Heian Shodan and the Karate Expert (part 1)

By David Johnston

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. ” Shunryu Suzuki

Shunryu Suzuki was a zen teacher who taught in San Francisco from 1958 until his death in 1971. There is a book compiled from his talks during this period called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (a very influential book which I recommend to some of my students as a fine karate text book). It contains this line: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

When you think of yourself as an expert you have stopped learning. A white belt can be dyed any color at all; a black belt cannot. Please take the symbolism seriously.

In Japanese, the concept is shoshin. Shin is mind or spirit; sho means first or beginning with the connotation of opening to possibilities. This is why sho is used instead of ichi to describe (and not merely assign a number to) the first kata. With Heian Shodan a beginning student learns the most basic principles of karate: sustained awareness, placing the feet for optimum stability whichever way he turns; using changes of position or direction for power. None of these and other principles is masked by complex surface techniques: the slightest violation of them stands out clearly. This is why Heian Shodan never gets easy (indeed, as the ability to detect ever more subtle flaws develops, it should get harder) and why the kata is essential for students at every level. If an advanced tournament fighter were to select just one kata as part of his training schedule, it would probably most usefully be Heian Shodan. (This is not a recommendation, however, that he should neglect other Kata!).

Actually, the hardest aspects of Heian Shodan are identical with those of more advanced kata. An anecdote occurs to me which may illustrate the point. In 1974, preparing for sandan, I worked intensively on Nijushiho, often repeating it 100 times. Techniques which had seemed difficult – kicking without moving the line of gravity; the wrapping block at the end – became easier, but standing in yoi with the right feeling of preparedness (and the milliseconds of transition from stillness to movement) became more and more difficult. I mentioned this in some bewilderment to my instructor, Yutaka Yaguchi, who grinned broadly: “That is karate,” he said.

If you really did master Heian Shodan, you probably could be called, with justification, a karate expert. Just don’t call yourself one!

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