The Quantum Karateka

…step outside the dojo.


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In pursuit of a living karate

I just recently got back from a four day visit to see Sensei Kris Wilder and his school (West Seattle Karate Academy) in Seattle, WA. I had contacted him about a month ago to see if I could set up some private lessons with him and to determine for myself if he might be the kind of karate teacher I was looking for. Was he?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Well…

I was a bit disappointed that the regular dojo classes were not a continuation of the excitement and insight of those private lessons. I can understand this however. Doing a class “for the masses” and taking individual instruction are quite different approaches. But I was hoping that there would be more adult black belt or advanced level students in those classes (there were mainly teens, pre-teens, and children). Perhaps I just happened to come on the wrong week? Or is it always like that? I don’t know. I just emailed Sensei Wilder asking him the same question. Not that his answer will necessarily determine whether I should move (or not move) to Seattle. I’m just saying that I would have liked to have met more of his adult students (in order to better gauge the overall quality of the school).

Anyway. Although I’m not feeling like super-“Oh my God!”-enthusiastic about the school itself, Sensei Wilder on the other hand was a sheer joy to take instruction from. I was relating to my friends and family that perhaps the single biggest thing I’m walking away with from that experience was actually feeling what it meant to practice a “living karate”. For me, this has to do with the kata. Because it is these forms which is what the art of karate revolves around. To have a shallow understanding of the kata results in a shallow feeling for karate. You go to the dojo and see those old pictures of the masters on the wall and you have no real respect for them because you don’t really know what made them “masters” in the first place. You are told that it is proper to have respect for them because, well, everybody else has respect for them. And it’s traditional to respect your “elders” and the “founders” of your system/style/school, etc. But real respect can only come from having a deeper understanding of what those old dudes passed along to us. The analogy I like for this is music. If you take great jazz musicians for example (Coltrane, Bird, etc) and you let the average music fan listen to them, I’m not so sure you’re going to find that they have a deep appreciation for the creativity and musicianship of these “greats”. They might like the music. They might even enjoy the quality of the sound. But they’re unaware of what makes these people “masters” of their craft. All you know is that the music critics adore them. The marketers put 5 stars on their album covers and talk about their “legendary-ness”. You sort of go along with the crowd on that one. I know because, well, I don’t read or understand music that deeply. I can play an instrument (drums), but I am basically musically illiterate. I couldn’t tell you what makes Coltrane more a musical genius than your average tenor sax player. But I do know this: if I decided to make it my mission to learn how to read music, to learn how to play the instrument that Coltrane played, to learn how to compose music, etc, I can tell you I would probably have far deeper respect for Coltrane not only as a musician but as a human being, because I would be able to better sense the expression of his genius.

This is what I felt when Sensei Wilder helped me to see the combative applications of the kata. For my first private lesson, he had me perform my “favorite” kata. Although I didn’t have one in particular, I told him I was curious about Chinto (Matsubayashi-ryu version) and he sort of broke down the opening movements for me. I’m telling you: what once seemed like abstract arm movements and vigorous body motion became a sudden wealth of empty-handed combat information. There was even a brief moment where I could feel my mind being transported to the past. To be able to feel this was tremendously exhilarating. That’s not hyperbole either. It was as if I could finally understand that it was a language being spoken to me and not some garble.

Although there can be multiple interpretations of the techniques found within kata, the ones that Sensei Wilder showed me were more than sufficient in my mind. It was amazing to see how seemingly minor movements could mean so much more. The elbow smash in Chinto for example wasn’t just an elbow smash. It was a sophisticated series of movements that set up the smash itself. The body acting as a sort of complex network of gears and levers, doing multiple things at once in order to aid in the simple functioning of the task. All things which one cannot see without a trained eye. And all things which an unfortunate opponent would be unaware of as well. SMASH! Ouch man. Hecka big ouch. Debilitating ouch. A stop-the-fight-right-this-instant ouch.

This is karate.

And I thought to myself too that it is an irony of martial arts that in order for a good student to have a profound respect for life, they must also have a deep understanding of the brutal impact of their techniques. When you witness or feel the meanness of these techniques on a human body, you just don’t want to use it indiscriminately on somebody. Karate is no game. It’s not even your most no-holds barred bare knuckle brawl. It is demonic and wicked in its intention. The techniques are designed to incapacitate and cause extreme suffering and long-term damage. It is as dangerous as handling a gun. I looked down and shook my head as I realized this. “Dang man. Karate is just really not for kids!”

