Sunday, 19 January 2020

Why we train to be mediocre

Chibana Chōsin 知花朝信 once said that mediocre karateka should go away and not waste his time. He was rightly dismissive of those who won’t push themselves in training. Yet seeming paradoxes are important to serious Asian thought, and, in that spirit, I propose it is exactly those who do push themselves hard who are mediocre.

People don’t like to think of themselves as mediocre. The pop psychology of the times has made self-esteem the Holy Grail, so that loving yourself is no longer regarded as narcissistic psychopathology, but instead the very emblem of mental and spiritual health. Those who love themselves don’t do so because they see themselves as mediocre; they do so because they’re sure they’re exceptional. And there’s the rub. To be exceptional is to be better than average—much better. The success of the self-esteem creed means that almost everyone who isn’t crippled by self-hate is sure they’re superior. But to any thoughtful observer, something has gone wrong with the numbers when the vast majority of a population is well above the norm.

Consider a specific example: intelligence. Those with good self-esteem invariably think they’re intelligent. By “intelligent,” they mean something much more than merely sentient. They’re not comparing their acumen to the problem-solving ability of a parsnip. They think they’re intelligent because they are decidedly better than mediocre. Their conviction means they can—and must—be remarkably flexible in their justifications. If they struggled at school, they’ll say their “street smarts” are more important than being “book smart.” If they did well enough at school to recognize that others did even better, they enthusiastically embrace the now debunked theory of multiple intelligences of Howard Gardner and others. If they’re not good at math, they’ll cheerfully tout their “emotional intelligence,” a claim that is conveniently difficult to test. All these are means by which those who need to insist they’re intelligent must lower the standards by which intelligence is measured or compared.

Those of us who practice karate in our dojo do the opposite. We know we are mediocre and we openly admit it. Not because we don’t measure up against some posited average, and not just because we refuse to acclaim ourselves for our high level of “emotional karate.” Not because we hate ourselves. Not because we’re trying to make a show of humility, false or otherwise. We are mediocre for a simple and very material reason: we are comparing ourselves to the best in the world.

We do so for completely selfish reasons: we want to get better; we want to be more like the ideals we see and learn from. We don’t practice karate as a way to love ourselves, and especially we don’t practice to take pride in what we are already. We train to change what we are. This is the heritage of karate-dō as a serious combative system. From that perspective, believing in yourself without actually making yourself faster, stronger, more supple, more fluid, more skilled, and more aware will get you maimed or killed. If you’re in a life-and-death fight, social media platitudes about never comparing yourself to anyone else get exposed as terminally frivolous. You definitely need to be better than the other guy. If not, you’d better pray you’re a lot luckier.

The essential point is that recognizing yourself as mediocre is a different and better mode of believing in yourself. When we sweat and bleed to change ourselves, through intense, disciplined effort and the best instruction we can obtain, we do so in the conviction we can improve. We can learn. We can become better human beings. In this way, belief in karate-dō maps onto the belief that we are not limited by what we are—because we believe in what we can be. This is why the way of karate is, most importantly, a way of teaching and learning.

It should be admitted that this internet culture, in urging us to love ourselves, is also aiming at change—a change in how we feel about ourselves. Karate-dō seeks to change who we are. It’s the difference between perception and substance. For us, it’s a simple and stark choice: you can set your standards so low that it’s easy to admire what you are or you can be a karateka who sets their standards so high that you never stop striving to be so much better than that.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Good Manners Come First (Why Politics Belong in the Dojo)


When the renowned Shitō-ryū sensei Demura Fumio taught his kids class, he would ask them, “What do you learn first in karate?” He would get answers like “how to punch” and “how to stand.” Then he would tell them, “Here, the first thing you learn is good manners.”

It may seem paradoxical that the first lesson of a combative discipline would be manners, yet the primacy of manners is foundational to the karate-dō we practice. Funakoshi Gichin, widely credited with bringing karate from Okinawa to mainland Japan, wrote “Twenty Lessons of Karate,” and the very first was “Karate begins and end with courtesy.” In our dojo, at the end of every class, we recite the five precepts of Seibukan, our system, together, and we say “Reigi wo omonzuru koto,” which we translate as “Honour the principles of etiquette.”

