Ochoa Recap 4: Gone is the Goju of Yesteryear?

To equate the social and cultural realities of a dojo today with those of a sensei's garden dojo in the late 19th Century is absurd. And yet from these small, mud-packed gardens came what we today call Okinawa Karate, in all its myriad styles and variations. Does the present syllabus faithfully reflect the old Naha-te and Shuri-te forms from which they sprung? What are the ultimate origins? To whom do we owe the katas we practice today? Do the many kata variations and the different style katas signify that there is no airtight tradition? And, if this is so, can we vary the katas we know or invent new ones entirely? In short, what is tradition?

All these questions in the 1970's in the Ochoa Dojo really were irrelevant. There was no martial arts scholar in our midst to shed light on these and other sundry matters. An American guy talked to an Okinawan guy who sent a Japanese guy to teach Puerto Ricans the Shoreikan style of Okinawa Goju-Ryu Karate Do. Did we know we were being taught a particular syllabus distinct from others? Yes, but Goju was what we learned.

Nuances and sublteties of stance, whether one knuckle or two, overhead or from the shoulder, slide or simple step, kiai here or there, etcetera, varied for me from teacher to teacher within Goju. So what traditions we learned were from the dojo. The dojo was, I guess, our tradition. Ochoa, in particular, was mine. In the photo to the right I recognize the shiko dachi stance, little else. And yet the look and attitude are recognizable in my tradition. But the little details in the stance, the hook of his wrist, the placement of his feet betrays another Okinawan style. No still-shot of a shoreikan kata would reveal this moment. The words are all there in a different order, although it is a sentence in the same language.

Toguchi was in all my teachers, all up and down the scale whether they migrated to other styles or set up their own. In this historic photo all my schools are represented: Toguchi's (center) Shoreikan, Kimo Wall's (to the right of Toguchi) Kodokan, and Kow Loon Ong's (standing to the left of Toguchi) Chi-I-Do. And all these sensei passed through Ochoa, physically and spiritually. I've always been one man away from Toguchi and we all know who he was one man away from. So tradition is a funny thing with regards to Ochoa, we were steeped in it without even knowing. But I think that regardless of the lack of hard knowledge about the dojo's heritage and lineage from a historical perspective, one sensed a belonging that was somehow transmitted to all of us at Ochoa.

Ochoa for all who were there was our little Okinawan village, living now only in our memories that erases all its shortcomings. All of us have migrated from Ochoa years ago and generations of black belts have trained in other dojos. The Ochoa "clan" is now in its late fifties to early 60's, a lifetime. These are the hard facts. When I read how many are so flippantly ready to vary their styles I wonder about their allegiances, what brought them to contemplate the possibility of changing the very core of what made them, whatever style that might be. I guess there are very good reasons to do so, only I find it impossible in my case.

I've been in the village too long and now that I lost it my Goju katas are all I have.


Ochoa Recap 3: Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Karate in P.R. in the 70's

The Shoreikan school in the Ochoa Dojo was probably the first traditional karate dojo on the Island. But since most, if not all, people wouldn't know the first thing about karate or martial arts in general, when they walk into a dojo they are primarily looking for something they saw on TV or the movies, a finished product. The preparation that might go into achieving that is basically beyond their grasp. So they saunter in looking for: (a) "inner peace;" (b) to get in shape; (c) beat the fu**ng shit out of everybody; (d) find out what's the buzz.
Membership in all karate school skyrocketed in the'70's. It was just the thing to do at the time. It dawned on people after a while in Ochoa that peace wasn't coming any time soon, they could get in shape much less frantically at the gym, and there were lots of kids running around with nunchakus for which the basic kata was "useless."

Then came Bruce Lee, the effortless flying kick, and everybody was "kung-fu fighting." He made it look so easy, and plus, the clothes were that much neater. And the nunchakus on the second day of training, well, who can beat that.

The Ochoa Dojo took a flying kick to the chin. Every Viet nam vet grew a fu manchu moustache and got into the act, nailing a board above their garages announcing some exotic martial art with a "wu."