But that’s the crux of a modern dojo as business endeavor of course. The kids are where the money is at. Which is how I can understand why Sensei Wilder has so many damn kids. There are just not enough adults in one area who are so enthusiastic about the fighting arts that they come in droves. But hey, how many kids wanna be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

So, my time with Sensei Wilder was not only eye-opening, but empowering. It is true that nothing beats hands-on instruction. Not the best DVD or the best book. You have to see and feel it for yourself. And especially when it comes to an art like karate, where the whole thing revolves around the kata, you just have to know something about that man. You can’t ignore it or pretend you just wanna get good at sparring. The kata contain the living information that you need in order to have true self-defensive functionality. So if you’re a struggling karate student like me, who is fed up with perfecting form for the sake of it, find a teacher who can give to you an understanding of the engine that drives karate. Because I’m telling you, when you find that, you will find yourself re-invigorated to want to keep on learning (or so turned off by its brutality that you take up golf).

Check out Sensei Wilder’s and Kane’s book, The Way of Kata, here.

– ELBOW SMASH!

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Zombie karate

“AAaargghhAUurrmmUGGHH!!!”

I just read the most recent KARATEbyJesse post the other night and I wanted to blog about it here because I think Jesse clearly articulates a phenomenon that can be difficult to describe to karateka and laypeople alike. It’s the reason I decided to call this blog “the Quantum Karateka” and have one of its many taglines be “In pursuit of a living karate”.

The kind of modern karate training I have a foundation in, while ostensibly being “traditional”, seems to have been more about keeping the student in a state of conformity than it was about revealing the keys to individual mastery. In order to “master” something, I believe students need a clear understanding of basics, or principles that are inherent within their discipline (think about playing an instrument for example). Unfortunately, it seems much of modern karate has confused this mastery of basics with mastery of form. Of course, considering the oral tradition and underground development of this art, it makes sense that we karateka don’t really have a clear understanding of basics. From my observations, it seems to me that what we call “basics” in modern karate training have to do with basics of form derived from how the kata is literally performed. So if it looks like a “block” or a “punch” or a “kick”, then that’s what we pick out from the kata and then subsequently learn to perfect. This isn’t necessarily true for all dojo of course. And I’m not trying to imply that my teacher or anyone else’s is conspiring to hold us back from understanding the “true” karate. This phenomenon seems to have its roots way back when karate was first being introduced to the masses. It’s in the pedagogy man.

What’s significant about Jesse’s article for me is that he is getting at something which I have found helpfully articulated in the field of quantum physics by the author Margaret J. Wheatley. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, her book, Leadership and the New Science was the inspiration behind the philosophy of this blog. I haven’t read any other books on the subject of quantum mechanics and I’m definitely no expert in that area but I can tell you that the insights she points out are what made me realize why we need to revolutionize the way we learn and teach karate. There are a bunch of things I could quote from this book that speak to what I’m trying to get at here, but a big insight for me and the reason I think for all of this “zombie karate” is what Wheatley says in the chapter entitled, “The Creative Energy of the Universe – Information”:

For a system to remain alive, for the universe to move onward, information must be continually generated. If there is nothing new, or if the information that exists merely confirms what is, then the result will be death…The fuel of life is new information –  novelty – ordered into new structures. We need to have information coursing through our systems, disturbing the peace, imbuing everything it touches with life. We need, therefore, to develop new approaches to information – not management but encouragement, not control but genesis.” (pg. 104-105)

When it comes to martial arts, just what exactly is this information? I could be wrong, but I think it has to do with what martial arts was designed to deal with in the first place: violence and conflict. Of course, violence and conflict are not the only sources of information. What if you practice martial arts for competition and sport? Then your information is gonna be different. You’re not going to spend hours reading or watching how violent criminals attack because that’s not how it’s gonna go down in the ring. You are going to focus your training on the arena in which you are looking to be prepared for. The problem is when teachers begin to blur those two realms and talk and teach as if preparation for one arena is sufficient for the other. For example, you might practice a jumping spinning back kick in class (which I’ve done in an Uechi-ryu dojo; or I should say “tried” to do – almost fell on my ass). And it could be implied, either by the culture of the dojo or your instructor, that the kicking exercise you just practiced is a tool you’d want to have in a real fight situation.

Do I have to tell you that’s bullshit for you to know that’s bullshit?

That’s right. BULLSHIT.

