Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Learning Karate...Parrot Fashion!

An old house in Tsuboya, Okinawa
It takes a while for the past to catch up with the present, for the ideas of old to fall on contemporary ears. In the meantime most people 'wing-it'. They make stuff up, or adopt bits of the past that suit their present day purpose. I met a young man today who knew all about the history of his martial art, except the bits I knew about....then he didn't appear to know much at all.

As we parted, I was left wondering how such a thing could happen. How a nice young man could know so much but understand so little. As I said in response to a comment he made...."I suppose that's a matter of perspective; you see only what you're able to." I was at pains to be nice and not to burst any bubbles, but it was difficult not to walk away feeling disappointed that the general public were being introduced to the martial arts at such a low level.

I have no problem with people teaching for cash if that's what they chose to do with the training they have memorized, but, I'm reminded of one of the students at the dojo whose son has a pet cockatoo. The bird has a wide vocabulary and talks with near perfect diction: but it can't speak! It can't hold a conversation or extrapolate ideas from the things you say to it...it just gives an appearance that it can. A bit like karate instructors do when they begin to seek cash.

Apparently there are now 100 million karateka in the world, according the the latest statements coming from Okinawa. If that's true, I have to wonder how karate became so diluted.I also wonder (but not too often), how many are practicing karate and how many just look like they are. I'm not sure if the cockatoo knows he can't really speak, but the young man I spoke with today clearly believes he can teach.

All day, I couldn't get this out of my head....

 

Sunday, 7 February 2016

When I was a young man, I did young man things....

Published by YMAA Publishing, and available in May 2016
As I've mentioned already, my next book is set for publication in May. it will be available world wide and can be ordered on line, directly from the publisher, or through any good bookshop. If it's not in stock simply give them my name and the title, it couldn't be easier. Split into four chapters, I thought I'd post a sample of each of them over the coming months leading up to publication. That way, you can get some idea of it's content. The explanations you see here in parenthesis do not appear in the book, they're here only because one or two of you may not be familiar with the words/terms in question.

Here's a very brief sample from chapter one. I've just turned 18 years old inside Strangeways Prison, I've yet to discover karate. I'm serving two years behind bars for GBH, ABH and Wounding (Grievous Bodily Harm, Actual Bodily Harm...and the other...well, he pulled a knife so I hit him in the face with a house brick) on three gang members who needed to be taught a lesson.

Read on.....

'You may remember earlier I mentioned an incident where the prospect of being stabbed, and maybe even killed, over nothing more than a roast potato. Well, that was about to happen, and it all began innocently enough one evening after work. In Hindley (The name of the Young Offenders Prison), apart from supper, which consisted of tea and cake or sometimes a cup of soup and was consumed in your cell after lock-up, all meals were taken communally in a large room set aside for the purpose called the canteen. Within the canteen, there was an unwritten, but strict, rule about who sat where. Place yourself on the wrong chair or at the wrong table and your life and immediate health were likely to change in an instant. Although the screws (guards) called each table up to the counter to be served their meal one at a time, the inmates who served the meals were often under the control of the daddy (the inmate who ran the 'rackets' on each wing), they might be in debt to him, or be a victim of a protection racket, so they sometimes skimped on the portions of inmates who would not complain and give the extra food to the daddy, or those in his favor.

Due to my reputation, I never failed to receive my due plateful but others at my table were not so fortunate. It was a scam that always appeared cowardly to me. The food was dreadful and never plentiful. Still, mealtimes were a highlight of the day, so it just seemed wrong to me that certain people would exploit the situation for their own benefit. As I said, I never did like bullies, so one evening when the table mate in front of me was denied a roast potato and told to move on I reached over and grabbed the largest potato on the tray and dropped  it on his plate. My face must have said it all because the server didn't say a word, and dished up my potato as if nothing had happened. The incident caused a hushed rumble of disbelief to ripple around the canteen. I'd made a call on a racket others had put in place. They would have to do something about that or risk losing the their ability to keep running it. They made their move that evening on the second floor landing.

'Bang up', the term used for being locked in your cell, was at nine o' clock each evening, and one hour later, it was lights out. As I made my way, alone, to the top landing where my cell was located, I was met by the gang who were running the food scam. I was half way up a flight of stairs when they stepped out from the shadows: so I stopped. The staircase was much narrower than the landing so if a fight kicked off, as I expected it to, they would have to come at me one at a time. Aware of the situation themselves, they called me up 'for a word' but I was not about to have this fight on their terms. Besides, walking farther up the stairs would have momentarily put my head level with their feet, and that would have given them far too much of an advantage No, if they wanted to get their hands on me they were going to have to do it one at a time: on the stairs. A shiv (shank) a kind of homemade knife, was brandished and passed from one pair of hands to another in a way reminiscent of the Queen card in a game of  find-the-lady.

