"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.
Wealth is lost, nothing is lost.
Health is lost, something is lost.
Morality/Character is lost, all is lost.
-O'Sensei Richard KimA 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.
All movements in martial arts are designed to utilize this flow of power through the body. The illustration above also shows that the spiraling thread passes through the lower abdomen, an area called the Hara in Japanese and the Dandien in Chinese. This specific place is of critical importance and is discussed in greater detail in the Blog article called "Center Point" at the link below.
By tying the silk reeling and breath from the Dandien together in the Sanchin Kata the KarateKa (Karate practitioner) is putting all of their being into every inch of the Kata. Watching a skilled practitioner perform Sanchin is an awesome thing to see. All the muscles of the body ripple with controlled and coordinated tension and the fighting spirit of the warrior is displayed at their fullest ferocity. There are times when I practice Sanchin that I get the sense of my body being like a great gnarled tree root that has the strength to drive right through stone.
It is in this sense that all versions of Sanchin are singing the same tune. Whether the White Crane Form or the Karate Kata both are designed to teach the student of the martial arts to synchronize every millimeter of movement and breath in their body. Often when a student is being drilled on this form they are slapped along the arms and legs as well as being (lightly) kicked and punched to help them learn to remain stable and rooted even when being attacked.
Sanchin is considered to mean the three powers or lessons. Each one is part of the fabric that all martial arts are woven from. They are, mind and body as one, sight with perception, and breath with spirit. Each one is a lesson that is really only learnt through endless practice of the form. The general consensus within the Goju Ryu schools I've trained with is that to truly master Sanchin it should be practiced seven times a day for seven years.
I've often heard it said that martial arts are like a great web and you can't pull on one strand without effecting all the other strands. In this way Sanchin is a cornerstone Kata. It develops the basis of all other movements and directly cultivates the shift of brainwave function to the meditative awareness that makes the martial arts what they are. It is a work of genius and of sublime insight. It is not a surprise then that the Kata has been adopted by many styles of Karate. I would recommend all KarateKa learn this Kata in whatever style they can.
And so even though it has been many years since I was a teenager Sanchin has remained a steady companion for me. It reminds me that no matter what might come my way if I coordinate my mind, body and spirit into the task at hand I can overcome even the greatest obstacles on my path.
- Ann is not a real person but rather a composite of several students used to illustrate this idea
The Art of Peace is medicine for a sick world. -Morihei UeshibaThe world today has so many options for people looking for better health both physically and mentally it's bewildering. We are at a time in history when ancient traditions are advertised like soap commercials along with the newest fashion trends. On any given day I will see ads for Shamanic workshops, miraculous Energy healing methods, and even "secret inner teachings" of various arts advertised on my newsfeed on social media. It's a stunning time to be alive as many of these practices (if they are honestly a traditional practice) have come out of the far corners of the world to be available for us to simply click and try. It is in many ways something to be grateful for. However there is a downside to the commercialization of these traditional arts and medicines. And it is not that money itself is the problem. Teachers need to eat and expenses need to be covered. Most Sensei, Sifu, Shamans, or Medicine Men/Women need to ask for monetary payment for the service but most of them will tell you it's not the money that has gotten them to commit themselves to their chosen art. They have sacrificed a huge part of their lives in both practicing and teaching their arts because they feel it is important for the world. They know that they're taking part in a massive and profound effort to help humanity find a better way of living than the one which has wrought such destruction and suffering in the world as exists today. The famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi reminds us to be the change in the world that we wish to see because that is the way forward. This is well understood by the truly qualified teachers of various arts like KarateDo, Tai Chi Chuan, and other various Bujutsu. It is why these arts focus on teaching individuals to achieve their own best results. The idea being that the external world is not the source of the problem. The issue lies within the human mind. Nature doesn't need us, the solar system doesn't need us, but we need it. It is humanity that must forge a better way forward, not the animals, or the natural world. The problem in the human mind can be described as what might be called the mentality of the consumer culture. We're used to buying products that are designed to need to be upgraded every few months or years. There's always a new movie to go see or new band to listen to. You can do a retreat for a weekend to unleash some primal and intense energies but then go back to hanging out a Starbucks and feeling anxiety about whether or not your socks are fashionably correct. In the end very little, or just as often, nothing actually changes. Treating