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.

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