Thursday, 3 October 2013

The gaff of real training

Great things are not taught by blancmange methods.
Robertson Davies

A good karatedō class is hard.

It is demanding. You punch while trying not to slip in puddles of your own sweat. Fatigue and lactic acid make the muscles burn. Breaking through your physical limits, however high or low they are, is never easy. Your body wants surcease from the strain, and your focus has to be severe to keep your form. There is real pain. Your heart hammers and your lungs heave.

It is repetitive. The point of practice is to make technique part of your nature, and the only way to do that is endless repetition. Repetitions of hundreds and thousands of times and more. Ohshima Tsutomu says that you need to do a kata at least 10,000 times to begin to understand it. If you practiced a kata every day, without fail, 10,000 kata would take 27 years.

It is difficult. A basic punch requires the coordination of hips, legs, chest, shoulders, arms, fists, and core. It depends on stance and foothold; it requires relaxation, instantaneous tension, velocity, power, balance, centering, timing, rhythm, and intensity. It calls on muscle and bone, breath and energy. It embodies the linear and the circular, emptiness and fullness. It requires a perfect stillness at the center of movement. Every basic is very complex.

It is unfamiliar. Your body is asked to do things it never has before. The protocols come from a very different culture. Unless you’re fluent in Japanese, the terminology is alien. The concepts, principles, ethics, and ideals are vastly different from those of the West. Karatedō pushes and prods and kicks you out of your accustomed time and place. You’re not supposed to find yourself in karatedō; you’re supposed to lose yourself, like losing yourself in a great but shattering novel.

It is not comfortable. Figuratively and literally. Here, fitness centers are climate-controlled, warmed in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer. Karate in Edmonton means going outside when it’s -20 C and punching barefoot in the snow and ice.

It is never concerned with affirmation. Pedagogy in karatedō means being confronted by what you can’t do. It means facing your clumsiness, your weakness, your inflexibility, your age, your slowness, your repeated mistakes. The place of instruction is exactly where you have to struggle, fight, fail, and get forced to try again.

It is not gentle. Karatedō seeks to make you more gentle, but its path to gentleness is through a punch in the mouth. In the West, if you accomplish something significant, it’s expected you will feel pride and get praise. In Japan, if you do well, it’s expected you will be asked how you can do better. You don’t practice karatedō to have your teacher or your classmates tell you how much they admire your bravery, eloquence, achievements, or talents. The point is not to build self-esteem; the point is to kill the ego.

Because teaching in karate hinges on killing.

Some practices in the West understand. Like that punishing art, painting:
Andrew Wyeth was reminiscing once about the introduction to art his father, N. C. Wyeth, had given him. The elder Wyeth, a renowned illustrator, had insisted that Andrew spend hour upon hour in the basics of painting and drawing, learning to use the charcoal stick and watercolor brush to perfect on paper the vagaries of shape and shadow. He was rarely allowed to experiment or to deviate from the strict guidelines set by his father. Years after he had become the internationally famous painter he is today, Wyeth recalled his father’s words when he was asked if the rigid education might not have threatened to kill the emerging genius and creativity of the young painter.
“If it kills it, it ought to be killed,” N. C. said. His son now agrees. “If it isn’t strong enough to take the gaff of real training, then it’s not worth very much.”
Dave Lowry 
The hardness of karatedō is the gaff of real training.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Kihon: the fundamentals of practice

At our dōjō, we practice kihon 基本 (fundamentals) every class. These are the stances, movements, and techniques taught first to beginners (that is, first after the karatedō forms of courtesy). Senior students and instructors, no matter how advanced, do kihon alongside the newest and greenest students. The obligation of an eternal return to fundamentals is one marked difference between karatedō and typical pedagogy. Once you learn your alphabet, you don’t keep reciting it every class thereafter. There is no need; this elementary knowledge, once learned, is the stable foundation for the successively more advanced learning of writing and reading as you move up from grade to grade. It’s the same with arithmetic, which is the ground for geometry, algebra, calculus, and beyond.

The common metaphor for the sequential development of learning is the tree of knowledge, anchored by the roots of its fundamentals and reaching towards the sun. Yet, under more careful examination, the notion is unhinged by its figuration. It’s like asking someone to draw a tree. S/he’ll almost always sketch what s/he sees, what’s above ground. But that’s an imaginary tree, a fantasy of a tree. So much of the real tree is unseen and underground. And constantly changing. The tiny roots of a seedling are nothing like the roots of a mature oak. The tree doesn’t just grow up, in its trunk and branches and leaves. It also grows  down and outward in its roots, gaining depth and breadth every day of its life. If it didn’t, the entire tree would cant over and uproot itself, unbalanced by the mass of what’s above. Or the whole tree would merely die.

It’s exactly the same in karatedō. If the practice of kihon is ignored, all advanced techniques fall apart, no matter how much experience or how many years of training a karateka has. You don’t learn kihon as a beginner and then “know” them for life. If you don’t constantly come back to them, they fade away. Yet the function of practicing kihon is more than merely sustaining competence in them.

