Even Artists Do It

I recently met an artist, a lady who makes her living through the art of painting. I had this image of an artist being on the hippie side of things…just someone who one day decides to pick up a canvass and brush, and nonsensically paints away to her heart’s desire. I was wrong. Utterly wrong. Thankfully. You see as my friend explained, there is a process even to painting, and the process is quite a difficult one at that, too. Just like religion, just like karate-do, just like life itself, and anything that has value and merit at the end, one must go through the gauntlet of the hard, technical basics. In religion it is the Sunday school grind. In karate-do it is the hammering of repetitive basics. In painting it is the honing of its particular fundamentals, and technical skill. The freedom and beauty one sees in art, is really the outcome of the angst…the interplay between the years of hard discipline, and the need for self expression. What emanates from that struggle, is real. Is value. Is truth. Is art. Anything other than that is child’s play. If I, with zero technical experience, took up painting today and presented it to the world, it would be empty. It would be the grade school drawing your mom put on the fridge door, only to make you feel good about yourself.

Sadly, the feel good about yourself and believing in your own bullshit type, are a plenty here in Orange County. You know… the dime a dozen nouveau riche, miserable in their marriage, who’ve gone to a few tourist traps abroad, and have read “Eat, Pray Love” type books and come back thinking they have spiritual insight. They’re cute, talk the talk, and put on a good show, but they’re still miserable and confused…and they still cheat on their husbands. It’s because they are empty. Like me attempting to paint, they are grasping at straws. There’s no solid foundation. Even their religion is a self created, ad hoc, pick and choose what feels good, and lets ignore the unpleasant stuff, guide to life. Life my friends, doesn’t work that way. Even religion doesn’t work that way. With compassion and love, their must also be justice. Deluding oneself by chasing the fleeting, feel good side of things, the worldly pleasures that have an expiration date, only adds to confusion and loss.

To be a free thinker, a hippie, an artist, a painter, a karateka…. a human being with worth and respect…one must do, what even an artist does.

Divine Destiny

Be still. Listen to your soul’s calling, and reflect carefully on nature, for indeed the signs of divine guidance are generously presented within and without. It is our hubris that prevents the heart from seeing, and our fears manifested in insecurities, that lead the mind’s eye to hold us back with faulty conclusions. When hubris and insecurities are shed, the pathway to surrender and submission is illuminated. And where there’s submission there is, ironically, freedom. The process must take place without compulsion, like religion…like everything in life, but the inception of the journey begins with the flicker of humility in the soul’s sincere call for help from the highest source. There is no greater vision of courage and strength than this, and no greater vision of fear and weakness, than one who casts aside divine guidance and the love that comes with it.

It is, as mentioned above, our lack of depth in reflection, driven by hubris and insecurity that holds us back. It is this arrogance, presented in the garb of knowledge and confidence, and most often perpetuated subconsciously, that attracts and misleads the soul to attachment and enslavement. Putting politics aside, I present the Trumpian persona as the poster boy of this camp. And sadly, unbeknownst to him and his ilk, he is deluding himself as much if not more, than he is misleading others.

When we can truly absorb that submission is freedom, that reflection is wisdom, that letting go is gaining, that acknowledging deficit is strength, that humility and not knowing is confidence…then and only then will we sincerely seek the highest source, place full trust in it, and know through verification, that while we give utmost, unassuming effort, it is the source that determines the destiny.

Please make your karate-do more submissive and free, less enslaved and delusional. Don’t worry about the outcome, just be still, and allow divine destiny to take shape.

From Dead Weight to Truth or Essence

We used to have a black belt psychologist that would train at the dojo. I would tell her my views on Karate-do and its connection with mental and spiritual health. She’d be intrigued, nodding approvingly. Right or wrong, it encouraged me to feel more, and share more.

Recently, I met someone that was going through a difficult time with depression and loneliness. This person was telling me how they felt their friends were not present and supportive of them during their time of need. There was a palpable feeling of being the victim, and in an effort to find answers for this person, I turned once again to my years of karate-do practice.

