Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The way of the warrior; Sacrifice

True practioners of the arts will always tell you, its not just an activity that ends when you bow and leave the dojo. It extends into every aspect of your life.

Today I sent my husband off to basic combat training. Some women are bitter when their husbands leave, or too sad or afraid to do anything but cry. And while I was a little hisheartened at the prospect of being seperated for up to two years, I had a smile on my face as he departed. Why? Because I was proud. I was full of respect as I realized; this man truly lives what he believes.

The martial arts should never be without utility. At the very least styles like tai chi or some aspects of yoga strengthen the physical body of the individual, but in the most basic form they are exactly what they are called- martial arts. It's the art of fighting, of battles, of war. And as with anything, there is a right way and a wrong way to proceed in fighting, and there is a poor and there is an ideal warrior.

An ideal warrior is not necessary the best fighter in the world. He is not the one that can knock the other guy out the quickest, or that can crank out the most punches in a minute. The ideal warrior reflects his art in his dealings with his peers, his family, his country, and himself. Everyone knows that any reputable style will teach you never to fight if there's any way you can avoid it. But there is more to the ideal warrior than restraint. There is also a willingness to use the skills he has for any good purpose he is needed for. For James, this meant joining the army, putting his life on the line and donating all of his skills and training for the defense of his country, his freedoms, his fellow countrymen, and his family.

This is true sacrifice. This is one of the many traits that make up a complete karate-ka.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Why "Karate Ranch?"

Why karate ranch? What's with all the rock stacking? Where is this all going?

karate - do

For fourteen years I have been involved in the martial arts. I have had the pleasure of practicing kyokushin karate, goju ryu karate, and aikido. Sometime during my practice of goju ryu karate I discovered that there were people who were "doing" karate. Not making life changes, not studying the mental and spiritual aspects of the martial arts, just doing karate. My first clue that this was going on were those people who would come to class and do nothing but talk about golf and how great it was. Then, a bomb dropped.
As I have always been interested in kumite (sparring) with people from various styles, I accepted lots of matches from people studying things I had never heard of before. During one match, it became apparent that my sparring partner had never actually hit anything. Further, that they had never actually learned to stand or kick or anything for that matter. It was later revealed to me that this person had been "studying" from a fitness video.
Fast forward to years later when during my internship to receive my shodan the instructor quit and became a pacifist. I was left with the choice of looking for another school or teaching the little that I knew. That is where I am today, the only link to goju ryu karate that my students have. The importance of passing on the art has certainly dawned on me as well as the fact that without teachers, the martial arts are little more than a fitness fad.

Ranchers of the Way

So what does a ranch have to do with the martial arts? In simple enough terms, I feel that karate students go through three phases:
1) Dependent. Everything is new to the dependent student. They may feel shy or awkward performing the various karate moves and trip up a lot on karate terminology.
2) Co-dependent. The student knows quite a bit about the martial arts, has reached a level of comprehension that allows them to do workouts in groups without the teacher standing directly over them. Students are able to work together to answer questions that they have about different kata, karate moves, and are even able to study philosophy, tactics, and complex or advanced karate moves that they haven't been shown yet.
3) Independent. The student has learned all the basic karate moves, knows enough karate terminology to teach it to others and is self-correcting. The independent student needs little to no motivation from others and if left unchecked will become a living symbol of the Way.

This is similar to the care of animals. When an animal is born, it is dependent completely on others for survival. As it grows older it learns from experience how to get around, how to find food, et cetera. Finally, when an animal is old enough, it will be able to complete complex tasks, find its own food and be able to rear young.

A dojo, then, can be likened to a ranch. You have a community of individuals, all at different levels, working together to achieve a common goal. The only problem is that a dojo is rarely a place where twenty four hour a day practice is a reality. Often, martial artists will go on retreats to improve their skills, but usually are only competent enough to do that alone when they have reached the "independent" stage. This leaves the vast majority of students with no intensive training programs to take up.