You learn choku zuki 直突き (straight punch) in your first karate class. But if you train hard for several months, you will perform choku zuki much better than on your first day. And you will start to understand the mechanics of the punch, how the relaxed integration of hip, chest, shoulder, arm, and hand makes your punch faster and harder. You will be able to look back to that first class and see shortcomings of which you were totally oblivious back then.

If you train hard for several years, your choku zuki will get even better. You will start to understand the nuances of movement when your body punches as if it’s second nature. You will punch, not from your arm or shoulder, but from your tanden 丹田, your center. You will empty yourself repeatedly into the strike, and it will whip out and again with a shocking impact that will make your earlier efforts seem ungainly shoves. You will look back to the first months of your training and start to realize the limitations of what you could do and understand, and how that must still be in the case now in ways that remain shrouded, despite your best efforts. You will start to become aware that training choku zuki has changed what and who you are, that the never-ending thwack-thwack-thwack of hitting the pads is like a blacksmith hammering the core of who and what you are. This is exactly how the Japanese sword is forged.

If you train hard for several decades, your choku zuki will get even better. I haven’t trained nearly that long, but I can see it in the masters whose abilities far exceed mine. Two things I do know, though, watching them practice choku zuki over and over again: I don’t know anything about karatedō and I need to train much more.

The practice of karatedō must attend to kihon, because that is the only way that the fundamentals can stay alive, and all of karatedō depends on that life coursing through its practice. The growth of the roots of karatedō deepens and broadens the  incorporation of kihon into the body, mind, and spirit. Basics are foundational, but basics cannot stay the same. Everything turns on their ongoing unfolding. As Dave Lowry notes, “The budō are circular. The last teaching is the first. The most esoteric secrets are to be found in the most basic of fundamentals.”

Going back to school, the karate lesson is that the fundamentals are not really the alphabet and spelling and arithmetic. The fundamentals are how we understand ourselves, our world, our learning, and what we do. The nature of teaching is that it changes who we are, but good teaching does more than that. It also changes who we were. It changes the fundamentals. And the real lesson is not that now we are wise and now we know the truth and now we understand our origins. It’s that, given the mixed blessings of good teaching, courage, and openness, our conceptions of our origins, of who we were and where we came from, will keep changing. The roots will deepen and broaden.

This also holds for disciplines. Sociology or philosophy or art or science is not what you were taught in your first undergraduate class. Your knowledge of discipline is grounded in those earliest conceptions, but the task of education is to keep revisiting and reshaping that ground. Never, ever, trust a sociologist who is certain of what sociology is or a scientist who is certain of what science is. At the very best, s/he is trying to teach you an oversimplification of what sociology or science was when s/he was an undergraduate. Any respectable sociology or science will keep its conception of itself contingent and open.

The complicating factor is that the same applies to teaching itself. I can tell you what I think teaching should do, but teaching would be arid and impoverished if could be contained by my grossly limited and flawed understanding. The kihon of teaching need to be kept alive, practiced assiduously but always changing both itself and teacher. Do not, by any means, trust what I say about teaching. But do not, by any means, trust what any academic says, either. Including yourself.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Noise and silence

For karatedō, the problem is that people are too noisy and too quiet.

The Japanese have a tradition of treasuring silence. They have a proverb: “asase ni adanami” 浅瀬に仇波—deep rivers move in silence; shallow brooks are noisy. By this they mean,“those who know little talk much.” This marks a significant cultural divide. Here, the expert is someone called on to speak; here, the professor is certain her/his knowledge gives her/him the authority to discourse.

Karatedō is different. The principle is damatte keiko 黙って稽古: “shut up and train.” You don’t do karate with your mouth. If your karate instructor talks a lot, you should really find another dōjō. If your karate student talks a lot, s/he’s really not training hard enough.

In this culture, talk has a particular tenor. So much talk is talk about the self. You can do a karatedō exercise even if you have never set a bare foot in a dōjō. In your day-to-day life, try to listen. This has the immediate benefit of talking less. For most of us, one way we can make the world a better place is to be quieter. Shut up and live in the world without adding a banal soundtrack; shut up and listen; shut up and learn. And what you can learn is that when people talk, they talk about themselves: what they’ve done, their perceived achievements, their possessions, their vacations, their perceived plaudits. Muhammad Ali once said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Even when people talk about others, so often it is actually a return to themselves: their judgments, their comparisons, their opinions about someone else.

In karatedō, we seek to get over ourselves, and that means talking less about ourselves. Even if you can back it up. It means talking less, period. The academy would be a much more pleasant place if that ever happened.

Yet the academy is also the place where a specific kind of silence is a typical ethical failure. An old slogan of progressive academics is “speak truth to power.” I learned it from Susan Sontag, but it goes back further than her. When professors say, “speak truth to power,” they mean speak against things like the Harper government, the Alberta tar sands, or Monsanto. That kind of resistance is important; I am not dismissing it. But for karateka, speaking truth to power is something else. It means speaking truth to those who have power over you. It means speaking truths when doing so would turn your department chair or your dean or senior professors against you. When it comes to that, with very few exceptions, academics are very, very quiet. In fact, they congratulate themselves for their obsequious silence, because they know the smart career move is to tell flattering lies to power. They only speak truth when it will come at no cost to themselves.

