my students. It is this profound awareness of lineage, of a duty to the line of teachers that came before, that is unlike teaching in the academy, regardless of how much a professor might respect their own doctoral supervisor. In karate-dō, if I fail, then the lineage is broken.

And this is the other side of teaching, the opposite of elevating oneself by calling oneself a sensei: teaching karate puts me in the bind between feeling the obligation to teach perfectly and the acute recognition, surfaced exactly by that obligation, of the deep imperfections of my own karate. I have seen this same bind expressed by other teachers, although I think I feel it more acutely, given that I came to karate late in life and to Seibukan even later. Of course, teaching perfectly is an impossible demand, regardless of how tangible and necessary it is. But this impossibility is a gift. I see karate-dō, the Way of karate, as a Way of teaching, in part precisely because I see it as a way of forcing me to face my inadequacies and limitations―not just as a practitioner of karate, but also and more importantly as an flawed and fallible human being―and never give up working on them. Especially in this place and time, where loving yourself as you are and asserting your general wonderfulness has become the standard of pop-psychological health, that is one of the most essential and life-changing lessons of karate-dō can offer. So that is lesson I try to give my students. We work together on the impossible. They and my teachers deserve nothing less.


Friday, 25 November 2016

Why You Should Always Compare Yourself to Others

Shimabukuro Zenpō

It is a truism of the age that you should never compare yourself to others. That truism has been taken up eagerly by modern martial arts, often articulated as you should only measure yourself today against what you could do yesterday.

Both are wrong, at least when it comes to karate-dō.

At the immediate level of visible technique, a karateka should always be watching and assessing what others do. If the side kick of their sempai 先輩 (senior) is better than their own, they need to recognize that fact and try to understand which body mechanics make it better. If the outside block of their kōhai 後輩 (junior) is inferior to theirs, they need to comprehend what errors the kōhai is making, and whether their own technique may share similar flaws. Both are crucial teaching moments, because the essence of karate pedagogy is learning from others, regardless of their level.

It may be protested that these kinds of very specific comparison are not what the truism aims at. Instead, comparison becomes invidious when it is generalized and negatively affects how you feel about yourself. Wisdom means accepting yourself in the present. Leo Babauta writes, “We don’t need to be better than anyone else: we just need to love where we are and what we’re doing and who we are. That’s what matters.”

But karate is founded on the very opposite contention, because it is a combative discipline. In our dojo, we teach that the best fight is the one you avoid having, because very bad things can happen to you, regardless of your ability and experience. But if a fight is unavoidable, karate teaches you to win, for the simple reason that losing can have fatal consequences. The bottom line is that if you’re fighting for your life, you definitely need to be better than your opponent. If someone is trying to kill you, loving where and who you are is a rather unreliable strategy. A fight to the death is the supreme instance of comparing yourself to someone else.

Now, karate-dō aims at living, not killing. The great master of our style of karate, Shimabukuro Zenpō 島袋善保, has never been in a street fight, and we, his students, strive to follow his example. Nonetheless, the lessons of karate-dō for living flow from the principles of combat. The Japanese say, “Satsujinken; katsujinken” 殺人剣活人剣: “the sword that takes life is the sword that gives life.” What, then, can be learned from karate’s foundation of ultimate comparison?

The best lesson is to reject not only the truism of “never compare yourself,” but also its ethos. What is promoted as the much better alternative to comparison is acceptance, the heart of loving yourself where you are—you  don’t need to change.

But karate-dō says you do need to change. We go to the dojo, some of us six days a week, expressly to change what we are. That’s why we work and sweat so hard. The great value of a physical discipline like karate is that it never stops reminding you that you need to get better. Karate is very complex, demanding, and difficult, and no matter how long you train, you never reach the level of being good enough. Yet, for those of us who love karate, this is inspiring, not discouraging, because it teaches us a simple truth: learning itself is transformation. If you already know enough, there is no point in going to university; if you already have grasped the essence of art and grace, there is no point in reading a great book; if you already embody the best of what it means to be human, there is no point in going to a dojo. You only study, read, or train because you realize that self-improvement is a transformation. It not a possession you can own; it is something you become. Learning changes who you are, and great learning changes you in profound ways.

