Over the last few years it has been my privilege to study with some very accomplished karateka, including of course my excellent regular instructor. Their character and karate have all made an enormous impression on me; and for different reasons. They have so many principles and ethos in common, it is hard to believe their karate and personalities are so diverse. But, they are. If I were to ask a question about a well known kata’s origins or applications, I am fairly sure I would get a different answer in every case. If I could imagine an answer I might receive, it would probably be ‘Well, what do YOU think?’.
If two highly accomplished karateka give different answers to a simple question about a kata or a technique, does that mean one of them is in error? If they throw my question back at me, am I to assume they don’t have an answer or they’re seeking to be excessively cryptic and mysterious? Probably not. I was practicing with a very senior instructor on a hojo undo tool when he interrupted me by saying ‘You’re doing karate! Stop it, chill out a bit for heaven’s sake!’.
This might seem at odds with the regimented and precise training that seems to accompany kyu grade (below black belt) training. In the early years it seems there is only one answer to each question. One right way to punch, one right way to do a low stance. This is like traveling down a river (or UP a river, or so it feels at times!). Kyu grade study depends on many thousands of precise repetitions of many techniques. This is closely directed (if we’re lucky) by a good teacher, who like a river directs our karate, admitting few if any deviations. This is, I believe, as it should be. The task at hand is to collect a suite of use-able techniques, a level of strength and fitness, and the etiquette and language that will go to make up our study in karate. Acquiring all this does take real work and commitment and is no small feat, it is absolutely necessary, but I am coming to believe, not sufficient. It’s only the beginning. One respected master put it very clearly. ‘By 1st dan, you’ve collected a lot of karate techniques, you’ve brought all the shopping home in a bag, but that isn’t dinner is it?’
I learned and collected techniques for years with good teachers, thinking I was learning karate; and I was, but in a narrow sense. I suspect now what I was really doing packing my bag in preparation to learn karate. Having come down the river, where one’s direction is always clear, I find myself having to start to figure out the principles for myself, and get a feeling for karate. You won’t do that by talking about it. Exploring each kata, working with each kigu (hojo undo tools), I begin to get a sense that they’re speaking to me. Asking me questions and giving me riddles to solve, riddles that can only be answered by a principle or a feeling that has to transcend chatter about karate. You don’t have to navigate in a river. In the sea you must find your way. Rivers don’t change much, it won’t take long to know what to do in most situations. The sea can go from a millpond to a raging maw in any direction, throwing situations at you you could never have anticipated. Of course the sea will show up your weaknesses in ways the river never would. We could retreat to the river and stay there, or take to the ocean and really take on the challenge of uncovering the principles of karate do. Not to go beyond our comfort zone would seem an awful waste of years of ‘bag packing’!
That was the river. Behold, the sea.