Home Articles of InterestSubmitted by Other Authors Karate is a Thing of the Spirit

Karate is a Thing of the Spirit

by George Mattson

by David Elkins, Sandan, Uechi-Ryu Karate

When people discover that I train and teach karate they invariably get around to asking: “why do you train” and “does that stuff really work?” These are the polite variations on the theme. Other versions consist of statements like “my friend Bubba took two years of karooty and some truck driver beat the snot out of him” or “when you can block a bullet let me know and I’ll think about training.” After almost twenty years of fielding these questions I still find them challenging–especially the question of why, in this era of rampant violence and easy access to weapons, one would train in the martial ways.

Unlike a good mystery writer, I’ll give away the ending now. The title of this article was taken from Harry Crews’ 1971 novel and ultimately defines the essence of karate. I’d like to share the reasons why I continue to train and address “does that stuff really work?” As we go along the way we can look at what is spiritual about learning to fight.

Why I train

It is more difficult to explain why I train karate than why I lift. My couch-potato friends can vaguely identify with my motivations to lift heavy things…. well, not really. More often than not they imagine my lifting workouts to be something like they read about in the latest edition of Gentlemen’s Awesome Buff Fitness. More often than not I don’t correct them. I’ve learned from experience that whatever communication gap may exist when discussing strength training with non-trainees is multiplied exponentially when discussing karate training. Imagine a good, high intensity strength workout then add the ingredient of trainees punching and kicking a variety of inanimate objects and each other–how would you explain that? On second thought, remembering the ambiance of some of the gyms where I’ve lifted, perhaps that’s not such an unusual occurrence!

learning to fight “real good”

Most people begin their karate training in hopes of learning to defend themselves. In other cases, people have very specific motivations (such as one of my friends who wanted to kill his garbage man.) My situation was that I was afraid of my own shadow. How did I get there? Trust me, you wouldn’t want to ride that train. Fortunately, karate training seems to give us what we need. There is a saying in Japanese, “the nail that stands up will be hammered down.” This saying is descriptive of how karate training tends to level extremes–those who come to karate as fire-breathing dragons are soothed and those who are afraid learn courage. I learned self respect and courage. This reflected not so much a physical change in me as one of the spirit.

During the first several years of my training I could have been alternately been mistaken for Frankenstein’s monster or someone playing a child’s game of freeze tag. Years of accumulated tension contributed to my appearance as the creature lurching spastically when first trying to walk with his new set of limbs. Fighting, however structured, invariably brought on a response of system shutdown and immobility. Fortunately, I didn’t give up and over time it all got better.

It would be simplistic to say that I continue to practice karate because it gives me confidence to defend myself (more on this in the “does that stuff really work” section.) Self-defense is a complex issue and it would be seriously incorrect to assume that enrolling in the average contemporary karate school will automatically lead to your ability to defend yourself in today’s world.

It is true that I continue training for self-defense, but only partially. I learned, as Goju-Ryu karate pioneer Peter Urban put it, to “fight real good” a long time ago. I know about and adhere to a continuum of awareness, and I trust what Gavin DeBecker calls “the gift of fear” (that little voice inside that tells you when you’re really in danger.) Self defense is a extremely important reason to begin training and to continue actively training, but as one progresses, it is not the most important reason.

The statement “self-defense is not the most important reason” may be misleading as karate is self-defense. If I lost interest in self-defense, I would devote my life to another pursuit. I’ve walked out of many an otherwise fine dojo and kwoon (Chinese martial art studio) because of their minimal emphasis on the realities of self-defense. I know that there are no short-cuts, no free lunches, and that contemplating my Qi (intrinsic bioelectrical energy) will not help me to win a fight. If I have a choice of redemption in sweat or enlightenment I will choose sweat every time. Sweat may lead to enlightenment, but seldom does enlightenment lead to victory in a real fight.

At this point it may be helpful to realize that there are two fairly distinct approaches to teaching karate and that over the years, many karate styles have changed. Okinawan karate was originally called Karate-Jutsu (China Hand Art.) At that time, karate was a combat art. Over time it changed via introduction of the curriculum into public schools and universities, the development of sportive application, adoption of a ranking system, and loss of some of the vitality of its martial roots. Following the example of Judo, it became known as Karate-Do (Way of the Empty Hand.) Karate-Jutsu sought combat efficacy whereas Karate-Do seeks perfection of character via the medium of karate training.

Here is the critical distinction: training to prevail in a violent encounter (Jutsu) can lead one to “the way”–the Do in Karate-Do. Training in “the way” will not necessarily prepare one to survive a violent encounter. Most commercial karate dojo in this era are much more focused upon “the way” than the combat art of karate. I do not like this trend. Payton Quinn sums up my feelings nicely when he states “My objection to those who crowd the dojo with their interest in the art alone (that is, the “art” as they see it; not in its self-defense application) is that they dilute the wine…I am not talking about insufficient skill, but of insufficient spirit.”