Karate-do practice essentially starts with what is big, and then slowly, and methodically whittles technique down to its essence. Inefficiencies are cast aside and what is not beneficial is discussed, explained, and ultimately discarded. It is hard work, and it takes many years of discipline and recognition to hone movement to its bare essence. In the end though, what one experiences is a light, transcendental movement that combines all the attributes and ideals of shotokan karate-do. Commitment, decisiveness, effortless power, and peace.

When talking to this friend, I used my karate experiences to pare things down to its truth. What dead weight was he carrying that was burdening him? The answer was surprisingly simple. I told him a true friend that loves you should make excuses to be with you physically, emotionally, and spiritually. If they are not making excuses to do so, they are making excuses to do the opposite. There’s no in between, just like shotokan karate-do, one is either committed, or one is not. I jokingly told him that “friends” who try to circumvent being around you, supporting you, being connected to you…God forbid if you marry them they are like the women who every night make excuses, and say they have a headache! What a miserable life! Who wants to waste time chasing after that? The real indication of true friendship and a proper relationship, has to have the shotokan elements of commitment, decisiveness, effortless power (insert passion here), and peace. Otherwise one is carrying dead weight that needs to be cast aside. The right friends, I told him, will make every excuse to be with you… physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In the meantime, one must not think one is a victim. One must believe in ones goodness, what they bring to the table, their love, their worth and their value. This needs to be repeated just as we repeat karate techniques over and over again. This is the discipline of honing and whittling to the bare essence…and in time, with experience, one will recognize the unnecessary burden one has been carrying, and rather than feeling the victim or lonely, one will thank the heavens and feel gratitude, lightness, power, and the essence of truth…shotokan’s ikken hitatsu. So I encourage you all to look at your lives and see what is it that you are unheedingly carrying, that is bending your back and creating anxiety. Quickly address it. Shed whatever it is. Guilt. Anger. Shame. Insecurity. Fear. And for those relationships and partnerships where there’s no presence…inform them. If they are not willing to remedy themselves, remedy it yourself and know that your future self, and the loved ones who witness you, will thank you for it, and for the example you’ve set.

The Sum of the Parts Don’t Make the Whole

I hesitate to write about the technical aspects of karate, because it is irritatingly complex to write about, and extremely boring even for karate nerds. And yet, here I am. Maybe a point can be gleaned by the end of this blog, we’ll see. Ok, here goes…we begin with what I call the novelty drill. One is left leg forward facing an attacker who is also left leg forward and about to step in to punch…chudan oi tsuki. You, the defender, swing your rear leg (the right leg) to the outside and execute a reverse down block…gyaku gedan barai. to give you a better visualization, if you were facing north before the attack, you’d be facing north east “ish” after the attack. The reason why I call it a novelty drill is that we are taught to block in hanmi, and here we are taught to block in gyaku hanmi. After the reverse down block, in reverse half front facing hip position (my irritation levels are about as high as yours now), we execute a jab punch or kizami tsuki and rotate the hips from gyaku hanmi to hanmi. The feeling is great. The power derived from the rotation is inebriating. Bock, punch….over and over again, gyaku hanmi to hanmi. It makes you feel like superman. But it’s not the most effective. The more effective drill is combining the whole of that drill, so that rather than having a two step process of bock followed by punch, one has a one step process where one blocks and punches simultaneously. Here comes the problem…try punching kizami tsuki in gyaku hanmi. It doesn’t work. to block and punch simultaneously, the hips have to remain in hanmi at all times. The sum of the parts, don’t make the whole.

So what’s the point here? I guess the point is, like karate, life’s minutia has a way of being a certain way, (or we are taught to believe a certain way) but it’s parts don’t necessarily translate to the best reality, or truth, or effectiveness, or love, or whatever that bigger picture is. It is up to us to tear apart, to question, to reflect, and to ultimately figure out how to make things work outside of what we are taught, outside of the individual parts. This is why spirit is first, technique is second.

Never Go Back

Sensei used to have a drill in sparring where we were not allowed to to take more than two steps back. One either had to step to the side to counter, or alternatively, we were afforded the two step retreat only because it tactically presented a better advance. There was no retreat in karate, no going back. My karate never took shape or became serious, until I fully adopted this philosophy. Sensei’s idea was to instill decisiveness, and to seize on opportunities when they presented themselves. He would often tell me, that it was better to not engage at all, than to waver. when you are in, you are all in, he’d say.

