Building on Foundations

Ever since I started karate I’ve been fascinated by the rich history of this intriguing practice, and the stories of karateka past and present who have paved the way for the modern practices we have today.

As a teenager I ‘bought in’ to the grandiose stories of feats and near miracles performed by many of the past masters. Leaping bridges, walking on the ceiling, piercing meat with the finger tips and the defeat of countless armed attackers by a single unarmed karateka were just some of the stories that I devoured keenly.

Ultimately I started coming to the view that the grand masters of past were extremely talented and insightful bugeisha of their times, but would likely be comparable to mid-level black belts of the present. I say this not to denigrate them, but to respect the foundation they laid that has allowed following generations to build on their vision.

John Titchen made a brilliant post about this back in January (I know I am a bit slow on this, but I’ve been traveling for work) called ‘The Giants are Pygmies’

Matsumura, Itosu, Funakoshi, Motobu, Kyan, Miyagi, Mabuni, Ohtsuka to name but a few… these names ring loudly in training halls across the world. Their thoughts on karate are still read and studied. But these men are not giants by today’s standards, in fact in the modern world they are pygmies compared to many of the teachers with whom you could study.

His post reflects the thoughts I’ve long held. We should respect and honour the masters past for the amazing foundation they laid, and the best way we can honour it is to reinforce that foundation and continue to build on it.

We know a lot more now than our past-masters did. Science has moved forward, and we no-longer need woo or mysticism to explain things when our knowledge of physiology, biomechanics and physics can now explain that which was once unexplained.

The worst insult we can pay to the heritage of the forebears in lineages is to assume that was is complete, perfect and unchangeable.

The second worst insult would be to change things thoughtlessly, without fully understanding the foundation.

This is in many respects what the tradition of shu-ha-ri is about.

Shu-Ha-Ri reminds us that learning is a gradual process that includes the need to first learn the fundamentals (shu), to then explore and innovate on those fundamentals (ha) and finally to transcend them (ri).

In other words:

  1. Shu – learn how the foundations were laid, and fully understand their strengths and limitations.
  2. Ha – reinforce the foundations so as to extend their strengths and offset any limitations.
  3. Ri – build on the foundations your own unique construction.

The foundations are common to us all, we respect those that have gone before by fully understanding the foundations and then adding to the collective wisdom, before making our own unique expression.

Titchen sensei makes another great point about a tendency we have of putting people on pedestals.

We should respect those that have gone before us. But do not put them on pedestals or treat everything they said or did as gospel truth. Many of them had less experience and knowledge than either you or the person you train with. Honour their memory by carrying karate forward as they did and pay them the courtesy of respecting the reality of their humanity and fallibility.

I continually see even senior budoka putting seniors on pedestals. A high ranking karateka I know believes that his own teacher is “beyond reproach”.

This is delusional thinking, and quite dangerous. Certainly, we should respect the abilities of our teachers, but no matter how widely experienced, travelled and studied those teachers might be, they are just human and their knowledge has limits. This teacher is undoubtedly a karateka of great talent with over 50 years of study. This man is a human, expert in some aspects of human study, but as we all are, wonderfully normal in most areas of life.

Our role is to respect the foundations that bugeisha of years past have laid, and the reinforcements that have been added by subsequent generations, by learning these foundations completely, and perhaps one day adding to the collective wisdom through providing our own reinforcements to the foundations. This is the proper respect, not blind obedience and not-questioning.

Upcoming book – Mike Clarkes Redemption

Mike Clarke Kyoshi has posted about the forthcoming publication of his book Redemption, the story of his mis-spent youth and the redemption he found in the form of karate.

As the book has four chapters, each month leading up to publication in May he will post an excerpt of one of the chapters. The first post is titled When I was a young man, I did young man things….

my take on life back then was pretty basic. I solved my problems with my fists (as well as my head to several soft targets), and because of that found myself on the wrong side of ‘the wall’ just days before my eighteenth birthday.

Redemption

The book is a complete re-write of his original autobiography, Roaring Silence. I have had the opportunity to read a preview of the manuscript, and there are a lot of important lessons to be learned in Mike Sensei‘s journey from troubled youth to a man very much shaped by his extensive and indepth study of Okinawan karate.

I am looking forward to reading the final work in May.

You can pre-order Redemption by Mike Clarke with free worldwide shipping.

Karate is for Life…

Karate is for Life…

How often does a karate teacher emphasise that karate is for life or that karate-do is a way of life?

I would hazard a guess that somewhere in the world – at a dojo, training camp or seminar – a karate teacher has made that very statement within the last hour.

But, what does that mean. Gojuryu’s founder MIyagi Chojun is said to have emphasised that one’s priorities in life should be:

  1. Family
  2. Work / study
  3. Karate

I think Miyagi sensei was at least partially right, but that the third priority should be something along the lines of ‘activities to promote physical or mental health’.

As the saying goes “two out of three ain’t bad”.

I enjoyed a post of Charles Goodin’s recently revitalised Karate Thoughts blog today that touches on this very topic, in which he related his pride in a One of his Student’s Recent Accomplishment outside the dojo (emphasis mine):

And, for me, Karate should not be the best thing that you do. If you are good at Karate and bad at everything else, then what kind of Karate student are you? But if you are great at everything else and good at Karate, then what a Karate student you are!

