02 Jun

To Move in Time

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"Do or do not, there is no try."-Master Yoda from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

I was in my early twenties and new to living in the massive urban hub called Toronto. I had been training in Goju Ryu Karate for several years before moving to Toronto so I sought out a Dojo teaching the same style. This lead me to the Canada Goju Hombu Dojo headed by Hanshi William Hind. Classes at his Dojo were much more demanding than I was used to and the focus on Kumite (sparring) was far heavier than I previously experienced.  I was not keeping up with my classmates and so my youthful male mind was getting frustrated. I decided to speak to Hanshi Hind about my struggles. He looked at me with smiling eyes and said, "time, you just need more time".

Time is weird. It is a reliable friend and a constant enemy. It limits our lives and also makes them manageable. Time provides one of the great paradoxes of life. That being how we have a finite amount of time in a world with infinite potentials.

We are all constantly losing time and cannot by any means get back any of it. On some scale everything that can be known is always creeping towards the end of it's time. Even the Sun will burn out one day and our solar system will no longer be a home able to sustain human life. This makes time extraordinarily valuable. Sensei Morltey often reminds me that time is the most valuable thing a person has.

For each us there can be three basic types of time that underlie our entire lives. Psychological time, physiological time, and clock/artificial time. Between these three is the space in which we live out our lives. Each has unique characteristics and can be engaged with differently. However all three are fundamentally tied to the finite limits of our lives.

Psychological time is the sense of difference between one moment and another. It is the kind time that can dilate from fast to slow depending on the type of experience a person is having at a given moment. It's how a dentist appointment can seem to drag on forever while an entire day can dissolve like a single breath when it's in the company of someone we are in love with. It is a direct and largely personal aspect of time. It is also an important part of what's meant by training to control the mind. If you can slow the mind more information can be processed. Karate, Tai Chi, and all other traditional martial arts utilize this aspect of time for that reason.

Physiological time is basically the measure of a persons heart rate along with the other regular occurring bodily cycles. There are of course a great number of various biochemical processes that are constantly going on in our bodies. When all these individual systems in our bodies are taken in to account they determine our physiological time.  It is largely within this aspect of time that physical ageing takes place. So it is no accident that every form of meditation has the effect of slowing down not just the mind but also the heart rate. In the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, famous for being done at a very slow speed, this internal slowing of the heart rate is a main component of the many health benefits that result from the training. The Tai Chi Form and Karate Kata training both utilize this aspect of time.

Clock time or artificial time is made up by people. It was created it to make life easier to coordinate with others and works very well for that purpose. There is a great deal of practical use to having a clock to organize our lives around. But it is still made up. Animals don't follow a clock and neither do the seasons or the stars. Nature does have cycles which repeat and that can seem like a clock but they are always somewhat asymmetric in the way that no two waves in the ocean are exactly alike.

It is said that a life lived at it's best is in harmony with all aspects of time and it's omnipresent partner change. In fact the foundational martial art text called the Bubishi states that being in harmony with time and change is a fundamental requisite for attainment of high level martial arts skills.

It should be obvious to anyone who has done any amount of training in any martial art that a self defense technique needs to be done with highly attuned timing to be successful. Timing is the control of the space between action and  non-action and a persons ability to manage themselves in that way is critical to any combative situation. Most often this sense of when to move in or when to pull back in combat is not considered to be correlated to ones mental state or metabolic rate but they are entwined.

Martial Arts training is uniquely adept at cultivating a healthy balance between the many aspects of time and change. Kihon or basics teach how to best move the arms and legs in space. Kumite or sparring teaches how to respond to another person with correct speed and positioning. And Kata shows us how every action can be done perfectly in time and in harmony with change. The profundity of that realization is a hard endured but fantastically worthwhile one.

It is in the struggle to maintain a balance between the requirements of time and the desire to achieve results that Hanshi William Hind's words are so profound. We all need more time but the truth is our time is always running out. Whether our goals are simple or elaborate they are all limited by our mortality.

So often I hear people say they just don't have time to do the things they love. For the martial artist time spent training is of the highest priority. In fact training itself is suppose to be a constant reminder that our time is running out so not even one second of it should be treated with indifference or apathy.  So whatever your doing remember your time is isn't coming back to you once it's gone so make of the most of it.

This makes the words of Hanshi William Hind correct, we all still need more time, but there's no guarantee we'll get it.

Best to go train right now.

12 May

The Dojo And Responsibilities Of The Heart

 

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Wealth is lost, nothing is lost. 

Health is lost, something is lost.

Morality/Character is lost, all is lost.