In this culture, etiquette has an effete, even prissy, connotation: it evokes how to properly fold a napkin or which is the correct fork to use at a formal occasion. But for the Japanese and Okinawans—and anyone serious about traditional karate-dō—etiquette or reigi means much more. It’s about the relationships between people, between teacher and student, or practitioner and practitioner, or beginner and experienced karateka; it means treating others with respect, consideration, compassion, and dignity. The dojo as not just a training hall, but more importantly a community of people who strive, sweat, and laugh together, where anyone who has a sincere desire to train deserves the very best we can offer.

So for us, reigi is an obligation. I regularly remind my students that when we have someone come to their first class, they are expected to immediately greet and welcome that person. We are obliged to remember that it takes courage to try something new and especially to be a stranger walking into a group who already know each other well. No one who visits our dojo is allowed to stand awkwardly by themselves, ignored or worse. I know karate clubs that pride themselves on their insularity and toughness, so that newcomers are treated rudely and sometimes even physically abused by the instructor or seniors. This is the opposite of reigi; this is a deep violation of the Way of karate.

So what does this have to do with politics?

A couple of my seniors have had reason to remind students that politics must be kept out of  the dojo. And this is true: karate doesn’t care about whether you vote NDP or UCP, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, whether you’re on the left or right of the political spectrum. Again this is reigi: regardless of political allegiance, there is a place for anyone who will train hard. One of the wonderful gifts that I have personally received from karate is making good friends with people whose politics are very different from my own. That difference doesn’t matter to us; I know that I can count on those good karateka to have my back if and when I need it. And I hope they think the same of me.

We come to the dojo to train, so there is no room for political arguments that would only cause acrimony and division (and almost surely, no resolution). That’s why my seniors knew they needed to speak up.

However, in a paradox characteristic of Eastern thought and mores, while reigi is why politics are banned from the dojo, it is also why politics must pervade it. The head of Seibukan, Shimabukuro Hanshi, says “Karate ni wa jinshu mo kokkyō mo nai”: “Karate has neither race nor borders.” This is a deeply political statement, especially in these troubled times. Politics is about more than which party you vote for or whether you think socialism or capitalism is better; politics is also about power and citizens, about equal and unequal relationships between people in a nation, province, or municipality—or a dojo. If race does not matter in karate, then no one can be held as superior or inferior because they are white, black, yellow, brown, or any other color. Reigi means that everyone with a good soul and spirit can train. Anyone who believes that, say, African-Americans or Jews or Hispanics or any other visible minority is suspect, or that anyone who is not Okinawan or Japanese can’t truly understand karate, goes directly against what Shimabukuro Hanshi, the highest authority in Seibukan, has avowed.

The dojo must be political because its politics are the politics of inclusion. In our dojo, this means being inclusive not only of race, but also of religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, age, and ability/disability. The politics of the dojo demand that the measure of a person is their spirit, effort, and how they treat every other person there. Respect is owed the brown person and the white; the Muslim and the Christian; the gay and the straight and the bi; the male and the female and the trans and the non-binary. Reigi demands nothing less. I said above that reigi—the good manners that are the first lesson of karate—requires that we welcome the stranger, and that will always be a deeply political act.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Teaching and lineage

In my previous life as an academic, I taught sociology for twenty years. Now I teach karate. Obviously, there are necessarily stark differences in curriculum and pedagogical methods between the classroom and the dojo, but I’ve learned there are also profound differences between their very conceptions of teaching.

Just as obviously, there are many kinds of teachers and teaching in the university, so generalizations are always suspect, but I still think that the cultural concepts and foundations of teaching karate are distinguishable from those of the academy. And while I would never claim that the former are essentially better than the latter, I do believe that the differences can illuminate the nature of teaching in a singular way.

