Monthly Archives: August 2014
The hardest battle is within; every martial artist has heard this time and time again, and knows this to be true. The battle within our self often goes unseen, un-discussed, and covered up. Yet, the battle rages on. Sometimes, we seek help, advice, and solace from our friends, family, and professionals, but most of the time, we don’t. Emotional battles, psychological battles, and looming depression are issues that no one likes to talk about; we, as martial artists, train to be strong – in body and mind – so, when we have these internal battles, they are almost always compartmentalized, stifled, and kept inside. While this may seem like the ‘right’ way to handle it, nothing could be further from the truth. Bottled up emotions, anxiety, and depression is dangerous. The emotions are controlled initially by sheer willpower, and then the emotions become stronger and uncontrollable. When the will is no longer sufficient to handle the sadness, loneliness, stress, and feelings of despair, the warrior often turns to other sources to block the pain; the most common being alcohol and drugs. This works for a little while too, but it’s a temporary relief for a constantly growing, intense pain from within. Eventually, the pain becomes too much to bear; the loneliness, despair, and feeling of absolute helplessness becomes so overwhelming that the man or woman suffering, can only see one logical solution..only one way to cure the pain. They may or may not realize the hurt, the grief, and the shattered lives of the family, friends, and loved ones they leave behind, when they reach the point of no-return. They only want the pain to stop.
Yesterday, the world was shocked to hear that Robin Williams had taken his own life; Mr. Williams was an icon in American television and Cinema over the past 4 decades; he was well-loved, respected in his craft, extremely talented, physically healthy, and wealthy. But..Robin Williams was a lonely, distraught, and severely depressed man. By his own admission, he had battled alcoholism that was fueled by depression, and he even spoke candidly about the subject in a recent televised interview. Robin Williams spent his life making other people laugh, yet he had no joy. With all of his success, his fame, and even his loving family, he was fighting a raging battle of constant sadness and loneliness that no one else could see.
This seems to happen with celebrities, powerful people, and public figures more than anyone; Perhaps it’s the stress of being under constant public scrutiny, or being expected to be perfect all the time. Police officers, war veterans, martial artists, are in this category of powerful people, and public figures to an extant. Police officers and combat veterans routinely see things that can’t be unseen. The experiences become memories, and the memories become nightmares. The combination of memories, PTSD, stressful working conditions, family or financial problems, are often too much to bear. The other variable is that police officers, soldiers, and martial arts teachers are the ones that others depend on for strength. In our own eyes, we aren’t allowed a moment of weakness, sadness, or depression; even within our own peer group, it’s an unspoken assumption of weakness to reach out and ask for help. This has to change. NO-ONE is immune to depression. NO-ONE should feel so strong that we can’t or won’t ask for help. Very recently, a friend and martial artist took his own life; a man that I had trained with, laughed and talked with, on numerous occasions in North Carolina. Paul was a highly ranked, highly skilled, and well respected Matsubayashi-Ryu Karate teacher. He had a great life, or so we thought. It’s always shocking to find that someone was silently battling demons that we knew nothing about. Did we miss warning signs? Did we miss an opportunity to help? Did we listen enough? These are all haunting questions that can never be answered. Anyone that has lost friends or loved ones to suicide will always have these questions looming over them.
To everyone reading: please understand that no-one is immune to depression. This can be brought on from a number of sources, and untreated, can be fatal. If you know anyone battling depression, please extend your hand and your heart; reach out and help them, even if they push you away or become angry for meddling. It isn’t about you, it’s about them, so have thick skin and be persistent.
If you are sad, depressed, and even considering leaving everything behind, please call 1-800-273-8255. This is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. There are people that want to help you. Depression is a raging, silent battle, and is something that I have dealt with on a very personal basis. You can fight it, and you can win. But you can’t do it alone.
Widely recognized as the man responsible for Okinawan karate’s transition from the private dojo and backyards of Okinawa, from the veils of secrecy to the limelight, and primarily for the introduction of Okinawan karate to the public schools, Itosu Anko’s place in history is solid and universally accepted. His famous letter, now widely known as ‘Itosu’s 10 precepts of karate’ was undeniably nationalistic with an overbearing political flavor, as he campaigned to bring to-de out of the shadows and into the accepting arms of the Japanese government.