-O'Sensei Richard Kim

    A few years ago my brother got married. He had moved out of province almost as soon as he finished High School. Setting his sights on the ample opportunities available at that time in Alberta. Both of us were raised to be hard workers and our father taught us many useful skills. Because of these skills and his own natural fortitude he did well in The Wild Rose Country, eventually finding himself working for a big company in the oil industry and buying his first house. By the time his special day had come I had written out a speech in his honour for the reception dinner.  I found it quite cathartic to muse over the many memories we both had shared. I am two years older than him but I have no memory of life before he came into this world. However one thing stood out above all else, something else our father had done his best to teach us, that blood, love, and honour are ties that bind and need to be matched with heartfelt words and actions. There are many Zen Koans which are suppose to ask the seemingly impossible of someone. One of my favorites is to ask for someone to pull the four corners of Tokyo from their sleeves. These weird little questions and stories are partly designed to get a person to act spontaneously by seeming to lack any sensibility or continuity. It is hoped that in such moments of perplexity and confusion clarity and peace might be found, allowing for Satori to be reached. My Sensei teaches six words that are suppose to lead to peace, they are Compassion, Humility, Honour, Gratitude, Loyalty, and Patience. Over many years I have found these words to be like a well that never runs dry. Every time I pull from that well I get the nourishment and refreshment I seek on all levels, body, mind, and spirit. They are such good words. Words worth listening to at anytime fear or anxiety creep up to the door of our minds, or just as importantly, anytime the question of what might be right and true is confronted. When I wrote the speech for my brothers wedding celebration I came to clearly see the right and true of my responsibilities to him. The love and blood we share dictates that I will always make myself available to aid or support him. At a time in history when narcissism and self indulgence guide society towards an ever darkening abyss remembering our responsibilities and accountability to ourselves, and each other, would go far towards a better world. If I claim that exercising everyday honors your body and will reward you with a better chance at finding your peace in the world that may not be hard to grasp. The understanding that our physical health requires regular exercise, healthy food, and a consistent sleep pattern it well known. But what about our mental and spiritual health, those things are very important to everyone's life and unfortunately they are not as well understood by the majority of people it would seem. The quote at the beginning of this article is the answer to the question of what leads to a healthy mind. It is a truly fascinating thing but if you still your mind and sit quietly with any situation you might be facing you will find within yourself the answer(s) you seek. Deep in the quiet parts of the unconscious is a knowing we all have as to what is right for us, not necessarily right for anyone else. In the Dojo this is cultivated largely by the fellowship of the Dojo itself. A Dojo is a very special place, it is a sacred space, built for developing individuals and growing communities. There's very few things like it in the world. Lifelong friendships are developed, rivalries are born and forgotten, and in the end it becomes like a second family. Slowly over time a person who's eyes and heart are open will see their fellow Martial Artists having meaningful influence in their lives, and that they themselves are influencing the other members of the Dojo. Once this becomes apparent the responsibilities that must be carried by the Martial Artists becomes clear. Gichin Funakoshi famously said that Karate wasn't just for the inside the Dojo. Part of what he was getting at was this idea of caring how you influence and are influenced by others. My brother, like the rest of my family,  makes me who I am and so I need to honour that connection to sustain my mental health. To ignore these responsibilities is to cultivate guilt and resentment which then lead to narcissism and further illness. It is in heartfelt words and actions, born out of loyalty and honour, that we can build a world worth living in and leaving to the next generation. This might mean helping your Sensei clean up after class, or it might mean taking some time to help your sister move apartments, or it could just be smiling kindly at a stranger when they pass you buy. When added up it just means that mental health and a better world are the result of knowing the responsibilities of the heart both in and out of the Dojo.            
03 May

Tournaments And Paths To Follow: Part 2-Different Reasons

gate   "Whom do you serve?" asks the hero in the epic fantasy novel as they confront a stranger on their hero's quest. The stranger's face pales and the tension between the two increases dramatically. Such a question is not lightly answered.  It might as well be, what do you truly want? or what are your ultimate intentions? All these questions end up basically meaning the same thing. They ask what are the core beliefs motivating an individual to do the things they do. Not a small question at all. Like the hero in the story we all would be benefited to ask the same question but instead of asking it of others we should take the time to ask ourselves who or what we are serving. Does anxiety rule your mind, or does peace and passion? Years ago Sensei Mortley first told me that I must be able to look in the mirror and feel good about what I saw. A person might be able to put on a nice smile for their boss or partner but there is no way to truly be dishonest with themselves. What's more any attempt at doing so does great damage to the person in the end. . In the previous article I painted a picture of the two basic camps in the ongoing debate within martial artist community about the role competitions play within training. I admittedly used very broad brush strokes so as to more easily differentiate the two camps. Despite that I certainly don't mean to say that all practitioners of the numerous martial arts in the world are wholly committed to one side of the debate or the other. I personally find watching highly skilled competitors in the UFC octagon fighting with passionate and fury a fascinating display of human capability. But as intense and dramatic as such fights might be, for me, there is always a shadow underneath it all. That being a very strong personal dislike for violence. So even my personal position on this issue is heavily nuanced and hard to pinpoint. It would also be foolish to say that combat sports are anything less than written into the DNA of society. The Romans had the Gladiators and most other cultures throughout time had their own equivalent spectacles. I would imagine that even back in the early Stone Age humans would gather around and watch people argue and fight using their hands and feet and other weapons. In fact it can be said that all sports are to some degree based off either fighting or hunting. Both fighting and hunting in the early Stone Age would require a great deal of skill and precision. There was also great risks as the hunts and fights would likely often end with the death of the participants. Today there is still lethal consequences to many sports. NFL Football and NHL Hockey are plagued by concussions and other similar injuries. Just recently a UFC fighter named Joao Carvalho died after a bout from what seems to be the head injuries he received in the fight. Professional Boxing has it's deaths as well. These fighters don't go into the ring planning on being killed but it does happen and it's considered one of the costs of such activities. The question then is why are the participants engaging in these activities.  Well for the most part it seems to be for rewards of wealth and personal glory. Now I know there are many people who have gained tremendously from training in all the combat sport arts and that is a great thing. However at the highest levels of achievement in these systems winning is the main goal and what you win is personal glory and cash. Of course money is a necessity in our society and few people have enough of it to live comfortable lives. I can easily understand the desire to make the heaps of money world champions seem to do. Years ago I toyed with the idea of entering into some local competitions for just that reason. Then there is the glory of being known as a champion. This is also an easily understandable desire. All people are driven to some extent to receive recognition from their fellow humans. Becoming the "best" at something is the human equivalent of becoming the alpha of the pack. And to be sure becoming highly skilled at any activity is a noble goal and one I highly recommend. My Sensei has often reminded me that one should become world class at something they love. Whatever that may be it will serve you well to truly seek out becoming as good as anyone can be at whatever skill/art/craft you wish to pursue. So it is with world champion combat sport fighters. These men and women has worked endless hours honing their skills and have paid a heavy price for their achievements. They have sweated buckets and even bled on the training floor and I definitely respect them for it. Far to often people mistake differences for value, especially on this point. If one person happens to find their path in life leads into the triumphs and defeats of the professional fighting world and another person's path leads into a Traditional Martial Art practice, avoiding violence at all costs and never making a public spectacle of their skills, then who is really following the true path?  Neither, both, in reality such comparisons diminish both Sport Fighting and Traditional Martial Arts. Having totally different reasons to do a thing fundamentally changes the thing you do. In the Traditional Martial Arts the goals are completely different than are the goals of the sport fighter. A Traditional Martial Artist will go to great lengths to avoid any violent encounters. Even if forced to defend themselves they never do more than is necessary to avoid harm. Seeking to "win" against another is an act of the ego and pride no matter how you look at it. Most Traditional Dojo's speak out against the dangers of pride and are adamant that it is never acceptable to use the skills they develop to intentionally harm another.  This means in Traditional Martial Arts there is no rewards of glory to be found, only endless effort. The true goal of the Traditional Martial Artists is to live a long, healthy, and honourable life. It is a simple goal but one far from easy. My Sensei has asked the question of how compassion and humility can coexist with competitions that make people either winners or losers. If the six words of compassion, humility, honour, loyalty, gratitude, and patience are truly observed then one cannot claim superiority over any other person, or animal, or plant, or anything else that exists. So in the end the questions is what do you want, or to put it more poetically, what do you wish to serve. Does the idea of defeating other people for cash and glory excite you, then a Sport Based Competitive Dojo is where you ought to go. If the pursuit of personal self defense and individual/spiritual growth is what you seek then a Traditional Dojo is where you will want to be. Both are valid choices but both travel utterly different paths. I wish you well no matter what path you take.            
13 Aug