Any karate ryū (school or system; literally, “flow”) is identified by its keitō 系統 (lineage), the succession of sensei who taught the karate of that ryū and passed it down from generation to generation. It is keitō which establishes the legitimacy of a practitioner. Its importance is regrettably demonstrated by how it is counterfeited. The generally warm and welcoming karate masters of Okinawa have learned to be leery of foreign karate tourists who ask to be photographed with some sensei and then go back to their own countries and claim to be disciples. I have the privilege of being descended from the highly respected Seibukan lineage of hanshi 範士 (master teachers) that runs from Matsumura Sōkon 松村宗棍, through Kyan Chōtoku 喜屋武,Shimabukuro Zenryō 島袋善, and Shimabukuro Zenpō 島袋善保 to my own sensei, Dan Smith. The authenticity of what I teach is unimpeachable, regardless of the limitations of my teaching.

Yet there is another crucial relationship of lineage to teaching, one that turns on the special relationship of sensei 先生 (teacher of the Way) to deshi 弟子 (apprentice to the Way). While sensei is conventionally translated as “teacher,” that translation misses something crucial about the divide between Okinawa and Japan, on one side of the Pacific, and anglophone North America, on the other. In Canada and the United States, it is doctors, lawyers, and CEOs who are the prestigious professionals. Teachers rank far below them in the social hierarchy. It’s very different in Okinawa and Japan, where there is a traditional reverence for teachers. If someone is a highly accomplished and respected surgeon, lawyer, or business person, they are called sensei. Even a young man who is popular with women is lauded as sensei, although sarcastically. The esteem accorded to the sensei is such that no one there calls themselves sensei, for they would be regarded as vain, arrogant, and terribly ill-mannered. In North America, things are different, even in karate. Here, people sometimes sew patches on their uniforms that say “SENSEI.” I know one idiot who signs his e-mails as “Sensei ________” and another whose Facebook name starts with Shihan 師範, which means “master teacher.” They think they are asserting their stature, when all they are doing is advertising their ignorance.

Real teaching in karate-dō is nothing like that. Each time I teach, in my mind I hear the voices of my sensei and my sensei’s sensei. Their teaching always animates mine; their spirits are manifest on the dojo floor. I glance to shōmen 正面, the front of the dojo, where the photographs of the hanshi of Seibukan hang and watch, and get filled with resolve. It is not merely the expertise, generosity, and patience of the instruction I have received from those sensei, although I am deeply grateful for everything they have done for me. It is the realization that these extraordinary teachers have devoted their lives to karate, and now they have entrusted the teaching of it to me, among others. In the lineage of my ryū, I have become the link between them and my students. It is this profound awareness of lineage, of a duty to the line of teachers that came before, that is unlike teaching in the academy, regardless of how much a professor might respect their own doctoral supervisor. In karate-dō, if I fail, then the lineage is broken.

And this is the other side of teaching, the opposite of elevating oneself by calling oneself a sensei: teaching karate puts me in the bind between feeling the obligation to teach perfectly and the acute recognition, surfaced exactly by that obligation, of the deep imperfections of my own karate. I have seen this same bind expressed by other teachers, although I think I feel it more acutely, given that I came to karate late in life and to Seibukan even later. Of course, teaching perfectly is an impossible demand, regardless of how tangible and necessary it is. But this impossibility is a gift. I see karate-dō, the Way of karate, as a Way of teaching, in part precisely because I see it as a way of forcing me to face my inadequacies and limitations―not just as a practitioner of karate, but also and more importantly as an flawed and fallible human being―and never give up working on them. Especially in this place and time, where loving yourself as you are and asserting your general wonderfulness has become the standard of pop-psychological health, that is one of the most essential and life-changing lessons of karate-dō can offer. So that is lesson I try to give my students. We work together on the impossible. They and my teachers deserve nothing less.


Friday, 25 November 2016

Why You Should Always Compare Yourself to Others

Shimabukuro Zenpō

It is a truism of the age that you should never compare yourself to others. That truism has been taken up eagerly by modern martial arts, often articulated as you should only measure yourself today against what you could do yesterday.

Both are wrong, at least when it comes to karate-dō.

