Monday, 4 May 2015

Not worth a post.....

Where did that triangle lettering come from anyway..?
I've had a few emails asking me about my recent trip to England, and why I haven't posted about the karate people I met who were less than inspirational? Well the short answer to that is...what's the point? But clearly that kind of thinking falls short of some folks expectations. So in an attempt to say something without being too judgemental, here are a few things I observed at the two 'traditional' karate clubs I visited.

At the first club they were preparing for an upcoming grading and so were focused on getting the choreography right. The problem was the instructor was a little unclear about what was in fashion and what wasn't..."We used to do the kata that way, but they've changed it and now it's done like this."...was something I heard often. For most of the evening the instructor referred to the sheet of paper held tightly in his hand, it contained the latest instructions from HQ...

The second karate club I visited was a real shock. It was supposed to be the seniors class, but apart from a 'thirty-something' female beginner, the group consisted of pubescent teenagers, one of which was far more interested in texting on her smart phone than practising her techniques. Every chance she got she took the opportunity to grab her phone from the bench and continue her conversation. If karate depended on having a powerful set of thumbs, I would have been in the presence of a true master.

At the first club I was disappointed by the lack of ownership and the shallowness of the conversation, as well as the ease with which seemingly arbitrary changes from on high were nevertheless begrudgingly accepted. At the second club I was shocked by the lack of discipline, but not surprised at the dreadfully low standard of karate on display. At the end of training, the instructor simply put on her boots and pulled on a hoody, and walked off down the high street in her gi without a care in the world: I didn't know whether to laugh or cry!

Both clubs are part of worldwide karate organisations, one of which promotes itself as the keeper of karate's highest traditions. I can't help but wonder what such a statement says about the rest of us. now you know, normal service will be resumed as soon as I get a moment...

Saturday, 2 May 2015

A sincere heart - a straight way!

Seishin Chokudo
My apologies to readers who read Japanese, as I have mentioned previously I like to write, and what I lack in skill I try to make up for with enthusiasm. The above maxim has long been a favourite of mine. Recently a student at the dojo gave me a large piece of wood, an off-cut from the trunk of a pine I began to think of carving something on it.....I think I've found it!

Tsushingen - develop insight
This is the last  kanji I carved in to a piece of wood, it hangs on the dojo wall just above the kun, and is a reminder to ponder the advice below. I believe such personal research coupled with a sincere heart will result in a straight path toward the full appreciation of budo. Concern yourself with the facile and in time you'll become a master of the unimportant. Budo is not insignificant and those who try to make it so reveal their true nature for all to see.

The study of karate contains far more than physical techniques
Casting a straight shadow, having an unambiguous past, points toward a straight future. So many who believe themselves 'traditional' karateka these days rely solely on a list of names to establish their linage, and what connections that do exist, do so by the most tenuous of threads. Having an instructor is not the same as being accepted by a sensei, learning a syllabus is different from absorbing principles, and pursuing an idea (budo), is unlike anything you will ever encounter in a 'karate club'.   

Next time....never mind winning, learn not to loose! 

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Progress & promotion...

A formal shot with the students at the end of the gasshuku
Gasshuku are not camps, they're not seminars either; nor are they an excuse to behave like bunch of adolescent children on a school excursion. For karateka, gasshuku are an opportunity to immerse yourself in your training; to train more often than your normal routine will allow, and to discover if you have what it takes to "forgive those who trespass against us". Spending so much time with people who may not be close friends, can be more testing than the training sometimes.

Mitch and Matthew - Sandan gi training
With progress comes an obligation to keep what you know polished. I use to believe karate was easy for yudansha, after all, they "knew" what they were doing, and looked really good from my perspective. Like many of you reading this, I came to learn that having a black belt hanging off your hip meant little if you were lazy, egotistical, or walking around with a head full of dreams. The belt has no power, gives no insight, and bestows no skill. A belt without the character to endorse it, is a bit like a car without an engine...useless!

Matthew with his shodan certificate - indicating he is ready to begin
There is a well established myth in the karate world that promotes a black belt as the sign of mastery, but only children and idiots believe that; still, I'm no longer surprised at how many of both inhabit the karate world. Where a desire to make progress should provide the impetus to return to the dojo time and time again, promotion is much more likely to be the cause. Can attitudes be turned around...who knows? On reflection, I doubt the past, or the future, would stand up to scrutiny any better than the present. As I've said many times, I have no desire to change the world, only to live well in a world of my own making.

The study of karate is undoubtedly difficult, but it's not impossible.....

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Gasshuku...Pt 1

Jesse training with the chi ishi
Over the past weekend, from Friday evening through to Sunday afternoon, students at the Shinseidokan spent a lot of time in the dojo. All but two of the eight students made it to Tasmania for the gathering, most of them travelling from interstate and at some considerable cost. But isn't that a part of the learning process...developing the notion that in order to make progress you have to put yourself in the right place at the right time?