For karatedō, ethics is the opposite: what you do when it will cost you dearly to do the right thing. Feudal Japan saw ritual suicide—seppuku 切腹, also known as hara kiri 腹切—become an integral part of the code of the warrior. If a samurai wanted to protest a decision by his lord, he cut his belly open in a special form of seppuku called kanshi 諫死, “death of remonstration.” Karatedō does not expect its practitioners to go quite that far. But it does take special note of anyone who stays silent when speaking truth to power would be inconvenient. It may well be the smart career move; it may be a demonstration of your “collegiality.” But it is absolute proof you are a coward.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Get out

B K Loren
From B K Loren’s memoir, The Way of the River. After meeting her new karate instructor, Jack Blakely, and being impressed by his affability, insights into bu, and smiling Gerber baby face, Loren attended her first class:

When Jack finally called, “Line up,” and the students ran to their places, my heart was pounding with excitement. Then Jack started teaching, and I was certain I had made one of the worst judgments of character possible. Before warming up, meditating, or even performing the traditional group bow, Jack stood in front of the class and broke into an out-and-out rage. His pink face turned bright red, blue veins popping out on his shiny, sweating forehead.

“We are not here to learn ‘martial arts.’ We are here to learn how to fuck people up!” he said. “We’re here to teach every goddamned puny-ass bastard who ever looked at us sideways a lesson they will never forget. Let them eat cake now. Four months into your training with me, they will be eating their own goddamned teeth. Mothergoddamnfuckers.” He smacked the sand-filled punching bag so hard it folded—a nearly impossible force. “That’s their fucking face!” He pointed to the swinging bag. His eyes trembled as he yelled, and when he was not yelling, he was eyeing the students for support.

A few young men in the class were riled up, their adrenaline rushing to their fists. They roared in agreement. Other students looked around at each other, confused. I, myself, was scared. I looked for the nearest exit sign, wondering if anyone had run a background check on Jack Blakely. After fifteen minutes of this trash talking, Jack shut up and paced the front of the room like a leopard in a cage, his eyes crazy-fierce, the wall-to-wall dōjō mirrors behind him reflecting his eerie image. He no longer looked like the Gerber baby. Finally, he took a deep breath and calmly, methodically, pointed at certain people. “Randy!” he said.

Randy was one of the young men who had been excited by Jack’s speech, agreeing with every word. Randy leapt to his feet and ran, front and center. He stood at attention.

Jack walked toward Randy and put his nose on Randy’s nose, the stereotype of a drill sergeant. He bared his teeth and whispered, “Get out.”

Randy’s eyebrows shot up like a puppy dog’s. His jaw dropped. “Huh?”

“Get out of this dōjō now, “ Jack said. He enunciated the words. “I’ll give you your money back. Just get the hell out. Now!” Randy, confused, waiting for the joke that never came, eventually left the dōjō. 

Jack pointed to another student and another, until nearly a half-dozen young men were asked to leave. By contrast, anyone who had not shown the least bit of interest in Jack’s violent outburst was allowed to stay. He explained to the remaining students, calmly, in the voice of a wise old man, “I can’t teach people who seek violence. I will not.” Then he led the class in a fifteen-minute seated meditation.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Comfort, dance, and bad writing

It’s grand and you canna expect to be baith grand and comfortable. 
J. M. Barrie 
I’ve been taught to expect a certain precision in human relationships. In aesthetic terms, this means that one can’t expect to have both beauty and comfort. I assume you understand.
Ronald Tanaka 

The fondness for comfort is rejected by karatedō. The intense physical demands of karate practice are a little different from the comforts of relaxing on the couch and watching reality TV. But the problem of comfort goes much deeper than that.

Consider the well-worn idiom, “s/he’s comfortable in her/his own skin.” In other words, s/he’s comfortable with who s/he is. This is presumed to be a very good thing in this society, but the novelist J. M. Barrie lays the groundwork for its critique: he says you can’t be both grand—superlative, beautiful, highly accomplished, or deeply virtuous—and comfortable. The current update of the idiom is exactly the opposite: the psychologically healthy person is comfortable precisely because s/he knows s/he’s grand, because s/he knows s/he’s special. This is the academic and pop-cultural strategy of combating the problem of low self-esteem, especially with respect to the body. You just need to recognize your own unique beauty, just as you are right now, and you will be much more comfortable with yourself.

Ronald Tanaka does not agree, and it’s not difficult to see why. Anyone who loves beautiful dance knows that it comes at the price of discomfort. Dance is hard; hard on the body and demanding of the spirit. But the perilous rigors of training result in something of rare and exquisite beauty. Compare a Kirov prima ballerina to the habitués of a night club.

Karatedō is the same. While the founder of modern karate explicitly cautioned about karate turning into dance—that is, movement whose prime consideration is looking good, rather than being effective in combat—there is an austere beauty in expert karate. It’s a subtle and not flashy aesthetic, but the movement is undeniably graceful, powerful, and elegant. The beauty of karatedō therefore comes out of the body, but it is also distanced from it. Someone who is plain but does very good kata is so much more beautiful in the dōjō than someone who is pretty but inept. The aesthetics matter, not because they are the goal of karatedō, but because they allow its purpose to be seen. Good form makes function visible and good form makes the function work. The graceful, powerful, and elegant strike is a killing blow.