In real karate, training for self-defense never ceases, nor does it lose its status as the raison d’être of karate. Remember, karate is self-defense. Training self-defense in advanced practice, however, becomes more and more a cultivation of the spirit. You will understand this concept completely if you relate to an analogy of the jazz musician. Musicianship (technical mastery of composition and performance) never ceases as an objective of the jazz musician, but at the highest level of the art, it is assumed, and expressing emotion through the music becomes preeminent in importance. Similarly, at the highest level of karate practice it is assumed that you know your “chops.” What is of paramount importance in one’s development at this time is that their spirit (will) become stronger and stronger. This can only be accomplished through shugyo (austere practice.) This is a thing of the spirit.

controlling the beast

There is an aspect of potential violence which is completely under my control, and that is my own. In karate we call it the “beast” within. I learn through karate training that acting out anger is seldom justified, and when it is, it should be taken very seriously. The beast must be both cultivated and controlled. Many ancient martial paintings show a warrior riding the back of a tiger or dragon. That is taming the beast.

Unlike a video game where I might “kill” hundreds of people and animals and never experience the consequences, in the real world I know what it feels like to hurt others and to be hurt. I know that I am entirely capable of administering hurt at any point along the “ass whup” continuum. I certainly know what it is like to be hurt. I also know what it looks, feels, and smells like to see my training partner in pain because of something that I’ve done in anger. I am likewise aware of the legal consequences of my behavior in and out of the dojo (karate school, literally–place of the way.) Like noted self-defense expert, Payton Quinn, I decided early on that I didn’t ever want to live in a prison setting. Payton wisely admonishes “…If you would like to stay out of prison, understand this–either you are in control of yourself, or someone else is.” Having made these points, controlling my own anger and potential for violence is also not the only reason I continue training. Much as in the case of the ability to defend myself, that was accomplished years ago. Also, as in adopting values such as courage and self-respect, learning to accept and control my anger was not really a physical thing, but rather one of the spirit.

positive addictions

There are a variety of other reasons that I continue to train. I’m addicted to the sights, smells, and sounds of the dojo. I love to teach and to write about the martial arts. I have found fellow karate-ka to be my lifelong friends and surrogate family. Albert Schweitzer said “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” I feel that way about my karate seniors and to a certain extent continue my training as a sign of respect for them. These reasons, however compelling, would not independently keep me in the dojo. There is another reason, and it has to do with walking around strong.

walking around strong

In “Life in the Loft–Part IV” (Milo, October, 1994) Dr. Ken talked about a feeling that accompanies regular, intense strength training. He called it “walking around strong.” It’s a feeling that you have met and conquered the enemy and that you are ready for any challenge that life may provide. This feeling is also a product of good strong karate training.

But who or what is the enemy that is to be conquered? Is it the iron, rock, steel, or your karate brothers and sisters? Perhaps it’s the coach or your Sensei (karate teacher. literally–one who has gone before or who has already seen the way). I would suggest that the real enemy is none of the above, but rather oneself. This is yet another way in which I see karate as a thing of the spirit.

Who has to be motivated to go to the gym or dojo when they are tired, injured, bored, or frightened? Who is responsible for staying on course, not only during a single workout, but in their unswerving devotion to productive routines or the dojo they have chosen? Who determines if their coach’s advice or Sensei’s direction is heeded or discarded? Who is involved directly in the second by second decisions to persevere or quit in the course of a heavy set or kumite (fighting)? It’s none of the aforementioned…it’s me and you.

You and I are the enemy. The enemy is the part of me or you who is subject to temptation not to train, not to remain focused, not to remain open to coaching or your Sensei’s direction, to indiscriminately lash out when frustrated and angry, and to quit when the going gets tough. It is the “beast” within. We all have this aspect to our selves and we all have to deal with it. Successfully confronting the enemy in karate as well as lifting helps one to walk around strong. It is the primary reason that I continue to train even after I learned how to control the beast within and fight “real good”.

When we think of walking around strong it is easy to focus only on the physical. This would be a serious mistake. We use a physical medium in both lifting and karate to sculpt a sentiment of walking around strong, but that feeling is not entirely based in how strong or tough we are. It transcends the physical and is truly a thing of the spirit. Let me provide several examples. Think of the solitary figure standing in defiance against the row of tanks in Tiananmen square during the Beijing uprising of 1989. That person evidenced walking around strong the likes of which most of us can only dream about. On the other hand, consider the cowardly soldier in Saving Pvt. Ryan. He did nothing while his buddies died yet he was armed. In this case he had the potential to take and protect life, but was unable to act at all because he had no idea what it meant to walk around strong. Consider also the story of Harold Connolly featured in Milo (June, 1998.) It is unthinkable that one would not be moved by Harold’s courage and tenacity. This story contained a few comments about Harold’s PR’s, but was mostly a testimonial to his triumph of the spirit. Despite physical challenges that would have put most of us down, he walked around strong. Thus walking around strong is also a thing of the spirit.

