13 Aug

Center Point

the-hara-center

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.  

 

 

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.

   

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