Shotokan, the Art of Fortitude

President Johnson was once interviewed and he commented something to the effect that, the Vietnam war was lost because the North Vietnamese soldier would sit for as long as it took in a fox hole while the American soldier, after 20 minutes, would need to get up and go for a smoke.

In our affluent suburb in Orange county, we see the same. We have kids, incapable of fulfilling a task without being entertained, or without causing some sort of disruption by bringing negative attention to themselves. In adults, we see an inability to follow direction and an assumption that they know better, by doing something other than what is prescribed. I can’t tell you the number of times a student, be it an adult or a child, has come up to me asking if we can open the windows, or close the windows, or if we can do something “fun” in class, or asking me not to pair them up with a particular student. Just the mere fact that a student asks what we will be doing in class, is enough to know we have lost the war.

If any of you follow MMA, you’ll know the Muslim Dagestani fighters, chief among them Khabib Noormagedov. Outsiders who have observed their training camps have commented that the reason for their success, is that they have a no nonsense approach to life. All they do is pray, train, attend to family. They don’t drink. They don’t party. They don’t swagger in with pink and blue dyed, funky hair styles. They don’t bring attention to themselves, except through their devotion to the task at hand. Most camps have sparring on certain days. They don’t. Whatever is presented to them, they face and they don’t complain.

My dojo, is not a fighting dojo. Not because we can’t, but because we have not achieved the first step….the art of fortitude. Sparring when students don’t have self discipline… when students have not fully trusted their teacher, leader, sensei…is akin to sending those American soldiers to Vietnam and expecting them to do what war requires. No responsible sensei would do such a thing. It is a recipe for the disaster that has created the downfall of shotokan karate, and its merits and potential as an effective method of self defense, and as a spiritual path, and way for inner peace.

The only way back to the straight path, is submission. This is true in religion, this is true in karate. Get rid of the ego, get rid of the sense of self entitlement, and follow exactly what is told. In that struggle, there is an art. It is the art of fortitude. It is the art of Shotokan.

Living Between Fear and Hypocrisy

Let me start by saying that I am first in line for the forthcoming ruminations. Never do I absolve myself, and if I fall seven, I’ll get up eight, and keep striving in the path of sincerity and truth. But truth is a funny thing. We conflate and distort buzzwords and catch phrases from the ether, for truth. We call it “my truth”. Nothing speaks louder of fear and hypocrisy than this.

There is a real “my truth”, but that is a variance of at best 2%, from the universal truth. The other “my truth” that everyone flings around in their consciousness is actual bullshit. It is the excuse.

“Inside and outside must be same”…I say this to my boys, in my now infamous karate master persona, with appropriated looks and accent. I say it to them jovially, but I am dead serious. Unless you fear for your life, or are trying to reconcile two people for the greater good, what you present to the outside world must reflect your inside. Be firm, and don’t worry about being judged. Those who do, go the other way. They are lost. They parrot from the ether, to fill the void of their inside.

We are all created equal, with the same purpose, and the journey that we travel has the same destination. The straight path to the destination is truth…not “my truth”, but truth. Truth has some inconveniences and struggles. It requires being firm, being patient. It requires striving, and self sacrifice. “My truth”, on the other hand, is a fine tuned machine to bypass those tests, in favor of one’s insecurities and egoic, selfish desires.

The karate-do journey must also reflect the same truth. “Inside karate, must be same as outside karate”. It must be pure, otherwise it is for show, or for some other insecurity that derails one’s path of self discovery and self improvement. Your karate is for you, not for anyone else. It is a tool to align inside and outside, both physically and emotionally. If your karate has become material, something that you hold on to, you have lost your way. If your life has become material, something that you hold on to, you have also lost your way.

Application Drives Technique

You have to know what you are doing. I mean that in more than one way. The problem with standardization is that it dummies the practitioner down, and in the process one loses the little gems of karate that really define it. I had a student whom after visiting an instructor elsewhere, thought we were doing the two back to back techniques after ude uke in bassai dai, incorrectly. He saw someone else doing it a particular way and without questioning or reflecting, he simply made up his mind, that that one way, was the only correct way. I don’t blame him. That particular instructor had probably never reflected, and simply copied his instructor…and hence we get the sorry state of affairs that is karate today. I had to explain to the student that many schools, in fact most, consider the technique after the rather grand ude uke, to be uraken uchi and as such their fist rests below the elbow in that technique, while our school considers the move as “uchi uke”. In other words, the ude uke catches a kick, and the following “uchi uke” throws the leg away, therefore we do not leave our fist below the elbow.

