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July 2013

Real Karate

Part one – to follow the rules.  Part two – to vary the tradition.  Part three – to become something new.

Shu.  Ha.  Ri.     

People talk about them as if they are governed by belts.  As if you can be awarded the state of Ha once you have mastered Shu.

The three terms are used to depict the changes that one goes through.  The first character, Shu, is to obey or protect.  We all come into our tradition knowing that there are certain things we have to do.  There is a way that we have to behave, there are things/techniques that we have to learn. 

The second character, Ha, is to digress or diverge.  As we learn more about ourselves and our tradition we discover that there are ways that we can make things work, even if other people need to do them a little differently.  Some people can do kumite like a steam train with single-minded determination, others need to accomplish their ends with subterfuge and speed.  Same ends, different tactics.

The mighty Ri is separation.  To Transcend.  Wow.  One day, eh?  In our tradition that teaches humility and respect it is strange that anyone would ever consider themselves in the Ri stage, so is it just something to aim for?

You don’t leave Shu when you get your black belt. 

You don’t leave Shu when you get your sandan… I have trained with people wearing nanadan who haven’t left Shu.

You never leave Shu.

There is always going to be a part of your technique that you are still following the rules on.  There is always a part of your tradition that you are going to be obeying.  Protecting.  Even if your tradition is to take what works and discard what does not, there is always going to be an element of protectionism towards your art.  Should there be?  Yes.  So stop pretending that we are ever going to walk away from the Shu stage.

Ha joins it.  Divergence mixes in with the obeying.  You don’t stop obeying and start doing what you like.  Unless you do, and then you might have missed the whole point.  Those guys who got their black belt, didn’t like what their teacher was doing, and so went and set up their own deal.  Unless the teacher really didn’t know what he was doing (and there are plenty of them about) then it was the new black belt who didn’t get it yet.

Ha comes along in small ways.  A bit of footwork.  An extra breath.  Not shortcuts and “changes”, but realisations about our own body and our own journey.  Variations from our teachers’ path that have more to do with our circumstance than whether we can chamber our knee differently for mawashigeri.

And Ri?  Small moments.  Parts of the Shu, and the Ha gives moments of Ri.  You don’t jump ship and announce your Transcendence.  That just points out how markedly far from transcendence you can possibly be.  Separation from our teacher doesn’t stop them from being our teacher except in the worst circumstances.  The lessons imparted have made us what we are and played a large part in forming our position on everything from how you tie your belt to what your best bet is in a weapon wielding assault.

You can’t get a certificate in Ri.  Not a genuine one.

Transcending the tradition that takes what works and gives you plenty of tools for refining your technique and your character is simply not possible.  Change the name of what you do, change your uniform and your syllabus.  Change what you do, and you are still part of the tradition.  You might be exploring a different part of it, but you haven’t transcended.

That’s why “styles” are only a tool.  Set performances of kata are only a tool.  Sparring drills are only a tool.  Competition is a tool.  Belts and grades and titles are only tools.

 

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

 

     T.S. Eliot -- "Little Gidding"


Our searching takes place in the dojo.  My class timetable can be seen at the www.KarateAcademy.co.uk site, for our Devon Karate classes.


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Social media is a strange thing.  On the one hand you have the very serious, scholarly pages which serve a purpose, then we go through the spectrum of pages like this one which ask some questions, give a few answers, but don’t take themselves to be the ultimate resource for all martial artists.  And then we get to things like the “Enter the Dojo” show by Matt Page, where he really makes fun of the martial arts and martial artists.  Bizarrely, he has people taking him seriously and challenging his assertions about how good the arts are.

When one of your “friends” puts up a post and asks for an opinion about it, there are times when others say it all and you don’t need to chip in.  And there are times when you might have a point to make that is additional to the conversation as it develops.  You don’t have to have everyone believe it.  You don’t have to subscribe to my theory.  You don’t have to have everyone convert to your religion or change everything about themselves and what they do.  They don’t have to announce that what you’re thinking is wrong.  Unless their opinion is actually going to add to the conversation, too.

Now, before this turns into the grounds for a war, please understand that I believe you have a right to your opinions. Everyone else has a right to their opinions too.

Let’s take a strange topic.

One school owner is asks openly whether others think it okay to have a student’s name on a coloured belt.

Is it okay?

What’s the belt for?

In some schools the name of a student is written in felt-tip on their gi.

Is it just a bit of fun to have your name embroidered on your belt?

Is it okay for a Black Belt to do it?  And if it is, then why not a coloured belt?

The students will pay that bit extra for their personalised belt, won’t they?

It all depends on how you look at it.

Is the uniform there to look good?  Or is it a function piece of clothing to stop your t-shirts from getting ripped to shreds in training?