the idea of internal transformation like a TV show you can turn on or off without consequence is a fundamentally flawed and even dangerous idea. Even when the idea of personal transformation is regarded as a positive direction to take it often gets completely derailed by the desire for everything to be experienced as only bright and sunny and personally pleasurable. The quaint saying that growth occurs outside ones comfort zone is an absolute rule and cannot be any other way. Very often people will use the difficulty that developing these arts present to justify excuses and quit. Not only does this change nothing for the better it actually can push a person further into disharmony and regression. I cannot count how often I've listened to someone say things like, it's to hard, I'm just not that good, or you don't understand how tough this is for me. Then use those ideas to quit training. It's something that has caused me a fair amount of frustration as they are exactly right. It is a very hard to learn Karate or Tai Chi, and you are not good at it, especially at first, and nobody can possibly know the depths of any other individuals personal challenges. These are all very true statements but they are also precisely why training is so important. It works like this. Training is designed to truly change the habits and patterns that hold us back in our own lives and as collective species. It has been well documented that there are several measurable brain wave patterns that are the foundation of all brain activity. The most important one for this discussion is called alpha wave pattern. This wave pattern (which is steady fluctuations of electrical activity in the brain between 8-13 cycles per second) can be associated with feelings of inner peace and the clarity. High level Yoga practitioners, mediators, and martial artists have displayed this pattern during their practice. This aspect of brain function can be tied in to high level athletes, dancers, and many other practices as well. What makes Karate, Tai Chi and things like Yoga unique is that they are designed to teach a person to consciously connect to that brain wave state whenever they wish to. In the terms of psychology this is known as the id or unconscious. This part of the brain is responsible for more than just us feeling at peace and content. It also regulates and monitors all the bodily systems like the heart rate and digestion. An enormous task but one it is perfectly suited to managing. What gets in the way is largely things like anxiety and guilt. These feeling take much needed energy from the unconscious and reallocate them to the frontal lobes where abstract thoughts of doubt and fear can hamper every aspect of a persons life. This throws the entire system out of balance and is what eventually leads to disease in the body. More than that this is also where the roots of the problems that we face as humanity stem from. So the way forward is to keep our minds at peace and allow ourselves to think and respond from that state as deeply as we can. This is the real value in training. By practicing a Kata or the Tai Chi form we reconnect ourselves to that all important mental state. This in turn acts like a fueling up for all the other aspects of ones life. A teachers job is to guide a person to ever evolving and deeper understanding of that process. By combining the personal home practice with regular class training you can literally keep yourself always connected to that profoundly important task of staying centered and living in peace. And by doing that you are doing the most important thing in the world, you are being the medicine the world needs.
“The name of a thing is merely a word”. -Shakyamuni BuddhaIf you were to ask any random person on the street what the word Shorinji meant they'd likely have no idea. The word Shaolin however might get some recognition. Thanks to TV and movies the term Shaolin has gotten some general public attention. And of course there are the modern, traveling, Shaolin Monks that can perform quite amazing feats of physical skills and mental focus. However the performing acrobatics that are called the Shaolin today are not really what the term had come to represent in the history of martial arts in China. The real history of what is being referred to as the Shaolin is not very well known. However it is one of the most important elements that make Asian Martial Arts so unique. Through the philosophy of the Shaolin Ch'an or Shaolin Way a complete spiritual mind-body way of life was developed. One in which expert self defense abilities became perfectly entwined with the path of self development that in a Zen context would be called enlightenment/Satori, or in a Daoist context the Dao/Tao realization. Shaolin is a Chinese word and Shorinji is simply the Japanese translation of Shaolin. This is not a coincidence. In terms of purpose, spirit, and focus the Shaolin is one and the same as the Shorinji. Any differences of expression are incidental and misses the point. There's an old Zen saying refers to this kind of misunderstanding that goes,”As soon as you ask about a difference you've already stuck your head into a bowl full of glue.” If you were to translate the Chinese word Shaolin/Si Lum directly you would find it means something along the lines of a small or young forest. The stories handed down from the past say that in around 496 AD a temple was build in the Honan province of China that was situated in a small forest grove hence why the name Shorinji/Shaolin was chosen. The temple might have been just one more temple build in the very long history of Chinese temples except that it would receive a visitor from India, and he would forever alter