The damage caused to oneself and others by wavering, by not recognizing opportunities that may not present itself again, is something I often see outside the dojo, be it at one’s job, one’s relationships, or even one’s health. The foundational ethos of shotokan, the decisiveness in intent and execution, is the antidote for todays excessive flakiness, and hedging bets to be safe.

I’m not saying this path easy. I’m not saying that it will remove the fear, but I am saying that if one is intent on engaging in change (assuming one wants change because one is not content with the status quo), the “always forward” commitment of shotokan is one’s only hope for success. Most people will talk a good talk, but they will take a step forward only to soon beat a hasty retreat. I’ve seen it time and time again. If I had a partner like that, I wouldn’t have faith in that partner. If I had an illness and dilly dallied with it, I’d probably be dead by now. If I had a dojo and wished it to encapsulate the real essence of what I wished, I would never achieve it by compromising, cutting corners, or selling myself to the safe bet. I would rather not have that partner. I would rather not be alive, than be continually sick due to my negligence. I would rather not have a dojo, and self train in peace, than know what I have is fake.

I thank sensei for the life lessons he gave me. Though difficult, he gave me what is most important. clarity and integrity, or as it is said in shotokan karate-do, the purest form of ikken hitatsu.

Demanding Attention

“Karate is like boiling water. If you do not heat it constantly, it returns to its tepid state”. I can vouch for this statement of Funakoshi Sensei, not just in karate terms, but on many fronts. Today, I will try to make the case to show how karate ideals can influence, and shape your personal relationships.

Outside of my preteen years, karate has come pretty easy to me. I have always had an athletic side and had a good sense of proprioception along with a spiritual and philosophical depth, that nurtured and advanced my karate interest and abilities, beyond my peers. As I grew older, and particularly when Sensei Johnston passed and I took over the mantle of teaching, I noticed the subtle changes in my personal karate practice. I no longer had the presence of sensei pushing me, nagging me, and irritating me to give more. In hindsight I regret not sufficiently appreciating his efforts. He didn’t have to do it. He certainly had many other priorities, including his battle with cancer, among other things. He could have simply turned his attention to another student. But he didn’t. He gave, and while it was hard on me at the time, I’d like to think I gave back equally. I was present, and while I too had important priorities of my own (being a single father to three very young boys), I found a way to keep connected with sensei, to keep the water boiling. I of course gave 100% in the dojo, but it was also selflessness in the little things…sharing a look, a smile, or finding an article about a topic he was interested in. We’d go out for a meal, or no matter how busy I was, I’d call him in the middle of the day to say hi. I’d take him shopping, or we’d go zipping in his car to and from the doctor’s. At it’s core it was a labor of love, but those who know sensei, know that he was not an easy guy. It required effort. Five years has passed since sensei left to another abode. Losing sensei was difficult for me in a myriad of ways, but what I wish to discuss here is the loss of his boiling water in karate terms. Those with foresight will easily be able to interpret and extrapolate to greater and larger perspectives, i.e. their interpersonal relations.

Without sensei’s “insecure nagging”…without his demanding attention, the first thing that went was my physical fitness. I was able to mask it with the exquisite timing and command of distance sensei had “irritatingly” drilled into me, but soon that sharpness and acuity fell by the wayside too. There would be sporadic, successful comebacks, but with age, injury, and a cancer scare of my own…the outlook was very tepid indeed. A comeback looked unlikely, and soon interest and passion began to wane….

Your relations are the same way as karate. Even if you believe your relationship is divinely inspired and gifted, like I believe my karate was/is, it still demands attention. YOU must demand attention. You must keep the water boiling. It is not insecurity to demand attention. It is passion. It is care. It is the natural quid pro quo whose roots are organically based in love, but requires equal and constant effort, just like proper karate-do. The way you look at your partner, or hold a hand…the way you talk or text…. these require giving, and selflessness. Nothing in life is so consuming that a person cannot express love, gratitude, and appreciation. In the midst of suicide and cancer, fear and confusion, I did it. And my sensei did it too. So there are no excuses. Passion means demanding, and fighting for attention, even if it means arguing about it…..rinse, wash, repeat. I see relations where the connection is lost, the effort to keep the water boiling is taken for granted, even if momentarily. They are like people living separate lives. Project that relationship into the future. What I see is a tepid, dispassionate and sexless relationship where interest and passion waned long before, and successful comebacks are not be. Just as karate-do is in the details and being present to it, so too are your relationships. Demand attention. Give back equally if not more, like I did with sensei. The fruits of that labor of love will give back exponentially, and know that life is too short to live without passion.