Does that stuff really work?

It depends. Respected karate historian Patrick McCarthy tells us that the arts we study were not created to combat professional soldiers, law enforcement personnel, or fighters. They were largely created to allow unarmed individuals to deal with the unwanted habitual acts of violence of those who were untrained and/or unprepared for the response of a trained karate-ka (practitioner.) Admittedly, a portion of our roots are derived from aspects of both military and civil combative systems such as the those of the insurgents of the Ching dynasty and the various so called Chinese temple arts, e.g., Tiger, Dragon, and Crane Boxing styles. However, it is important to remember that the antecedent systems were largely those of armed personnel. Even the devastating unarmed Defendu concepts taught to W.W.II OSS operatives by Fairbairn, Applegate, and others presumed the concepts would be used only as a last resort by those who had, for whatever reason, temporarily lost the capacity to use firearms, edged, and improvised weapons.

making it happen

Tour De France winner Fausto Coppi once responded when asked how one becomes a great cyclist “ride a bike, ride a bike, ride a bike.” Similarly, in order for this “stuff” to work in the real world, dojo training must approximate the real world to the extent that safety allows. We might rephrase Fausto’s response as “hit, hit, and be hit.” I do not allow my students to punch to the side of their opponent’s body as this ingrains striking the air next to an enemy. Instead, body conditioning allows powerful strikes to the body that are not pulled. Trainees get used to what it takes to deliver a powerful strike and what it feels like to be struck. In a real fight, you will be hit…period. If you aren’t prepared for the physical and emotional impact of being hit, you will fold when it counts the most.

All of the training mentioned takes place in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Each trainee participates at the level of intensity for which they are prepared. I would not expect a green belt to perform at black belt level. Mutual respect does not mean blind deference to rank. No one in the street cares what rank you hold. Juniors must exert every effort to actually hit their seniors when training. If not, both lose out in the training. The junior is deprived of learning to hit hard and accurately, and the senior is deprived of having to deal with their attack. To this extent, karate training, like a world class gym or lifting team is a group effort. Teamwork makes the training come alive.

real fighting/real karate

When thinking about “does that stuff really work” an important variable to consider is that most real fights are decided by preemptive (who hits first) strikes and are over in a matter of seconds. Want to see some real world fights? Don’t look to the ring or the martial arts “kick-up” films. To see real world fighting go to a seedy bar, hang out on the streets late at night, or rent the videos Goodfellas or Casino and check out Joe Pesci’s fight scenes. In both movies he strikes savagely with a fury that is hard to comprehend for those who haven’t been there, and in less than five seconds his enemy is hors de combat. We’re not talking bloody nose or “I give,” but rather, at best, time in the hospital with tubes and machines performing vital bodily functions. Later, if there is a later, will feature surgeries and rehabilitation. This is real fighting and it is not the focus of the curriculum in most karate schools.

Real fighting in today’s world frequently involves weapons and multiple assailants. Under these circumstances the flowery curriculum of many contemporary karate (as well as other major style) schools does not address real issues and to that extent does their following a great disservice. Usually, such misdirection is not based in malice or deception, but rather in response to the litigious nature of our society and simple economic survival. Sensei must be sensitive to the relative severity of training acceptable to the modern practitioner or risk closing their doors. Learning complex movements based upon choreography in the dojo is a pale shadow of striking the makiwara (forging post) 1,000 times, practicing body conditioning, and engaging in hard and heavy two person “slammer” drills. The first is beautiful to behold– the second wins fights.

Real karate training teaches universally applicable concepts that govern energy and movement. Understanding these concepts of energy and motion is gained through daily practice of the kata (forms) of a system. Understanding kata is vital but not sufficient to create a good fighter. The practitioner must also be tempered physically through hard training to give and receive physical punishment. Additionally, the fighter must have gained an iron will which will not allow the possibility of surrender or defeat. This is also developed through hard training. The title of Randy Strossen’s article about HG champ Alistair Gunn in the June, 1998, issue of Milo sums it up nicely…”It’s Not the Size of the Dog in the Fight, It’s the Size of the Fight in the Dog.” This too is a thing of the spirit.

techniques–we don’t need no stinkin’ techniques

We’ve spoken of iron will, physical attributes, and structure from the kata that mold correct technique. It is important when questioning “does this stuff work” to rate these variables in some kind of hierarchy of importance.