The implication was clear, I was going to be hurt, and I would never know for sure by whom: at least that was their plan. But I knew from experience that the longer the leader talked the less likely it was he would do anything. Truly dangerous people offer no preamble and they gave no warning: they just did whatever it was they had in mind to do. With each passing moment I became more and more confident that none of the people in front of me were really dangerous. Oh sure, they were capable of giving me a good beating if the circumstances were just right, but my sense of insecurity was quickly diminishing. At some point, my would-be attackers began to realize this impasse was going nowhere, and as a couple of inmates passed me on their way up to their cells, I seized the opportunity to move onto the landing with them. I immediately stood toe-to-toe with the leader. The only thing stopping him from going over the rail to the floor below was my desire to avoid more trouble, which would result in more punishment.

Although the punishment block held no fear for me, life was a lot easier here on the wing. So I made it clear to him that we have to move on from this or he would have to kill me there and then. If he didn't, if he and his cronies only gave me a beating, Then I would get out of the prison hospital at some point in the future, and I would kill him! I'm not sure if I actually meant it, but my tone of voice and posture was enough to convince him I did, and that was good enough. By now, there were a great many eyes around the landing and stairwell to witness what was happening. From that day on my time at Hindley passed without incident.'


........................

As you can see, my take on life back then was pretty basic. I solved my problems with my fists (as well as my head to several soft targets), and because of that found myself on the wrong side of  'the wall' just days before my eighteenth birthday. I'm sure many of you reading this could have so easily found yourself in a similar place at a similar age. That you didn't is no doubt down to good luck rather than good judgment. The fact remains, my thinking back then left very little opportunity for personal growth beyond pugilism. 

Next month, in chapter two, I stumble onto karate, and decide to give the instructor "...a good slapping!"


Friday, 5 February 2016

Darkness reigns at the foot of the Lighthouse...

Shisochin kata training at the Jundokan dojo, Okinawa c2007 (I think?)
Justification of the things you do, at least to your own satisfaction, is a funny thing. Depending on your circumstance you can justify just about anything you like, no matter how outrageous. Karate people do it all the time. They justify doing exactly the same things they criticise others for, and don't even miss a beat when they do it. It's always 'different' somehow when you're the one being an idiot!

Take the teaching of karate to the public for example. You want it to be 'real', not like that bunch of Micky-mousers down the road, so you're going to do it properly. You hire a hall, which means you also buy into that whole 'Martial Arts Insurance" nonsense; then you start advertising, then you take the fees. But wait, your fees are designed to just cover your costs, that's it, the rest of the money is going to charity. WHAT??? Okay, so you're keeping the left over fees, after all, you should be compensated for your time and the information you're selling...sorry, sharing.

Suparinpei kata - same visit.
Your karate is not like 'others', you know better. You're not going to do like everyone else does and build yourself an empire, oh no! For you, karate is a quest, a search for enlightenment that will steer you clear of all those stupid people who are chasing after meaningless attachments, like 'recognition'. Not for you the weary path to nowhere, your 'martial arts journey' is going to take you to a different place. Hey look....there's another duck!

Actions, not words, are the benchmark of budo. Integrity, not intention, the method by which you make progress. It is not important that you become a famous teacher, or that you have amassed a following, what matters is that you attend to the polishing of your character each day. On the day these photos were taken, there was only Sunagawa sensei and me in the dojo. We took it in turns to demonstrate our kata, and discussed them at length afterwards. Until now, no one else knew we were even there that afternoon.

The Jundokan dojo, Asato, Okinawa
When Miyazato Eiichi sensei was alive his dojo, Jundokan, was open from 10am to 10pm every day except Sunday. Yudansha students were free to come and go as they pleased, and stay for as long or as little as they liked. Miyazato sensei figured if you want to learn you'd make the effort; if you didn't make the effort, then you're not going to learn. Far from building an empire, Miyazato sensei did the least possible amount he could to 'teach' you. That said, he went out of his way to help you. If you can't tell the difference, then you wouldn't have learnt a thing from him.

The Japanese proverb making up the title of this post speaks of self-righteousness, and you may feel I'm a victim of the very problem I'm highlighting. But first, you'll have to get past your sense of glee at my perceived error, and look around for my empire, or my thousands of students and string of franchise outlets. You'll have to find the people I've been charging outrageous fees, or evidence of the living expenses I cover from the money that comes into the dojo.