The other failure of the ethos of “don’t compare yourself with others” lies in presuming the virtue of loving yourself or making you feel good about yourself. Despite the penchant of Western martial arts clubs for marketing themselves by claiming they will improve your self-image, real karate-dō is completely unconcerned with such goals. The first example of watching someone’s side kick is exemplary: the point isn’t to build self-esteem; the point is to be utterly and ruthlessly realistic about what, where, and who you are. In combat, truth trumps narcissism. The point is to recognize both your strengths and weaknesses and keep building from there. In this view, “don’t compare yourself with others” is not self-development, but self-destructive: if you don’t have the courage and honesty to face your inadequacies, then you’re not going to have the courage to face someone in combat. To go back to the side kick: the better test of yourself is how you react if your junior’s kick is better than yours. The karate way is not to avoid comparisons, but to cultivate the character to face them. We work on the self instead of insulating it. That’s what we do when we compare ourselves to superb teachers like Shimabukuro Hanshi or my own sensei, Dan Smith. They are better than we are, in multiple and very tangible ways, so we train hard to try to become just a little more like them. We think that the best thing for ourselves is to compare ourselves with the best, in the certain knowledge we will fall short. It’s that comparison that keeps us trying.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016


In his 2008 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell attracted a great deal of attention with his 10,000 Hour Rule, which asserted, based on research by psychologist Anders Ericsson, that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a field. Gladwell cited the Beatles and Bill Gates as examples. The Rule subsequently drew substantial criticism, including some from Ericsson himself, and Gladwell later clarified that mastery depended on natural ability as well as practice. But he maintained his insistence that a great deal of sustained practice was still essential for mastery.

The number 10,000 has cross-cultural mystique. In Asia, it is special because it means a myriad. In Japanese, 10,000 is written and pronounced “ban.” Banzai! 万歳 is a shortened form of Tennōheika Banzai! 天皇陛下万歳, “May the Emperor live for 10,000 years!”, and expresses great celebration or applause. I was the first grandchild on my father’s side (and the first son of the first son of the first son, which matters a great deal in Japanese families), and when I was born, my grandfather, Aoki Sadayoshi, cried out, Banzai!

A Bruce Lee quote regularly recycled on the internet is, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” It’s a little ironic in this context, since Gladwell specifically exempted sports from the Rule, but Lee’s sentiment is a received truth in the martial arts, in which the necessity of years of deliberate practice has been empirically verified countless times across systems, cultures, and centuries.

Yet the fuss about the 10,000 standard to become a master, whether positive or negative, misses central tenets about karate exactly because it’s about mastery. The crucial counterpoint is provided by the great Shōtōkan sensei, Ohshima Tsutomu, who wrote that a karateka must practice a kata 10,000 times or more before they begin to understand its meaning. Beginning to understand something is almost the opposite of mastering it; in fact, beginning to understand something means understanding you are far from mastering it. Ohshima drives his point home by continuing with “You must practice your favorite technique 100,000 times before you can use it in any situation,” which makes Lee seem like a piker. If Gladwell is correct that sports can be mastered in much less than 10,000 hours of practice, then it’s one more hint that karate is not a sport. Higaonna Morio, the famed Gōjū sensei, has practiced karate for more than 60 years, yet when talking about his own practice, he smiled and shook his head gently and said, “Need more training.”

Of course, the crucial and typically Japanese paradox is that such an admission, by a karateka of such extraordinary ability that he has been named an Intangible Cultural Asset of Okinawa, is the mark of a real master. This kind of mastery defined by needing more practice is by no means limited to karate. The legendary cellist Pablo Casals was once asked, “Mr. Casals, you are 95 and the greatest cellist that ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” He answered, “Because I think I’m making progress.”