Foundation and Faces

     To give credit where credit is due, the following observations stem from the saying of Ali, the commander of the faithful. The imam says, “ Everything has a foundation, and the foundation of Islam is love for the prophet and his holy progeny.” He also says, “Everything has a face, and the face of this religion is prayers.”

Karate-do also has a foundation, and the foundation of this school is finding peace through commitment, submission, and surrender of the self. It is the practice of the willingness to die before you die, to give up body, to have one and only one objective without reservation or hesitation.

The face of this school and what should be organically projected, is humility and the ever-presence of a beginner’s mind. It is the nurturing of deep reflection, the vulnerability to comfortably say, “I don’t know” and the ability to wonder, “what else can be true.” The face of this school is “shoshin”.

Whilst it may seem that the foundation and face of this school are antithetical…that “decisiveness” and “not knowing” are a paradox…it is in fact the very conundrum that makes karate-do so exquisitely felt by those who properly walk its path. 

What is the Core Principle of Karate-Do?

It is my belief that all that is created, is created with degrees of consciousness…that what is created, be it animate or inanimate, with free will or not, acknowledges or should acknowledge the majesty of its creator. It is my belief; therefore, that the birds, mountains, trees, angels, rocks, etc…, even our shadows, prostrate in recognition and loving submission to that which is greatest. We may not understand or recognize this cosmic chorus, but like the rapid flow of a river, it takes place constantly and incessantly. The beauty of joining the cosmic chorus, and surrendering to its natural flow, is what contributes to inner peace and positive energy.

What happens on a cosmic spiritual level, beyond the minds imagination, beyond the universes and the veiled realms, also takes place in more quotidian settings…hence the birth of communities, nations, religions, places of worship, teams, extended families, and even basic husband and wife relationships or friendships, etc… These relationships exist because there’s some level of unity of belief and cooperation…a chorus, if you will. Otherwise they wouldn’t exist.

One such community, is the dojo. Whilst techniques ebb and flow according to the needs and whims of the time, perhaps even improving from generation to generation, the CORE principle is not chasing the latest technique. Technique is important….but as Sensei Funakoshi warns us…”spirit first, technique second”. And here, spirit is defined as that river’s flow. The bends. The ups and downs. The changing flow of the currents, from fast and furious, to slow and enduring. Like life itself, it has a duration and an unknown destiny. Those who submit to this way, doggedly and stoically, enduring years of repetition before daring to express opinion…these are the ones who truly experience, not on an academic level, but on a transformative level. The given path for these seekers, belies the newest, latest, more improved technique. That, my friend, is karate-do’s core principle. Karate-do is entering the dojo with the cumulative chorus that we strive through the struggles together…. because it is the shared experience of the struggle…the journey that is important…not the technique or end result.

Students have asked me if karate-do has the best technique. It does not. If it did, Ray Dalke would not say the best technique is ” front kick…crow bar”. He’d just say front kick. And yet, we do front kick over and over again. I have told my students that the importance of stance diminishes over time…and yet we do stance work all the time. It doesn’t mean that I am teaching something I do not believe in…It means the process of forging spirit through unity and tradition is the core principle of karate, and that is where the deeper understanding of karate reveals itself…after decades of quiet repetition. So yes, if you are joining a chorus, but wish to sing a different tune because you think you understand things differently and cannot change, you are indeed being selfish and a cancer to the those on the way. Such a person needs to….as I often said…either open their own dojo, or quit.

