by Michael Schuler, yodan
posted October 15, 2001 (Mike passed to godan August 21, 2006 in Santa Barbara, CA grading)
Special Training, Grading and Kata: What Will We Pass On?
This past June, I returned to Summer Special Training in the Midwest for the first time since 1990. It is hard to find words to capture the warm feelings of reunion with my old friends and seniors, some of whom I have known through our practice for more than half my life. And, like a distant old uncle, I found myself marveling at the way many of my juniors had grown, both in their practices and in their lives, during the formative years I had been away. Although I am unable to contribute in the way I think I did when I was younger and for a time even helped lead Midwest special trainings, I found myself for those four days inspired and energized by the spirit of the group to a level far beyond what I would have thought possible. To rejoin the ranks after having previously been the leader was a unique experience which underscored and enlarged for me our concept that each of us has three lives in Karate-do: our own, our seniors’, and our juniors’. To feel directly the way the spirit of sincere practice moves ultimately in a circle from senior to junior and back again was something I hope all of my juniors will one day come to experience for themselves.
While I greatly appreciated the effort of the special training group, I feel the need to offer two criticisms: my gut reaction to the training was that the focus on dan test has become a distraction and that kata has become a weak spot. To me, these developments are both completely backwards. We seniors can and must correct this by example, by redirecting our attention and emphasis to serious practice and away from grading. If we don’t, I fear that in a very short time these could become serious problems for us and damage our ability to pass on what we have received.
When I was coming up, and Mr. Ohshima, Mr. Honda, and Caylor Adkins were still leading special trainings, the thought of taking dan tests never entered our minds. Of the reasons for going to special training, facing ourselves strictly was not the primary one: it was the ONLY one. From top to bottom, everyone understood that it was a privilege simply to try to contribute to that unique atmosphere, in which our seniors taught us by example how to see ourselves “through devil’s eyes.”
As a twenty year old brown belt with only a few years’ training, I had no way at all to perceive, much less pretend to understand, the high technical level of my seniors’ practice; yet what I could see then, I can still see in my mind’s eye now, over thirty years later.
I realize that the increasing size of special training groups over the years has necessitated that the leader, in order to fulfill his responsibility to oversee and guide the training, must forego participating physically in much of it. However, this was not always the case.
To this day, I can still see Mr. Ohshima leading midnight oi-zuki practice at my first special training. There was a dense fog that night, and Sensei was far, far out in front of us as we marched back and forth across a wide open field encircled by small pine. A good fifty yards away in the mist, he appeared to me as an almost mystical figure as he made one absolutely precise and unbelievably life-like attack after another — no, they didn’t seem like something with a technical name, oi-zuki, or that they were some mechanically perfect ticks on an aerobic clock; but instead I was taken by the distinct sensation that I was seeing, one by one, the climactic moment in a series of actual life and death duels!
And the image that I recall most distinctly is not one of those flawless attacks, but rather something unexpected that was over in an instant: Once, Mr. Ohshima’s foot slipped on the rain-slick grass and he fell down — but he didn’t fall down. I can’t exactly explain it, but somehow the way his knee hit the ground and he virtually bounced back instantaneously to perfect posture in zenkutsu, his eyes and attention never wavering, I knew that what was important hadn’t “fallen” at all. I hadn’t heard of such concepts as mushin or zanshin at that time, but my eyes certainly knew what they had seen and that it went to the heart of what we were there to learn.
Soon afterward, I started attending Winter special trainings, both in the East and on the West Coast. I can remember standing in kiba dachi in Pittsburgh. Mr. Honda led us by standing in the center of the circle himself, his hips virtually level with his knees the whole time. I can still hear him, deep into the practice, commanding us to punch slowly as our legs shivered, telling us in a voice that penetrated each of us with the intensity of the sheer force of will he was displaying before us, to “breathe through your fist … put your whole feeling into your fist … put your whole being into your fist … you ARE that fist!” There is no doubt that we were all in awe of what we saw that morning, and that any technical aspect was the least of it.
Later yet, as my appetite for training quickly grew, I started hitch-hiking to the West Coast and Canada, where I joined in what would prove to be my own most memorable special trainings, those led by Caylor Adkins.
As varied as a group of gourmet chefs, our seniors are all unique and original human beings, and so the special trainings they lead naturally all have their own special flavors. Caylor pulled his trainings off the grill damned near raw, slapping them down with the blood running onto our paper plates and a sly grin that made even first-timers understand that it was not only allowed, but encouraged, to slurp. Although I had already become a vegetarian, I loved the taste and literally couldn’t get enough.