Perhaps it’s in large part because I am already an old man of 60 myself, but I firmly believe that is the reason to train. If I practice a kata every day and never miss a day, it will take over 27 years to make 10,000 repetitions, over 27 years to begin to understand it. I may well not even live that long. I can’t be concerned with mastery, which will always remain elusive; I can only keep trying to make progress.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Extraordinary and the Ordinary

Iha Koshin pointing out the names of his father and brother
at the Cornerstone to Peace memorial

Deadly Arts: Karate (2003) is an episode in a documentary series by Canadian filmmaker, Josée Normandeau. It was shot on Okinawa. Several karate sensei are featured, including the late Iha Koshin 伊波庫進 (1922-2012), 10 dan Hanshi Gōjū ryū. At one point, Normandeau takes Iha Hanshi to the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Park. There, for only the second time, he views the Cornerstone of Peace, a monument to those who died in the massive Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Echoing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, the names of the dead are inscribed across its many stone walls. There is, however, a crucial difference: if you visit there, you will see the names of not only the soldiers of one nation, but those of everyone who died in that terrible battle, whether Japanese, American, or Okinawan, whether military or civilian. There are over 240,000 names, and more are added each year with the discovery of casualties not known before. More than a third of the population of the island was killed.

Among those memorialized are Iha Hanshi’s father and brother. When Normandeau asked him how he felt when he saw their names, he replied, “My sorrow is no more important than anyone else’s whose loved ones’ names are written here.”

His words have stayed with me, and they resonate even more now that he is gone. In their simple modesty, they articulate the essence of karatedō and the gulf between it and Western culture. The death of someone you love is such a singular and personal event, like nothing else in life. Yet even in the return and consideration of that extremity, what Iha Hanshi offered was not his own private grief, no matter how profound that was, but rather how that grief was shared. He knew he held it in common with all the survivors of the Battle of Okinawa. There is the paradoxical crux of the matter: what is experienced or possessed by everyone is an archetype of the ordinary. After all, the definition of the mundane is that which is common. Yet Iha Hanshi makes us recognize that, sometimes at least, it is the very mundanity of something—the fact that it is shared throughout a collective or a community—which makes it special. The ordinary can be extraordinary because it is ordinary.

The pertinence to karatedō is manifold, starting with a deep ethical implication. I once saw a newscast about a deadly attack in the Middle East. The mother of one of those killed wept on the screen and, in her grief, cried out that those of the other side were animals who did not feel the pain that she and those on her side did. I felt for that bereft mother. As a father, I can imagine nothing worse than losing a child. But the contrast with Iha Hanshi was stark. She thought her grief elevated her above her enemies, because she was sure that they did not share the love and hurt that tore at her soul. She did not even think they were human.

But of course they were human, and of course they loved and hurt. Those on every side of every awful conflict have. That is why the Cornerstone of Peace lists the names of all the dead, whatever their provenance. The loss and grief of everyone matters. We are obligated to honour that commonality, and never hold our love and pain as higher or better than anyone else’s. The ordinariness of loving and losing the ones we love is a simple and universal burden of being human, of having a heart. And that is truly extraordinary.

One of the things that makes karatedō special is that, as a combative art, it takes lessons of death as lessons for life. Then what import can Iha Hanshi’s words have for our daily lives? In the manner of Asian teaching fables, the answer is given in the question itself, for it teaches us the specialness of our daily lives.

When we practice karate, it’s important that we envision fighting a life-and-death battle, so that there is urgency, seriousness, and realism in our technique. Training is always preparation for the potential time when we have to defend ourselves on the street. Yet while that is true, it is also misleading, or at least insufficient. It’s true that karate that doesn’t work in fighting is useless, and your karate won’t work unless you train consistently, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Karate is the opposite of diets that promise results in a couple of weeks without real sacrifice. It takes a great deal of training and effort to be able to fight well. Yet this focus on self-defense frames endless practice as the mundane preparation for the real thing, for what is important or special. From that perspective, a karateka in the dojo is like a football player on the practice field or an actor in rehearsal. The thing that really counts is the fight, the game, or the performance. This is a good characterisation of sport karate, where you practice to succeed at what matters: winning a match or a tournament. Practice is then the means to an end, the ordinary thing that is the prerequisite for the extraordinary.