Center Point

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Whenever someone new comes in the Dojo it is usual to have the first part of the class focus on learning about their center. Without knowing your center it can be very difficult to know where to begin with any of the movements or breathing concepts in traditional martial arts. This center point is just a couple inches below the navel or belly button. Called the Dantien in Chinese, Hara in Japanese, and in Yogic Traditions it is known as the sacral chakra. This specific spot on the body is of supreme importance to Karate, Tai Chi Chuan, Jujutsu, Aikido, and every other traditional martial art. So why is this spot of such importance, well first it's best to establish just what all these arts and exercises are designed to achieve.

The basic premise from a purely physical standpoint is to focus on the idea of achieving the maximum potential the human body is capable of. This can be in terms of balance, overall strength and endurance, as well as feats of awareness. The pursuit of achieving the perfection of the possibilities of the body is where Yoga, Tai Chi Chuan, and Karate all begin from.  It is also why the Hara/Dantien/sacral chakra is of such importance.

It sounds logical then to say that in order to achieve the highest potentials of the human body a person must develop all the movements and expressions of their body to it's maximum levels. To do that all the movements must be coordinated to work together as one powerful and fluid whole.  This is why the martial artist is constantly striving to connect the turning of their ankles with the twisting of their torso and to carry the movement through into the rotation of their forearm, and finally ending with the clenching/snapping/twisting/pushing/punching of their hand. It is an old saying that to have a strong punch you need a strong leg. What connects the legs to the arms is the torso and the Hara is the center of exchange point between the two.

Throughout history there has been numerous warrior castes. The Sparta, Maori, Inca, and Norse peoples all had powerful warriors in a variety of expressions and fighting skills. Yet they all had the same basic body movements to work with. They all had to obey the limitations and dynamics of having two arms and two legs connected by a torso with a head on top. No other way is possible. This knowledge of how to properly transfer kinetic energy through the entire body via the Hara must have been known by all highly trained warriors throughout time to varying degrees. It is simply the product of seeing things as they are. You can see this when a baseball pitcher throws their pitch, or a hockey player shoots a slapshot. They have to use the torquing of their hips in perfect coordination with their arms and legs. And whether they are aware of it or not they also have to coordinate those motions through their hara.

In Karate and other traditional martial arts this observation of the Hara being the center of all powerful physical movements is only one facet of the importance of that spot. The Hara is also considered to be the center of ones qi flow and therefore the center of ones entire being.

In all traditional martial arts the idea of qi, or chi or in Sanskrit prana all refer to a kind of energy that has numerous characteristics and descriptions. The most common theme however is to call it "life force energy" as it tries to identify the very energy of life itself.  A person with great qi is healthy and full of vitality while a person who's ki is low is likely ill or at risk of disease. The masters of old recognized the relationship between physical health and ki and so designed their arts to also increase a persons level of ki as it flows throughout the body. This increase of ki flow was found to also dramatically increased the power and abilities of the the person's self defense. Something anyone can come to know personally but only as a result of ones own training and effort.

The increasing of ki as it flows through the body is done by a specific kind of breathing technique. In the total scope of what's available there are dozens of various breathing techniques that all claim to increase vital energy but they all start with, and are based on, deep diaphragm breathing.