Each training session began with junbi-undo, followed by kigu-undo
Gasshuku, at least at the Shinseidokan, are not social gatherings with a little bit of karate on the side; they're just the opposite. Training is the main activity, socialising is an important element, but it is never allowed to equal or surpass the time spent on the dojo floor discovering karate, as the late Shoshin Nagamine sensei once said..."Through the ecstasy of sweat". This past weekend, the Shinseidokan has seen a lot of sweat!

Over the life of the gasshuku each part of the body was tested 
 I sometimes wonder why karateka believe they have a strong technique when they never take the time to develop one. Karate based on an ability to 'score a point' is a world away from conditioning the mind and body to deliver and to some extent, take, a determined blow. Without ever acquainting themselves with the concept of absorbing impact, it's unclear to me why so many karateka believe they'll know it when they feel it; and in that very same moment, develop the ability to deal with it.

Kakie...sparring - or a lesson in subtly 
I'm not against the idea of sparring, I just don't understand where it fits in with the notion of budo. At the Shinseidokan, engaging with another person is addressed in a number of ways, kakie being one of them. Regardless of how 'real' it may appear to some...all karate training is contrived, or how else would it be possible without descending into chaos? That said, it's vital that karateka focus their attention on the principles at play, rather than the techniques being used. The idea is to become familiar with karate, not good at training in karate; you do understand the difference...right?

Next time...Progress and promotion, and why one isn't the same as the other.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Pause for Thought....

Chojun Miyagi a keikogi
One hundred and twenty seven years ago today, the man in the photograph was born. His legacy to the world was to leave a system of combat and moral education so that others may discover, and expand, upon that which he himself had sought during his lifetime.

Since his passing his research has largely been forgotten; swept away by a tide of claims and counter claims made by individuals and groups who would claim Mr. Miyagi (and his karate) as their own. It's a sad indictment on all concerned, that they have neither the personal integrity nor moral courage to accept ownership of what they are doing today.

Meitetsu Yagi sensei...and 'that' keikogi again!
Please...don't read the previous paragraph and construed that I'm calling into question Yagi sensei's integrity or sense of morality...I'm not! The photo is here merely to illustrate how the man, Chojun Miyagi, has been turned into something of a deity in the minds of many these days. What I am saying, quite unequivocally, is that constructing myths and legends is unhealthy, and as far as appreciating budo is concerned: a mistake.

By all means be inspired by some of the things Miyagi sensei achieved, but remember, he was a man first and a karateka second...just like you and me. On this, the 127th anniversary of his birth, it's good to think about him and be grateful for the efforts he made during his lifetime....but that's it!

"People, like sheep, tend to follow a leader - occasionally in the right direction."
                                                                                          Alexander Chase

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Rarity of Haura in Karate...

With Seikichi Kinjo sensei when we were both members of the Jundokan
Unless you're into Japanese men's fashion, you may well be asking yourself what exactly is 'Haura'; and what, if anything, has it to do with karate? Well strictly speaking it has nothing to do with karate, or any other martial art that I know off, but the idea of Haura is, I believe, very relevant to budo.

When Japanese men dress in formal kimono there are usually few adornments to be seen; with the exception of the Mon, or family crest, which appears on each sleeve and on the back of the Haori jacket, there is little to distinguish one kimono from another...and that's where Haura comes in.

Making use of Haura, "Hidden Brilliance", is an act that requires a degree of sophistication, not to mention humility; for it would never do to boast to another of what lies just below the surface. The value of Haura is in knowing the reality of the matter, rather than putting that reality on open display.

Karate dojo often display Haura, karate academies never do! 
Karateka often go out of their way to display their status; different coloured belts, and even when the belt is black, gold bars to mark the number of dans or titles. Badges and patches proclaim style or school or association or club....something to set you apart from others, and in doing so, begin the implied dialogue of who is better and who is worse?

How powerful a lesson it is to discover something about someone you have known (or thought you knew) for years, and to learn of achievements and accomplishments that others would have been shouting about, and yet they said nothing. Is such a thing even possible now? Has Facebook and Youtube seduced you into revealing all? While Twitter and Instagram pimp your thoughts to the world, what becomes of your private self?

The most impressive karateka I ever saw in Okinawa were not the well known names who can boast many thousands of followers around the world, but the men and women who have been visiting the dojo for most of their lives, practicing their karate, polishing their skills, and nurturing their character. Outside the dojo, their karate remains hidden; not for them the glare of notoriety and fame.

Haura...hidden brilliance; it's a concept few karateka seem able to appreciate......

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Murder...well not quite!

Combat drills with Garry - Juanlu looking on
My second day of training with the Shinsokai took place at the Uraniwa dojo. This is the private dojo of Garry Lever sensei, a young man who is, in my opinion, one of the leading karateka of his generation anywhere in the world. Where most look outside themselves to collect 'karate' techniques, Garry looks inside, towards his own character, and in doing so has discovered something ancient and of enormous value.