The reason for a uniform, in my opinion, is so that students look the same.  No-one is flashier or wealthier in the dojo unless by merit.  The grade system should see to that.  The students get new belts on their merit.  They can look flashier if they are more able.  They look flashier on their merits rather than on their wallets.

The belt exists to remind the teacher what the student should know.  Certainly it serves as reward and recognition for time served and merit earned.  It lets the students know that the person has been recognised.  That’s important if, for instance, you are not the biggest, strongest person in the dojo.  You are due respect for your dedication and for what you know, but there’s always going to be someone who is a lower grade who can still “score one” on you.  That’s good because it helps to keep you humble.  The belt is good because even if that lower grade can score on you, they must still acknowledge your position in the dojo.  The grade is both reward and a standard to keep up to.

If the coloured belts can have a flashier belt because they pay for a flashier belt that says something about the climate in your dojo.

How long were you intending to wear that colour for anyway?  3 months?  6 months?  If you’re in an early kyu grade for longer than 6 months then maybe something was lacking in your training…  Later on, maybe it gets to be longer in each grade…

If a Black Belt has their name embroidered, well, by the time they are a Black Belt they all know each other, anyway, don’t they?  The Black Belts don’t change the colour of their belt every few months.  Once you join the ranks of the yudansha there isn’t any need for one-upmanship anymore, is there?

The legend goes: shodan, a simple cotton black belt; nidan, maybe your club or style; sandan, you earn your name.

Each club is different.  You will still do things in your club the way they are usually done.  At my club, if a shodan is given a present by his family of an embroidered belt then of course he should wear it.  There is no problem.  We all know why he’s got it and what rank he is.  We don’t need Dan bars on our belts because we all know who the gaffer is.  Anyone who joins us as a black belt had better have the humility to stand at the lower end of the black belts in line, anyway.  We’ll work out where they really stand as the weeks go by.   If they come in and take a “senior” position then they have to better than everyone to their left.  If they are then there is no problem.

 

If these views are archaic, then I’ll take that criticism.  I’ll go on with training that involves hardship and testing and confronting the demons within rather than be part of the reward=payment brigade.  I still think there must be financial consideration for tuition as there are bills to pay, but, in my dojo at least, you cannot buy your grade.

There are lots of other people like me.  There are lots of others who are not like me at all.  We can talk to each other without shouting. 

Details of my Karate Academy classes can be found at www.KarateAcademy.co.uk – visitors to my dojo who want to train are welcome, regardless of style, rank,  affiliation, or whether their belt is embroidered.

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Karate-do is the Way of the Empty Hand.  空手道 Translated from the Japanese that is the usual and simplest way of putting it.  What you have are three kanji kara , te and do.  Unlike the western alphabets which contain symbols that we call letters, where each letter is a sound, and combined the sounds will sometimes change, kanji are pictograms.  They are stylised drawings of things and ideas, representations that are layered and change their meaning and pronunciation based on many things, not least which other kanji they are joined to.

Before we get too far into it I must be very clear.  This is my understanding of the subject and is not the be-all and end-all.  I am not Japanese.  I am not fluent in their language, though I have studied it and perhaps that helps.  Because it is not my native language I might be a little more objective about it.

Most English people can’t tell you what a “Richard” is.  You’d have to look it up to be able to tell.  A lot of Japanese people don’t recognise the origins of the terms they use, either, and sometimes that means that a westerner might read more into it than they do.

Take “ki” for instance.  or 気  Mumbled about it many martial arts clubs as the energy that is all about us and can be channelled for greater effect in our techniques, leasing to parallels for my generation with “The Force” from Star Wars.  To the Japanese we’re just talking about “an atmosphere”.  In the same way as we might say “the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife”, the Japanese might talk about the ki in the room.  It’s not mystical.  It’s not The Force.  Do you want to use the word Intention instead?

The kanji for ki is made up of something looking like a pot, with the lid rising and steam escaping.  There is rice beneath.  For the rice to be generating steam there must be heat, but the heat is not drawn.

Ki is mentioned in Karate training as part of kime, kiai, etc.  Focus and Spirit Yell.  We’ll talk about them some more later.

 

So what about The Way of the Empty Hand?

Kara/sora/ku is empty, and is the same kanji you will see for the “air” in airport.  Sky.  Void.  Empty.

Te/ti/di/shu is hand.  Also used to denote a skill when used as a suffix in Okinawa, birthplace of Karate.

Do is The Way.  Path.  A practice that is more than just repetition; a mindful thing performed with purpose.