So you can see how application drives technique, yet many find this concept heretical to their dogmatic upbringing. And yet it is there in the most basic of stances and blocks. We have the standard front stance…and oh God forbid…we have a narrow front stance, or a stance that breaks posture as in the yama zuki in bassai dai! Or we can pick from at least half a dozen ways of doing rising block or front kick, each suited for a particular defense, and yet we turn a blind eye to its very existence in kata. I’m not saying standardization is bad. No. It is necessary. It provides a base and foundation that is of existential importance to karate; however, one must not blindly follow and have a soul less, robotic, one size fits all, let me not strain my intellect too much, karate either. And in fact, standardization can be detrimental in some cases. Take for example the last move of hangetsu kata. One has a tai sabaki followed by a pushing block (not a striking block) in cat stance. If the application of the move is to push something down, for example the back of the head, or gouging the eyes of someone shooting for you, then the standard, erect back, cat stance is a terrible idea. The better technique for that application would be to lean the upper body forward to apply weight and pressure…and I hate to make it clear like this because it furthers the standardization argument by creating yet another one…but for the sake of visualization, let me say… a Kanazawaesque cat stance.

Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that karate, like life, is not a one size fits all so I can cruise on automatic pilot and get by with minimum effort. To get to the gems of life, one must reflect and consider all the alternatives, and then apply the best technique to one’s perception of the challenges at hand…know what you’re doing, and why. Sometimes we’ll get it right, and sometimes we won’t, but at least we’ll own it.

The Way We Were

Back in the last decade of the last century, before the dawn of “You Tube” and other internet based platforms, we were essentially beholden to the knowledge of our sensei. Yes, there were books and the odd seminar to corroborate technique, but those were not as readily accessible as the tools that we have at our fingertips today. I can clearly recall my own unscientific methods of keeping technical integrity… I would accept only techniques which overlapped between my current sensei and previous sensei. Any novel concept was viewed with much suspicion, and really was adopted only after much reflection and research…on “You Tube”!

If memory serves me correctly, You Tube came about somewhere in the middle of the first decade of the new millennium…shortly after I met sensei Johnston. I recall struggling with sensei’s concept of the direct hip rotation, when performing forward moving shuto uke in kokutsudachi…as we do in the kata Bassai Dai. It was novel. I had never heard of it, and stubborn me refused to adopt it. Sensei was so patient with me, I am guessing because he knew that I had a need to really believe before I could sincerely accept. For my part, I would quietly practice his move outside of the dojo. I’d think, and play with the concept, and play back his reasonings for doing the move unlike anyone I had ever met before. Then one day, as I was browsing through old black and white footage of Funakoshi sensei on You Tube, I saw it. There it was! The “novel” concept of direct rotation being performed before my eyes, by none other than the father and founder of shotokan karate! The very next day, I accepted and adopted the technique, and have since incorporated it in my own teaching and application to kata.

What followed from that discovery, was a frenzied desire to discover more and more. I’d constantly approach sensei with new found discoveries on a slew of techniques, most of which he’d patiently listen to and rebut with his two favorite lines…”Hessam, you think too much”, and “Hessam, don’t try to reinvent the wheel”. And he was absolutely correct.

Herein lies the double edged sword of technology. While there’s access to information that can lead to deeper knowledge, there’s also too much information that can inundate the integrity of one’s pursuits. What was once the bread butter of technique…simple, broad, efficient and generally effective, becomes the artisan version technical snobbery…complex, convoluted, and only effective in certain minority conditions. It becomes, really a pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake or worse yet, for ego’s sake. It takes karate-do practice away from its intended purpose, to entertainment…in this case intellectual entertainment. As sensei would often say… “you can’t learn karate from a book”, and as I say to my students, “you can’t learn karate from You Tube”. At some point one has to put the pontification aside, and one has to simply “do it”. Don’t think too much, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Just do, and just be.