At the immediate level of visible technique, a karateka should always be watching and assessing what others do. If the side kick of their sempai 先輩 (senior) is better than their own, they need to recognize that fact and try to understand which body mechanics make it better. If the outside block of their kōhai 後輩 (junior) is inferior to theirs, they need to comprehend what errors the kōhai is making, and whether their own technique may share similar flaws. Both are crucial teaching moments, because the essence of karate pedagogy is learning from others, regardless of their level.

It may be protested that these kinds of very specific comparison are not what the truism aims at. Instead, comparison becomes invidious when it is generalized and negatively affects how you feel about yourself. Wisdom means accepting yourself in the present. Leo Babauta writes, “We don’t need to be better than anyone else: we just need to love where we are and what we’re doing and who we are. That’s what matters.”

But karate is founded on the very opposite contention, because it is a combative discipline. In our dojo, we teach that the best fight is the one you avoid having, because very bad things can happen to you, regardless of your ability and experience. But if a fight is unavoidable, karate teaches you to win, for the simple reason that losing can have fatal consequences. The bottom line is that if you’re fighting for your life, you definitely need to be better than your opponent. If someone is trying to kill you, loving where and who you are is a rather unreliable strategy. A fight to the death is the supreme instance of comparing yourself to someone else.

Now, karate-dō aims at living, not killing. The great master of our style of karate, Shimabukuro Zenpō 島袋善保, has never been in a street fight, and we, his students, strive to follow his example. Nonetheless, the lessons of karate-dō for living flow from the principles of combat. The Japanese say, “Satsujinken; katsujinken” 殺人剣活人剣: “the sword that takes life is the sword that gives life.” What, then, can be learned from karate’s foundation of ultimate comparison?

The best lesson is to reject not only the truism of “never compare yourself,” but also its ethos. What is promoted as the much better alternative to comparison is acceptance, the heart of loving yourself where you are—you  don’t need to change.

But karate-dō says you do need to change. We go to the dojo, some of us six days a week, expressly to change what we are. That’s why we work and sweat so hard. The great value of a physical discipline like karate is that it never stops reminding you that you need to get better. Karate is very complex, demanding, and difficult, and no matter how long you train, you never reach the level of being good enough. Yet, for those of us who love karate, this is inspiring, not discouraging, because it teaches us a simple truth: learning itself is transformation. If you already know enough, there is no point in going to university; if you already have grasped the essence of art and grace, there is no point in reading a great book; if you already embody the best of what it means to be human, there is no point in going to a dojo. You only study, read, or train because you realize that self-improvement is a transformation. It not a possession you can own; it is something you become. Learning changes who you are, and great learning changes you in profound ways.

The other failure of the ethos of “don’t compare yourself with others” lies in presuming the virtue of loving yourself or making you feel good about yourself. Despite the penchant of Western martial arts clubs for marketing themselves by claiming they will improve your self-image, real karate-dō is completely unconcerned with such goals. The first example of watching someone’s side kick is exemplary: the point isn’t to build self-esteem; the point is to be utterly and ruthlessly realistic about what, where, and who you are. In combat, truth trumps narcissism. The point is to recognize both your strengths and weaknesses and keep building from there. In this view, “don’t compare yourself with others” is not self-development, but self-destructive: if you don’t have the courage and honesty to face your inadequacies, then you’re not going to have the courage to face someone in combat. To go back to the side kick: the better test of yourself is how you react if your junior’s kick is better than yours. The karate way is not to avoid comparisons, but to cultivate the character to face them. We work on the self instead of insulating it. That’s what we do when we compare ourselves to superb teachers like Shimabukuro Hanshi or my own sensei, Dan Smith. They are better than we are, in multiple and very tangible ways, so we train hard to try to become just a little more like them. We think that the best thing for ourselves is to compare ourselves with the best, in the certain knowledge we will fall short. It’s that comparison that keeps us trying.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016


In his 2008 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell attracted a great deal of attention with his 10,000 Hour Rule, which asserted, based on research by psychologist Anders Ericsson, that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a field. Gladwell cited the Beatles and Bill Gates as examples. The Rule subsequently drew substantial criticism, including some from Ericsson himself, and Gladwell later clarified that mastery depended on natural ability as well as practice. But he maintained his insistence that a great deal of sustained practice was still essential for mastery.