Trying to stop it was like beating back the waves with a Bo. The Ochoa Dojo with its no competition policy, its slow progress through kihon katas, was just not the "in" place to be. The problem was that the term "traditional" was never used. People were never told why things were as they were in the dojo. Why the sweat, why the conditioning, why no nunchakus, why the basics. In fact, I don't thing the sensei knew they were in a traditional school. They expected everyone to be as commited as they were for no apparent reason. I knew nothing of Goju Ryu, Shoreikan, Miyaji, Toguchi, etc., because, I fear, they knew little themselves. They failed to transmit the importance of our lineage and the philosophy that came atached.

Serious Karate in Puerto Rico in the 1970's fell prey to the quick fix schools that promised superhuman powers in ten easy lessons. I don't think that Bruce Lee actually wanted martial arts to be viewed as a craze, but his swaggering through the media, his continuous put-downs, and constant playing to the crowds, took its toll. Ironically, who was probably the most versatile, complete, and gifted martial artist of his time, was also the person who most contributed to trivializing the art. His death only added to the myth. Maybe he got caught up in his own hype...or maybe it was something he could not control. Nevertheless, Bruce Lee became the prototype, the model of the martial artist everyone secretly wanted to be. But this isn't karate, it never has been karate.

So the Ochoa Dojo thinned out. Tae Kwon Do came into the scene, with its family bonus packages, a free gi with the registration fee, tournaments where everybody wins a prize, two or three katas to learn. Aikido promised seamless self-defense, sweat-free, also family packages, martial arts for the whole family. The Shaolin Arts provided more colorful costumes, with particular care taken to achieve the kung fu stare. Then came the thousand variations of the Okinawan styles, with a few extra syllables thrown in to distinguish one from the other, their lineages lost to time in either the South Bronx or jungles of New Jersey.

Ochoa's fate was in the balance, shakily so.


Ochoa Recap 2: White Belt Rabble

A person walks for the first time onto the dojo floor, does a split, contort themselves into living pretzels and other yoga impossibilities, and half way through the torture exercise routine seems as fresh as a daisy. The person fully grasps everything that is taught immediately and is well into the the third kata of the syllabus within a month's time. In short, a sensei's dream come true. Does this person exist? Yes, I've seen a few, but just a few, kids mainly. But this is not your typical whitebelt. Yet these stereotypes of perfection pervade the psyche of martial artist the world over. They pine for the simpler times of the past when the dark secrets of the Orient were shared only with the carefully chosen few, of which, of course, they are a part. They load up their sparse martial art family tree with pride, and the more oriental sounding names there are the better. They muse on this as they open their dojo somewhere downtown after clipping publicity flyers for their classes on all the lampposts enroute. But alas, the bills must be paid and some left over for R&R. So, please God (or hovering presence) send me some students, of any sort, and let the white belt rabble come stampeding to my dojo door.

The Ochoa Dojo in the 1970's was brimming with students, every inch of the floor was taken by the white belt rabble of the time, the coffers were full, life was good, but oh those white belts, they sure are a sorry lot. I trained during this time and it worked, with all its ups and downs. We came in all sizes, shapes, and attitudes; old, young, pretty and ugly, short, tall, graceful and clumsy. Now they don't come in any size, shape or form, they simply don't come. As they say, be careful what you wish for, it might come true: empty dojo, the chosen few, gray-haired and musky...and bitter. The modern dojo is not your clannish hamlet, all of one mind. It is much more complex. The Ochoa Dojo did not comprehend this complexity and applied the slash and burn of traditional karate, but just one problem, the people were free to go, and they did. Those like me who braved it out did so out of a personal commitment, not because a sensei motivated us, and plus, we paid our monthly dues, they could not kick us out. As plain as that. There were not many distractions in 19th century Okinawa. In the 1970's there were a bit more, and now they are tenfold. What's to keep a boy down in the dojo once he's seen MMA.
The elitist approach to martial arts nowadays is, at best, a well documented rationale of sour grapes. A failed attempt, at first, to keep the hordes outside the castle, and then to keep them in. Karate, like any human endeavour, is vulnerable to the push and pull of the marketplace, it must compete in the real world and not the construct of wet dreams.