Iron will, physical strength, and correct technique (technique may be correctly defined as both overall form and specific movement(s)–these are the necessary qualities of a good fighter. The arrangement is not random, but in descending order of importance. This may come as a surprise since many people intuitively regard technique as preeminent. When you first begin lifting you hope to get strong, look strong, or in rare cases, actually improve your overall health. Beginning trainees usually have at best a hazy notion of how to actualize those goals.

Upon entering the world of the karate dojo most people want to learn to protect themselves. Most assume this goals will be met by learning technique. This naive assumption is promoted and supported by various aspects of the martial arts establishment. Some dojo promise to teach more “techniques” than the competition. Kids are asked “what techniques did you learn today” by well meaning parents. This view of karate as technique is reminiscent of the attitude in the US in the early part of this century toward the newly introduced Asian fighting arts as they were portrayed to the populous as a collection of “tricks”–sneaky tricks at that!

Technique is important, but perhaps more so as a vehicle for spirit forging. An analogy may be made to lifting. No one will deny the importance of learning proper technique to maximize effort and minimize injury. However, all other things being equal, who wins contests? Usually it is the competitor with reasonable technique (although not always) AND fiery spirit. As fight commentators frequently say “it’s come down to who wants it more.” In fact, if you subscribe to the tenants of high intensity lifting, each training session is an exercise in the development of iron will. Any single max effort undertaken is only a expression of the spirit cultivated in each and every training session. So it is in karate. Just as in a hard 20 rep set of squats, karate training provides more opportunities to quit than can be imagined by the uninitiated. And exactly as in the case of a hard 20 rep set of squats, completion of the set (or ones karate training) usually is more dependent on spirit than muscle.

Sir, you are disqualified for excessive contact!

The reader will note that not much has been said about “sparring.” This is not an omission, but rather a reflection of my opinion of the limited value of sportive application in karate. I do think that it is important to spar, especially in one’s early karate development. Nothing prepares one to fight better than experiencing another person coming at them with “bad intentions”. Unfortunately, the practice of tournament style sparring has some very serious drawbacks to those seeking a karate-jutsu perspective. This difficulty inheres in our tendency when under severe stress to perform exactly that which we have trained.

Sparring is a wonderful outlet for competitive urges. It hones reactions and promotes accuracy and control of technique. It also teaches fair play and restraint, two qualities that have no place in a fight in the real world. Once a student has accomplished the progress possible through sparring experience, I prefer to direct them to hard and heavy two person drills where the more lethal techniques of the kata may be trained with relentless forward pressure. Devotion to competitive sparring at this stage of development is counterproductive. When I make contact with my enemy, the last thing I want to have ingrained in my neuromuscular memory is detaching to signify the scoring of a point or because I don’t want to make the other guy look foolish. I really don’t want to be thinking about excessive contact. There are no points in a real fight and there is no fair play in a real fight. If contact is insufficient, I may be quick, but I will surely be dead.

“You can kill me, but nobody can destory me”

Remember, when we discuss fighting, we are not talking about someone who sees the world as a series of potential fights, but an individual who appreciates the consequences of violence and engages in violence only when necessary to protect themselves or those less capable. There is no shame in running from a fight. My brother-in-law, Jose’ is fond of saying, “never bring a knife to a gun fight.” If I find that I’ve brought a knife to a gun fight and the slightest chance presents itself, I’ll run like hell, and I hope you would too. However, when it is necessary to fight, I aspire to be like the android’s hand in Terminator I–pursuing its objective despite having been severed from its body. A well trained karate-ka, as any fighter tempered in the fires of hard training, should be like the android’s hand: unrelenting until the threat is no more.

Come on…does it work or not?

So, “does that stuff really work?” You bet, providing the practitioner has embraced a system of karate that acknowledges the realities of combat by stressing the establishment of “iron heart.” This is done through hard training that features plenty of contact, both striking objects (such as the makiwara) and being struck (body conditioning.) Additionally, the practitioner will have trained in a system that is direct and uncomplicated. Remember, in a real fight the enormous output of the endocrine system will tunnel vision, diminish other sensory input, and inhibit fine motor movement thus rendering all but the simplest and most over learned movements virtually unusable.

Our imaginary karate-ka will not hesitate to use preemptive strikes when he/she knows it’s about to hit the fan. They will attack relentlessly with constant forward movement and they will anticipate multiple assailants. If they find themselves in a “gunfight holding only a knife,” they will not hesitate to escalate force to match or equal their enemy (or they will run.) They are comfortable fighting at any range and going to (and quickly getting up from) the ground if necessary. They will demonstrate an iron will that has been forged in the fires of hard training. To beat them you will have to kill them. Under these conditions, does this stuff really work? You bet it does! And it doesn’t work because of a collection of techniques, the belt that you wear, or your tournament prowess. It works because it is a thing of the spirit.

Copyright 1999 by David Elkins. All Rights Reserved

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