The number 10,000 has cross-cultural mystique. In Asia, it is special because it means a myriad. In Japanese, 10,000 is written and pronounced “ban.” Banzai! 万歳 is a shortened form of Tennōheika Banzai! 天皇陛下万歳, “May the Emperor live for 10,000 years!”, and expresses great celebration or applause. I was the first grandchild on my father’s side (and the first son of the first son of the first son, which matters a great deal in Japanese families), and when I was born, my grandfather, Aoki Sadayoshi, cried out, Banzai!

A Bruce Lee quote regularly recycled on the internet is, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” It’s a little ironic in this context, since Gladwell specifically exempted sports from the Rule, but Lee’s sentiment is a received truth in the martial arts, in which the necessity of years of deliberate practice has been empirically verified countless times across systems, cultures, and centuries.

Yet the fuss about the 10,000 standard to become a master, whether positive or negative, misses central tenets about karate exactly because it’s about mastery. The crucial counterpoint is provided by the great Shōtōkan sensei, Ohshima Tsutomu, who wrote that a karateka must practice a kata 10,000 times or more before they begin to understand its meaning. Beginning to understand something is almost the opposite of mastering it; in fact, beginning to understand something means understanding you are far from mastering it. Ohshima drives his point home by continuing with “You must practice your favorite technique 100,000 times before you can use it in any situation,” which makes Lee seem like a piker. If Gladwell is correct that sports can be mastered in much less than 10,000 hours of practice, then it’s one more hint that karate is not a sport. Higaonna Morio, the famed Gōjū sensei, has practiced karate for more than 60 years, yet when talking about his own practice, he smiled and shook his head gently and said, “Need more training.”

Of course, the crucial and typically Japanese paradox is that such an admission, by a karateka of such extraordinary ability that he has been named an Intangible Cultural Asset of Okinawa, is the mark of a real master. This kind of mastery defined by needing more practice is by no means limited to karate. The legendary cellist Pablo Casals was once asked, “Mr. Casals, you are 95 and the greatest cellist that ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” He answered, “Because I think I’m making progress.”

Perhaps it’s in large part because I am already an old man of 60 myself, but I firmly believe that is the reason to train. If I practice a kata every day and never miss a day, it will take over 27 years to make 10,000 repetitions, over 27 years to begin to understand it. I may well not even live that long. I can’t be concerned with mastery, which will always remain elusive; I can only keep trying to make progress.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Extraordinary and the Ordinary

Iha Koshin pointing out the names of his father and brother
at the Cornerstone to Peace memorial

Deadly Arts: Karate (2003) is an episode in a documentary series by Canadian filmmaker, Josée Normandeau. It was shot on Okinawa. Several karate sensei are featured, including the late Iha Koshin 伊波庫進 (1922-2012), 10 dan Hanshi Gōjū ryū. At one point, Normandeau takes Iha Hanshi to the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Park. There, for only the second time, he views the Cornerstone of Peace, a monument to those who died in the massive Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Echoing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, the names of the dead are inscribed across its many stone walls. There is, however, a crucial difference: if you visit there, you will see the names of not only the soldiers of one nation, but those of everyone who died in that terrible battle, whether Japanese, American, or Okinawan, whether military or civilian. There are over 240,000 names, and more are added each year with the discovery of casualties not known before. More than a third of the population of the island was killed.

Among those memorialized are Iha Hanshi’s father and brother. When Normandeau asked him how he felt when he saw their names, he replied, “My sorrow is no more important than anyone else’s whose loved ones’ names are written here.”