Karate Ranch: Dream

My end goal, then, is to have a school where students can "get away from it all" to an intense training camp. Students may spend two weeks there in the summer and practice ten to fourteen hours a day. Activities would include: conditioning, meditation, kata, kumite, classes on the history of martial arts, martial arts terminology, open workshops devoted to the mind-set and philosophy of the martial arts, comparative studies and breaking things.

While the training may seem intense, it would be broken up into phases. The first phase would be orientation. Students would get to know the karate ranch and the people involved. They would get to know each other a lot better. They would learn where and when classes were and of course, where to go to the bathroom! This phase would probably last the first day as students got settled in.
The second phase would involve getting the students physically and mentally ready to learn. Brisk morning jogs, stretching, weight-lifting, stance work (including lots of moving and standing basics), and learning karate moves.
Third phase would be at least partially composed of standing and moving basics. get each student to a level of basic understanding and comfort with the martial arts.
At each training level, there would be an evaluation to assure that the student was making progress. At the end, there would be an final exam covering everything learned and an extensive diagnostic of the physical, mental and spiritual condition of the participant. In this way, a student would be able to properly judge their own progress and know what to work for. Also, they would feel a part of a larger community.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Karate: from hatchling to Eagle

No one likes to be the "new kid" at anything. Especially no one likes to be "the new karate kid" because there is a strong feeling of respect toward people of higher rank and you don't feel like you can live up to their expectations. This feeling of unease can often lead students to leave a dojo before really getting a "taste" of what karate is all about.

the Martial Clique

I recently had the educational experience of joining a martial arts club that was teaching a certain kind of aikido that is a little unconventional. The fact that the art was a little obscure and the amount of time that the group spent studying together (more than ten years for the most junior of them) helped them to forge a strong bond between each other. However, this bond inadvertently intimidated others and made them leave the dojo after very brief periods. Once the sensei said that most people drop in, do a few classes and then leave.
It was difficult for me and my wife to train there. While we were very interested in learning, the group spent most of their time talking about things not related to the martial arts. When they did get "down to business" they would review the same four skills for weeks at a time. Often they wouldn't say more than two or three words to us and always in the attitude of correction. I like to consider myself a hard trainer (kyokushin helps build that kind of thing) but these guys gave us a cold shoulder from day one to day one hundred and on.
I am sure that it was an unconscious thing on the part of the sensei and other students to be so exclusive, but it was odd to hear them talk about how most people didn't stick around and that suited them just fine. In my past experience, martial artists had been people who wanted to spread the knowledge of their particular art and wanted to help people do that. After six frustrating months trying to deal with the egoes involved (my own included!) I left that dojo and have tried to apply what I learned there in a positive way.

The Unexpected Lesson

While I learned valuable techniques studying with that group of aikidokas, the lesson I didn't think to learn is the one that I feel is most important: we are not "karate kids" or "novices" or even "beginners" when we start practicing a martial art, we are hatchlings! The new karate student is a fragile and wonderful thing. The new karate student is vulnerable to good and bad influences. The new karate student doesn't know much about karate or the way or why people are wearing their pajamas to class. The new karate student only begs with mouth wide open for the nutritious food that sensei will give him.
If we look at each new karate student as a member of the nest and not just some bum who wants to get some exercise in, the new karate student will feel that association. Perhaps it will not be a recognizable thing to them, at first. But practice after practice with everyone pitching in to show them the ropes, encourage, and challenge them, the new karate student- the karate hatchling will begin to grow into an eagle.