However, in Japanese fashion, this straightforward notion of practice is predicated on its opposite. It’s well-established that karate, like all effective combative methods, is only functional if it is practiced so often and intensely that its techniques become natural, if they become thoroughly part of who you are, so your body can act and react much faster and more efficiently than if you had to think about what to do. In other words, practice is a transformation of the self. Training makes you a better fighter by making you faster, stronger, calmer, tougher, more supple, more perceptive, more disciplined, more relaxed, more unflappable and less fearful or full of doubt.

Still, serious karateka are obliged to take one step further: they must recognize that this many-sided transformation is not the means to the end of becoming a good fighter, but rather the end itself. The significance of combat to karate is less the possibility of a street fight than it is the certainty that crucial principles of warrior traditions structure the ethos of practice. So the key is an inversion of the seemingly obvious: you don’t train to fight—although training does develop the capacity to fight—fighting teaches you how to train, and, thereby, how to make yourself a better human being.

To return to the original point, how does this apply to the ordinary and the extraordinary? The answer stems from a Japanese proverb, narai sei to naru習い性となる: “practice becomes one’s nature.” Or, “you become what you do.” More specifically, you become what you do over and over; you become what you do every day. It’s that simple and that difficult (especially in these times and this culture). If you are going to succeed in karate, practice has to be the most ordinary thing in the world. It has to become like eating or sleeping or breathing, something that is a necessary, repetitive part of existence. You need to work the extraordinary circumstances of life-and-death battle as ordinary daily practice. Karate becomes extraordinary precisely when it becomes ordinary, because then karate becomes what you are.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Change, humility, and openness

Chibana Chōsin

Karate gives you the means by which change takes place.

George Mattson

Karate is not about staying the same; it’s about changing yourself: sharpening your technique and getting faster, stronger, and more supple. It’s about becoming a better fighter. But it’s about more than that, for while the way of karate is through combat and the body, its traditional aim is much broader. The karateka seeks to become a better person inside as well as outside; s/he works to change who s/he is as a woman or a man. In the Japanese mind, the transformations of the outer and inner person are connected. The cultural precept is that some important aspects of the spirit can only be forged through consistent and disciplined physical practice.

It is the ascendance of change that configures the value of humility. Karate teachers often speak of humility, although nearly as often there is a serious disconnect between the humbleness they espouse and the noisy pride they have for themselves. Still, that disconnect is not the point here, because conceiving humility as modesty, while important, also misses something crucial. The karateka seeks to change her/himself because s/he recognizes that change is necessary. In that light, humility is better understood as the recognition that we need to change, that we are insufficient as we are right now. A religious analog is the Christian tenet that we are sinners and that it is only the through the grace of Christ that we can be redeemed. I am not a Christian, but I do believe in a parallel thesis for karate: we are fundamentally lacking, as martial artists and as human beings, and we change through the grace of our way in the dojo. This is why the word karatedō has “the way” () at its heart.

The way of karate is difficult. Our society works directly against such humility. Pop culture activists and academics alike are sure they’re being progressive by urging us to accept and love ourselves, our bodies and our persons, just as they are. If someone thinks s/he is not good enough, s/he is seen as having a damaged psyche, one needing psychotherapy or pop-psychology affirmations. Karate, on the other hand, tells us than none of us is good enough. All of us need to be stronger, wiser, kinder, more open, more generous, more humane, and just plain better. To be human is to always have weaknesses we need to overcome: perfection remains out of reach for all our lives. That’s why we karateka keep training. Our punches aren’t good enough yet. Neither are our souls. The great sensei Chibana Chōsin 知花朝信was once asked what constitutes a positive attitude in karate. He responded, “Always thinking, ‘not yet’, ‘not yet’.”

Trying to face your fundamental or essential weaknesses is not easy. Yet that is precisely the work of the serious karateka. It is one of the discomfiting virtues of karate is that its practice repeatedly forces you to face your physical inadequacies. It’s hard to believe you’re a perfect fighter when you get punched in the face. It’s difficult to believe you don’t need to be much better when you perform your best kata and then watch someone else do it with so much more elegance and precision. It’s hard to deny that you have to get stronger when your muscles burn and legs shake. This is one reason why the name of our dojo is Nantanreiken: “the hall of difficult grace.” And if the Japanese precept is to be believed, these physical frailties reflect mental and spiritual parallels.