But beautiful karate requires many hours and years of discomfort, and not only of the physical kind. “S/he’s comfortable in her/his own skin” is comfort as satisfaction with the self. Karatedō takes direct aim at that satisfaction; it is an endless project of working on the self (the body, the mind, and the spirit) in a determined recognition that the self needs to be better in all respects. On the feudal Japanese battlefield, being satisfied with oneself meant getting cut down by someone stronger, faster, and more adept. There was always someone better. Just like today.

The karate dynamic of beauty and comfort, of form and function, is also evident in writing. This is unsurprising, given the importance that budō has always placed on literature. But this is a dynamic largely ignored in the academy. A typical paper or book by a professor begins by saying what that professor is going to say in the body of the text and concludes by saying what that professor just said in the body: “In this paper, I will…” and “In this paper, I have…” This is standard rhetorical structure in scholarly literature. 

It is also brutally ugly.

You won’t find it in Borges or Voltaire, or other great essayists of history. Nor will you find it in John Steinbeck or Julian Barnes. Because it’s really bad writing. It has no grace, no power, and certainly no elegance. Good writing is beautiful writing. The widespread excuse is that academic writing has different standards, that it’s not about pretty rhetoric, but rigorous substance. The writing may not be beautiful, but that’s because clarity is much more important. But if you write, “In this paper, I will…” etc, if you keep repeating what you say, you’re proving you’re not being clear, that your writing is not fulfilling its putative function of communication. If you’re clear, you don’t have to repeat yourself. The standard academic repetition is an admission of communicative failure.

Its failure goes even deeper. It’s a failure of imagination, as is any writing that is always structured the same way. It’s lazy, the resort to habit in the place of invention. And it’s a profound failure of pedagogy. Academics are, in general, such terrible writers, not just because of a lack of talent—although, with noteworthy exceptions, that is very true—but also because they were taught to write that way. Part of the professionalization of graduate students is turning them into terrible writers. As one sociology professor told me, students need to be taught to write everything five times in a paper. This is how the venerable tradition is perpetuated.

The logic of this failure of writing is bound up with comfort in its serious sense. It is the comfort of the support of the self. Professors write professionally; their sense of who they are depends on them being able to believe that they are highly skilled at doing so. So the possibility of them actually being bad threatens their very identity. It’s crucial that that danger be banished. But originality, creativity, and the inspired craft of poetics are very difficult. It’s much easier to follow a rote recipe and call it scholarship. So the material solution is the maintenance of an institutional apparatus, the academy, which regulates discourse to acclaim bad writing as good.

Still, the apparatus cannot be completely successful, just as it is impossible to cover up all the vast ocean of terrible professorial writing. Even professors themselves acknowledge it, albeit unwittingly. If an academic says, “This weekend, I’m going to read for pleasure,” s/he doesn’t mean sitting down with a stack of journals. That’s work; that’s toil; that’s not enjoyment. No one would boast about having read 300 pages if it were an effortless delight to do so.

Being a beautiful writer is hard. Very hard. Much harder than getting tenure, and certainly much, much harder than publishing an academic article or book. Being a good karateka is very hard, too. Much harder than getting tenure—and, it must be said, much harder than getting a black belt. There are plenty of people with black belts whose karate is as bad as typical academic writing. This is why anyone dedicated to the way of karate must train harder and better. S/he cannot afford to get comfortable. Least of all in her/his own skin.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Thinking done by cowards and fighting done by fools

The Japanese word for practice is keiko 稽古. The great Shōtōkan sensei, Ohshima Tsutomu 大岛努 translates this as “to reflect on the old.” Karatedō is practiced with great reverence for masters of the past. The instructive contrast is the marketing penchant for the “new and improved.”

This appreciation of the old is not limited to the masters of karate, nor even Japan. Thucydides articulated the ideals of budō more than a thousand years before there was budō. He wrote,“the nation that makes a distinction between its thinking men and its fighting men will find its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” Thucydides was such a great samurai. In budō, the civilized person must train seriously in both thinking and fighting. This is called bunbu ryōdō 文武両道: the united ways of the pen and the sword.

Of course, this is not the reality of this culture and these times. Academics pride themselves as professional thinkers, but if you find your life on the line in a street assault, you probably won’t desperately wish you had a professor by your side. And if you’re seeking insight into Camus, you probably won’t turn first to a UFC contender. But the issue is more serious and concrete than those imaginary scenarios. History continues to be written in the blood of innocents because violence is perpetuated by the brutally stupid, whether some idiot with a handgun or a president with poison gas. Still, that is hardly to news to any of us. What gets less examination, however, are the consequences of having thinking done by cowards.