Where Eagles Only Dare

Eagles are the single most noble birds that I know of. They fly highest and among birds exhibit extraordinary perception and are known to have keen eyesight. A properly trained karate-ka can be likened to an eagle because they practice techniques and philosophies and methods that go far beyond the other students who choose not to achieve those levels of excellence. Students who only push themselves in time to make the next rank may be likened to the chicken who satisfies himself by scratching the ground and flying only on rare occasion. Other students find dojos that "hand out" belts or have annual advancement for attendance and can be likened to the penguin, who can only waddle and swim; instead of flying, they find ways around. Worst is the ostrich who buries his head, those who choose to leave the arts and pretend that they cannot do them or trick themselves into believing that the martial arts aren't "for them."
In the word "excellence" we find the word "excel" which means to go beyond. Karate students who go beyond are those rare eagles that everyone loves to see in flight. The rest fondly look up from their mcdojos or from the sand and say "if only I had more time," and "if only I had been born with longer legs." The eagle has risen above petty excuses.

Return to the Nest

The other thing I like about eagles is that, like most birds, they are nesting animals. The karate student who has truly excelled wants to share what they can with others and accepts the hatchling gingerly into the the nest with the words: Welcome to the nest, little hatchling, you are in good hands.

Apathy: The Fog that Kills

Recently when I was talking to my Dad about my decision to go into the Army, he told me something interesting about his own basic training for the Navy. Dad told me that his instructors got two big open tanks filled with jet fuel and taught the recruits how to put out the fire using ordinary water. I gave him a look because ordinary water doesn't put out jet fuel.

Fog: Surrounding

My father then expounded. "We used specially shaped nozels to spray a thick blanket of fog into the base of the fire." The fog choked the fire out by depriving it of oxygen. A direct stream of water wouldn't do because it doesn't cover enough area. Fog envelops the fire. It cancels out the "breath" of the reaction and the "body" of the reaction dies. No special technique, no chemicals, just plain old common sense- if you can't breathe, you die.

Fog: Blanketing

As Dad explained all this to me, I thought of the other ways that fog can be dangerous. For me, I hate driving when it's foggy because I can't see more than a few feet in front of me, but I am completely addicted to velocity. It turns a thirty minute drive into an exercise in patience and perspective. Where I live, there are a lot of accidents when it is foggy precisely for that reason: drivers don't want to slow down, they want to speed up! The thick fog that covers the road blinds their eyes and nothing else; they alone are responsible for the way they respond to it.

Fog: Damp Thief

Fog does something else that is quite interesting; fog steals heat. The next time it is foggy out, go for a walk. You will notice that the air is a bit chill, but not terribly uncomfortable. You don't notice it, but the air around you is so thick with moisture that it clings to your clothes and hair and cools your body significantly. Prolonged exposure to fog can lead to shivering, then more extreme symptoms of heat loss (purple lips, purple finger tips, and "goose flesh").

Apathy: Fog of anti-enthusiasm

In the life of a martial artist there are storms, there are clear days, and there is fog. The storm is quite obvious; life gets hecktic, the karate moves are hard, the challenge is great to continue and excel. Storms rage and demand everything from us. A student who doesn't properly prepare for a test or a tournament will most definitely know what is missing from their performance. Karate is hard.

Karate isn't all about storms, however, there are also days where you may end a kata or a fight or a practice with a big goofy grin on your face. The sun is shining, you remembered that move you had been working on and all is right in the world. Karate is good.

It is fog that I am most afraid of. Fog comes when specific conditions are met. The utter "plainness" of the routine. Everyone goes to a tournament, no one wants to get up at seven a.m. to go jogging and practice kata. The student begins to reason within himself saying "I don't have to get up every morning," they begin to come less and less regularly and suddenly they have vanished into the fog.

Another condition where fog exists is the challenge of the "real world." Students feel the weight of school or their jobs or social "obligations" and begin to pick and choose days that they want to show up. They cannot see the real benefits afforded by regular practice. The promise of health and mental clarity don't seem to appeal as much as another night at the drive-in with the gang. Karate can be lonely.