Asian Martial Arts and philosophy. He is often called Bodidharma but also can be written as Tamo. He is said to have traveled alone from India to China and possibly passed through Tibet. Considered by historians to be the first Ch'an or Zen Buddhist teacher in China he is often depicted as swarthy, bearded man with a balding head and wild eyes. There are many legends about his accomplishments and teachings. Some tales are quite fanciful while others more believable. However story one stands out as most relevant to the relationship Tamo had to the history of the Shorinji. After a poorly received audience with the Emperor of the time (Emperor Wu-ti 502-549 AD) Tamo approached the monks at the Shaolin Temple as a teacher and was refused. The kind of Buddhism Tamo lived and taught was not what was usually practiced by the other Buddhists in China at the time. Undaunted he set about to demonstrate his knowledge and abilities. After some time the monks became convinced that he was an authentic master and began to study under his guidance. Tamo had brought Zen with him and Zen has never been an exactly easy thing to study. Called Ch'an in Chinese and Dhyana in Sanskrit, Zen is a very distinctly direct and pragmatic form of Buddhism. It's worthwhile to note that many scholars have speculated that Zen is the nearest existing practice to the one the original (Gautama) Buddha taught, and I am inclined to agree with that. The words of O'Sensei Richard Kim come to mind as he would often say, “do you see what your eyes see?” This seems to well describe what Zen's purpose is, seeing things as they truly are. The core of the practice is to essentially maintain a deeply cognizant and highly attuned meditative awareness in every moment. Tamo taught that to achieve this state one had to find balance in the body and the mind. He quickly found the monks at the Temple to be unfit for the meditations he was showing them. So to help them gain the strength and stamina necessary for the study he began teaching them in various exercises. Tamo was raised in an upper class of the ancient Indian caste society and so would have been instructed in many Yoga's systems as well as the related Indian Martial Arts systems befitting someone of his birth at that time.Tamo obviously chose a life of meditative study and must have learned many things from many teachers. This along with traveling a long and dangerous path to arrive in China would have given him ample time to develop a thorough sense of health and balance both physically and mentally. So began the Shaolin as a place where physical exercise became an important part of the meditative studies taught therein. Of course China has another, older, and equally relevant spiritual philosophy that would have been well known to the monks of the Temple called Daoism/Taoism. Daoism has no known beginning dates. It seems to have evolved from earlier ambiguous Shamanistic type beliefs coming out of the late stone age. The Daoist tradition has always been interested in using the physical body as a vehicle or tool in personal and spiritual development. It has laid much of the foundation for Qi Gong and Chinese medicine. Both of which are as old as anything in China's history and have many important similarities to Yoga practices. Both seek to find a unity with the flow of energy in the universe, both utilize the idea of the body being the main vehicle for developing insight and ultimately enlightenment itself, and both strive to see the world as it truly is without judgment. There are many more similarities but from those alone it can be easily understood how Zen and Daoism became so deeply entwined in the development of the Martial Arts of the Shaolin/Shorinji. So from these two great traditions the monks at the Shaolin Temple developed their arts. According to most accounts the exercises taught by Tamo were not specifically martial. They were more like a flowing Yoga or Qi Gong practice. Over time the exercises would take on more and more martial art aspects. It is reasonable to assume that the practical advantages of learning self defense were not hard for the monks to see. It is also worth noting that many Daoist masters throughout history have been noted for being extremely effective at hand to hand combat. The reason for incorporating more and more martial and self defense movements can be understood best when one imagines the world the monks at the time lived in. At that time in history there was no police force as we have today. A group of monks living in a temple in the forest would have had no choice but to deal with the myriad of dangers that existed by themselves. What might be called outlaws and bandits were commonplace. Rouge soldiers from various armies would often join such groups and they would be quite skilled in military fighting arts. There was also many wild animals that could have been problematic for any people living in that time. In most of China there was 3 species of Leopard, Tigers, in some area's poisonous snakes, large constrictor snakes and a dense population of large apes. All of these things would make knowledge of self defense very useful and practical. So the combining of the Yoga/Daoist meditative health practices with self defense applications would have been a fairly natural one. This idea was brought to it's zenith as it was seen that the skills a martial artist required served amazingly well as maintaining health physically and mentally. According to my research the third Abbot of the Shaolin Temple after Tamo began the training with weapons in the Temple and made the martial studies a core component of the teachings. Once the realization that learning self defense was uniquely beneficial to the