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.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Don’t set goals

Western popular culture adores goal-setting. It enjoys the same presumed and unquestioned virtue as personal growth; here, one of the best things you can say about people you admire is that they’re goal-oriented and never stop working until they achieve their goals.

I think karatedō is different.

It’s not that goals are necessarily bad. Good karateka often set goals like learning the sequence of moves in a kata. What needs to be questioned, however, is the presumption that setting goals is inherently virtuous. For instance, the goal of so many nyūmonsha (beginners), is getting a black belt. But in the karate classic, Moving Zen, C. W. Nicol recounts that when he asked one of his sensei in Tokyo how long it would take him to earn a black belt, the sensei went to a cupboard, pulled out a brand-new black belt and threw it at him, barking, “Take this and go back to your country!” This is telling in more than one way. First, this kind of goal was identified as being one that was both foreign and unwelcome in Japan. Second, it pointed out how Westerners too often confuse the black belt, as a mere symbol, with the rank and skill it is meant to signify. The latter is crucial, because it materializes the difference between what is external and what is internal. From that perspective, it is no accident that goals like New Year’s resolutions are so often articulated openly, because, in a strong sense, a goal is externalized: it is something outside yourself that you want to achieve or possess, like a house, a good job, or a black belt.

Yet the fundamental “goal” of karatedō is the opposite. It is internalization, the transformation of the self, changing inside to be better as a person. Note that this cannot be a goal in the usual sense, because there can be no endpoint, no possible completion. Believing you have “achieved” being a good person proves that you have failed to do so―at least from any perspective that thinks humility is important—despite the current trendiness of loving yourself just as you are. There is no end; you can always be better, and profoundly so. Karatedō is merely one of many ways of continually trying to be a better human being. It is in this way that the samurai aim of dying well becomes a little less dire. Working on the self takes at least a lifetime. And the goal of learning the sequence of a kata is meaningless without the ongoing and never-ending practice to make it part of yourself. You never stop learning it.

Perhaps more significant is a contrast in the relationships to time. The goal looks to some golden future; karatedō insists that you focus on the present, on what you need to work on here and now, whether that is a roundhouse kick or simple humility. The concern for this moment is inherited from karatedō’s fighting heritage. If, in mortal combat, a fighter’s attention wavers from the life-and-death present, s/he will likely be killed. S/he can’t worry about what might happen next year, next week, or even the next minute. It has to be totally about what’s happening this instant.

Likewise, karateka must focus on their own personal practice here-and-now. They must attend to the movement or stillness of the moment, to the requirements of the changes they are striving to embody. In our dōjō, karatedō is, above all, a matter of teaching and learning, and both mean transformation. Given the differences between East and West, those transformations are more profound than what is immediately apparent.

And this is why goals don’t work in karatedō. The foundation of a goal, despite the sometimes drastic changes such as white belt to black belt, or renter to homeowner, is what must stay the same: the criteria or assumptions that made that goal seem important in the first place. If karatedō changes who you are, then there is always the real possibility that what you valued when you set a goal no longer matters; what you believed, in a deep sense, no longer seems true. The true courage of the karateka is the willingness to open her/himself to that change, to become something crucially different from what you are.