Itosu is famous (or infamous) for creating the five Pinan kata for the purpose of introduction to school children; he is also allegedly responsible for breaking naihanchi into separate kata. Among some intermediate and senior (Western) karate practitioners, this in particular seems to be a source of controversy; some are even talking seriously of dropping pinan kata from their syllabus, citing that, because of their intended nature as introductory kata to school children, the pinan are no longer useful in comparsison to more advanced kata such as passai, chinto, kusanku (from which the majority of pinan is drawn) and useishi/gojushiho. A few have even accused Itosu of being responsible for the weakening or ‘watering-down’ of Shuri-te, simply because he introduced new kata, and was responsible for making karate public.
How do people overlook his obvious contributions to all of Okinawan karate so easily? How do they not read and comprehend what karate really meant to him. Let’s review the 2nd point of his ‘1o Precepts’
2.The purpose of tode is to make the body hard like stones and iron; hands and feet should be used like the points of arrows, hearts should be strong and brave. If children were to practice tode from their elementary-school days, they would be well prepared for military service.
This doesn’t indicate that Itosu was attempting to ‘weaken’ or ‘water-down’ karate; in fact, it indicates that Itosu believed that introducing hard karate training to school children would prepare them to be more effective warriors.
Itosu was a visionary, a pioneer, and he was the catalyst for karate’s public introduction and widespread acceptance. If not for his efforts, you and I may very well have never had the opportunity to learn Okinawan karate. People are quirky I suppose, As a new student, we (that practice shuri-te based ryu) struggled to learn the 5 pinan; we looked forward to becoming proficient enough to move on to the next one, and personally, I felt a great sense of accomplishment after having learned the five pinans, and being allowed to learn passai. If we are to drop fundamental and entry level kata, can we also drop fundamental and entry level kihon? Can we drop chudan uke, mae-geri, and gyaku-zuki after we’ve become proficient with kyusho and tuidi based defense? I suppose we could, but then again, people do illogical things all the time.
So, what is that drives the desire to drop kata from the syllabus; what entitles a karate practitioner to summarily dismiss basic kata once they have learned more advanced kata? I don’t know the answer, honestly; I suppose it depends on the experience level of the practitioner. If he/she has been training for 50 years and has learned all that their teacher taught them, perhaps they’ve earned the right to add or drop kata. This is commonly known as ‘Ri’ or transcendance (remember shu-ha-ri). At this level, karate-ka are considered masters, and have earned the right to ‘customize’ or change their art, and many do; in fact, this is common. If teachers never changed anything, there would be no splinter groups, different ryu, or kai, within the same styles. However, it could also be that these karate-ka have lost their ‘sho-shin’ or, beginner’s mind. This, I believe, is the more common problem; if someone has been training for only 10 or 20 years, they are very likely still at the ‘shu’ level of Shu-Ha-Ri. They are expected to conform and adhere, without question, to everything that is taught.
Over the years, my teacher has constantly reminded me of one thing – basics. Always practice basics. In nearly every conversation, no matter the topic, he will always ask about it, or sneak it in the conversation; it’s that important. Kihon are the building blocks of karate. Pinan kata could very well be considered among the building blocks of shorin-ryu, along with the naihanchi kata. To me, and to most Okinawan teachers, they are. To others, mostly Western karate practitioners, no so much.
These past few day have been spent slipping into short bursts of reminiscence as I’ve pored over old photos for inclusion in my book; with the 15th Anniversary Gasshuku only 2 1/2 months away, and Takamiyagi Sensei’s arrival in only 7 weeks, I’ve been looking at old photos, mementos, and gifts that I’ve accumulated over the years. Each one tells a story of the time and occasion, and for me, it’s a private time capsule that takes me back in my mind to the place or event where each gift was presented. I’ve received, t-shirts, challenge coins, cups and mugs with different dojo emblems, I’ve received custom weapons, banners, and books. Due to the auspicious nature of this year’s gasshuku, I’ve received several inquiries about gifts for the occasion; my answer is always the same; dollar value isn’t important at all when giving gifts from the heart; I prefer to give something that is personal to me will always be appreciated more than something that anyone can buy. This year, I’ve chosen very personal gifts for my friends and supporters that have helped make this year’s gasshuku possible; the dollar value isn’t really high, but it’s something that can’t be bought anywhere.