Before you justify your own situation by pointing at others, stop...and look at your feet!


Tuesday, 2 February 2016

When....

Entrance to the Kyudokan dojo, Tsuboya, Okinawa
When you take karate out of the dojo, what are you left with? When you only practice in the dojo, what have you got? When the dojo is called a studio/academy/school/club, what is going on there? When dojo are rented halls, where's the commitment?

When karate is packaged, what is it being packaged into? When karate is sold, what are you buying? When karate is so easy to find, what is the point of searching for it? When karate is known by so many, why do so few understand it?

When belts mean skill, why can you buy them in a shop? When sensei means 'teacher' why are so many ignorant? When training is so physically demanding, why are so many karateka unfit. When karate is such a challenge, why is it advertised as family friendly?

The above is just some of the stuff that passed through my mind as I walked my Nagasendo earlier today. Returning home, I wondered if anyone else ever thought of such things..?

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Awesome!...well sort of.

Training at the original Shinseidokan in Western Australia, mid-1990's
I sometimes receive emails form readers who send me a link to various YouTube pages..."Have you seen sensei "X"...he's AWESOME!"  A Lot of the time, sensei 'x' is someone I know,or know of, or may have met during the coarse of my work, and usually they are anything but awesome.  Please kids...learn another word, this one, like 'master', 'black-belt', and 'style', has lost all meaning due to it's over use. Yes I know 'black-belt' is two words, no need to tell all your Facebook 'friends' about it!

Anyway...back to the latest recommendation to see someone doing something awesome. Yet another explanation of a sequence from a kata had hit the net, and from the comments, I saw it had been greeted with the usual mix of infantile babble and smart-ass commentary social media is now famous for; plus a couple of hundred "awesome's". I smile too, every time I hear that people use twitter...in my day, being a 'twit' meant you were stupid! I'm reminded of something they like to say in one of my favorite movies 'Fargo'..."You got that right!"

Why oh why do people want to put themselves, and their karate, all over the internet? It's not like most of  them are any good, and those who do have a level of skill, appear to have forgotten what a dumb idea it is to let everyone know what you're capable of. Actually, I think that's why social media is so popular, because like video games, it's not real, it's only pretend...you know, the stuff babies do all the time. "I'll just show the world how good I am, and that way, if I'm ever attacked in the street, I'll be able to surprise my attacker." There is something missing in karate these days...common sense maybe?

Karate is meant to be practiced, not sold; discovered, not bought. No matter how impressive your DVD collection is, until you have the courage to grow up you'll never understand karate: but perhaps you already know that? There is nothing new in karate, techniques are only new to you when you see them for the first time. The clarity of what you're looking at depends on the amount of personal effort it took to place the technique in front of you. Discovering karate for yourself through your own efforts...now that's awesome!!!

Mini rant over, back to the grown up world!

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

More on History...

A history book that takes a proper look back
I hadn't intended to post again so soon, but the flood of emails that came in over night have prompted me to at least attempt to point readers in the right direction. But let me be crystal clear on this...I don't know every karate historian, so I can only recommend a couple of people I trust and learn from. We all have opinions, and there's nothing wrong with that, but opinions based on 'other opinions' rather than facts, are of little use....something else to bear in mind!

As I've already indicated, I'm not a great fan of karate's history beyond a general interest, but that said, I prefer to learn facts from educated researchers rather than listen to the fantasies that so many karateka and their 'masters' base their martial history on. Here's the thing, if you begin looking at the past  through an unfocused lens, the chance of ever seeing anything clearly is zero! Maybe near enough is good enough for you...but that should tell you something if it is!

A pocket version of the academic publication above
Andreas Quast has no particular axe to grind, or points to prove, he's just very thorough in his research, and has a seemingly insatiable appetite for historical facts. Above all though, he does not shy away from the many awkward truths that digging around in karate's past tends to uncover. He will change his mind if there is sufficient proof  to warrant it, and that gives me confidence that what I'm reading is research and not dogma.

Is Andreas perfect, I wouldn't think so! But he is educated, he knows his subject extremely well, and he is sincere; and because of all that I have confidence in his work. There have been karate 'historians' out there that were bigger on promotion than substance. For example, who can forget Harry Cook, the self-promoting karate 'master' supported so heavily by David Chambers as, 'someone who applies a forensic analysis to karate's history', and all the while...........

Without an accurate translation, voices from the past are meaningless
As well as delving into the historical mire of karate, another good way to look into the past is to read translations of older books that have long since fallen out of print. But here again you have to be careful about who has done the translation, because not everyone is good at it, and not everyone is doing it for the right reasons.Take the Bubishi for example, there are some spurious examples of this classic text out there, selling well, and adding to the confusion.