Sensei once told me that two karateka under the same sensei, should ultimately have different looking karate because they have different abilities, bodies, understanding, etc… This process comes about naturally, from years of training, and not from looking at videos or books, or intellectualizing. At about the 4th dan level or 25 years of training, one can establish ones own ideas and enter the early phase of “Ri” in the “Shu Ha Ri” process. Many from the JKA did exactly this. Kanazawa Sensei’s karate was starkly different than Kase Sensei and Enoida Sensei’s karate. Ultimately each formed their own organization with their own ideas, because they (ideally) believed their chorus no longer matched the community they belonged to. One may look at this phenomenon with chagrin, ruing the fact that the JKA is a shell of what it used to be. I; however, look at it and see it couldn’t have continued, because salt water and fresh water can never blend.

Doing My Own Thing…Consistently

The other day, I was pondering on my reflections of the horrific images of the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, that befell Northeastern Japan. Amidst the chaos and terror, one image vividly stands out. It was the perplexing footage of a highway, packed with cars, headed away from the rear approaching tsunami. From above, you could clearly see the empty, unpaved median, which would have been easy to cross, with a desolate, other lane, designed for those going the opposite direction.

At the time, I thought it was very odd. I stared and questioned why these people would just sit there, inviting a literal tidal wave of death sentences, while they could easily jump the median, take the other side, and escape to safety.

Just one hour of reflection can save one from wasting years of stubbornly consistent misguidance, because a closer examination leads to a more clear conclusion. It couldn’t have been any other way, and that honor in death was/is better than greed, at the expense of others.

One of the key elements of the Japanese character, and a reason for their success as a nation, particularly at times of strife, is their almost innate, disciplined nature to conform, to work as group. The concept of “I” does not exist, and if it does… the entitled “I” learns to quickly submit, and quell his desires for the greater good. As the saying goes, the nail that sticks up, gets hammered down. And for good reason.

Imagine for a second, if in 2011, someone decided to “do their own thing” and skip over to the other side of the highway and make a run for it. I guarantee you, that by the time the sixth car decided to follow suit, pandemonium and chaos would have ensued, ensuring the complete destruction of the organized escape plan…and further, poisoning the the well of trust and order for generations to come. One man’s greed and selfishness, at the expense of everyone else. Can you feel the distaste? The abhorrence of such destructive narrowmindedness? How it tears at the fabric of everything? If one person does it, it emboldens the next, and the next, until nothing is left but an insignificant scattering of material gain, usurped by lowly means.

There is also another side to this. I am not saying that one must conform or follow the masses in their collective, negative, slanted, agenda pushing-thought. I am speaking of conforming when one chooses to; for the Greater Good. For religion. For tradition. For Love. For family. For others. For your Sensei.

Perhaps there could have been another way. Perhaps someone could have crossed the line to protect their family and created some kind of order in an attempt to help the others escape safely. I don’t know why anyone didn’t cross. I just know that as I consider it, I am using it metaphorically to explain this idea of selfishness, greed, “I’m going to do it my way, because I know better,” and how my actions affect others, is of no concern, mentality.

Karate-do is a Japanese art. It is an art of discipline with a minor outward physical goal, and a more lofty, understated objective to perfect the character of those who choose this austere and arduous path. As with all things Japanese, it begins with an understanding that one has chosen, and is willing to submit to the way, the “do”, the untransmuted “do,” handed down from generation to generation, for centuries.

This proven path to perfection of character, begins on the first day of entering one’s karate practice and the physical dojo. One agrees to give up the “I” or “me”, to trust their sensei, and as Yaguchi sensei says, to “give up body” for the greater good. When choosing karate as a way, one forgoes any notion of self, in order to sacrifice; be that time, blood, sweat, ego, or whatever it is that your chosen sensei sees fit to exercise. Without accepting this premise wholeheartedly, and without giving up of the “I,” the objectives of karate-do become moot. Anything short of that, and I mean anything, makes the karate practitioner, that one guy who thought he/she was more deserving than others. He is the one I am guessing would jump the median and drive the other side of the highway, not looking back or having any concern for the lives of the ones left behind.