At the end of a training trip in 2003, I was given the copy of Okinawa Den Bubishi (seen in the accompanying photo) by my teacher on the day I left Okinawa to come back home. Although these copies can be easily purchased in Okinawa, mine is special because my teacher gave it to me; not a copy that he had picked up a few days ago to give to, but his personal copy with his handwritten notes and comparison on the pages. To me, this is a priceless treasure, and one of my most prized possessions.
Throughout your martial arts journey, you will accumulate these little trinkets, treasures, and mementos; when we first receive these gifts, they are very much appreciated, but like fine wine, their value increases with age as they remind us of friends and teachers that have enriched our lives; these men and women that have made our journey even sweeter, are the true priceless treasures.
Shoshin – Beginners Mind. Most traditional Okinawan and Japanese martial arts practitioners are extremely familiar with this term. For me, this term came springing to life in vivid color when I began the study of Mugai-Ryu Iaido a little over a year ago. As a lifelong karate practitioner, I’ve cross-trained in many martial arts over the past three decades, and have been able to adapt fairly easily.
Enter: The Sword. I found very quickly that the principles of power, speed, and movement do not transfer easily from karate to iaido. It was frustrating, but I’ve always been stubborn, so I stuck with it, accepted corrections, and continued training and practicing. What draws me to Iaido is nearly the polar opposite of what drew me to Judo, Kung Fu, and Karate. I began training in high school for self-protection, and continued into adulthood. I’ve learned more than I ever imagined, and have used my skills on countless occasions in the line of duty. I started like everyone does – tying on a white belt and standing in the back of the dojo trying to keep up. Over the years, I’ve advanced in skill and rank, earned recognition, respect, and friends all over the world.
Iaido is none of that to me: I am 99% certain that I’ll never have the opportunity or the need to defend my life or my loved ones with the sword. Still, I train. There is something very special about being accepted into a small fraternity of people that still train in the ways of the warriors of ancient Japan. There is no promise or expectation of rank. There is only training. We practice and we learn. We conform to the methods set by generations before us. If rank comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. If you want a black belt, no problem, wear one…or white, or blue, or mustard, or pink, or green. The kaku obi has one purpose, to hold my sword. Color doesn’t matter, as Iaido doesn’t traditionally recognize kyu ranks (normally associated with colored belts). We train to gain skill, to carry on the old ways, and to do our small part of preserving the ancient arts. This is enough.
Iaido isn’t for peasants. That was true then, and is true now. Many people fade away or quit training when the reality of Iaido related costs becomes apparent to them. Initially, a couple hundred (US) dollars is required for purchasing basic equipment (keiko-gi, hakama, kaku-obi, and bokken). Later the iai-to and shinken will need to be purchased, this can easily run close to a $1000 for economy models, and up to $3000 for a quality Japanese blade. There is a reason that Iaido is called “the expensive hobby!” When we begin cutting (tameshigiri) the costs accumulate even more rapidly; I’m already finding that the economy blade that I purchased last year wasn’t cutting it- pun intended. So, I recently purchased another higher quality blade. Add in the tatami for cutting, accessories such as new sageo, tabi, various kaku obi, etc. and you may find that you need a part time job to support your new Iaido habit!
This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons that some people quit Iaido within a few months. The costs can be overwhelming, along with the visions that they too would be magically transformed into a samurai were soon dashed as the students realized that Iaido practice is hard work; this coupled with the stark reality that they should expect to train and practice for a very long time with little or no chance of rank advancement, relatively speaking in comparison to karate.
Some stick to it, others fade away. In our dojo, we have had three karate students quit Iaido this year within a few months of starting; Iaido is hard work, requires intense focus, and the rewards come in the form of training. For those that have already been training in other martial arts for a while, Shoshin (beginners mind) is imperative to progress.
While I’m learning a lot and having a great time doing it, I realize that Iaido just isn’t for everyone.