Interestingly enough, at a distance everything looks kind of foggy. Go out on a boat in the middle of the ocean and look around. You can't see a crisp "end" because there is a point where details begin to get fuzzy and things "vanish." To the karate-ka, the "impossible" distance between their current rank and some arbitrary belt color or status can rob them of their enthusiasm and nip their promising martial future in the bud. They fail to see the immediate rewards of the martial arts and cease believing in the long term benefits. Karate is a long process.

Burning off the Fog

How can one escape the intangible grip of apathy? My advice is to start by caring!
1. set goals- take time to write down specific goals and the dates you plan on completing them. Make sure that your goals are attainable and measureable. If you have larger goals, make "step" goals that will lead to completing the task. If you want to do better at kata for example, you may set the goal that in one month you are going to learn the katas you need for the next rank advancement. Then assign each kata a week in that month and practice hard to learn them!

2. get involved- it is easy to sit back and let things happen, it is quite another to be a part of the process. Talk to your sensei about specific ways you can help out. If it is something like sweeping the mats after use, make sure that you do your task promptly. Find ways to get more out of your own training, too! If you are attending classes only twice a week, you might consider practice three or four times a week. Also, set aside time on your own to practice.

3. spice it up!- there is no reason to have a boring practice. If you are working on basics, use your mind to improve your technique and your attitude. A simple kicking drill can be made interesting and fun by aiming carefully and assuring yourself of hitting your imaginary target every time. Practice kicking with the image of someone your own size on the receiving end. Imagine yourself performing the move in a dark alley.

4. take it to the next level- if you're getting bored with the "slow" way things are going, try going beyond what you are comfortable. If you're jogging, try jogging faster. If you are doing pushups, try a few more and don't let yourself stop until you do. Try practicing the more challenging moves and work up a good sweat doing it!

5. see the fog for what it is- If you're feeling discouraged, re-evaluate your situation. Are you doing everything you can? What kind of life changes can you make to promote your training? If you find that you are having trouble catching your breath during class, it may be time to consider a diet change or to quit smoking. If your friends don't give you enough time to practice, are they really your friends? If you are their friend, why haven't you taken them out to karate so they can enjoy the benefits. Your karate practice, if you are diligent in your pursuit of the way, will yield benefits that you will appreciate for your entire life.

6. Rise above it!-Fog kills, don't stick around in it! If you stick to it, you will find that it will become easier for you to practice. Not that the practice is easier, but that your ability to practice will become greater. Be loyal to yourself and your art.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Karate-Do: Right Thought, Right Action