And I’m not saying that just cause I suck at doing that kick. I mean, could that technique go over really well in a demonstration? Or in competition? Or in movie stunt choreography? Hell yeah it would. It’s athletically spectacular, well-executed things like that which get people to wanna do martial arts in the first place (well, for some people anyway). Show some people video of a street fight or a violent criminal assault (or witness or become victim to a real one) and I don’t think you’d get the same amount of people signing up at the dojo door. Real physical violence is fast, ugly, brutal, and traumatic.* If you wanna know something about it without necessarily having to go “through the looking glass” yourself, read Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence – it’ll blow your mind (or at least make you question what you think you know).

My point is that information seems to be the key missing ingredient in what can distinguish a “living karate” from a “zombie karate”. It’s also what seems to be the key ingredient in what can make a martial arts organization stagnant and politically divisive versus a collaborative effort of people who seek to find ways of improving/understanding the techniques and strategies that make up the body of their art. That latter quality reminds me of the impression I get from reading the historical research done by Patrick McCarthy on how Okinawan karate came to be; in other words, this is nothin’ new. In fact, go over to Jesse’s website and download his free ebook, “The Matsuyama Theory” to get a sense of what I mean. There just ain’t no such thing as pure when it comes to what we do. We’ve all been borrowing and stealing from each other forever. Like Seth Godin says in, The Icarus Deception:

Artist pirates steal in order to remix and then give back.

Are you a martial artist or an automaton?

Read Jesse’s article here.

-QK

*For the record, I’ve never been violently assaulted nor have I ever engaged in a street fight so most of what I’m saying is coming from an intuitive understanding of what guys like Miller are saying. If you think I’m wrong, then well…correct me goddammit!!!


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Sensei

Yesterday, my Sensei from Southern California called me on the phone. I hadn’t talked to him in a few months so it was good to hear from him but also because at that moment I was in a rough mental place. Feeling overwhelmed by the changes in my life and uncertain of my future.

Apparently though, he was calling because he wanted to know if I had been “talking behind his back”.

What?

That’s all I could think when he said that. It seems that a few weeks ago he had been speaking to his most senior ranking student, a man in his late 40’s or early 50’s, who told my Sensei that I had “nothing more to learn from him”. From what I could gather, it seemed like this student was debating with him about the subject of “grappling” and how he felt that they should focus on that aspect more. I don’t know how I could have come up in the conversation. I don’t keep in touch with this student. I don’t consider myself a friend of his. And the last time I remember talking to him must have been when I visited the dojo back in December/January of this year. But I don’t even really recall what we could have talked about because I don’t really like conversing with this person anyway. At the most, it’s possible I could have explained what I had been learning about karate since the time I left the dojo 2 years ago. But I never would have said the words, “I have nothing more to learn from him”. WTF? I do believe though that my Sensei is not capable of teaching me everything there is to know about karate (or life). How is that even possible first of all? And I do believe that, as a student, part of my responsibility is to keep learning and growing for myself. Otherwise, what kind of student would I be? So, it’s possible that this student misinterpreted what I may have said, but like I mentioned above, I don’t even remember what I did say, if anything related to that matter at all!

What The F— Man!?

Anyway, so after being a little taken aback and feeling angry at this dude, I wrote my Sensei an email reiterating as clearly as I could that I have no reason or need to be talking behind his back. I mean, what a f—ing waste of my time it would be to do that! I got my own shit to worry about here! And my mindset is, if your school or teacher didn’t teach you something then f—ing find another school or teacher who will! You don’t need to whine and complain about whatever lesson you’re not getting. Shit, a lot of people be learning from YouTube nowadays. Of course, I agree with the notion that nothing beats learning directly from an actual teacher (not a virtual Sensei). But goddamn man! Why are you even including me in your conversation! I don’t even like you!

UGGHHH!!!

*whew* Okay, sorry. Guess I still had some anger and frustration in me. It just makes me sad man. I mean, as students, I think we do have a right to be able to question what we are learning, to seek understanding, to think for ourselves, to not believe everything we are being told without investigating for ourselves, and even to disagree with our teachers if that is appropriate. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t also hold a place of respect for those teachers. Without their experience, without their initiative, what dojo would you have to walk into? How would you even be knowing something about the art (or complaining about some deficiency in it) if you were not first introduced to it by your teacher(s)?

