Kimo Wall´s Dojo: White Belt Redux

It was in 1980 when my ¨friend¨told me that Kimo Wall had set up a dojo in Old San Juan, the historic zone of the city by the bay, and very close to where I had begun working as a legal translator in the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. I had been out of a fornal dojo for almost 4 years. I knew Kimo was the first teacher of my previous senseis and almost a legendary figure in karate circles on the Island. What I did not know was that he had split from the Shoreikan organization, setting up his own school: Kodokan. And all the time I practiced with him it never occurred to me to ask why all the subtle changes, it was all Goju to me. In retrospect I see why, it was basically a Shoreikan syllabus with a slightly different take. The most important and dramatic change was the sensei himself, Kimo was a whole new ballgame, he was truly the first real sensei I practiced under, and the difference was telling.

Kimo had set up his dojo on the upper floor of a newly opened bar-restaurant called La Violeta on the corner of Cristo Street and Fortaleza. It was an old colonial building with red terrazzo floors, a stone´s throw away from the Governor´s mansion. He lived there as well. The dojo occupied half of an open courtyard, with the practice area in a huge room overlooking Fortaleza street. I remembered going to lunch on the first floor of the building with my father in my early teens in the 60´s when it was still a worker´s bodega called La Danza.

I took off early from work one day for the dojo, hoping to talk with the sensei about joining. I scrounged the house for my Dirty Old Gi, tried to clean it as best I could, and took both my white and green belt to accomodate both my enthusiasm and my fear.

I got there an hour and a half before the scheduled class but the dojo was empty. I let out a timid onegaishimasu, and waited...and waited. Finally students began to arrive, I knew nobody. Suddenly Kimo appeared and smiled my way, asking if I came to practice. I froze and just nodded. That decided the issue. When I finished dressing I took out the white belt and swallowed deeply. Of course, when by habit I yelled out onegaishimasu as customary, Kimo shot me a glance, piercing and knowing. He strode over. White belt redux.


Interlude II: The 10 Terrazzo Tile Dojo

During that convalescence things happened. My sister (also black belt) leaves dojo complaining about how she is treated. Other black belts experience same and follow suit. I was suspected of masterminding with others mass exodus of senior belts. Eventually everything is cleared up, except for bad taste in the mouth. In any case, other personal situations nix any return to dojo. Nevertheless, dojo honors my membership, rank, etc., and allows me to practice elsewhere and I am welcome to return anytime. I shop around to no avail and find that the elsewhere is me.

I formally retire from the Classic Okinawa Goju-Ryu Karate Dojo and set up the "Ten Terrazzo Tile Dojo" in the humble and tiny confines of my living room. That is where I'm at now. I still keep contact with my last Sensei, Jaime Acosta, and have good relations all around with former brother karatecas. But I fly solo now.

Is this a legitimate vantage point from whence I may opine? I think so. Surprisingly enough, the confines of my karate experience has not limited my growth and appreciation for all that is outside Goju. I've learned that there are basic principles of movement and intent that underlie all manifestations of the martial arts whatever their country or province of origin.

My katas is all I know. The training that brought me to this point is all I know. I have no problem with invention, fusion, reconceptualization of kata or martial arts training in general. There are many roads to the same place. The important thing is walking the path, trusting what you do even if a lot of it remains somewhat a mystery. Some things must always remain so.

But I also believe that the martial arts, in my case karate, aspire to so much more. I also believe that a dojo or any place where people gather to practice should aspire to train the mind and spirit. I also believe that kata is a ritual with its inner laws and dynamics that touch many facets of the self, and where fighting and self defense are at best the least important manifestations.

I also believe that karate should be open to anyone, not just the elite practitioner. And this brings me to dojo class structure. It should be for the most with the least, not the least with the most. I believe a good curriculum with stages provides the best scenario for karate to be inclusive and not exclusive.