One author translating old books that you can rely on for honesty, as well as accuracy, is Mario McKenna. Again, a karateka without any exes to grind or points to prove. What you get with his books are translations that are clear and mindful of the era in which the original text was produced. Fluent in Japanese, the veil of ignorance endured by lesser researchers is lifted for Mario, and the subject matter open to detailed scrutiny. Once again providing me, the reader, with the confidence I want about the work in hand.

Shinning new light through old windows
It is incumbent upon every karateka who takes their practice seriously to avail themselves of the best there is to assist their education. The art of karate spreads across centuries as a well as countries, but in truth, the only place you'll find it is in your heart. Breathing in is important, but only in relation to breathing out...try one without the other for a while and see how that goes. The learning of karate is at first a little like inhaling; everything new comes rushing in.

At some point you have to exhale, to allow your karate to flow outward from inside. At that point you'll know if you have been breathing oxygen or stale air. The history of karate is fractured and imperfect, it contains fewer 'masters' than some would have you believe, and more heroes than you can imagine. The famous get noticed, the heroes...not so much. So, be particular about the past that you accept, or you may find yourself reading about the people who wrote history, but not the people who made it.

For inspiration, I like to read about heroes.....

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Trouble with History....

These karateka knew nothing about you, or what you're doing today in their name!
History, as they say, is written by the victor, but I'm not sure that's entirely true. I think history is written by just about anyone who wants to write it. You don't have to look too far to find conflicting stories about historical figures or events. So, if you want clarity, then you could do worse than take a closer look at who has written the history your reading. Often, peeling back that one small layer is enough to bring into focus the 'history' you're being enlightened by.

I cherish the memories I have of training with Miyazato Eiichi sensei, just as I know he treasured the memories he had of training with his teacher, Miyagi Chojun. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I think it's a safe bet to say that Miyagi sensei had good memories of training with his teacher, Higaonna Kanryo too....and so it goes, each generation carrying their memories; small pockets of the past held in the heart and recalled to mind whenever the need arises.

None of these karateka practiced karate the same way you do 
Looking back, it's easy to join the dots almost any way you like, to select events and people who endorse you and where you now stand, but that's not really 'history' is it? That's you being stupid enough to think you're something you're not. The karate world is overflowing with stupid people!
History has always been packaged and staged managed to support contemporary events, but karateka are supposed to be above such things so maybe karate 'is' broken after all?

The English novelist and short story writer, L.P. Hartley famously wrote, "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." It's something every karateka ought to bear in mind when they verbal others for being 'wrong' on the basis of what they 'know' about the 'history' of karate; a history that just happens to line up perfectly with their group, their teacher, and their karate. "Stupid is, as stupid does", as the Zen master Forrest Gump used to say.

Will the increased popularity of kobudo see it follow karate's race to the bottom?
Okay, so karate itself might not be broken, but the way it's propagated, professionally and en masse these days, is; and that has left many who consider themselves karateka with serious cracks in their character. That's not just an opinion by the way...it's a fact! "If you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all."  Oh how people love to hide behind that one! Silence the messenger, that way you don't have to think about the message.

History can be interesting, it can be informative, and it can be fun...but I'm not convinced it's all that good a foundation for the future. "Those who don't learn from the past are destined to repeat it."...isn't that how the saying goes? The trouble is, few karate 'historians' are brave enough to accept the history they actually uncover, and instead, select the bits that suit them. I wonder if they ever did that in Okinawa long ago?

The importance of  karate history, is the history you are making now.....

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Finding value in what you do...

Training with kigu in my dojo, North Devon , England 1985
Entering a dojo for the first time is no small thing. It takes some nerve to place yourself in a space that provides little, if any, sense of the familiar. Everybody but you seems to know what they're doing, and from where you stand they all look pretty good too. Words are spoken that you don't understand, postures are taken that you can't make, and throughout it all, the clock on the wall seems to have slowed to a crawl.

As difficult as it is to clear that first hurdle, I've long thought it the second hurdle that proves the harder challenge to overcome. It appears a month or so after first walking into the dojo, the strange words are not so strange anymore and the postures have become a little less difficult to make. Training has become enjoyable, and because of that, the clock on the wall now seems to be running faster.

Training with kigu in my dojo, Spearwood, Western Australia, 1995
The second hurdle is less obvious than the first, it catches more people out, and it appears courtesy of your ego. No longer feeling like the 'new boy' you relax a little and start to think about making progress...those coloured belts look great, don't they? And 'sensei' says you can get one every three or four months: if you train hard! So you train hard, but you're not training sincerely, you're working toward a superficial goal: a belt!