You go to a steak house to get steak. You went to Caylor’s trainings to dig inside yourself and push. By design, there was a democratic plan: everyone was there to polish the same simple stone until the sheer friction set it on fire. Of eight practice sessions in a winter special training, three of them might be absolutely identical and as ultimately accessible for the newest beginner as for the most senior member: 100 Taikyoku shodan, non-stop! No philosophical discussions, no technical corrections, no public service announcements, no commercial breaks… just live action from beginning to end. Can you imagine the message it implanted in a young brown belt’s mind to see a senior, who had been practicing almost since I was born, still digging into that basic kata as though his life depended upon it?
But what you learned in those practices was that the endless repetitions of that simplest kata were NOT all the same, that what you had thought of as a simple wooden form was in fact combustible. It was as though we beginners were prehistoric cavemen who did not understand why Caylor was teaching us, through his own incredible intensity, to rub the stone. Imagine how it felt to us at the moment when that first flame burst forth inside us!
In his book, Karate-do: Beyond Technique, Master Egami talks about what it is like for a new member to begin to enter the world of our practice. He emphasizes that the junior must have faith to follow his senior’s strict example and oftentimes blunt and demanding commands. Master Egami also adds, without elaboration, that after years of hard practices the junior will eventually come to understand the deep relationship between himself and the one who gives the commands.
Although his comment may seem cryptic, I myself have an absolutely concrete personal understanding of those words. I did not have opportunity to see or practice with Caylor for more than twenty years after the special trainings he led when I was starting. During that time, I had many occasions in making deadlines in my construction work, in leading karate practices and special trainings, in facing all kinds of real life adversities which either physically or mentally exhausted me to the point where I was about to give up, when I would hear a voice inside my head say to me the same three words, almost like an emergency mantra: “Let’s go now!”
Over the years, I came to rely on that voice; it never failed to come to me whenever I was about to give in to the notion that I just couldn’t carry on any more, whenever I really needed to dig inside, to suck it up and will myself to accomplish or complete something important. For years, I thought I was literally talking to myself in those moments, sometimes even aloud. Then, when I read Master Egami’s words, it suddenly dawned on me where that mantra had come from. The voice inside was Caylor’s!
As for grading, every one of us who received Mr. Ohshima’s invitation to take a dan test, often extended after special training was over and without any warning whatsoever, was caught completely off guard. No one thought his own practice was good enough for him to even take a test, much less be promoted. If we passed, all of us felt that we received our promotions with attached mortgages or promissory notes to work hard and someday earn the rank which we were certain we did not deserve.
Now it seems that some juniors are going to special trainings either to earn coupons for future promotions or else to take a dan test to cash in the coupons they have already saved. I think that we seniors have to look at ourselves, at our own attitudes about rank, and at our current policies concretely linking special trainings to the dan test, and then ask ourselves where our juniors’ attitudes are coming from.
As for the importance of kata practice, our Way is a direct transmission of both spirit and form. Passing on either one without the other is incomplete. Like the wheels of a two-wheeled cart, both spirit and kata are needed to carry our understanding “straight and well” from one generation to the next. If one wheel is undersized or untrue, the cart will turn off course and eventually crash.
I think that learning kata, especially for shodan candidates, is like landing in a foreign land where you meet a kind stranger, with the power to confer citizenship upon you, who tells you, “Come into this room with me and I will show you a poem which can change, maybe even save, your life one day.” You go into the room together, and he strips naked and shows you the poem, written in a language you don’t understand, in characters you’ve never seen before, with writing that covers every inch of his body. You want to take a photo of him or write notes on a piece of paper, but you too have had to strip to enter the room and have only your own eyes to see and blood to write with. Telling you to copy exactly, he says that you will learn the language if you stay in the country long enough but that even before then, if you attain citizenship, it will be your job to pass the poem on to those who will arrive in the next boat. Given the responsibilities and the personal cost of copying the poem, wouldn’t you copy as absolutely carefully as you could?
And later, even after you had become fairly fluent in the language and perhaps begun to develop your own personal interpretations of the poem, now deeply etched into your own body, wouldn’t you feel obliged to pass on the heritage of careful precision, as well as the spirit of trusteeship, as you had originally received them?
All of us want our juniors to succeed, but true success is independent from rank. The dan test is, first and foremost, a learning experience and reckoning, not a reward. Those who pass receive more responsibility, not personal acclaim. I understand the sentiments that can sometimes move us to pass a spirited dan candidate with poor performance and understanding of kata. But even though our closing comments in such cases may include a qualifying criticism, admonishing the candidate to bring his kata up to the level of the rest of his practice, our actions have already spoken to him louder than our words, which are received in his moment of elation at having passed the exam. Too often, these words are later either forgotten or never truly heeded.