If you take your hands and connect the thumbs then align the fingers to cross over each other sort of triangle, then place yours thumbs in your belly button the spot where the fingers cross (it should be a couple inches below the navel) is your Hara. Sit or stand in a comfortable position then breathe into this spot. Focus on keeping a straight spine in whatever position your in and breathe deeply into your belly or Hara. Feel the incoming air expanding that area like a balloon while your exhalation contracts the stomach inwards with mindful and subtle flexing of the abdominal muscles. Breath in through your nose and out through the mouth allowing the tongue to rise to the roof of your mouth on the inhalation and then lower to the floor of your mouth on the exhalation. Do this while releasing all tension in the body and you will begin to cultivate ki. This kind breathing is the starting point for all physical body-mind meditations like Karate or Yoga but also the beginning point for the sitting meditations of Zen and Taoism.  All the masters of these arts say to aim at breathing like this all the time.

HARA breath

By breathing like this a person can develop the ability to alter their state of consciousness. Past studies have shown practitioners of Zen and Yoga display an alpha wave activity during periods of meditation. A martial artist develops the alpha wave state in the practice of Kata but all are linked to breathing with the Hara. So we come full circle and see that this center point has many layers of purpose and meaning. It really is a critical concept for anyone seeking to develop themselves physically or spiritually.

By simply being aware of your center you gain a position to grasp the power of your total being and you then will have seen the goal of the martial arts practitioner. To seek for total perfection of their entire being is is an infinite path to follow as perfection cannot be achieved but only sought after.  So Like the beautiful mandala art of Buddhism it all begins with the center point and spirals out to infinity suggesting that to develop a relationship with your center allows the universe to follow.

 
24 Jun

What’s In A Name; What Shorinji Ryu Karate Do Means

In this article I will explain the full title of Shorinji Ryu Karate Do in it's meaning and purpose. 

First a brief mention of how important the use of traditional calligraphy writing is when the names of martial arts are considered. Unlike western writing systems which have little room for interpretation in single words or phrases (because they are derived in order  to phonetically sound out each word) old Chinese and Japanese calligraphy writing is a deeply artistic and interpretive form of writing. Each calligraphy character acts as a symbol for a complete idea and the same character can have different meanings in different contexts. Calligraphy writing is considered a highly aesthetic and cultured practice in and of itself and has been for centuries in both Japan and China. This is relevant to describing the what and why of the names of Traditional Martial  Arts because the those names are translations of multiple Kanji (Japanese) or Hanzi (Chinese) logograms or calligraphy characters. 

 

Of all martial art systems throughout the world Karate is definitely one of the most well known by name. There are dozens of styles with thousands of schools all over the planet. Despite this multitude of names they all can be traced to a group of small islands south of mainland Japan called the Ryukyu islands (that is if they genuinely are Karate styles). The largest of these islands being Okinawa island itself. The history of Karate and Okinawa are deeply tied. To fully explain that history would require volumes of material to cover and many other authors have done a great job of recording it. Richard Kim's "The Weaponless Warriors" is an excellent example. For now however we are simply looking at what the name implies. 

 

                                                                       First the word Karate.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Karate is a combination of two Kanji characters, Kara and Te. The meaning of the term Kara has changed and been debated in it's own history however it has now come to mean open, whereas Te has always meant hand. This idea of an "open hand" has many reasons but most directly it signifies the idea that the natives of Okinawa lived under a strict ban on weapons for a great deal of their history. So as a consequence they had to defend themselves with "open hands" or without the aid of any weapons. Other important but less direct meanings are, developing an open heart and mind, and the sort of paradoxical truth that when one develops a powerful punch with a closed fist they can more confidently open those same hands to others knowing that they can handle whatever may come at them. This last meaning relates to a common theme in Martial Arts, that of the paradox of how by learning powerful and potentially deadly combat techniques one can become immune to violence and attack on all levels. 

Karate then represents the profound and complex truth that when one becomes empowered by learning to develop devastating hands they then can then become more compassionate and open to life. This idea cannot be adequately explained in words. One must seek the guidance of a qualified Sensei or teacher and spend many years studying with them to grasp the deeply profound truth that the art of Karate teaches on this level. 

Then the term Shorinji Ryu. 

Firstly the term Ryu simply means style or school. The term Shorinji however has a much more interesting and layered meaning as it is the Japanese spelling of the Chinese word Shaolin. The Shaolin temple schools in China are more or less the most famous Martial Art schools in history. Similar to the history of Okinawa the history of Shaolin is far to much for this article to do justice to, so again we will be focusing on why the Vancouver Traditional Martial Arts Dojo uses the name. Shaolin/Shorinji itself simply means small forest temple. This is because the first temples in China dedicated to self development through martial arts were located in a small forest setting but also because nature itself was considered the original teacher of all Zen realization. 

The title Shorinji was given to us most directly from the great teacher Sensei Richard Kim. Sensei Kim seems to have chosen the name in part due to another very important and famous Karateka (meaning person who training in Karate), a man named Bushi Matsumura. Matsumura lived up until the late 19th century and is regarded as the father of almost all Okinawan Karate schools. Both of these men called the arts they lived by and taught Shorinji or Shaolin as a way to honour the idea that their Karate was not just a method of self defense techniques but a complete way of life. 