karate can be a powerful influence in our lives if we allow ourselves to engage in correct practice. Karate can make us stronger individuals and give us the confidence we need to enfront the challenges of today's world. How can we apply karate principles and practices to our rushed and often chaotic schedules? How can we bridge the gap between karate kid to karate-ka?
1. Right Thought, Right Action: This means that karate must be a part of our thought process. One of the original philosophies behind karate is "refrain from violent behavior" which can mean many things. First, it is generally understood to mean that we shouldn't pick fights. It can also mean that we shouldn't allow others to provoke us. Next, as we look deeper it can be applied as "Guard against impetuous courage," or don't do something spur of the moment that you'll regret later. All of us know the kind of person who only needs to have the idea planted in their heads and they are jumping off roofs and riding on the hoods of cars (activities which I strongly advise against as they are unsafe!). Ozamu Ozawa taught "We shall be wary of foolishness."
Even deeper we see that karate inspires us to plan out actions to avoid making rash decisions that can cause harm to ourselves and others.
-This is not all! We must then APPLY correct karate principles in our lives so that we aren't just professing an ideal, but working actively toward a better world. This means that not only should we avoid incorrect action, but that we must occupy ourselves in service to others.
2. Erase bad behavior: As we begin to understand the concepts and practices of karate, we should recognize situations that we didn't handle well in our lives and things that we may be doing that don't fit into the character of a karate-ka. As we become aware of these aspects of our lives, we must actively try to clean the slate and become examples of what everyone should aspire to be. If we have wronged others we should follow a few steps: first- recognize that you have done something wrong. second- make reparations, return what was taken, or tell the truth. In all ways, correct the situation that was your fault. third- confess the wrong you have done to the person you have wronged. fourth- accept the consequences of your actions and pay whatever fines, service, or imprisonment that you must as punishment. Also, be brave about it, you "did the crime" now you must "do the time" and be glad you have the chance. fifth- resolve to never again do what you did.
3. Active Practice: Making daily practice a part of our schedule will help us keep in mind our responsibilities to ourselves and our fellows. Physically we will experience health and an increase in our ki (energy). This physical increase will lead to mental and spiritual benefits as we will be able to focus on homework or bills or our nine-to-five with focus and practiced determination. Part of this "active practice" may be joining a dojo and being faithful in your attendance and exert effort and sincerity in fulfilling the school's teachings.
4. Constant Improvement: We must each dedicate ourselves to improve more each day. Finding weakness in one's self will allow them to make necessary changes to eliminate weakness and may make it easier to find the "chinks" in the armor of opponents in the dojo and in the corperate world. It is important to set attainable goals and reach them.
some words on goal setting: a goal must be something within your reach after a reasonable amount of effort. you should be able to measure your goal and measure the progress that you are making toward it (ie, a good goal wouldn't be something like: i want to be a stronger person but might be something like: I want to be able to do fifty push-ups by October 1, 2005). Good goals have a definite time-table clearly outlined. You should write down your goals and periodically check your progress. Never set a long-term goal without establishing short-term goals that work toward it. Ex: If your goal is to be able to do one hundred push-ups in three months, you should set weekly goals that will incrementally get you to where you want to be.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

karate- benefits of practice in the great outdoors

many martial arts teachers have said and written that one should practice outdoors. as a karate kid i used to practice in an old clocktower with hardwood floors where falls really hurt and i thought that practicing outdoors wasn't for me. practicing outdoors was for the kid who needed to fall on grass to avoid crying.
when i got older i kept practicing indoors. mats, mirrors, clean gis- the benefits seemed endless. we never had to deal with bugs or twigs or rocks and i often wondered how they used to do it in the old days when a lot of training took place running in the mountains or in the woods.
now that i am left with some students i find myself enjoying the outdoors! the uneven ground brings a new degree of difficulty (and reality) to front kicks and moving basics. i noticed in a hurry that my feet were going to (and did) get tougher walking on rocks and sliding my feet in hot sand. the sun gets in the eyes, the wind kicks up dust, you freeze your toes off in the cold morning dew, and dogs bark at us- what better place to train?!
beyond the trials of practicing in a natural place, there are many internal benefits. each morning during our run, i can smell the trees, see the birds, and hear the wind. my senses feel sharpened and the demands of everyday life seem to drain out of me. appreciate nature! we should not say "how did they do it in the old days?" but instead "how do they do it now-a-days, so far removed from life?"

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Firm as a valley.
Resolute as the cherry blossom.

walking the middle way

today we see an increase in "street" martial arts. teachers advertise their styles by describing the "effectiveness" of their style versus the "ineffective" methods of old. when the conversation comes up I am always fascinated by the way the "street" martial practitioner will try to keep me from getting hurt feelings; "karate is good, but it doesn't address..." "I'm sure that would work if you were able to see your opponent coming at you..." even "against someone who didn't know what they were doing, that would be great." I chuckle softly and usually will change the subject. you see, above any description of the effectiveness of the ancient martial arts in combat, I see the benefits of study in the Way.

tao, do, and Way
lao tzu was a chinese philosopher who wrote the tao te ching. a pamphlet next to books like the bible and the koran, the tao te ching only contained five thousand characters. however this book, the tao te ching, has truths and ideals which can be applied in the martial arts. "tao" means path or way and denotes a lifestyle that requires commitment. Way is used also in karate: karate-do means "way of the empty hand." The use of do instead of jutsu implies that it is not simply a system of techniques or movements, but an attitude and a model for existence.