Yes. I've seen structured dojos with bad sensei and unstructured ones with good sensei. I've seen dojos with colorful gis and bermuda & t-shirt dojos. I've seen people practice as if they were square dancing and others where people are dying to tear you apart. What I look for is kime, and this can reside in the saddest 4o year old slob giving it his all. Snarky adrenaline is often mistaken for kime. In other words, karate is mistaken for winning and if you lose whatever it is you're doing is crap.

I beg to differ.


Interlude I: Comments on the Fly

Recent blog entries and exchanges by and with Dan Djurdjevic and ZENHG have led me to this interlude from my "karate memoir." They, and others too, have become an important facet of these recollections because through their comments and blogs they have provided me with more insight into just what my karate sojourn really was and is; the points and experiences in common and the different outlooks too. Most of us began in traditional dojos and from there we have embarked on intertwining but distinguishable threads. The breadth and depth of their knowledge of karate and other martial arts far exceeds mine.

Beyond my particular branch of Goju, I had very little experience with other martial arts, and even my knowledge of Goju was very circumscribed to my particular and limited dojo experience. The few magazines available on the Island were long on yarn and short on substance and it wasn't until the advent of the internet, and especially YouTube, that I became fully aware of the enormous variety even within my style. So I am still constantly amazed with all that I do not know. There is also the fact that I have ever only practiced karate in Puerto Rico and so my contact with other styles and approaches was very happenstance. My only formal departure from Goju was a year and a half in Tai Chi Chen taught by a former Goju black belt. The way my dojo was structured I was able to learn the complete syllabus up to suparimpei while still a shodan. Ranking beyond shodan was dependent on other criteria, particularly mastery of kobudo and stints with the main school in New York or elsewhere. I never liked kobudo and shunned it. So nidan I became out of sheer inertia. Katas beyond the syllabus was by invitation only and that realm of the heavens I never reached. But that was fine by me; I had enough on my hands as it was. Relegated to teaching kid classes for beginners, and the odd Saturday free-for alls, as penance proved to be a blessing in disguise. Forced to teach I learned by necessity how to extract the karate from a white belt's good intentions. I was forced to focus on their every move and thus became aware of my every move. It is true what they say that if you can't teach it , you don't know it. But put in a time frame, I was past fifty by then. It is hard. Doing full classes, and I mean on the floor, with green and brown belts 20 or 30 year my junior was getting to be a bit masochistic. I proposed a separate class for senior (in age) black belts and was laughed out the dojo floor ("whose says I'm old?"). Finally two injuries to my groin and a fall that collapsed my chest like an accordion convinced me that my dojo days were over.

I was granted an extended leave of absence.

(will continue...)


Dojo Gaijin

Once you're an outsider there is very little you can do about it. It took me 30 years to finally realize, and accept, a truth that I should have realized long ago when, maybe (big maybe), something could have been done about it. A dojo is a place, especially if crowded, where someone can practicaly disappear. By this I mean: who you are. In a dojo you're a karateca. They take your first name, tag a "san" after it, and that is what you are, plus rank, of course. While there, you don't talk about movies, your likes and dislikes, where you're from, etc.; you do kata or bunkai, you do what they ask. Very liberating, really. You're judged and known by your karate. Really? Of course not. But you can get by on this alone. They can't throw you out if you do your kata. Only if you maim or rape someone. Really? Of course not. You can be ostracized or literally thrown out because they just don't jive with you. I've seen it done. Or you can be a regular Joe Blow Outsider, nice enough to tolerate, but not to party. That was and is me.
So when I left Ochoa, nobody came to convince me otherwise. I was never part of the "After Dojo scene." Now that is a pretty lonely place to be, karate wise. I never experienced a sensei to student ratio of less than 30 to 1. So although I talk of my teachers with fondness, closeness was not a factor in the relationship, it was from afar with binoculars. Thus, humility came easy, there was no place else to go. I was easy with it too. I was an army brat, changed neighborhoods like socks, grew up all over the place, met a lot of people, but just got to know a very precious few, and even then. But I was game and there was someone willing to vouch for at least my commitment and through that one friend, the same who got me into Goju, I met Jaime Acosta, my future sensei 20 years hence, who then practiced Isshin Ryu but had started with Kimo Wall in Goju.
Things didn't exactly work out with Jaime. There was a lot of free fighting in his dojo and a lot of "types" for which I was the Puerto Rican equivalent of a Gajin. But he did let me practice alone, or with my friend, and in time that contact would be crucial.
In time, karate took a second, or maybe third or fourth, place in my life as my work then demanded long hours. Long hours where I also drank and fucked around. But even then karate lurked somewhere inside me, letting itself be seen in street scraps and the realization that I had become somewhat stronger inside. It was all part of what I didn't know I knew. The Goju that remained in me notwithstanding all the abuse I subjected myself to proved vital. When that same friend, four years after I left Ochoa, told me that Kimo Wall was in Puerto Rico and had set up a dojo, with Jaime Acosta as senior sempai, I jumped at the chance.