This then is the core idea behind using this term, that the real purpose of the training was to teach how to attain Zen or self realization through developing the various movements and exercises.  My teacher Sensei Douglas  Mortley has often said to me that Martial Arts are really a way of using physical exercise to achieve enlightenment.  That is the reason the term Shorinji is used. We teach Karate, Tai Chi, Jujutsu and Kobudo not to allow people to become walking lethal weapons but because these arts develop inner peace through compassion and humility via the alignment of body and mind, breath and spirit. 

Finally the meaning of Do

The term Do simply means path or way. It is the same term used in almost all traditional Japanese or Japanese influenced arts like Aikido, Judo, Hapkido and Kendo. The path or way all these arts are speaking about is the path to Zen realization. This idea is very similar, or even identical, to the Chinese term Tao or Dao which also means the path to enlightenment. The idea being that when one begins training in a Dojo they are beginning to move towards their own highest potential.  In fact the word Dojo means the place where the way is taught. This idea of a path one must travel to achieve enlightenment is mirrored by almost every other self development system in the world from Yoga to Shamanism. In fact it is often said that though there may be many paths there is only one mountain. 

So to summarize, Shorinji Ryu Karate Do basically means the art of the open hand warrior school of Zen from the islands of Okinawa.  Of course it should be obvious by this article that the name cannot fully illustrate what is being signified by the title the art is given. Martial Arts must be experienced directly for anyone to gain a true understanding of their inner knowledge and even then many years of consistent training are required before these deeper truths can be seen.  In many ways these arts mirror life itself as they both are based on an ongoing process and neither can be fully experienced without developing both strength and openness.  

 

 

19 May

Teaching Kids Karate

When the modern belt system was introduced to Martial Arts in the early 20th century two belt categories were developed. One was the colored belts from white to brown (called Kyu Belt ranks) and the other was the various levels of black belts (called Dan ranks). These terms in a basic sense simply refer to rank or level of attainment in training, but they also carry the meaning the maturation process one goes through after many years of training. 

We live at a time when many of the aspects of maturation necessary for the development of a complete individual are not well cultivated.  Many great teachers and researchers have discovered that almost every other culture has a set of intense and often somewhat dangerous rituals for allowing the youth to know they are now an adult. These rites and ceremonies usually have the theme of demonstrating to the youth that their childhood dependency on others is over and they they need to recreate themselves as responsible individual members of their society. 

One of my favorite stories on this theme comes from an inspiring book called "Daughters Of Copper Women" by  Anne Cameron, which tells the legends and history of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation living on Vancouver Island (near Nootka Sound). This group of people had a very important place in their culture for female warriors. The young girls who were destined to become warriors would be taught to preform many difficult tasks including, long distance open ocean swimming, running, fighting skills, survival knowledge and much more. 

When the young girl had come of age she would be taken by her father or male clan leader out in a canoe far from shore. On shore would be her family and friends singing songs meant to guide her home. When the proper distance from shore was reached the girl would strip down and jump into the cold water. At this point she would be on her own. No more help was given. She needed to find her way to shore herself. This was a moment when her training and her own determination would solely determine her fate.  Apparently these swims would be many miles and take most of a day. 

When she finally reached the shore she was greeted with feast and celebration. Everyone would say to her that they all saw a girl leave on a canoe but it was a women who swam to shore. The festivities both mourned the loss of the girl but also celebrated the arrival of a new adult woman to the tribe. 

This is the deeper meaning behind the belt ranking system in Karate. To receive a black belt is suppose to mean that the individual has reached a point in their training and development that they can take full responsibility for themselves and their actions. This is why in our Dojo black belts are only awarded once a person is 18. Until then they are still rightfully developing the adult they will become. 

So developing empowered and fully self aware adults is the core purpose behind teaching kids Karate. Really that's the purpose in teaching anyone Karate. In many ways Karate aids this kind of inner strength development more than any other art as it makes crystal clear the reality of consequences. When anyone, but especially a child, learns they can be powerful enough to harm another they take to heart the importance of their actions much more vividly. 

Compassion, humility, loyalty, patience, honor and gratitude are like seeds that require care and attention to take root. Planting these concepts in the mind of a child can be valuable beyond measure towards the kind of adult they will become. So in every Karate class the importance of these ideas gets more and more developed. The Sensei carefully watching looks for opportunities to impress these ideas more and more into the child's mind. In time both the physical movement skills as well as the mindfulness of living these concepts becomes second nature to the child. 

We live in a world of polarity which requires balance to be navigated with any degree of success. Children know so well how to be in the moment and laugh from their cores and we all need to remember to live like that once in a while. However we also live in a world were emotional and impulsive reactions cost lives. The spontaneity of a child is a wonderful thing but without the tempering of experience priorities can get tragically misaligned.  

As every kid who enters the Dojo learns their behavior towards others is more important than the height of their kicks or the number of Kata they know. It is said Karate begins and ends with respect but it is also said that Karate is life. So life then should begin and end with respect. This way of living is what teaching kids Karate is all about. 

19 Apr

Tai Chi And The Way Of The Fist

“It is a self defense exercise that can make your body strong. In the use of this exercise, there are a hundred benefits without one harm. 

-Ts’ai Chueh-ming

It is common these days to see pictures of people doing Tai Chi or Tai Chi inspired postures alongside advertisements and newsletters in various health publications. Tai Chi has been slowly entrenching itself into the alternative medicine world as a profound practice with many similarities to Yoga. It has also been receiving some attention by mainstream medicine as many of it's physical health benefits are easily documented within the requirements of scientific study. These things are great for both the world and the art itself and I hope the awareness of Tai Chi's many benefits become even more understood and accepted by society in general. However as a traditional practitioner I am also concerned that the art does not become watered down as an excuse to make it more palatable for the general public.