His words have stayed with me, and they resonate even more now that he is gone. In their simple modesty, they articulate the essence of karatedō and the gulf between it and Western culture. The death of someone you love is such a singular and personal event, like nothing else in life. Yet even in the return and consideration of that extremity, what Iha Hanshi offered was not his own private grief, no matter how profound that was, but rather how that grief was shared. He knew he held it in common with all the survivors of the Battle of Okinawa. There is the paradoxical crux of the matter: what is experienced or possessed by everyone is an archetype of the ordinary. After all, the definition of the mundane is that which is common. Yet Iha Hanshi makes us recognize that, sometimes at least, it is the very mundanity of something—the fact that it is shared throughout a collective or a community—which makes it special. The ordinary can be extraordinary because it is ordinary.

The pertinence to karatedō is manifold, starting with a deep ethical implication. I once saw a newscast about a deadly attack in the Middle East. The mother of one of those killed wept on the screen and, in her grief, cried out that those of the other side were animals who did not feel the pain that she and those on her side did. I felt for that bereft mother. As a father, I can imagine nothing worse than losing a child. But the contrast with Iha Hanshi was stark. She thought her grief elevated her above her enemies, because she was sure that they did not share the love and hurt that tore at her soul. She did not even think they were human.

But of course they were human, and of course they loved and hurt. Those on every side of every awful conflict have. That is why the Cornerstone of Peace lists the names of all the dead, whatever their provenance. The loss and grief of everyone matters. We are obligated to honour that commonality, and never hold our love and pain as higher or better than anyone else’s. The ordinariness of loving and losing the ones we love is a simple and universal burden of being human, of having a heart. And that is truly extraordinary.

One of the things that makes karatedō special is that, as a combative art, it takes lessons of death as lessons for life. Then what import can Iha Hanshi’s words have for our daily lives? In the manner of Asian teaching fables, the answer is given in the question itself, for it teaches us the specialness of our daily lives.

When we practice karate, it’s important that we envision fighting a life-and-death battle, so that there is urgency, seriousness, and realism in our technique. Training is always preparation for the potential time when we have to defend ourselves on the street. Yet while that is true, it is also misleading, or at least insufficient. It’s true that karate that doesn’t work in fighting is useless, and your karate won’t work unless you train consistently, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Karate is the opposite of diets that promise results in a couple of weeks without real sacrifice. It takes a great deal of training and effort to be able to fight well. Yet this focus on self-defense frames endless practice as the mundane preparation for the real thing, for what is important or special. From that perspective, a karateka in the dojo is like a football player on the practice field or an actor in rehearsal. The thing that really counts is the fight, the game, or the performance. This is a good characterisation of sport karate, where you practice to succeed at what matters: winning a match or a tournament. Practice is then the means to an end, the ordinary thing that is the prerequisite for the extraordinary.

However, in Japanese fashion, this straightforward notion of practice is predicated on its opposite. It’s well-established that karate, like all effective combative methods, is only functional if it is practiced so often and intensely that its techniques become natural, if they become thoroughly part of who you are, so your body can act and react much faster and more efficiently than if you had to think about what to do. In other words, practice is a transformation of the self. Training makes you a better fighter by making you faster, stronger, calmer, tougher, more supple, more perceptive, more disciplined, more relaxed, more unflappable and less fearful or full of doubt.

Still, serious karateka are obliged to take one step further: they must recognize that this many-sided transformation is not the means to the end of becoming a good fighter, but rather the end itself. The significance of combat to karate is less the possibility of a street fight than it is the certainty that crucial principles of warrior traditions structure the ethos of practice. So the key is an inversion of the seemingly obvious: you don’t train to fight—although training does develop the capacity to fight—fighting teaches you how to train, and, thereby, how to make yourself a better human being.

To return to the original point, how does this apply to the ordinary and the extraordinary? The answer stems from a Japanese proverb, narai sei to naru習い性となる: “practice becomes one’s nature.” Or, “you become what you do.” More specifically, you become what you do over and over; you become what you do every day. It’s that simple and that difficult (especially in these times and this culture). If you are going to succeed in karate, practice has to be the most ordinary thing in the world. It has to become like eating or sleeping or breathing, something that is a necessary, repetitive part of existence. You need to work the extraordinary circumstances of life-and-death battle as ordinary daily practice. Karate becomes extraordinary precisely when it becomes ordinary, because then karate becomes what you are.

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.