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.  

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