Tai Chi is a term that stems form China's very old and very profound system of knowledge known as Taoism. One of the basic premises of the Taoist world view is an understanding of how all phenomenon that exist, exist within a balance of polarities. There is light so there must be dark, up-down, left-right, masculine-feminine, and so on. It is understood that when you have one you by necessity must have the other.

In the case of Doaist philosophy the two core polarities are called Yin and Yang. All things are considered to be a balance between these two fundamental energies and the goal of human life is to attain a perfect balance of Yin and Yang within yourself. This idea of perfected inner balance is similar to what many people think of as enlightenment.  It is in this sense that any gifted artist can attain a kind of tai chi level of skill in the context of their art. It can also mean in a more general sense that one can achieve tai chi in their own life. .

It is here that the misunderstandings often stem from. The graceful and meditative movement art practiced as Tai Chi requires the term Chuan added on to make it an accurate description of what the practice was originally developed to be.

Chuan simply means fist. Anyone familiar with martial art history or even it's movie history will be familiar with hearing about the fist, way of the fist, fists of fury, seven star fist etc. This is an obvious acknowledged of the critical importance of the clenched fist in any Martial Art.

The fist not only allows the strongest martial way of holding the hand but it also can be seen as the aligning of the elemental energies of fire and metal in the body. More than that the fist is completely unique human ability. Our great ape relatives cannot make fists. The fist truly does hold a unique and special place in our evolution. Without it we could never had made tools, tamed fire, or created anything really.

Now it was during the time of Yang Lu Ch'an (1799-1872) that the term Tai Chi Chuan became distinctly applied to the art now practiced the world over. Before that time there was no specific art called tai chi. But there was something sometimes known as  "Cotton Fist" practiced by the Chen Family of the Chen Village. But that art was largely unknown due to the secrecy of the Chen family who had maintained their version of the art for many previous generations.

I have read a number of accounts that it was after a demonstration by Yang Lu Ch'an that a well known Chinese poet first used the term Tai Chi to describe master Yang's art. Master Yang was proving that his "soft' art was a viable and effective martial art by a willingness to face any and all fighters in hand to hand combat, something he spend around ten years doing. He was never beaten, nor as accounts go even reasonably well challenged.

This is why the word Chuan is used in the title.  Tai Chi can be many things but Tai Chi Chuan is specifically a martial art study. This also reflects why the deepest and most profound benefits of the art are embedded in the learning of it's martial applications. I often use the analogy that Tai Chi is like a great mansion with endless rooms and passageways. When you begin training its like being offered keys to the front door but if you don't learn the martial applications it is like living in a tent in the yard.

This idea may seem hard to understand initially but if one spends some time reflecting on what the knowledge of self defense offers it will begin to make sense. Compassion, humility, and honor are the fruits of spiritual labor and to develop them one must have confidence. A lack of self valuation is like poison to any personal progress and must be addressed if one is to gain inner clarity and know peace. In learning an effective self defense a person can literally embody the principles that will allow them to take care of themselves regardless of what may come their way. This is crucial to health both physically and mentally.

The grace of the movements and the strength of the fist are simply aspects of the yin and yang. They nourish and strengthen each other. There are countless examples. Stability and core strength improve memory and mental clarity, fluid movement improves oxygenation of the blood, visualization and intention harmonizes hormonal balances, and self defense abilities calm social anxieties.  

11 Apr

Martial Arts One Absolute Rule

"Do not strike others, and do not allow others to strike you. The goal is peace without incident.

- Chojun Miyagi

In martial art training the question inevitably comes up of how teaching people to be so skilled at combat can be a method of instilling compassion and mindfulness. The idea can seem almost counter intuitive.  The key to this apparent contradiction is found within the concept that each technique is solely an expression of defense. This can be understood by an imaginary scenario in which two people are involved in a conflict. Unless one of them physically attacks the other no martial art techniques are necessary. It is only in the moment of being attacked that the trained person will use their skills and knowledge.

This moment of actual defense can be likened to an attempted sale. Whenever someone desires to sell something an offer is first presented and then the individual must decide if they want to purchase the offered item or not. We all can agree that if you don't want to buy something then no one has the right to force you to buy it. The problem that many face is the issue of knowing how to say no to certain kinds of offers. Almost everyone has at certain points in their lives bought into some idea that doesn't pan out very well. So of course a physical attack is an obvious one not to accept. This then is the one absolute rule of martial art training, that no one has the right to lay a single finger on another without consent, and conversely, that every individual person has the right to refuse any unwanted offer.  Once this fundamental issue is understood then the next thing to comprehend is the absolute consequences of physical encounters. Unlike a nasty argument when one person physically attacks another the damage can be, and often is, permanent. A broken knee never fully heals, a punctured eye won't see again and then the worst case scenario being an attack ending with a death. These things cannot be repaired and so must be dealt with accordingly. This leads us to an idea, self defense is really a kind of mirroring. If one person offers or expresses a violent attack on another the energy created must be dealt with. So the most logical and compassionate solution is to give the attacking energy back to the person who created it. Thus the idea that one mirrors the attack. So if the attack is vicious then the mirroring will need to reflect that reality. It is constantly stressed in every class that martial arts begin and end with defense. Then that the defense necessary is to only bring the violence to it's end as quickly and safely as possible. Even if a martial artist uses their knowledge to achieve a successful resolution to an attack the result is still tragic. It is always a grievous and unfortunate thing when one person attacks another. The sole purpose and one absolute rule of martial arts can only be upheld when this understanding is taken into one's heart. This is the morality of martial arts and whenever I think about the relationship between fighting skill and morality I always think of the words of Richard Kim, my Sensei's Sensei. Sensei Kim addressed this issue in his book The Weaponless Warriors when he said "Where the morality of Karate is missing, there is no Karate." Karate in this sense can be likened to any traditional martial art. The following story is from that book and it's one which I have always thought of as being a perfect example of how this sense of morality is absolutely crucial to understanding the value of traditional martial arts.