The kendō sensei, Kiyota Minoru, wrote,
The emphasis on personal freedom, one of the attributes of individuality strongly enunciated in a democratic society, inflates the ego to the extent that it makes demands without assuming responsibility.
This is a perfect description of both internet flaming and too many academic debates. The deep problem with the person who sees her/himself as a professional thinker is precisely that identification, because her/his sense of self is wrapped up in what s/he says as the incarnation of her/his professional thought. This is the terrible flaw of anyone who believes s/he is intelligent: the belief that what s/he says is worthy of attention, respect, and admiration because s/he is so damn smart. The tell-tale is the indignation and rage when faced with criticism. The professional thinking self cannot tolerate being wrong or, even worse, looking stupid.

Budō is different. A great teacher of the sword was in the middle of class when a challenger came blustering into the dōjō. Trying to provoke a fight, the interloper sneered,“You’re so stupid!” Without even looking at him, the sensei replied casually, “You’re right. I am the stupidest person I know,” and kept on teaching. This is not the response you can expect in an internet argument. Or the academy. For more than a quarter-century, I have assiduously searched for a professor like that sensei. I’m still looking.

Fighting and karatedō are not for cowards, because they force you to face your limitations. Your degrees, research awards, or overweening pride can’t help you to avoid them. And if you can’t say, honestly, that you’re stupid, you’re a coward. In that case, I suggest you stay far away from our dōjō, because there, we have real consequences for cowardice.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013


One of the influences on karatedō is Shintō 神道, the native religion of Japan. Shintō is animist; it conceives a spark of divinity in forests, rivers, rocks, and any other element of nature. In that sense, there is something sacred in each person. The same notion is widespread in the West, but its logic works very differently than in karatedō. In this culture, the conclusion is, I am special or God loves me; the conviction is that each of us is inherently valuable because we are human.

This is not the attitude of our karate. In our dōjō, no one is valued in and of her/himself. No one is specialnot the student and not the instructor. The expectation is that each of us should recognize the  divine in every other person, not lay claim to it ourselves. So the orientation is outward, to the world, and not inward, toward the self. This is not to say that the karateka thinks s/he is worthless; it just means that s/he believes that her/his value is not given, but earned. More accurately, the emptiness sought in karatedō means that one’s own value becomes simply irrelevant. Instead, the karateka is judged by what s/he does, not what s/he is. Does s/he make the world better, even in a small way? After all, from the perspective of the planet, all your mere existence does is consume the good things of the earth and give back carbon dioxide, piss, and shit.

You owe the world more than that.

The contrast here is between entitlement and obligation. In the West, a fundamental ethical principle is human rights: the right to life, the right to freedom, the right to vote. Of course, karatedō is not against human rights. But it is opposed to their corruption. People seize upon the freedom of expression to say, I have a right to my opinion, believing that their prejudice, ignorance, and irrationality deserves the same respect as someone’s right to vote in a democracy. Karatedō holds that this is very bad. First, because most people really need to work on being quiet and listening and thinking. More importantly, that kind of self-entitlement is anathema, and deserving of the kind of material correction that a well-trained karateka can deliver. Lastly, most of what most people say does not make the world better. It’s just unpleasant noise. Silence would be so much better. That’s probably the best lesson of Facebook.

In particular, silence would be much better than the noise of entitlement and self-praise. I realize that there are not a few who think it would be much better that I stay silent than keep babbling on this blog, and they may be right. Yet writing is also one of the ways of art that are mandatory complements to physical training in traditional budō, and I have an obligation to teach, regardless of the ongoing failures in my teaching. In my work in the academy, I regularly encounter professors who say openly, I’m a good teacher or speak of their teaching awards. This does not make the world better in any way. I know academics who think they're entitled to be addressed as Dr or Professor by their students. They see it as a matter of respect and professionalism. But respect is not an entitlement. It can only be given by someone else. For karatedō, the professor should focus on trying to teach her/students better, and, if that works well enough, the respect will come. Or not. Either way, demanding respect never works. Requiring others to call you by a title is just a discursive fantasy, in which students are forced to say tokens of respect they may not feel, and the professor coddles her/his own ego by pretending it’s real.

For a karateka, it is difficult to find the spark of the divine in anyone who talks so much about her/himself and demands that others affirm her/him for doing so.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Open-mindedness is very dangerous

Most people I know think they’re open-minded. Of course, they’re not. Being open-minded is extremely dangerous, and few are really that courageous.

Some avoid karatedō because they fear that they might get a nose broken or a rib cracked. These are legitimate concerns. I’ve had six ribs fractured and one of my toes sticks out at an odd angle after being broken. While a good dōjō is strives to keep its members from getting hurt, any karate that is completely safe is no longer a combative enterprise, and therefore ceases to be karate at all. Aerobic kickboxing can be a safe and enjoyable way to improve one’s fitness, with no more risk than skipping rope. But it’s not a martial art, by any means, and it’s certainly not karatedō. The danger inherent in fighting and trusting one’s partner to stop a potential crippling strike an inch away from your face is integral to the way of karate. But such physical risks pale in comparison to the much more serious danger of open-mindedness.

Karate requires a pliancy and patience unlike and more severe than most pursuits available in the West. Karatedō is steeped in the traditions and ways of Japan. It draws on Shintō, Zen, Taoism, Confucianism, and esoteric Buddhism, as well as ancient values and mores from the feudal Japanese battlefield. The cultural axioms of the West do not apply. Anyone wishing to study karatedō seriously has to be open to differences that can be both perplexing and challenging.