Dear Sensei

Tomorrow marks the sixth year of your passing. I have had a lot of people come and go in my life. With most, the missing subsides after a few a months. With you and a select few others of my family, the void has remained, and the irony is, I take solace in that void which reminds me, almost daily of your presence.

The dojo is doing well by our metrics. Both of us never cared for the commercial side, and therefore we were unclouded in our assessment of who truly wished for shoshin. Me more so than you. I know you had to endure students…pick up check as you would jokingly say…fortunately, I was in a more favorable (or stubborn) position. I know one of your big concerns prior to leaving, was that people would take advantage of my soft side. You’d often say politely, to “be disengaged”…and then again towards the end you said it directly…”Don’t take shit from anyone”. I’m happy to report that in spite of all, I didn’t take shit from anyone, and you’d be very proud of the stances I took.

What kept you and I, as different as we were, so connected, was our serendipitous connection to the internal truth of karate-do, a truth that between us was individually and inherently different… yet the mere fact that it was tapped, is what set us apart from others, and on that lonely journey. It has become my understanding that the dojo you left me, was you telling me that it was now my turn to lead the journey of solitude. It was never about the students and numbers, or keeping the legacy going as I envisioned. Those who didn’t want shoshin, or couldn’t access the internal truth, I let go, sensei. I know you would concur and approve. You would have rather had one good student, than a room full of “pick up checks”. I vividly recall almost 20 years ago, when you went to London for a month long trip, and you handed me the dojo keys to run it in your absence. My only desire at the time was that you would return, without me having lost any of your students. Twenty years later, I find I am chasing away students, much like you did. How our understandings change as we mature and grow! To be fair, I haven’t yet met another student, or high ranking sensei for that matter, with that elusive “internal truth” quality, and perhaps I never will. I have given up on looking for it in others.

Sensei, I know you had asked Mark and Jeff to help and support me when you were gone. I want you to know that while they have come several times, I have never taken a penny from the camps we set up. It was my way of returning the support, and supporting them, and the other students. You know I’d be too protective to allow anyone in that space. You’d be amused to know that sensei Yaguchi has left ISKF. A few years back I did a seminar with Yaguchi sensei, and frankly speaking, I was not impressed at all. That’s been the case with every sensei I’ve met since having you as my sensei. I remember complaining to you about Ohta sensei and Pich sensei, when I was going through my divorce in London. I couldn’t wait to get back to training with you. No sensei has come close to inspiring me me like you do. And you still do. Yesterday I was at the dojo, and working the bag. I had one of those light bulb moments that I would constantly get from you when you’d teach. Words that you spoke to me years ago, came flooding back and I had a new epiphany, a new awareness, a new discovery. Those far and few gems that you’d drop, that would reinvigorate my karate training. I thank you sensei. I want you to know that you are still present with me. I feel your presence to the core. When I walk into your room at the dojo, it still smells of your fragrance. After my workouts, I leave my belt right next to yours, until the next training…and crazy as it sounds, that one time soon after my surgery…I was going through a rough patch, so I came to the dojo as I usually do, to reflect and do kata. I saw you. I saw you sitting in your favorite chair in the corner. You were in your black sweats, and you were observing. It freaked me out at first, and I kept looking over to you. Each time I looked, it was undeniably you. You had your arms folded as you usually did. You were silently encouraging me with your presence to keep going, telling me everything would be okay, and just when my nerves and fears subsided, just like that, you were gone. I want to thank you sensei. You gave me the greatest gift of curiosity and love for karate-do. You taught me the right way…the shoshin way, and I have never stopped learning, feeling, at applying the lessons and mistakes, to my own growth and healing. I want you to know that I am doing well, and that shoshin is alive and well and on the right track. I believe, most humbly, that you would be proud. May you rest in peace, sensei. I miss you. I love you. I can’t wait to see you again. Oss.

Here We Go Again

I don’t know why I bother doing this. It’s more frustrating to me than to others, because others are blissfully unaware. I recently told an esteemed friend and sensei, that I was free from not to having to care anymore for students. Students who weren’t worth caring for. Why put in the effort towards a dead end road ahead, I explained? For me, the last part of the puzzle is this article. I still recall the animated frustration of my sensei, as he would reveal the long held stupidity of certain technical movements. Like me, he’d get exasperated, throw up his arms and just walk off, incredulous that people were like sheep when it came to an art that they proclaimed was so deeply important and impactful to them. He in fact (again like me) wrote an article about the first move of the first kata, Heian Shodan. I’ve promised myself not to fall into sensei’s frustration trap. Perhaps I’m more selfish and lacking patience, wishing to be free of pointless engagements with less critical thinking people.