After Word War Two, during the occupation of Japan, residents of a quiet street in Osaka were startled to hear cries of men in anger, and the anguish of a man in pain. It was the early morning. 

The people streamed out of their homes to find the source of the commotion. They stopped as they saw seven foreigners beating up a native Japanese. The native was on the ground bleeding.

"Please help me!" the beaten one yelled.

No one made a move. Japan had just lost the war, and the Osakans were afraid of retaliation from the occupying authorities. They watched helplessly as the drunks continued the beating.

Suddenly, someone pushed the drunks aside, lifted the badly beaten man, took him to the edge of the crowd and said, "Take this man to a hospital, quickly." Then he turned to face the drunks.

The drunks exploded in anger and attacked the lone samaritan. They punched and pushed the man around, venting their hostility and outrage on the man they considered spoilsport. They tried their best to knock the man to the ground in order to kick him, but the man did not go down. He bled from his nose, and a small trickle of blood came out of his mouth. Otherwise he was unhurt. He stood calmly and watched the seven men pound his body.

"Why doesn't he fight back? It is obvious he can take their blows. They may as well punch an Oak tree for all the damage they are doing. They are like small children milling around a grown man," the people muttered among themselves. 

One by one, the drunks realized that they were not making any headway against this man. They suddenly realized their fun was gone. The man was smiling as if to say, "Now little boys, don't you think the game is over? Go on home." The seven stopped punching and slowly backed away from the man. They could not take their eyes off him. Fear set in. They looked at the crowd, suddenly panicked and fled. 

The man, who was the recipient of the unprovoked beating by the seven, calmly wiped the trickle of blood from his nose and turned to the crowd. He bowed and calmly left. 

In the crowd, a young man who had watched the whole scene, tuned to an elderly man who was standing next to him and said, Sensei, I recognize him. He is a Karate Sensei. He could have finished up the seven. I wonder why he let them beat on him like that?" "You saw and example of the morality of Karate. He knew the seven would have killed the poor man they were attacking, and he let them beat on him and vent their rage because he could take their blows."

So true martial arts can never be used as an expression of anger or domination, it can only serve to empower individuals to do what is truly right, from a place of compassion and a recognition of martial arts one absolute rule.

   
11 Mar

Shifting To See Whats There

photo

Just over a week ago the years first new years buds poked their way out on the local ornamental cherry trees. This along with a few other flowers popping up has shown us that spring has just begun it's cycle of growth. Spring has always been one of my favorite times of the year as I really enjoy seeing new life pushing up towards the sky. It's like nature is waking from a deep sleep and along with this growth comes warmer days and brighter skies.  It feels like endless new possibilities are pouring out into the world like an overflowing cup. This symphony of natures energy in bloom can be quite cathartic in its affect. It ultimately can be downright transcendent when the right conditions are met.  Nature is like that, it doesn't so much offer us engagement as much as it simply is engaging if we pay attention to it. I was given the gift of growing up in rural and often quite isolated areas so nature was not something I had to make effort to visit, I was surrounded by it. That is not the case for several generations of people in the western world and I think this has caused many of our societies health challenges as well as numerous other problems. It really is not a surprise then that getting out into nature has many positive qualities. However it often needs to be rekindled in the minds of many so as not to be forgotten in the hustle, bustle and mind numbing advertisements of city life. Of course simply being in nature isn't quite enough you still have to be mindful enough to let nature soak into you. Leaving the city and starting a self-sustaining farm may to far from most peoples concept of possibility but such dramatic life changes are not required to initiated a shift towards a better relationship with the source of all life on this planet. Like all things it's much more important to simply be aware. Flowers may be beautiful but they have very limited time to be in bloom and they cannot alter their process to suite us so we must be mindful enough to notice them. Most cities have parks throughout their different neighborhoods and many are now developing community gardens so there is always some greenery around. I highly encourage everyone to grow a small garden if they can.  If you ever doubt the power of growing a garden go talk with someone who has grown a garden for many years. They will tell you that the garden cultivates them as much as they grow it. Another obvious and important method that most people can access nature by is to take a day to hike into some mountains or along a seaside. These require a bit of planning but are very rewarding as they engage one in nature much more fully than a city park ever could. They also offer some great physical exercise especially if they are on a rugged trail. Of course most peoples lives are already full to the brim with the various things they already do. It can be very difficult to convince people to do virtually anything new, even if it's obvious that it will dramatically improve their lives. However I would think that if your reading this blog then it's likely that you at least are open to the idea of change for the sake of bettering of your self. Here is a very simple and profound thing you can do anyday and everyday to grow towards that goal, shift your awareness. Right now nature is pushing forward life's splendor as intensely as it can, so notice it. Take a moment to stop and really look at the patterns of growth in a tree's new buds, get down low and really look at the designs of flowers, see the richness and beauty of their colors and patterns. Stop and really listen to the birds, hear the rhythm and flow of their songs merging with the flow of the wind. Nature is always there sharing it's quite secrets, always. This applies to gardening and hiking as well as daily life. Stopping to smell the roses so to speak really does change ones perspective. In those moments of deeply engaging with the sight of a flower or feeling of a breeze, or the sound of robins chatting about the day is truly how you can allow yourself to be more fully in the present moment. It's said that an artist is someone who can bring out the sublime from the ordinary. I say it is the artist who can see the sublimity in the ordinary world. This way of thinking is really a way to notice what's already right in front of us and so doesn't necessarily require any  new purchases or scheduled time allotments. Spring is a time of very distinct growth and so a perfect time to plant the seed of mindful awareness in daily life. Nature is right in front of us, so notice it, it's that simple.
21 Feb