Conditioning exercises isolated various tendons & muscles used in karate
Most of the training that day was spent in pairs, helping each other condition various parts of the body, bringing muscles and tendons into play in ways that are often missed in daily life, and yet provide strength and protection in times of conflict. Each exercise took it's toll, but not just physically, mentally too! Why so many continue to believe that karate is merely a set of postures and movements to be remembered is beyond me!

Victor (from Spain) and me working the hips and triceps 40 years ago I would have coped better than I did, but even though my body had a problem dealing with the power being generated by my partners, my mind was still more than happy to keep going......but it was difficult at times. Ah the have to remember that this is where you live, and so you had better be happy with your home; otherwise your karate is never going to amount to much.

Richard & me..."Armpits and elbows - not the shoulders!"
Changing partners throughout the training gave everyone an opportunity to 'feel' the power of others with differing body types to your own. I use the word 'power' deliberately, for it was not mere muscular strength that made the difference here; there were other forces at play and you ignored them at your peril. The targeting of muscles and tendons was immediate and often uncomfortable....painful....murder!!!

Leading by example - why do so few karate teachers do that these days?
My two days training with the Shinsokai passed quickly: too quickly! I learnt a lot, I smiled and grimaced in equal measure, sweat, pushed hard at times and at times stood back to take a breath. I relished being in the company of authentic karateka whose only concern was to practice the art of karate in a way that linked them to those who had, so long ago, undergone similar training ; such an approach to karate is very rare these days.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Two days with the Shinsokai...

Impact training with the Tonfa
Following on from my visit to the Shinken dojo in North Devon, my next training opportunity came as a guest of the Shinsokai; a small but dedicated group of karateka lead by my closest friend, Richard Barrett sensei. As the first day of training involved kobudo, a hall was rented to provide enough space for everyone to practice without fear of hitting each other....(a wise move with me in the room)  The training involved individual kata practice as well as impact training and kihon bunkai.

In the background Juanlu from Spain - in the foreground Garry Lever from England 
My focus was on (re)learning the kata Hamahiga-no-tonfa, a kata I was first introduced to almost 30 years ago but had let slip from my training. I have to say, tonfa are not my favourite weapon, and that's an understatement. Nevertheless, they are a part of the kobudo taught at the Shimbukan dojo, and as such I feel obliged to have at least a working knowledge of how to use them. As Richard's kobudo heritage comes from both the Inoue and Matayoshi lines, I saw no harm in asking him to introduce me once more to a long forgotten kata.

Richard Barrett sensei leading the way
The training wasn't all kobudo, time was also given for everyone to work on the kata of goju-ryu, with Richard moving around the dojo offering encouragement and providing corrections were necessary. I was asked to do the same, but did so only sparingly as I had no desire to impose my opinions on others; the standard of karate was good and I saw no reason to 'teach' just for the sake of it.

Working with Katarina on Shisochin kata
With the training over for the day we retired to Garry's home to freshen up before going to a nearby restaurant for dinner. The food was delicious and the conversation punctuated with laughter and good-hearted banter. For me, the day had been a great opportunity to catch up with my close friend Richard, and spend time with Garry once again. A big highlight also, was to finally meet Juanlu and Victor from Spain, as well as Katarina. I have been corresponding with each of them for years, but this was our first time training together.....

Next time, day two......murder at the Uraniwa dojo

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Good Training...

The Shinken dojo, North Devon, England
Part of my time in the UK was spent back in the south-west of the country, in the counties of Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. It's a less populated region, although that changes dramatically during the Summer months, when millions of people from all over Britain cram themselves into the area in an attempt to enjoy the wide open spaces....oh the irony of it all!!!

Revisiting the small coastal town of Ilfracombe on the North Devon coast, where I lived prior to moving to Australia in the late 1980's, I spent a happy few hours in the company of a couple of fellow karateka, Glyn Jones sensei and his student Craig. Glyn is a student of Shigatoshi Senaha sensei of the Ryusyokai, and he and his students travel to Okinawa regularly to receive instruction. It was in Glyn's private dojo at the rear of his home, the Shinken dojo  that the training took place.

The weapons rack at the Shinken dojo
Informal, but no less informative because of that, the training took place in an atmosphere of sharing and investigation; noting the differences between the two schools of goju-ryu, it became apparent that the differences were superficial, and the common threads that held my karate together were also present in Glyn's. I left the dojo feeling refreshed and grateful to my hosts for taking the time to spend some of their day with me.

Glyn Jones sensei and me....happy after a little training

Next with the Shinsokai.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Rest in Peace...

Mirakian Sensei
It was with some sadness that I learnt of the death of Anthony Mirakian sensei.

I never met him, but I did have two lengthy conversations with him on the telephone back in 2008 when I was conducting research for my book on hojo-undo.

My sincere condolences go to the Mirakian family, his friends, and his students.  

Rest in peace sensei.