 

Some people will make much of the difference between Do and Jutsu.  Do is for sport, they say, with some compunction.  Jutsu is the real skill.  What about if I have a Do of Jutsu?  With Do representing The Way of life, and Jutsu representing efficacy, why can I not have a structured art that represents real ability and is still practiced with a moral understanding and personal growth as the aims?

Call upon my lack of understanding of the language and my limited experience of the martial arts (I started in 1981) and my sparse time in Japan and I shall have to point out that there are people who have lived in Japan their whole lives who have no idea about these terms.  They just sound odd because a westerner is saying them.  When someone from Japan points out the same thing it will all be absolutely obvious.

You can understand why someone would view Do as a sport.  Most of the martial arts today are called something or other and then “Do” (Judo, Aikido, Karate-do, Taekwondo) and, yes, the older styles might have the suffix “jutsu” (Ju-jutsu).  The modern practice methods mean that plenty of people take part for sporting reasons, but those arts did not, in the main, come about because of sport.  Cleaned up for acceptability, yes.  Sport, no.  Kano sensei did not devise Judo as a sport.  He campaigned for its inclusion in the Olympics, but it was not its reason for being.  Ueshiba sensei did not make Aikido to be a sport.  Funakoshi sensei did not formulate the modern version of Karate for the sake of sport.  The very idea of testing out techniques on another human being was anathema in the days following World War 2.  Was that because of the occupation of Japan by the Americans and the rule of General Macarthur?  Probably.  Was it more barbaric and tested on human beings before that point?  Yes, but it wasn’t what we today would call sporting.

 

So what makes Karate into real Karate?

That’s going to depend upon who you talk to.  At one and the same time the diversity of Karate styles, clubs, and teachers is both the art’s strength and its weakness.

Contact sport?  No-contact sport?

Way of Life?  Philosophy of being? 

Outlet for violent tendencies?  Stress reliever?

Interesting hobby?

Ancient warrior art encoded for secrecy and sanctity?

White gi?  No gi?

Hard or soft?

Use of Japanese terminology?

A certain presence of mind while training?

If you mention efficacy then to what end?

And worst of all: On Whose Say-So?

 

You see, there is not one single authority to whom we Karate practitioners can look and we can all agree that person has absolute authority, and neither should we.  Because if this Way of Life is to teach us anything then it must be that we stand or fall on our own efforts, and that the opinions of others can be accepted or rejected without our essence being affected.

Anyone who's interested is welcome to attend my classes which my team and I take in Devon, UK.  My books, DVDs, and Downloads on Karate Kata Bunkai are available here


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June 2012

I've been having a great time.  Since last writing for this page I've been out to Japan, up to the Shetland Isles, and demonstrated at The Martial Arts Show in Birmingham.  Now I know that there are plenty of people who are very happy to teach and train at their home dojo every week and that doing so is very rewarding to them.  When I travel I am in a privileged position, and I am always grateful that anyone outside my own dojo wants to see me at all.

What this travel does for me is to give me a bit of perspective on the Karate that I see and the practitioners and teachers that I meet.  Even that is flawed though, as I generally only get to meet people who have an open mind and are willing to look at a fresh view (even if it is one that they might not agree with).  There are still a lot of others out there who do not want to open themselves up to another view.  There are those who seek to keep their students isolated and restricted to make themselves seem more important.

Am I guilty of the same?  I hope not.  If my students show an interest in competition I urge them to go and take part and try it out.  Someone wants to explore Indian weaponry then thy should do so.  I hope that in class I have mentioned that I have far from mastered simple Karate yet and as such I cannot afford the time to try mastery of another art as well, but there is nothing to be gained from preventing people from looking.  I invite teachers from other arts and other styles to come and teach at my dojo, and I attend courses and seminars with teachers from other arts and styles.  Sometimes you think "well that's shown me what not to do" and sometimes it opens your eyes to further possibilities.

Mostly it reminds me that we all use similar techniques.

The arts and styles and ranks and titles may change, but the principles remain the same.

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"I do Karate!" says the little girl in the playground.  She's seen my fleece with the "Karate Academy" logo on the back.  I'll try to be polite, but she trains with another club in town who are not doing what we do.  She does Karate.  We do Karate.  Yet there is the world of difference between us.
If someone said they did dance then it could mean any one of a number of different styles and disciplines.  Yet even if you said you did Tap dancing there would still be many ways that your classes could differ to someone else's.  It's nice that we share a common interest, but every club is different.  Every teacher is different.  You can't say that everyone who does Wado Ryu is the same.  They're not.  Hard form, soft form, flowing or staccato.  Close in or long range?  Classes that focus on basics or focus on competition or self defence?   

One day the little girl in the playground might come and check us out ans see how our Shotokan differs from her Shotokan.  She might like what we do or she might not.  In the meantime "That's nice.  Enjoy your training!"

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