Outside the Dojo, Outside the Box

I left the Ochoa Dojo under a cloud of misgivings. Looking back I find it hard to pinpoint one or two good reasons for that decision. Toward the end I was in that limbo that comes from graduating from the university and having no viable alternatives. My then wife graduated and was working full time, which afforded me some leeway which I took to finish and publish my first book of poems. On the other hand, the Dojo, after riding the crest of the martial arts craze of the 70's, was falling into hard times. The sensei, a lot like me, were also at personal and professional crossroads in their lives. We were all very young, too young, methinks. Other issues were rising to the fore in the Dojo which I had no knowledge of then but that eventually would split the former Shoreikan Dojo into two opposing Goju schools; one group aligned with Kimo Wall in Kodokan, the other aligned with Kow Loon Ong in Chi-I-Do. Those caught in the middle got lost to time, drifted off to other schools, or came back into one or the other fold when the dust settled. But in the meantime, the Ochoa Dojo became the unfortunate battleground for opposing views of all sorts, political and personal. In this disheartening scenario, I learned I was to be a father and so I had other things on my mind, not the least of them was getting a job. I had been part-timing as a house painter, but with my new job at an Ad agency all thoughts of returning got complicated, there was no Ochoa Dojo when I tried to get back two years later. Eventually, two of the sensei went to the United States to study Quiropractics, and the third, Tony Sensei began touring with a latin jazz group as a conga player (Yes, the congas). After graduating Gusi Sensei remained stateside and, I believe, ran a small dojo, not formally attached with any given school. EfraĆ­n returned and set up a private practice as quiropractor and definitely left karate forever. Tony in time went into business setting up stage and sound systems, and finally a party rentals and supply company. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Just what did I do in those years outside the Dojo in terms of karate?

At first it was a relief to be away from those grueling two-hours, three to four times a week. I'd been at it for 4 years. I was a green belt, brown point, and knew all of one classic kata, Saifa. The only good point in my favor , karate wise, was that you could punch and kick me bonkers and I would survive. The training was that hard. But little else. The truth is, I missed the dojo and tried to keep up my individual practice drills, but it was hard, techniques started slipping from my memmory, kumites with invisible opponents were at best a form of kata. Seen from the present I see that although I had years in Goju much of what I learned was fading like a summer suntan in winter. When I relented and tried to get back there was no dojo, it had morphed into other locales that proved too far away to reach if not by car which I've never had. But truth be told again, I didn't try hard enough. I had always been outside the dojo inner circle and had no personal contacts with those chosen few. I took to practicing with whoever let me, my style or otherwise, and took the tour of the local dojos and it was out of this bleak sojourn that I learned a few truths about my Goju versus other styles. It was a haphazard path I chose taking my clumsy green belt Goju out to the street. I had to step out of my school and style to really appreciate what little I had learned. It was another humbling experience that would eventually prepare me to return to the fold, this time with Kimo Wall.