I think Goodin sensei gets it just right here. A student who is doing well in their karate and is doing at least as well in their other aspects of life, especially family, work and study, is the best role model we can have.

To quote one of Patrick McCarthy sensei‘s sayings:

Links of Interest for 03 December 2015

Links of Interest for 03 December 2015

KU Quick Tips: Foot & Knee Alignment – YouTube

1782 – Sonnerat on Sanchin? | Ryukyu Bugei ????. Andreas Quast relates yet another interesting find from his martial history research.

Morihiro Saito: Expunged from the History of the Iwama Dojo! by Stanley Pranin. Interesting tale showcasing an all too typical scenario of revisionist history that seems to occur regularly in various budo organisations.

Links of Interest for 01 December 2015

Links of Interest for 01 December 2015

Shinseidokan dojo: An Alternative approach to karate…. Mike Clarke Sensei links to the Journeys in Japan episode on Okinawan karate.

This may sound strange, but for me, it’s the footage of the presenter walking around and discovering each dojo for the first time that I find the most exciting, it reminds me of my early days exploring…..

Good manners in self-protection | Iain Abernethy. Iain Abernethy Sensei discusses the role of manners as a self defence technique. I have long taught that the maxim karate begins and ends with courtesy means far more than bowing in the dojo.

Surely good manners and an intent to develop character must be a fundamental part of any practical approach; regardless of whether one chooses to use the label “do” or “jutsu”?

Breathing by Jesse

Link

Jesse Enkamp talks about the best way to breathe in karate, a topic that can be quite controversial.

Jesse’s conclusion is a simple one, and it reminds me of the most important rule in scuba diving – breathe continuously and never hold your breath.

On a side note, I’m looking forward to meeting and training with Jesse in Sydney in January.

Books I am excited about

There are a couple of new books out on the Kindle Store that I am quite excited about, and wanted to provide an update on.

Fresh out today is Tales from the Western Generation: Untold Stories and Firsthand History from Karate’s Golden Age by Matt Aspokardu of Ikigai Way fame. This book looks to be the most comprehensive treatment of the Western masters who have been instrumental in the development of karate as we know it today. Matt is one of the new generation of karateka who are working hard to balance the the traditions and the ongoing development of karate.

The second volume is A Stroll Along Ryukyu Martial Arts History by Andreas Quast. A Stroll Along Ryukyu Martial Arts History is based upon Mr Quast’s previous research and publications, particularly the scholarly Karate 1.0. A Stroll is perhaps written to be more accessible for those not academically inclined, or as a complementary volume for those who wish to have a companion version at hand for quick reference.

With my current schedule of international travels, I have been able to access both books in Kindle format, and have downloaded to my iPad for reading on the go. Both are welcome additions, and I look forward to getting into them.

Congratulations to Messrs Apsokardu and Quast on their publications – both of which are clearly built on the back of thousands of hours of research and writing.

Essential Jo

The jo (four foot staff) is a weapon that I have enjoyed the study of for many years, but have always lamented that the published material available about it centres around either the Shindo Muso Ryu Jojutsu style, or the Aikijo practices in many Aikido schools.

The school of karate I practice is based on an Okinawan/Japanese style which has always practiced the bo (6 foot staff) and sai (iron truncheon).

While living in Japan and training at the hombu dojo between 1991 and 1993 I was fascinated to discover that the jo was one the third wepon originally emphasised by the founder, Kaiso Kori Hisataka (1907–88). Unfortunately the practice of the jo lay dormant in the mainline school and the descendent schools.

In the intervening years I made it my mission to research the jo, a process that ultimately led to the introduction of the kata Ufuchiku no jo to our organisation. Subsequently Kaicho Shunji Watanabe of the Shorinjiryu Kenyukai Watanabe-Ha school (with which we were affiliated for several years) also reintroduced the practice of another kata (alternatively called Shishiryu no Jo or Kudaka no Jo).

In my research I began to realise that the practice of the jo was important among the bushi of the Shuri Court, and can be found in several styles of Udundi (palace hand) and Ti extant today.

With this background I am pleased to see that others have also seen the importance of the jo for karate practitioners, as it is a versatile weapon that has real relevance today. Poles and rods in the 3—4 foot range are common and can be used as makeshift weapons of defence.

The first book that I am aware of to take an indepth look at the Jo from a non-Aikijo persective has been written by Dan Djurdjevic.

Essential Jo promises to be “the most comprehensive text on the subject to date”, and is said to be well-illustrated with over 900 photographs.

I have ordered a copy, and look forward to providing a review soon.

Book Review

I’ll admit straight out that I am a little late to the party with my review of Goran Powell’s new book Chojun: A Novel.

This is at least in part because I have been busy with new endeavours, and this book has been one of several that has been patiently waiting for me to get around to reading it.

Get the Kindle edition of Chojun: A Novel at Amazon.

Get the paperback edition of Chojun: A Novel at Amazon.com