Even those who grudgingly acknowledge they could be better reject deep change. The late aikido sensei and Zen priest Furuya Kenshō 古屋健昭 built his dojo by hand. He hung a sign over its gate so he would see it each time he came in. It read Bansetsu-an 萬拙庵, which he translated as “the retreat of the untalented teacher.” I once told a sociologist that story. He said that it was bullshit. He said, “I’m a good teacher. What’s wrong with thinking I’m a good teacher and still looking to improve?” What’s wrong is the refusal to consider the possibility that he needed to do more than burnish his self-ascribed shining pedagogical credentials. What’s wrong is that he lacked the necessary humility.

And what’s wrong is how that sociologist proudly closed himself to the possibility of learning from a path different from his own. Most people like to think of themselves as open-minded. But I used to tell my sociology undergrads to never trust an open-minded person, because s/he was closed precisely to the specifics of her/his closed-mindedness. Real openness requires a willingness to risk radical change and not just some safe, minor improvements. In such change, you cannot know in advance what kind of person you will become. You may not even recognize yourself anymore. At minimum, you will likely realize that who you were before was blissfully unaware of how s/he needed to change, how her/his sense of the self and world was ultimately founded on happy ignorance. You might even realize that you were not such a good teacher after all.

Such change, with its disturbing potential, is close-coupled to learning itself. We are very finite creatures and there will always be a vast knowledge beyond what we already know. On the one hand, this should be exciting: regardless of our age or training or education, we can always learn something new, a little more of the wonder of the universe. On the other hand, opening your mind, body, and self can teach you to think in powerfully different ways, which means your understanding and consciousness can shift in dramatic and unexpected directions. Profound insights are profound because they can change you in deep, often irrevocable ways. Unless you confine your learning to a tiny portion of the human experience, unless you determinedly close yourself off from the rest of the world, you cannot keep yourself insusceptible to what you learn.

Even such narrowness is no guarantee. It is eventually breached if you delve deep enough. Punching seems a very specific physical movement of the arm and hand, but it depends very much on the shoulders, back, waist, hips, and legs. It depends on balance, timing, speed, strength, and relaxation. It’s an old karate maxim that you punch with the whole body. But it also depends on the right mind, on emptiness, focus, and awareness. It depends on the discipline and consistency of training. It depends on having the right instruction by the right sensei. It depends on that sensei understanding how your body moves and how your mind limits you. It depends on the proven authenticity of the ryū, the system of karate that you practice. It depends on strength of spirit, on the right, living balance of hard and soft. It depends on conviction. It depends on understanding and embodying the difference and connection between attacking and receiving an attack. It depends on appreciating the possibility of life and death in your hands, and in your mind, and in your heart.

So a punch is never just a punch. Learning karatedō is opening yourself much, much more. Like any great way of learning and being, whether combative or artistic or scientific or something else, it is a means of becoming more human. It demands enough humility to be open to the change that entails. But it offers a very special and difficult grace.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The sword that gives life

The Yagyū Shinkage Ryū is one of the most honoured and venerable systems of classical swordsmanship in Japan, with a history that stretches back 450 years. Besides its formidable technique, it is famous for an adage: katsujinken satsujinken 活人剣 殺人剣. The literal reading is “the sword of life; the sword of killing.” A common translation is slightly different: “the sword that takes life is the sword that gives life.” Yet the deeper meanings are not straightforward. The aikidō sensei and Zen priest, Furuya Kenshō, noted that it was regarded as a kōan, a teaching riddle intended to provoke enlightenment through prolonged contemplation.

I am not qualified to discuss the adage seriously in its proper cultural context. But I will presume to take it up in a contemporary Western way, with respect to my own karate practice.