We should remember that upon reaching shodan level, each black belt has the right to request permission to start a dojo and teach others. I think we need to consider the ramifications, not only for the candidate himself, but for those who will follow him, if he should face the responsibility to lead others by example before his technique has matured sufficiently to become a sound example to follow.
I believe there is true dignity in being a strong, sincere brown belt, facing squarely and humbly the need to polish oneself for just one more year. And I also believe that there is a very strong strategic argument that shodan should be a doorway through which one may not pass without the key of kata and a deep appreciation for its fundamental part in the transmission of our way. Of course, a clean honest mentality and strong fighting spirit form the bedrock of our practice; but I think that we will have lost our way and abandoned a true treasure if we allow our understanding and preservation of kata to erode. I believe that the dan test should serve, in part, as a seawall to guard against this erosion.
I would humbly suggest two ways in which instructors could better help their brown belts mature and naturally reach shodan level: first, never mention the dan test; and, second, see to it that they understand and polish their favorite kata, even if it means making that favorite form with them, movement for movement, when you practice together. It is not just a matter of technique. When our juniors see us making kata, polishing and refining the same form, hour after hour, day after day, they absorb the spirit of the kata and of practice itself. And for those who are or may become isolated, kata is the ultimate “pocket portable senior.”
In the movie, Braveheart, the hero makes an observation that I think applies directly to our practice: he says, “Men don’t follow nobility; they follow courage.” When I think back to my formative experiences in the SKA, there is no question in my memory that I was powerfully drawn to a path which has ultimately nourished and sustained me for most of my adult life because I could plainly see that I was following courage and honesty, not nobility and rank.
In closing, I think that instructors and dan candidates alike need to view the dan test with the same mind immovable and “devil’s eyes” with which we strive to see ourselves during the rest of special training. Further, we should ask ourselves why Mr. Ohshima devoted years to the precise translation of Karate-do Kyohan and why Master Funakoshi considered kata to be “the heart of Karate.” When our bodies demonstrate that we have invested the time and effort to make our kata a part of ourselves, and our mentality allows us to stand humbly before the truth, “putting forth our best effort and accepting the outcome,” then our practice has already reached a level that has real meaning for our lives and for those who will follow us as well.
What will we pass on?
Jion Summer Smoothie
Our serious training often involves large numbers of repetitions of one aspect or even one element of practice. I think it is natural that the feeling and flavor of our practice tends to shift according to what we are emphasizing at a given point in time. For example, when we put in large blocks of time on kumite, it is easy for our kata to become very spirited but a little ragged; conversely, when making many kata in one session, it is always a challenge to keep a realistic feeling toward our opponent foremost in our minds. And when we get enthused about any of the active, technical aspects of training, it is often difficult to avoid the temptation to minimize warm-up, stretching, and meditation. This summer, we tried the experimental training recipe below to see if it might help us integrate the different elements of training into one feeling. We have not yet stuck with it long enough for me to come to a definitive conclusion as to the results, but I’d like to share it now with anyone who might like to taste it for himself.
The following recipe makes enough for a pair of moderately experienced karateka who are already familiar with the kata and sparring elements involved; it lasts about two hours. (Warm up briefly before beginning.) Each rotation consists of four steps:
1. Make your best, most precise Jion one time without counting or rushing.
2. Follow immediately with one minute of the deepest kiba-dachi you can make, with your arms positioned above your head precisely as in the Mountain Stance posture as it comes up in the opening section of Hangetsu. (Don’t use a clock; the leader figures out in advance about how many breaths this equals.)
3. Follow immediately with one minute of a deep stretching pose of your choice, holding it statically while dynamically using your breathing as in yoga asan. You may change poses on each rotation. (For example, you might rotate between front and side splits, plough and bow, etc. Again, no clock, just breathing as a timer.)
4. Follow immediately with one minute of the most ferocious continuous attack or, alternatively, jiyu ippon gumite, you can muster. Where possible, try to defend yourself with movements from the kata.
Continue immediately with one repetition of your best Jion to begin the next rotation. Repeat for thirty rotations or until the smoothie is thoroughly mixed.
Try this on a hot afternoon some time this summer with a trusted friend at about the same technical level. You can of course substitute the kata of your choice. I think you’ll enjoy the way the feelings of the different practices start to blend and creep into one another. (Also, it can really change the flavor of your kata if you are lucky enough to receive a punch in the kumite right before it!)