Faith And Training

" A jug fills drop by drop." Gautama Buddha
Many years ago I was brought by my Mother to a spiritual talk at a Dharma center in a small town on Vancouver Island called Duncan. My concerned and caring parent wanted to expose me to deep thinkers and sources of wisdom as I was a wee bit wayward as a teenager. Inexplicably this talk would set up a profoundly meaningful mindset inside me. The man speaking claimed to be a disciple of Gandhi himself and appeared to be at least 60-70+ years of age. He spoke mostly in a series of analogies and metaphors. One of which has always stuck with me and helps me remember why the effort is worth the price in experiencing the roller coaster of life
He said that your life is like a beautiful jewel found deep inside the Earth. So first you must dig deep inside the dark to find where it has been hidden. Once found it must be cleaned of the rocky debris it's encased in and then polished to allow the light to be reflected. And like a real jewel if the polishing and effort to keep it in top form are not consistent dust will form and it's radiance will diminish.
So the key was to be at peace with the endless work of polishing the jewel. He then explained, in order to actually cut and polish a precious stone in the external world you require tools. A pick ax to dig, a chisel to break off the large chunks attached to the stone, and the polishing material of course. These tools are symbolic of the discipline in any art we choose to develop. This process cannot be circumvented as it is somehow entwined into the very fabric of living.
This reflects very well the reality of the work required to achieving one fullest potential. First one must dig deep into the dark recesses of the unconscious (the Earth) as only then can the jewels of self-hood or enlightenment be found. Once found then only through great effort and diligence can the beauty and illumination of body, mind and spirit be uncovered. The consistent effort in which one works at polishing and refining their own life is generally called discipline and sustaining a disciplined ethic in relation to ones own life truly is the crux to the refinement of the soul.
However the initiation of that process is often perceived as extremely daunting. To look upon a quest that literally does not end and requires endless and herculean efforts can seem almost foolish to begin with. How can someone happily put in great strain and endure both discomfort and being force fed humility on a continual basis only to get the guarantee of the need to do it again on endless repeat.
It all comes down to perspective.
If you want a fresh apple and the only way you could get one was to cultivate your own apple tree then the years of fruitless autumns the tree requires to be able to produce would be easy to understand. It's similar to when someone wants the fruits of their own lives to produce. You cannot just make a sapling grow a full apple without the time needed for the tree to deepen it's roots and spread it's branches. With the apple tree you can see the growth season by season and year by year but with life there is often no obvious marker to measure growth. This is were faith in the process becomes paramount.
An authentic teacher/instructor is a good place to look for seeing first hand the results of disciplined training. A good instructor should ideally embody the desired result of having a sound healthy body, a calm compassionate mind, and a powerful yet contained spirit. After all Sensei/Sifu basically means one who has gone before, or one who has walked the path for a little longer and so can help others engage more mindfully with their own path. There is a trap however in seeking the path externally. The Sensei cannot walk the road for you, only point you in the right direction.
So the real cornerstone of staying disciplined in ones art is almost a mystical sense of knowing that the time put in is worth the price. All people, as Freud found out, follow the pleasure principle. The idea that all people, without fail, go towards experiencing pleasure and go away from pain. Not pleasure in a purely sensual way but instead the idea that eating and being full is more pleasurable than going hungry. It's absolutely a natural response system and one we are genetically programmed to use so it cannot be genuinely fought against. The art of being disciplined requires a deep faith in the idea that the result will be worth the discomfort and challenges of staying consistent with the training.
So where does the sense of meaning and purpose come from when beginning in a disciplined art. In this area the use of words becomes inadequate in describing the sense of knowing necessary to be consistent in an art. No one can impose meaning on another. All beliefs must be individually bought and paid for or they carry no worth. This means that the importance of perseverance and consistency in life and training are self developed. You simply must do the work without thinking or debating about it. For it's the act of disciplined efforts that cultivate the self. This then illuminates the idea that when one works on their art they are polishing the jewel of their own lives whereas when one chooses to neglect that sacred work then one is doing a disservice to themselves and the jewel of their life begins to lose it radiance.
In the end this is life. We are all here and nobody can claim with absolute certainty why or even how we got here. The only empirically definite truth we all seem to agree on is that we exist. The rest of the story is up to each of us individually. The path has been darkened and the steps obscured so we must have faith in those whom we follow in the footsteps of. Far more critically we must hold a deep trust in ourselves. In the Martial Arts context every punch and every kick is an act of faith, an action taken that demonstrates to the world and ourselves that we are willing to endure and persevere in our lives.
Drop by drop we fill ourselves, through discipline and time we polish our reflecting of inner light and in time become at peace with the endless aspects of our potential. Faith and training are reflections of each other. Take heart that your faith in yourself can be exercised anytime by doing simple things in simple ways. What is simple may not be easy but that is the gift of the process. Never give up, you are worth any amount of effort.
 

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