At a recent seminar, I heard a sensei proclaim that in the kata Sochin, whilst moving into the second move of the kata, the hip should remain at shomen. This is a typical refrain from most karateka who have heard it and adopted it it without much thought, just as they’ve blindly accepted that the first move of Heian Shodan should be a reverse rotation of the hips (See the article: Heian Shodan and the karate expert). I am not saying that they are wrong and I am right. That’s a futile and pointless exercise in dogma. What I am asking, is what I ask of all my students….to look and reflect and ponder the possibility that something else could also be true. That the narrative we’ve been feeding ourselves, and comforting ourselves with, may not be the entire story. The other point I’d like to stress is that there are gradations. Not everything is black or white. Not everything is shomen or hanmi. Hanmi has degrees of hanmi. Take the first move of Sochin. One is not in shomen, in sochin dachi….and yet one is not in a full hanmi either. it is a slight hanmi. Continuing from there, if one’s hips are natural (relaxed), as the feet come together for the second move, the hips are again at a slight hanmi. The body is straight, it must remain straight, but the hips are ever so slightly in hanmi, and when the move is completed, it is in gyaku hanmi.

Am I splitting hairs? Possibly. But to me Heian Shodan and Sochin are mirror kata’s of deep discovery and refinement, really of the self. And as sensei would often say, words matter. How one teaches, microscopically, makes a difference over the course of time. How else did we get from Heian Shodan being direct rotation to reverse rotation? There’s nothing fancy to hide in both Heian Shodan, or Sochin. The truth is there. It is bared, and if one is aware and reflects….one feels. This is karate-do. Be compassionately critical of your life.

A Time for Peace, a Time for War

Karate-do can be very beautiful. There’s a visual grace and fluidity… a power and drama that belies it’s intended purpose. One can easily be mesmerized by its aesthetically tranquil, peaceful flow. For those of us unfortunate enough to need to defend ourselves though, karate is anything but beautiful. It is ugly, devoid of grace, and the only peace one gets, is the peace that one was genuinely lucky to survive the outcome.

There’s a time for beauty, and love, and peace. But there’s also a time to contain, neutralize, and fight for yourself and loved ones. As men, it is in our genetic make up to protect; however, one’s fundamental character trait shouldn’t change when switching from peace to war. One’s intent certainly does, but know that if a person abuses or exceeds the limits in containing the threat, that person was flawed to begin with. A person’s response should always be concomitant to the war, or peace presented before him.

The phenomena of switching from peaceful to warrior and back again, takes place all the time. We all do it. I’ll give you two real examples of varying degrees, in areas that you may not be expecting…

You have a kid who is struggling with let’s say geometry, and it’s affecting his wellbeing and confidence. You go into lock down mode and find a tutor, or talk to the teacher, or try to help him yourself, or let him drop out of the class after a period of time….whatever it is, you see a threat and you contain it. We’ve all had these micro “threats” that forced us to switch gears and intensity temporarily, to solve a “problem”.

You have cancer that requires surgery. Simultaneously, your seventeen year old son is going through a severe existential threat after losing his best friend to suicide… and a pedophilic, married person tries to take advantage of the situation by using her own kids to get close to yours, to attempt to groom him.

This is no time to be peaceful. You’ll go into a hyper alert war mode, and stop or neutralize that threat to protect your son and family! That’s just what you do, no questions asked. You drop everything, give up body, and fight like hell. Peaceful, is the last thing on your mind! Peaceful is what the opposing side wants and hopes for, so they can continue their depravity! You give them the exact opposite.

But once the threats of cancer, your son’s life threatening vulnerabilities, and the deranged predatory actions of an unsuspecting middle-aged woman are dealt with… go back to a peaceful yet vigilant existence. There’s no need to do anything else. Your job is to be the protective shell, to the pearl that is your loved ones. That’s it. Return to being that beautiful clam shell that’s hard and protective on the outside, but smooth and comforting to its pearl on the inside. Remember, one’s response is always positively correlative, and proportional to the threat. There’s no need for retribution, but there is a need to forgive, be aware, and to restore peace and equilibrium.