aims of Zen practice an apotheosis seems to have occurred. Some accounts of a dialogue between the third Abbot of the Temple and other Buddhist sects shows the core perception and misunderstanding that still occurs to this day about how a peaceful and nonviolent art can be so profoundly well versed in deadly techniques. The answer to the apparent conundrum is in the unavoidable reality of violence in the world. Mankind has always been violent both to itself and the world in which it has existed in. Seeing this as unquestionably true a person who wishes to avoid taking part in violence can only hope to achieve that goal by learning how violence works so as to not get caught up in it's machinations. Anybody who remains ignorant of the violence of the world will have no option other than victim-hood when they are confronted with a violent situation. And being a victim of violence is not at all congruent with the teachings of either Zen or Daoism. It means one has lost one of the most important things they have, their ability to chose how they respond to the world. This then is the most important core ethic of Shaolin/Shorinji martial teachings. That in order to remain a compassionate sovereign individual one must be able to deal with anything that may come their way and still remain grounded in compassion and humility. The monks at the Temple achieved this by becoming exceptional martial artists as well as deeply conscious and compassionate individuals. The monks would take lessons from wherever they could. In this way the core animals styles like dragon, tiger and snake were developed. Watching nature has always been an important method of learning in the Shaolin and such animals proved to know very well how to defend themselves. Over several centuries the arts at the Temple became as skilled as anything that has existed in mankind's history. In many ways this marriage of martial skills with Buddhist morality was truly exceptional and is unlike the way martial skills were developed in any other society at any time. Many types of warrior classes have played important roles in almost every culture that has ever existed but it was with the Shaolin that such skills were fundamentally attached to a sense of timeless pacifism. The Temple would actually be put to the torch several times for refusing to take part in the various political struggles but the monks would simply rebuild without nursing any grievances and so their teachings have continued to this day. The history of the Temple is of course deeply woven into much of Chinese history. The Shaolin became known as Shaolin Ch'an/Way it's teachings became the root of all martial arts that teach honor and respect are paramount to how many punches one can throw or how high one can kick. If course in many places in the word the idea of a skilled warrior that upheld the common good was well known but the Shaolin style of balancing compassion with deadly skill took the way of the peaceful warrior to new levels both in and outside of China. Most notably this way of being seems to have taken a firm root in Okinawa. The Okinawan (Okinawa being a small group of islands south of mainland Japan) people had deep ties to China from as early as the mid 1400's. The legends of that time state that though there was an indigenous fighting art on the island before then it was only after a trade partnership with China had begun that the Okinawan people started to learn the elements of the Shaolin way. This way of maintaining both skilled martial abilities with an absolute sense of seeking non violence suited the Okinawan situation very well. This is because Okinawa had accepted a ban on weapons to facilitate it's trade ties to China. History is vague as to exactly how and when the deeper aspects of the Shaolin teaching penetrated the Islands but a few notable people who obviously learned such skills were Chatan Yara, and Takahara Peichin. These men fostered and developed the concepts of the Shaolin into the needs of the Okinawan people at that time and found a profoundly harmonious match. At later years other Okinawan practitioners of these arts would use the term Shorinji to describe their art, which became known as Karate. This was not because they practiced exactly the same movements that were studied in the Chinese Shaolin Temples but rather because they studied their Karate in the same spirit as their comrades in mainland China. Of course the core principals of movement can't change that much from style to style if the main goal of maximum efficiency and effectiveness are sought in the training. However a comparison of old Shaolin techniques with modern day Karate is not the purpose of this essay despite being quite interesting. So when Karate masters like Bushi Matsummura and O'Sensei Richard Kim called what they taught Shorinji it was to honor the history of the Shaolin Temple system of thought and intent. My teacher, Sensei Douglas Mortley, has often told me that Karate and martial arts in general are simply a way of using physical exercise to achieve enlightenment. And so in this endeavor we can look to the history of the Shaolin Temple as a great source of inspiration. The Shorinji represents a history that resonates with anyone who seeks to find a sense of peace and passion for living in this world. The history of the Shaolin is far from being described in it's totality by this essay but the essence of it can be felt in the words of Karate Master Chojun Miyagi when he said, “My conviction is that the way of the fist and Zen are one and the same.” This is the real history of the Shaolin, the balance of self empowerment and compassion as it was cultivated over centuries throughout Asia and other places.