Ochoa Recap 1: The Gallisá Bros., The Eternal Brown Belts

[The "Ochoa" years were the genesis of my 30 year trek in Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate but definitely not the most decisive in my evolution as a karate practitioner. But I wanted to establish this initial building block because of the almost "mythical" stature the Ochoa Dojo attained for those who lived that time, becoming a reference point for all kinds of distinctions in the future for the black belts who date from this time, akin to saying I went to Woodstock or had been in Viet Nam. The Ochoa Dojo existed before I got there and for quite a while after I left. My awareness and knowledge at the time were pretty dim, so maybe I missed something in the translation. I can only make an educated guess at what went on there, by comparison to what I later experienced. Nonetheless, I will try in these recaps to be true to what I experienced as I experienced it, knowing full well that the truth could well have been beyond my grasp. One cannot deny one's origins, they are a measure of what one is. Like I might say I'm from Puerto Rico, I say to other karateca, I'm from Ochoa, it explains a lot of things, it is shorthand for the beginnings.]

The Gallisá Brothers, the eternal brown belts.

The Gallisá brothers were the most senior brown belts in the dojo. One was tall, bearded and zen like, the other was short, clean-shaven and hectic. Brothers in name only, and very young. They were senior brown belts when I came in and senior brown belts when I left. In the same span of time I made green, and as I would see later on in other schools guys would go from white to black. Years later when talking about this time, other black belts would confirm that that initial cadre of brown belts in the Ochoa Dojo were really black belts held back. In fact, I could count in one hand the black belts I trained with that were maybe as good as they were. I definitely am not nor ever was. The truth is they were held back. The reason? Many. Foremost I believe was the inexperience of the sensei in dealing with an expanding dojo membership that could imply an opening up of the initial Shinoda group. I also believe that the Shoreikan organization would want to have a say since they would be the first black belts graded by Puerto Rican sensei. Economics I suppose also played a role since then the dojo was a "good" business. It could also have been the Shoreikan crisis in New York where there was a split and everything was put on hold. All speculation because the sensei (Gusi, Tony, Efraín) said little about the internal politics of the dojo to anyone. Because in essence, I believe, they thought of themselves as the dojo and the rest of us were just there learning karate (or were we?). For example, I was a green belt and knew very little of what I was doing beyond the obvious. Of course, I was strong, could take a punch, do the Go of things, but Ju was only whispered in passing. Now I see that the dojo was a quasi-japanese affair of inner initiates, but then, of course, I didn't know enough to see it as a problem. They basically did not want to initiate anyone solely on merit, it was by invitation only. This is not to belittle all that I did learn, and it was a lot, but this clique mentality, however justified then or now, contradicts the open dojo scheme of western karate training. This conflict of purposes afflicted the dojo then as it afflicts many dojos now. There is no easy answer to this. But because of it, two very good karatecas got waylaid. Many years later I was told they left as the Ochoa Dojo passed from one organization to the other. I saw the tall one once selling fruit in a stand by the road, the other I recently heard had died. I've read a lot lately about the crisis in traditional karate schools like mine and some espouse, maybe honestly, that it should go back to that Miyagi invitation only time frame, but probably the person who says this would not have been "invited." He or she just probably walked into a dojo and asked to join. And if it were by invitation I wouldn't be here now writing this and musing on 30 years in Goju.