So, if you were a student and casually trained whenever you felt like it, whenever it was convenient for you; once every six months, once every month, once a week, whatever; you didn’t sacrifice. You took advantage. You were that guy mentioned above. Worse yet, if you came to the dojo and did your own thing, consistently; if you came to the dojo and thought “I” want to stretch My way, “I” want to do kicks my way, “I” want to do something different than what my sensei is instructing me to do, “I” want my kime and kiai to be “my” way, or not at all even when asked, then what are you doing in my dojo? You do not take any responsibily for your actions. You only blame everyone and everything else. You are not the victim you portray yourself to be. There is no “I” in “do.” You took advantage. Your selfishness poisoned the well and affected others. Your disrespect spoke more truth about your character than your, “consistency.”

These are all examples of nails sticking up; requiring a collective, hammering down. Typically, it’s the hammering of a few for the benefit of the many. In extreme cases, where the lack of self discipline and awareness spreads its cancer, it becomes a case of hammering the many for the benefit and safeguard of the deserving few, and more importantly, for the preservation of the way.

Alas, for the unaware “me” minded, karate is a material transaction devoid of the beauty and richness, of the beginner’s mind that could have led to perfection of character. Sadly, their transaction has only netted them ego and some diminishing physical tricks.

I am so grateful for this clarity. I shall continue on carrying out the tradition and legacy of those before me, particularly of my Sensei, who truly had this mind I am speaking of; in it’s purest form. He didn’t have tolerance for the ones who weren’t committed, present, humble, grateful. He demanded respect, but even more so, demanded purity in heart and attitude. His time, was just as valuable as yours. He would give you everything of himself, if you would only show him that you possessed this humble willingness to learn, to give up self. Contrarily, he would kick you out, if you showed anything less.

I stand firmly beside him, and those placed on my path, who choose to respectfully follow me, as their Sensei. The emptiness of the empty hand way, is far different for those who continually strive with the purity of Shoshin, beginner’s mind.

She Had Me At Hello…

I run a small dojo in an industrial, isolated part of a small, sleepy town. I don’t have many students, and I don’t run classes on Friday evenings, so when a young lady called and said she was coming from Colorado on a Friday to train, I had to scramble. I had to first scramble to find students…any student to come to the dojo on a Friday evening. I mean who wants to come all the way from Colorado to train at an empty dojo, right?

Second, and more importantly, I had  to scramble to find a female student. I kept imagining this poor young lady, a visitor, a stranger to my town in an isolated, empty, industrial complex, being creeped out by a singular, hairy, middle-aged sensei…or worse yet, by a pack of unfamiliar men.

With panic on my mind, I frantically called around and finally  secured a few students, among them a lady.  I was set, now the only thing I had to do was to make sure I got to the dojo a bit early to make sure my visitor would not get lost in the midst of empty buildings.

It was important for me to make a good impression on my visitor. she came recommended from a sensei of whom I have the highest regard, and she could have chosen from a plethora of dojo in my area, so this was an honor indeed, and with that protective mindset, I set out for the dojo, a few minutes ahead of class to do my best teaching.

As I drove the long driveway to the dojo, I spotted a car in the empty parking, and panic set in. Here she was alone, warming up outside the dojo,  in an unknown place, vulnerable due to my negligence. Why couldn’t I have arrived earlier? Why did I put this poor soul in such a compromised position?  What was wrong with me? I sped up to park the car, to simultaneously greet her and apologize for my shortcoming.

To this day, I don’t know what exactly happened. I know the feeling, but I can’t explain it. As I approached her, she seemed a step ahead. She approached me too, and from there it was all over. She had full control. She looked ME in the eyes. She shook MY hand. I was not receiving her at my dojo. She was coming to my dojo. She had the upper hand. She wasn’t mean. She wasn’t aggressive, in fact she was quite pleasant…really pleasant,  but she had that something that reminded me of the times I would face off with sensei in jiu kamae, and I knew in an instant, before anything could even happen, that it was game over. I was already defeated. Done and cooked as they say. She had me at “hello” literally and figuratively, in the best karate sense!

That moment has stayed with me over time, and I’ve discussed it with my students, sometimes joking that if anyone needed back up that day, it was me, not her! For one, I learned that I shouldn’t make assumptions. More importantly, that karate is not just in the dojo. That first step into jiu kamae should be no different than that the first step in meeting someone. It’s not mean, it’s not aggressive. It’s silent confidence in the way a person is when they are in the moment…I think. I can’t explain it, but I’ve sure felt it.