One of the things about the popular discourse of karate that I find distasteful and preposterous is its invocation of the warrior. A real warrior goes to war. A real warrior is professionally trained to kill others who are trained and intent on killing her/him. A real warrior knowingly puts her/his life on the line. You don’t attend a karate class a couple of evenings a week and get to call yourself a warrior. That’s spitting in the face of an actual warrior. Anyone whose combative training is limited to recreational karate would be worse than useless on a real battlefield. A reverse punch that scores a point in a tournament will be rather less effective against RPGs. One reliable sign of a McDojo (a lousy karate club that is clueless about genuine karatedō) is an instructor who refers to her/himself or her/his students as warriors―or, even worse, samurai.

Framing the karateka as a warrior is also ignorant of history. The koryū, the classical fighting arts of mainland Japan, were definitely arts of the warrior, designed and forged on the Japanese feudal battlefield and taught only to the professional warrior class, the samurai. But karate has a very different provenance. It was primarily developed by members of the scholar-official class of Okinawa for the security of the royal family and aristocracy. So while some of the pioneering karateka were professional fighters, karate was never intended for war.

Of course, claiming to be a warrior without justification happens outside of karate, too. UFC fighters are often called warriors, but real fighting is nothing like the UFC. One of the worst things you can do on the street is to assume that you have only one opponent, someone   facing you unarmed (or unarmed and not ready to pick up a beer bottle and smash it to come after you). In a real street fight, your opponent is much more likely to be wild, unpredictable, or drugged up than trained. I like watching the UFC, but it’s nearly as removed from the street as it is from the battlefield. Fighting is not a sport; it’s nowhere as clean or limited or safe. For that reason, professional athletes, while often strong, fast, gifted, and tough, but are not warriors, either. With the possible exception of race-car drivers, they don’t really risk their lives. And real warriors don’t complain about dirty hits or the enemy breaking rules.

None of this means that the UFC fighter, the sportsman/woman, or the karateka is a wimp, although the typical recreational karateka is a lot wimpier than a pro athlete. There is no forced choice between the warrior and the effete. Moreover, the ultimate measure of a human being does not have to be whether s/he is a professional killer―which brings us back to katsujinken satsujinken. One understanding is that the professional warrior kills in service of what we hope are noble ends, especially to save innocent lives. However, the adage can also be used to contrast the warrior and the karateka.

I practice Seibukan Shōrin ryū karatedō. The seminal figure in our tradition was Kyan Chōtoku. He once said, “if you spend your entire life and never need to use the skills in karate for which you have trained continuously for such a long time, you have attained the goal of your karate practice.” So the ideal of karatedō is the opposite of satsujinken. I sometimes point out to my students that his principle structures the meaning of their training. While karatedō is intended for serious street self-defense, we constantly stress that the obligation of the karateka is to avoid fighting, and that avoidance is the only smart option. Rory Miller, who knows much more about violence than I ever will, is succinct and on point: “It’s better to avoid than to run; better to run than to de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die. The very essence of self-defense is a thin list of things that might get you out alive when you are already screwed.” For most of us, in our comfortable privileged lives, avoiding deadly confrontations is relatively easy. Training hours a day, several days a week every week, year after year, is a stupid waste of time and life if the only goal is to defend yourself in a situation that will very likely never occur.

Then good karate practice must be centrally about something other than surviving an attack on the street. One name for this something else is katsujinken. Practice hones the “sword” of the body for the sake of the life of the practitioner, where life means much more than its biological limitation. In the superficial but still important sense, training in karatedō makes the body stronger, faster, more supple. And healthier. My sensei, Dan Smith, taught me that in Okinawa, the answer to the question, “who is the greatest karateka?” is “the one who lives the longest.” In a time and place where the average body is pathetic, overweight, and unhealthy, the karate body is no small achievement.

Still, the aim of karatedō has always been more than a strong and healthy body. It seeks to cultivate a strong and refined soul, a good, humble, respectful, generous, loyal, educated, ethical, and trustworthy human being. The Japanese believe that there are some crucial ways of being human that can only be achieved through a disciplined physical practice, and, in that way, they hold karatedō to be like shodō (classical calligraphy), kadō (flower arrangement), or sadō (tea ceremony). Yet karatedō is also very different from those embodied practices because of its combative heritage and ethos. The belief in karatedō, like all serious martial Japanese arts and ways, is that the fighting aspect, the practice of training to kill and face being killed, even if you never use your training for that in real life, tempers the soul in a singular way, one that cannot be accomplished without that combative edge. It is this omnipresent sword of combat that karatedō embodies in its practice, and it is that sword that gives the karateka life. Katsujinken.