Ju-Ju Women

Ever since I started in karate I've been surrounded by women karateca, starting with my sister who began with me and who, incidentally, graded black belt with me many years later. They were treated as any white belt, the exception being that they stayed with their tops or halters on during Sanchin Kata. During the many ins and outs of my karate journey I've trained under senior woman senpai, so I had no excuse for being the fool I was and not learning the secrets of the karate that being women they had a natural access to until as I got older I had to let go of the Go and enter the Ju of things. Ego goes with being young as it goes with being stupid. There is a Golden Rooster Kata solely taught to black belt women in Goju Ryu. It does not appear in the syllabus. There is, as well, a knife kata practiced only by sandan women black belts. So why didn't I see the obvious? Macho karate blinded me, top-dog dojo dynamics held me back. Somewhere along the line it dawned on me that I would never be as strong as most of the other guys no matter what I did and it was well into my "second" brown belt that I focused on my woman senpai, how they moved, deflected blows, and used their bodies and height to their advantage, keeping low shiko dachis and lateral, almost 90 degree moves into my attacks. I think about this now as I plan soon to get together with my sister to do katas under the shade of a tree close to her home.


A Master in our Midst

It was only years later that I truly knew who was just three feet away from me in the Ochoa Dojo. Seikichi Toguchi, founder of the Shoreikan school of Okinawa Goju-Ryu Karate Do, visited Puerto Rico in the mid to late 70's. Very short, even by Puerto Rican standards, dark complexion, and round like a basketball. I was told (never confirmed) that the sunflower seed-eating welcoming committee at the airport were stunned to zazen silence when they saw him alight Havana cigar in hand to greet them. Later that night (I was told) a scotch on the rocks was added to the props among the chosen few. They had mopped the floor with us a week before to razor sharp Sanchin state to avoid any dojo embarrassments from the white belt rabble. I even washed "my dirty old Gi" and backstitched a few errant tears, alas to no avail as I was told to hide in the back rows.

So one more reverence was added to the beginning of the class. I had never seen the senseis so uptight. Just in case, they ran a watered-down version of our normal exercise routine to keep us fresh for the katas. It was then that he jumped out of his zazen and walked around the class, effortlessly gliding around punches and kicks to correct a wrist here, straighten a back there, and with just a finger push back brown belts to test their balance. A young female brown belt caught his eye. She was as small as him. The girl had the lowest shiko dachi in captivity, enough to elicit an appreciative smile.

Then came the best part for us white belts: the humbling of the sensei. Master Toguchi sat on the floor in a half lotus as the black belts attacked him one by one. They became like dolls in his hands as he flipped one this way, another that way. I don't know how he did it, it all went by so fast. This was no staged show, for the first time in the dojo I saw Gusi sensei sweat.

It took me many years to fully grasp all I saw that day.

His calmness, deftness of touch, the girl brown belt, the sensei's dumbfoundness. This was a man who had practiced Goju practically all his life, it was his very skin. The girl, I suppose, was himself young. The sensei's fate, my fate; some things are fanthomless. I realize now that I could not "know" him then. NowI know, but cannot do. Recently I caught an old sensei of mine smoking. Why? I said nothing. I've become zen in my old age: I look and say nothing, marvelling at the twists and turns of life. I remember he did a basic kata and it looked classic. It was distilled through time, aged in amber.
But I did not know this then.

Now...maybe too late, I have an inkling, just that.


Green Belt...so what?

Just as I thought I reached a pinnacle of sorts, having braved my Sanchin Kime and earned my green, they raised the bar and lowered the boom. Just when I thought I had the Gekisai kata series down pat I was told that wasn't so..."too stiff, loosen up, get down in that shiko, got no balance in your niko, man, you gotta work that kata." Endless bunkai with browns and blacks..."don't tell me you're tired, don't look at me with those sad eyes, block, this isn't a dance, close your mouth, breathe through your nose and out your mouth, Morales, where the hell are you looking, focus." In other words and in the words of the George Shearing song: "Pick yourself up, take a deep breath, dust yourself off and start all over again." Because you're only as good as your last kata, there is no end to learning, no end to training, no end to slipping back, crawling forward, and doing it one more time again and again and again. Karate must be done in any state of mind: sad, happy, tired, revved up, whatever,whenever, however, until it is like breathing or walking...you just do it. Because what's the worst thing that could happen, rhetorically chimes in the Sensei, that you die? Well die with dignity and grace.
Green belt...so what?