So, do beautiful karate in the dojo. Feel the peace, and bask in it’s beauty that you create…but be ready and willing to make it ugly, when you need to. Sometimes war. Sometimes peace. There’s a time and place for everything, so long as you return to peace.

Shotokan VS. Karate

My dojo purposefully omits the name “Shotokan”, because Funakoshi sensei wished the same for his dojo. His intent, I presume, was to prevent the polarization of karate schools through segmentation and fragmentation of styles. The truth; however, is a little more nuanced that this. Funakoshi sensei did have a style of his own. Proof of this is that he borrowed kata from Shito Ryu’s Mabuni sensei, and adapted it to his version and vision of karate-do.

It is important to keep to the fundamentals of a particular style, because sometimes techniques are taught and practiced in opposing ways. Some styles, Inoue-ha Shito Ryu for example, teaches to land on the heal or rear third of the foot, while Shotokan teaches to land on the ball or front third of the foot. Or, as an example, old school Okinawan styles may advocate to step first then strike, while some other styles, Shotokan included, teach to strike slightly ahead of the foot settling. Now I understand this last example may also be a timing issue that is situation dependent, and that one should never adopt a “this way only, all the time” dogmatic view, but you can see how building a framework requires picking a lane and sticking with it, as they say. Fundamentals are so important, that if neglected, you’ll see someone with even decades of training, lacking the solid foundation that yields clean, polished, karate. Each style of Karate speaks a certain language, and if we diligently stick to the ethos of that sensei’s way, we can hear the language clearly. Don’t conflate this with athleticism. Don’t let the eyes fool you. See if the body mechanics and body language is conveying that style’s philosophy, particularly in its basics and fundamentals. Incidentally as a side note, this is one reason why I am opposed to tournament style kumite. It is at best, a failed attempt at fitting a square peg into a round hole. It doesn’t fit the ideals of self defense, nor the fundamental techniques of Shotokan karate. And unsurprisingly, you’ll see those who lack solid fundamentals, push and espouse for kumite (I would begrudgingly give an exception to old school shobu ippon kumite).

While I teach karate…when I look at my students, I have to predominantly see the Shotokan in them. If I see only karate, it is as if they are speaking out of both sides of their mouth. Like religion, like relationships, like karate… to be able to succeed, one needs to know and ply a clear cut way. The steps for awareness and progress must be communicated systematically, so students can go back or move forward with clarity and accountability. And finally, a reasoning should be presented so that people don’t blindly follow, but accept truth with free will and volition.

Anything other than submission and commitment to the fundamentals, is a wandering silliness, that only a fool would take seriously.

Wait…Say What???

I was speaking to a very attractive, middle aged lady who was telling me what she wanted in a potential suitor. She said she wanted to travel, and enjoy fine dining, that her love language was receiving gifts and compliments, and she wanted someone who wouldn’t tell her what to do because she didn’t like to be controlled. Before she could continue, I stopped her in her tracks and said, “lady, you’re not looking for a suitor, you’re looking for a sucker. You want someone to spend on you so you can enjoy all the things you want to enjoy, and if he says peep, you want him to shut up so you can continue controlling him, and keep on using him.” Needless to say, my blunt approach was received with some sort of fake indignity, and the fastest ghosting in the history of ghosting!

Sadly, many people are like this. I knew a married lady whose husband provided for her and her kids, exquisitely. She didn’t have to work, she was taken on exotic vacations, went to the best restaurants, she drove a fancy car, the kids went to private school… you name it. And what did the hard working husband get in return? Nothing! The woman wouldn’t even give the most minimal of wifely pleasures to the poor guy…for 15 years he was sleeping alone! I don’t know the specifics of the husband, if he has others providing for his needs, but, if he were aware and had courage, he would have kicked her to the curb years ago.