Yet while that openness is difficult, it’s not very dangerous in itself. The real danger of karatedō actually stems from something it and the West have in common: teaching. Sometimes teaching is lauded as a means to achieve your dreams: work hard, get educated, and you can become a doctor. But this is teaching understood as giving you knowledge or tools. That can be a very good thing. The real power and danger of teaching, however, is that it can do so much more. It can change who you are, fundamentally; it can change you into someone who sees and thinks and feels in completely new ways. Such sweeping transformation is never predictable. You may think you know who you are now, but you cannot know, with any certainty, the person you will become after experiencing a very good teacher. But you won’t be the same.

And this is the aim of karatedō. Not to change anyone according to very specific blueprint, so that s/he is molded in predetermined ways into some predetermined pattern. But because the aim of karatedō is to make one humbler, quieter, calmer, stronger, and gentler, in deep and underlying ways, one cannot remain the same. So the genuine danger is that you are expected to lose who you are right now. You are expected to lose yourself. That is not a loss that many are willing to undertake. Yet that is the loss that being genuinely open-minded always makes possible: to be taught to be different.

This is the demand of karatedō, which is much more a way of teaching than it is a way of fighting or self-defense or getting fit. You need to be open-minded enough to be taught to lose yourself. And, thereby, gain a way and a world much, much bigger than yourself or any individual.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The praise that no one else can hear

Hidetaka Nishiyama

Randall Hassell is 8 dan in Shōtōkan 松濤会 karatedō and one of the most respected American writers on martial arts. He tells a story about the great Shōtōkan master, Nishiyama Hidetaka 西山英峻, visiting the dōjō where Hassell taught. Hassell was in awe of Nishiyama, but the latter surprised Hassell by treating him with great respect and consideration, as if he were a peer:
For the first two days he buttressed my confidence, talked intimately with me, and stroked my ego. By the second day, I was riding high on a wave of thick pride.
It was now the third and final day of his visit, and he announced that we would each perform our favorite kata under his attentive and critical eye. “You first, he said, pointing at me. “Everybody warm up.”

That’s when things began to go badly. Nishiyama rebuked Hassell even before he started his kata, telling him he showed no spirit as he stood waiting to begin. Hassell was embarrassed, as all his students were watching, but that feeling quickly changed into something else and worse as Nishiyama ordered him bow over and over again, criticizing each time and not even letting him execute the first move of the kata proper. Finally, he permitted Hassell to go on, and Hassell says, “I performed that movement as it had never been performed before—smooth, graceful, flowing, strong, full of feeling and intensity.”

Nishiyama just shook his head sadly. “No, no, no.” He adjusted Hassell’s head, his arms, his shoulders, his back, his legs, his knees, his feet and his toes. Then he kicked him in the rump and whacked his belly. “Start over!”

The kata usually takes under 60 seconds to perform. Forty five minutes later, Hassell was still starting over, but each time to Nishiyama’s dissatisfaction. Hassell was feeling faint. “Start over!” His vision was blurring. “Start over!” He was about to keel over. “Start over!” Finally: “Hai [yes]! Finished! Bow!” Hassell writes,
I saw the awed faces of my students staring at me, mouths agape. They will probably all quit, I thought, now that they have seen how lousy I really am. 
Then Nishiyama patted me gently on the back, smiled, and very quietly, so no one else could hear, said, “Very good kata.”
The praise that no one else can hear is, of course, utterly useless to an academic career. No merit increments to be had there. One of the hard but core lessons of karatedō is that it is a life-long, often lonely and extremely demanding pursuit of such uselessness.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Like a clear space

The late Trevor Leggett, 6 dan (sixth-degree black belt) in jūdō 柔道 and 5 dan in shogi 棋 (Japanese chess), was the head of the BBC Japanese service and a brilliant writer on Japanese culture. He was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Emperor of Japan for his contributions to Western understanding of Japanese ways. He once said:
We are given the chance in jūdō—there is a tradition—to practise emptying the mind. After the jūdō practise, when you are pouring with sweat and blood you practise sitting still.... To be able to empty the mind, like a clear space. Not falling asleep. Like a clear space, empty of hopes, ambitions, fears, and worries.
Stillness is a familiar aspect of meditation. Not so familiar is Leggett’s specification of emptiness. Clarity of mind is prized in the West, but budō’s clear space of the mind is much more radical, as the eradication of hope suggests.

This is the mindset sought by the karateka, in emulation of the classical Japanese warrior. The samurai, facing mortal combat, emptied themselves. The purpose was to facilitate lightning-fast fighting. In the face of expert attack, thought or feeling was an interruption that the samurai could not afford. Pausing to think, even momentarily, meant getting cut down. The samurai trained hard and long, over and over, until lethal technique became so completely natural that their bodies and weapons reacted much faster than thought.

Admittedly, the samurai were professional fighters for whom hope was particularly inappropriate, since they fully expected to die in service of their lord. Happily, that does not apply to very many karateka. The ideal of emptiness persists nonetheless, especially in the emptying of the self.