I like the Japanese meaning of “sensei”. It’s a lot deeper than the colloquial English translation as “teacher”. Here are two separate sources and explanations of this word:

[1] Sensei (先生) is a Japanese word that is literally translated as “person born before another”. In general usage, it is used, with proper form, after a person’s name, and means “teacher”, and the word is used as a title to refer to or address teachers, professors, professionals such as lawyers, CPA and doctors, politicians, clergymen, and other figures of authority. The word is also used to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or some other skill: accomplished puppeteers, novelists, musicians, and artists for example are addressed in this way.

[2] Most martial artists also consider a sensei to be a life-long guide who provides students with physical, mental and even sometimes spiritual training. In Japan it is quite appropriate to refer to a church leader or spiritual guide as a sensei. It is also appropriate to use the term for teachers in educational institutions, classical arts and crafts, temples, clubs and many other student-teacher relationships.

I bring that up to make the point about how I view the man who taught me karate. I use that term endearingly, not formally. I may not be training at his dojo anymore. I may have found other areas of interest within karate that grab my attention. I may be seeking out other teachers who have different areas of expertise. I may not even consider Southern California my home anymore! But not recognizing what my Sensei has done for me is like not recognizing what my parents have done for me (and are still doing). I’m not saying he or they were perfect. Far from it! But who the hell is?! I’m saying that….well, hopefully you get what I’m saying. Cause if not, then you’re stupid. Like that guy. Yeah I said it. At least you can quote me on that one!

My life is different now. I’m following my own path. Seeking my own understanding of myself. Doing my best to remember what was taught to me and continuing my study from there. I’ll admit, I’m not the best student. I’m lazy with my practice. I whine and complain about what I’m not getting out of it. And I get passionately frustrated about what I feel is detrimental in the pedagogy of the dojo. I do know that for the time being, my time with my Sensei is over. My mind has moved on into other things and I can openly admit to that. But without the foundation that was instilled in me, from what place would I even have to learn and grow from? And how can you ever really thank someone enough for that?

– QK


Balls – Throat – Eyes

I remember reading this article by Iain Abernethy during my time in Detroit and it recently popped up in my head again as pertinent to some questions I was formulating for a karate teacher.

Just wanted to post a link to it here mainly for my reference, but also for any curious karate minds out there. The article was helpful in understanding the specifics of how certain “habitual acts of physical violence” might be perpetrated upon someone and how those acts may be countered with the strategy and technique found within kata. It is a very fun and informative read. Here’s a small excerpt:

“It is quite common to hear statements such as, “If the opponent seizes your wrist, you can respond with this bit of the kata.” Why has the opponent seized your wrist in the first place? It is hardly the most savage of attacks! Do you just stand there so the opponent can do as they please? – “Wait ’till you grab my wrist, then you’re gonna get it!” … Original karate is a very brutal system. Today, we may well face legal consequences as a result of our actions. Be sure to only apply the techniques described above if the situation justifies them.”

Man, when you really begin to explore and understand it, the strategy of karate is really just low-down dirty street-fighting stuff – no joke. This ain’t no sport! Knowing this brutality it’s no wonder then that you’d have to make sure your students were of good upstanding character. Along with really knowing how to hurt someone comes great responsibility.

-QK


Differences in meaning can make all the difference

I recently came across this article by Charles C. Goodin (head of the Hawaii Karate Museum) in which he talks about the meaning of a “bushi”. I thought it was an interesting article on the distinction between how that term was used in Japan versus Okinawa. Namely that, in Japan the term was used as analogous to a “samurai” or “warrior”. In Okinawa the term was given honorifically and was meant to denote someone of “superior martial arts skill” while also being a “civilized, principled gentleman”. The article goes on to say much more, but I thought this emphasis on “karate gentlemen” was attractive.

This difference in meaning also reminds me of what Shoshin Nagamine wrote in his speech entitled “Okinawan Karate and World Peace” in which he distinguishes between the Okinawan “view of death” versus the Japanese. Here’s a quote:

“A Ryukyu proverb describing the mind of a Ryukyu warrior says, ‘even if you lose your glory, you should never give up your life’. In other words, this proverb means that even if you lose your class or rank because of a new regime, you should not waste your life but try your best to survive the worst and then stand up again. The most precious treasure in this world is your life. It is because without your life, you cannot accomplish anything.”

Nagamine Sensei contrasts this with a quote from the well-known Japanese sword master, Musashi Miyamoto:

“Even though you may have to sacrifice yourself, you should not throw away your honor.”

To me, this distinction is like a “life philosophy” versus a “death philosophy”. One based on gratitude, the other based on pride.

Anyway, I just wanted to post that article because I often think about how martial arts should be taught and disseminated in the 21st century.

-QK