the tao of karate

although the principles of non-violence outlined in the tao te ching appear to be opposed to the philosophy of karate, they may be much closer than modern day "street fighter" mentality. Tsutomu Oshima said "The ideal in Karate is to one day say, 'I ask my mind and find no shame.'"This follows closely with what Lao Tzu wrote in verse twenty eight of the tao te ching "Act with honor, but retain humility. By acting according to the way of the Tao, set others an example."

martial parallels to the tao te ching

Morihei Ueshiba said "There is evil and disorder in the world because people have forgotten that all things emanate from one source. Return to that source and leave behind all self-centered thoughts, petty desires, and anger. Those who are possessed by nothing possess everything." This closely mirrors what is presented in the Tao Te Ching "Some thousands of years ago, our species alone issued a declaration of independence from our Mother. Now it is time to reunite with her. Thereafter, we will never any more suffer the 10,000 miseries that only we human beings have acquired."
The Tao Te Ching further states " There is nothing more yielding than water, yet when acting on the solid and strong, its gentleness and fluidity have no equal in any thing. The weak can overcome the strong, and the supple overcome the hard." This became an important part of martial philosophy, especially with the famous Bruce Lee who said "Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind."

final thoughts: Karate-do, Tao Te Ching

Does the amplification of your life mean so little to you that you would limit yourself to simply studying movements instead of attitudes? what is more important- the ability to break a board, or the ability to live in harmony with a spouse or child? does our fixation with "winning" mean we lose out on a happy home and a happy nation?I submit that the martial way must be more than a series of punches and kicks, but a path we tread toward unity and peace.
In the end, if we cannot reach our goals, at least we will have walked the middle way- not a victim and not a victimizer, but a peacemaker and a person of integrity.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Finding yourself

The path along the Way is often described as a journey of self-discovery.
Although it can also be described as a journey of self-control and discovery of the innate whole of the Universe. One cannot know another until he knows himself. Abandoning preconceived notions of strength or weakness are paramount. Brushing your hair is optional.

"Meekness is great power under complete control."-unknown
In our context, one cannot become a competent martial artist without discovering those things about himself that he must strengthen and what things are strong. When one becomes strong, he or she has the moral obligation to exercise meekness. What's more, there is the duty to better others either through service or teaching.
There are a few things to consider when trying to discover yourself.
1. everyone has a gift- although you may not know what yours is, you have a gift and a special strength that may be unique to you! For example, I know a martial artist who has a very good sense of ground fighting. No one has ever taught him how to ground fight, he just instinctively knows how to do it.
2. find your gift- finding a gift is easier than it sounds. All one must do to discover one's own strength is test one's self. You will find out pretty quickly if you are a good high kicker just by trying it out. If you don't get it right the first time, don't beat yourself up. If you learn to do something quickly, that may be a strength to you!
3. find your weaknesses- while trying to find a gift you will eventually discover what weaknesses you may have. For example, I am not a good high kicker. Unless I practice a lot, I will never be good at kicking high. This is something that I know about myself. If I want to improve I have to overcome it. In the mean time, I shouldn't rely on high kicks in a fight.
4. work around your weakness- when you discover that you have a weakness, find ways to work around it. If you are like me and can't kick high, focus on working low or focus on punching. Everyone is different so it is crazy to assume that everyone is going to fight the same way. That doesn't excuse us from needing to make those weak things strong, but it means that while I improve I need to use other karate moves and methods to get my point across.
5. continue developing your strengths- if you stop practicing those things that are easier for you, pretty soon you'll find that what you think is easy to do has actually become a challenge to you. If you don't train it, you'll lose it. When I became a pacifist (it only lasted a year!) I found it to be next to impossible to remember how to do a kick, even though I had practiced for five years prior!