There is Zen fable which is popular in West. A professor goes to Japan to learn about Zen. He meets with a priest and asks to be taught. The priest begins to speak, but the professor repeatedly interrupts him, saying things like, “That is parallel to an aspect of Western philosophy that I know…” or “I have encountered much the same thing in my own research and pedagogy…” After several disruptions, the priest stops talking. He reaches for a pot and pours tea into the cup in front of his guest. But he keeps pouring even when the cup is full, and the tea overflows onto the table between them. Once more, the professor interjects: “The cup is too full! No more will go in.” The priest puts the pot down and says quietly, “If you are full with the knowledge you bring with you, nothing I might teach can enter.”

Emptiness is as functional for the scholar or student as it is for the warrior. Emptying oneself of one’s knowledge and expertise is necessary for being open to learning. There is a venerable Western academic analog: if one is ethnocentric and holds onto the correctness or superiority of one’s own world-view, then one cannot be open to the different ways of another time or place.

What that academic truism does not consider is the parallel problem of the fullness of the self. From the perspective of karatedō, there is nothing as close-minded as someone who is open-minded, because s/he is closed precisely to the ways in which s/he is not open. Likewise, if you know something, whether that is the nature of sociology or the nature of love, you lose the ability to think about it, because when something is known—when something is true—it is no longer open to question. And if you know yourself, you cannot inquire into what or who you are. I would go further: as long as you know yourself, you will remain ignorant of the world at large. 

The practice of karatedō is predicated on the principle that the self gets in the way. The Western idiom applies: it is not good when someone is full of her/himself. But the idiom is betrayed by its own culture, which actively cultivates the fullness of the self. This is a culture that thinks good self-esteem means lots of self-esteem. This is a culture that teaches you to love yourself. This is a culture where Facebook is one more way to boast about how fabulous you are. And this is a culture where professors do not bother to consider whether their high opinion of themselves actually gets in the way of their research, writing and especially teaching.

In karate, kumite  組み手  (sparring) is drill for fighting techniques, but it is also an opportunity to learn about the danger of self-esteem. It’s the old lesson from the samurai. If you start to think, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this,” you’ll get half-way through that thought before being punched in the mouth. You have to focus on the fight, not yourself. And if you’re going to be able to survive an attack on the street, you need to do the same.

A friend of mine went to a yoga class that finished with affirmations. Everybody chanted together, “I am perfect.” In karatedō, after class, we do not say that. We say nothing at all. Pouring with sweat and blood, we practice being silent and emptying the self. We are not perfect. We are just practicing the way.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

One more push-up

In karatedō, we push ourselves hard. A professor once told me, “I’ve learned over the years to be gentle with myself.” Our attitude is different: be gentle with others, take care of others, but be absolutely merciless with yourself.

This culture loves ease. Products are marketed by assurances they require no effort at all or will take the effort out of living. Karatedō is different. Karatedō holds that living demands effort. There was a karate class training in a small basement room. They worked so hard that their sweat made the air heavy. The humidity condensed on the low ceiling and dripped on them as they kept practicing.

We’re not quite there yet, although our uniforms are sodden thirty minutes into a practice and we leave big puddles of sweat on the floor. But we’re working on it. And work is the key. Karate is supposed to be demanding. You’re supposed to go right up to your physical limits and beyond. Our conviction is that no matter how hard you’ve tried, you could always have done one more kick, one more punch, one more push-up. Giving 100% is a myth.

At some point in your life—perhaps a few days from now or perhaps not for many years—you will be faced with particular choice. It could be that someone you love will be really counting on you to come through or it could just be that you will know, in your heart, the right thing to do. Either way, the price will be very high. It may cost you your money, your friends, your job, or your reputation. Maybe even your life. You will have to decide whether to pay that price or take the easy way out. And if you can’t make yourself do one more push-up when your arms ache, or can’t even get yourself out the door for a workout, what makes you think will be able to do that hard thing when your conscience asks you to?

Tuesday, 27 August 2013


The moment you walk into a really good, old-fashioned boxing gym, you’ll catch the ripe smell of honest sweat, a diluted version of the fragrance of the inside of a hockey equipment bag. Entering a good karate dōjō is very different. The Japanese place a high value on cleanliness, which means there should be no residue of the perspiration shed profusely there.

At the end of a karate class, everyone, whether white belt or black belt, young or old, student or instructor, lines up with her/his hands pressing a damp rag against the floor, then runs the length of the dōjō, back and forth, until entire floor has been wiped down. This is called sōji 掃除.

As Nakamura Tadashi 中村忠 writes,
A dōjō becomes a special place only by the respect that the students as a group, or community, have for it. If everyone believes that it is a place to study and perfect the self, then how could it be kept clean by others? It is our place. We are making a shared commitment to it and to our practice. With a shared commitment comes a shared responsibility, including that for keeping the place spotless.

Karatedō aims at making its practitioners less centered on the self and more conscious of the world. My dōjō is fortunate to have a big room in a high school with beautiful hardwood floors, where dance classes are held during the day. Before each of our karate sessions, whoever arrives early dust-mops the floor, cleans the mirrors, and gets down on her/his hands and knees to remove scuff marks to prepare the dōjō; after, we do sōji with the damp rags. Our obligation is to leave the space better than we found it, especially because we share the room. Our aspiration is to make the world a little better because we were there.