Belts, and bits of paper, have replaced physical skill and moral maturity, as a way of marking progress. The net result being an increased level of karateka with high rank and low ability, holding tightly to opinions based on very shallow experience. This is not solely a Western problem either...it's a situation that's well established in Japan and Okinawa too. Popularity has become a kind of cancer for karate.

Training with kigu in my dojo, Tasmania, 2005
When you enter a dojo for the first time to begin karate training, it's important that you continue. With no shortcuts available, you accept, and expect, that your commitment will be ongoing. Most of the value waiting to be discovered in karate only begins to emerge after decades...not years, not months; and becomes apparent when sufficient time has passed and sufficient effort has been made: and not a day sooner.

Continuation is important, so you can glimpse a clearer picture of your own nature.....

Monday, 18 January 2016

Where are you..?

What's going on here?
I've mentioned a couple of times recently something I think many karateka have forgotten..."You are not your body." Well, a few people have begged to differ, and written to tell me so: that's fine. But as I mentioned in my replies, "Lets hope you never have an accident and lose an arm or a leg...or both!" Because if they do, they will stop existing. But that can't be right, can it? I mean, I once had a British karateka, Owen Murry, visit the dojo and his left arm was missing, but he could do karate just about as well as anybody I've ever seen.

Owen Murry, 5th dan Shotokan karate
Ok...so 'you' are your brain then, right? Wrong! People who suffer brain trauma have been known to 're-wire' themselves, it's called neuro-plasticity. The most common example of this is found in people who have suffered a stroke. Their recovery depends upon the brain finding alternative ways to get signals to and from of the body, if this wasn't possible, then once you had a stroke 'you' would disappear. But that can't be right either, because I once met a student of Chojun Miyagi, Seiko Kina, who had suffered a stroke, and his karate was as good as any I'd ever seen.

Seiko Kina sensei - after his stroke!
So...if you're not your body, and you're not your brain, then what are you? And where are you? And what has any of this stuff got to do with karate anyway? Well, the study of budo, of which karate is a part, carries with it an obligation to address the 'self' and to bring that 'self'  into balance. That implies you know where to find it. Do you know where to find it? Have you ever spent time looking? Would you even know where to look? Please....don't say YouTube! If you don't know your self, you have no chance of knowing others, and people tend to fear what they don't know. Fear has no place in karate.

Karate practice is like a compass, it helps you get your bearings...


Friday, 15 January 2016

Fit for Purpose..?

Forget the usual excuses you use...can you still do this stuff?
I'm not someone who believes you have to be an Olympic athlete to make karate work. Nor do I subscribe to the notion that an ability to sit crossed legged with your head up your back-side somehow translates to superior fighting ability. Tying physical contortions to karate is as much a mistake, in my view, as a belief that simply remembering karate-like movements is enough to make you a karateka.

Balance, the middle way....this is where the essence of karate waits to be discovered. That so many karateka are unfit, lazy minded, or full of their own self-importance, speaks to the number who have lost sight of an idea they once aspired to. That a smaller number believe karate can be found in the extreme cultivation of muscles and sinews, serves to illustrate an opposite, but no less erroneous view of what karate is. If you're leaning toward one side or the other then I'd suggest you've lost your sense of  'balance'.

Chronologically I'm 60 - but my Biological age is 53.
A desire to be strong is a driving force behind a great many karateka; but their idea of what strength is, is often skewed by ignorance, vanity, or both. The easy option is to make things 'look' good; develop the outside shell, and as you do, convince yourself that you 'are' your body. Nurture your mind only in regard to how your thinking endorses your efforts to sculpt what others can see. Become a 'champion', or entertain your students (audience) with tricks of physical dexterity beyond their abilities...but that's not karate!

Strength and power are not the same thing, knowing and understanding are different too. Knowing how to be strong serves little purpose unless you understand how to apply it. Fighting, or continually training for it, in my opinion, illustrates a very poor understanding of strength. Because fighting is an act that declares, by the fact you're preoccupied with it, your inability to grasp that which you have invested your time trying to understand...how to walk a middle path.

If I see one more video demonstrating how to apply karate in a 'real' fight...I think I might just throw up. Likewise with references to the Samurai or the battlefields of China. If at the end of the day, all you have is an athletic body and a head bursting with a million theories on personal combat, then I think you're training is providing very little value. Your body's strength 'will' decay, and then, your theories on fighting will vanish too.

Being fit for purpose, means living your life well.....