For me, it’s about three months (mind you, it works both ways) for my partner to make me feel like I’m a priority again, before I start looking elsewhere and shutting her down. I’m not being braggadocios. This is just the way men work. If they aren’t getting it from you, they are getting it elsewhere. No excuses, no exceptions. I had cancer, in hospital, organs removed, and I was delicately charming with the nurses. Sensei was given two weeks to live, and I saw with my own two eyes his valiant attempt at wooing his female oncologist! 15 years??Really?? Don’t be a sucker. When you see someone is just a taker, don’t allow them to manipulate and control you like that.

And the real lesson here is not about specific people. People come and go. Most are not worthy. But the lesson here is that the taker is the one who ultimately loses. How many times have we lamented the small business that no longer stands? The little café that we used to frequent, that can no longer afford our cozy, intimate encounters? The sensei and dojo who was such an integral part of our lives, has closed his or her heart and doors to us…or the love and light of friendships that no longer shine due to our own greed? Reflect on this deeply as you train karate. Are you a giver or a taker? If the balance of the equation is on the former, you will grow. If it’s on the latter, you will blindly venture into your own loss. It’s hard to be selfless, but believe me what it pays in respect and dignity is immeasurable.

When It’s Done Right

Two events came across my mind, as I opened my latest email from Italy. The first was years ago, when I was training with sensei Moshfegh. I had been training with sensei for some time, and he had a Japanese student who was returning from a long sojourn from Tokyo. The Student did not speak English, and I of course, did not speak Japanese. When I entered the dojo the customary half hour before the start of class, I sensed sensei wanting me to introduce myself to his student, who was busy diligently practicing kata at the center of the dojo . There was a moment of truculence as sensei was trying to find the words, and best way to make the introduction, but to sensei’s surprise, I walked right past him and placed myself next to his student, and began practicing his kata. Move by move, we worked together, and other than the brief visual connection we made when I first set up beside him, nothing was said, and focus remained on kata. One kata repeated over and over again led to another kata, and yet another. I could feel the connection between me and him as we synchronized movement, timing, and rhythm. Natural tension slipped into relaxed familiarity. Sensei called out the five minutes that we had before class would start. Me and my new friend, stopped, we bowed to each other, and I took leave for a sip of water at the fountain. As I walked past sensei to the water fountain, he looked at me incredulously. I smiled, and told him (in hindsight, with incredible presumptiveness) that kata was the language of friendship.

The other event took place with sensei Johnston. My sensei. Sensei and I were out for lunch, and we were sitting and discussing an upcoming camp. I had taken it upon myself to organize and galvanize as many interested karateka as I could, to join in on our free weekend karate camp and seminar. As sensei sensed my dejected mood, I proceeded to tell him that whilst most karateka from other styles had expressed genuine interest and friendship, karateka from our own style either outright rejected the invitation without consideration, or had some panicked, defensive reaction, as if I was violating some unwritten non compete clause that was robbing them of some imaginary…something. Sensei, in his typical calmness (although I had learned to read him well by then, and could see his disgust at the pettiness of others) said, “Hessam, if the intention is correct, they will come and they will benefit. If it is not, they lose and we don’t have to deal with the headache. It’s a win, win, win situation.” He smiled his famous beaming smile, and proceeded to enjoy his al dente vegetables.

This brings me back to my email from Italy. About a year prior to the Covid pandemic, in early 2018, I received an email in Italian. It was karate related, but since I do not speak Italian, I had no idea what it was about. I could have ignored it. I could have responded negatively or sophomorically, but I didn’t. I responded with purity and kindness…with my true nature…which is everyone’s true nature, if they remove the veils and coverings of fear and hubris.

I told Claudia that I was a shotokan sensei based in California, and that whilst I couldn’t understand her email, and didn’t know if she could understand mine, I was always here to help and be a friend. Some weeks passed, and I received a response from her, in broken English. She apologized, and said that she was a shito ryu karateka and assumed I was a dojo in Italy. This was the beginning of our now almost five year correspondence and friendship. The ensuing years has brought laughter, support, sharing of karate experiences, and even a few contentious debates as to who has the best pasta and pizza (Unless from Naples, they just might reluctantly acquiesce to the pizza…the pasta is non-negotiable)! Today, she invited me to teach at their organization’s annual seminar. What an honor!

When it’s done right, this is what karate-do should produce. When both sides have a heart that is pure, and intentions are selfless…karate-do paves the way for the bonds to be formed… and conversely, any atoms weight of “self”, will only produce a veil of loss and blindness.