Like everything in karatedō, the key is repetition: doing sōji every time we train instills a habit, in exactly the same way practicing a technique over and over makes it feel like a natural part of who we are. For us, sōji is much akin to mokusō 黙想, the silent meditation that we do to open and close a class. Cleaning the dōjō is a way to cleanse the heart and soul, just as mokusō is a way to empty the self. Sōji is particularly important in this culture, where cleaning workers like janitors or chambermaids are too often denigrated as low-class labour. In the dōjō, it doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, lawyer, or executive; it doesn’t matter how much money or education you have. Everyone gets down on the floor and cleans alongside everyone else.

C W Nicol said of his karate training in Japan:
After each class the students closest to the door would rush out to get buckets of water and cloths. As many as could grabbed a cloth, dampened it in the water and placed it on the floor. Both hands were placed on the cloth, and with his buttocks high and his body almost in a “push-up” position, the washer ran the width of the dojo, cleaning a foot-wide swath. We raced each other across the dojo in this way, thus strengthening hips, legs and arms, and sometimes crashing into each other, laughing and panting.

This task was never omitted, and nobody was ever ordered or asked to do it. A few, especially Westerners, dodged it, but the teachers and sempai always knew, and although they said nothing, the result of their observations would come out in the quality of individual instruction. Slackers, dodgers, and those with poor spirit were ignored on the dojo floor.

I am less subtle. I expect everyone to do sōji and say so directly. But some of the most fun I’ve had in karate has been running across the floor with my students, desperately trying to catch up to those young legs. There are few things better for cleansing me of my pride than having my 16 year-old son easily outrun me. Of course, that makes me proud, too, but I allow myself that. A strong son in a clean dōjō is a very good thing.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Pounding the self

A student is deluded when he enters martial arts with high hopes. The first thing a competent teacher will do is dash all those hopes and aspirations to the ground. If the student can’t survive a slightly injured ego, there is no way he can survive the training to come.
Furuya Kenshō
In our dōjō, we strive to be supportive of students' strenuous and very sweaty efforts to learn. I am very aware of my obligation to teach to the best of my abilities, regardless of how limited they are. But we also defy the conventions of teaching outside of the dōjō, because we are not in the least concerned with making students feel good about themselves or building self-esteem. In fact, karatedō is dedicated to the very opposite: killing the ego through emptying the self.
This is difficult.
Difficulty has been praised in philosophical circles for at least decades, but the budō take the necessity of difficulty in a particularly serious way. If you are finding karate easy, then you are not doing karate. The difficulty is not just technical or corporeal, although it’s that as well; it goes far beyond how truly hard it is to master either a very advanced technique or the most basic of fundamentals. It’s the difficulty of overcoming one’s own ego, one’s own self, how that deeply personal difficulty is fused to the inevitable hardship of training.
Rod Nobuto Omoto
On and off the university campus, knowledge tends to be an unquestioned good, unless you believe in creationism or vote for Stephen Harper. The budō also value knowledge—but they see it as just a first step, as Rod Nobuto Omoto, who teaches kendō, the way of the sword, explains:
There are three types of people who practice kendō. One is the curious type. They come in and they quit, because they know the thing already. They learn men, kote, dō, tsuki, the targets of the body and how to attack them. “That’s it? Oh, I can do that.” Knowledge. They stop at knowledge. But if they keep on pounding that knowledge, it becomes an art. “Aha, now it’s an art.” Some people quit there. They know the form and the art. But some people will keep on going, keep on pounding and pounding. And then…kū—it just disappears. You can’t quit, because it becomes you. 
is emptiness or the void. It can also be pronounced as kara, the first character of 空手道 karatedō, the emptiness regularly mistaken as referring to no more than fighting without weapons. The real kara, which is not specific to karatedō but crucial to all budō, is exactly what Omoto Sensei describes. One is obligated to gain knowledge (and to teach it), but one is also obligated not to stop there, to keep working that knowledge—to keep training—until it disappears. Training, in budō, takes up where teaching (of knowledge) leaves off. This is where Omoto Sensei’s deceptively simple formulation turns sublime, because two things happen when knowledge, pounded into art, is pounded sufficiently further in training: knowledge disappears and knowledge becomes who you are, because who you are is pounded away in the project of annihilating the self. Karatedō is the practice of one kind of emptiness on top of another, a commitment that you can’t quit because the ego has been killed.

Saturday, 24 August 2013


Richard Katrovas
A lot has been made in recent years about bunkai 分解, the analysis of kata for fighting applications. Even Funakoshi Gichin 船越義 warned of the danger of kata degrading into dance if it lacked consciousness of its original martial aspect. Still, the nature of what is being fought in kata is nuanced. Richard Katrovas elegantly articulated the view of our dōjō:
The kata, I realized only years later, after I’d taught karate for part of my meager living for several years, have little to do with preparing one for combat with other men. They are about the inner battle, the need to express dignity in a world bent on wrestling it away.