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:
- Shu – learn how the foundations were laid, and fully understand their strengths and limitations.
- Ha – reinforce the foundations so as to extend their strengths and offset any limitations.
- 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.