Monday, 16 March 2015

You never get good at karate

The late aikidō sensei Furuya Kenshō once wrote a piece he called, “You never get good at the martial arts.” It was an attention-grabbing title, one that perplexed many readers. When I told an acquaintance of mine about it, she said it was so discouraging. I’m sure that most would agree with her. But I feel the opposite. My martial art is karate, and I am inspired by the fact that I will never get good at it. I think every karateka would benefit from the same inspiration. And, by extension, you should be inspired because you will never be good at whatever you do.

I’ve been fortunate enough to train in Okinawa with some great jūdan (10th degree black belts): Shimabukuro Zenpō, Higa Minoru, Higaonna Morio, and others. The best in the world. So far, it’s been only brief exposures, certainly nothing close to enough to say I am the student of any of them, but even that little time was epiphanous. You don’t have to watch any of these men for very long to recognize the supreme level of their skill. Even with my substantial ego, I know I am light-years below their level. Pretty hard to say I’m good when I think of them. That should hold for almost every karateka alive, but instead something curious happens to the notion of “good” in the minds of many of them. Those who are not irrevocably awash in vanity will concede those jūdan are great, but that very superlative allows them to keep thinking while they themselves may not be great,  they’re still good.

Yet what other, more modest standard are they measuring themselves against? Being good at karate means being better than some substantial number of other karateka, because there can never be a specific, rigorous criterion for an amorphous judgement like good. It is, however, hard to assert you’re good if you’re worse than most. Then who comprise that reference group who are not as good as you? White belts? That’s a pretty low bar (although I’ve seen white belts who were already elite boxers and could knock the lights out of many black belts). Your students? The karateka you’ve defeated at a tournament or in free sparring at the dōjō? Or just some imagined average karateka?

Sometimes karateka resort to official recognition of rank to assure themselves that they’re good. But institutional affirmation of any kind is fraught with all sorts of inadequacies, inconsistencies, and corruption. Any experienced karateka has encountered yudansha (holders of a black belt) who are pretty dreadful, significantly worse than many practitioners who aren’t black belts. No knowledgeable observer would say that all yudansha are good.

Beyond all that, what is the point of claiming to be a good karateka, even if it’s a claim that’s only made to yourself? Without exception—and this includes jūdan—every karateka needs to get better, no matter how good s/he is already. The essence of practice is embodying and working that truth. It doesn’t matter what rank you hold or how adept or clumsy you are. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just begun learning or have been training for sixty years. However good you are, you aren’t good enough. Ever. If you ever think you are, you need a karateka with a harder, faster punch than yours to teach you some modesty.

The productive paradox of karatedō is that knowing you’re not good is itself good. It’s the state of mind and spirit that is your best aspiration; it is the disciplined approach to humility and openness to learning. You just need to keep going to the dōjō and work on yourself some more. Just shut up (about yourself and your “goodness”) and train. This is a key difference between karatedō and so much of Western culture: understanding the self as something to work on, rather than something to affirm and celebrate. Thinking that you’re good is very much a matter of having good self-esteem, which is totemized as the sine qua non of mental health in the West. And good self-esteem means lots of self-esteem: esteeming yourself highly. In karatedō, esteeming yourself highly is not mental health. It’s a pathology of the soul.

Furuya Sensei mounted a sign above the gate to his dōjō, which was also his residence. He had to go through that gate several times each day, and each time he would read what it said: 萬拙庵 bansetsu-an, which he translated as “the retreat of the untalented teacher.” Once, when I mentioned that at an academic workshop, a sociologist derided it as bullshit. “What’s wrong,” he asked rhetorically, “with being a good teacher who improves?” What’s wrong is that our culture sees nothing wrong with asserting, “I’m good and I’m getting even better.”

We hit anyone who says something like that in the dōjō. You never get good at karate. And, to echo Stanley Fish, who could have used a few good lessons in karatedō, that’s a very good thing.