Every human endeavor has its protocol, a vocabulary that is handed down, an alphabet from A to Z that must be committed to memory. Ideally, we grow from “baby talk” to full, articulated sentences. Any skip in the process leaves its gap. The wider and more numerous the gaps, the looser and weaker the structure.
Nobody is born doing karate, one must be “reborn” into it. Anyone who has witnessed a birth can attest that it is a messy sight, a tearing away into the new, feet first, covered in bloody mucous, snipped away from the womb, spanked into one’s first scream. Can less be expected from a rebirth.
My father introduced me to boxing when I was ten. He had learned as a Golden Glove Boxer in the 1930’s in New York. This was in the Canal Zone in Panama in the late 50’s, while my father was stationed in Ft. Clayton. Three times a week, in the late afternoons, he would put me through the paces: skip rope, speed bag, shadow boxing, the run around the block. He taught me the ropes: basic stances, the jab, the hook, the feint, chin in, the basic combinations. He was my father and he was my first sensei. A lot of what I am I owe to him, the good and the bad. For better and for worse, I am my father’s son.
I competed into my 12th year. After that, I boxed and trained alone in a dinky little room. Dressed in my old and smelly boxing trunks. I trained, I read, and I wrote poetry. This pretty much summed up my teens in that dinky little room.
Boxing served me well when I finally left the dinky room in my late teens to experience and learn the “ways of the world.” It kept me alive to see another day.
It was as my father’s son that I first walked into a dojo halfway through my twenties. A new vocabulary, a rebirth, of sorts. My father asked to join me in karate, I declined, believing I’d be embarrassed. A decision I’ve regretted ever since.
Regret play a major part in my curriculum vitae, it occupies much space on the page.
So even today I shadow box in the dark seeking to be reborn again. Nobody said it was going to be easy, least of all him.
When we talk of “basics” in karate, what do we mean? When I read what other consider “basics” I find that they involve principles that have taken me years to develop. There are escalating levels of what one may deem basic in one’s training. What is “basic” for me as a black belt differs greatly from what was basic for me many moons ago as a white belt. There are tangents surely in what they intrinsically imply, but the mechanics are distinct. When I “return to the basics” in my training, what am I actually returning to? If I stand before a newly arrived student with my 30+ years in karate what “basics” do I teach: the basics I have learned through the years, or the ones he or she must learn that first day? Teaching is always a sobering experience. Where do I begin? Where I just left off, or where that person is standing? I must go back, put myself in their shoes. Those are the basics of which I speak. I must retreat back down that spiral to that first day.
Closed fist, open hand. Breathing, walking. Dojo etiquette. Mechanics. Monkey see, monkey do. First things first. The “I know nothing” approach, the “humble” sensei, sounds nice and politically correct. But my “know nothing” is nothing compared to a new student’s “nothing.” He or she truly does not know anything. And the risk lies in falsely teaching them that their “nothing” is actually their first step in a spiritual quest. Dispense with the koans, teach the mechanics. Learning the ABC’s is not a philosophical discourse.
The basic Goju stance for a white belt is a clumsy looking thing. All the clumsier in a white belt. I teach them how to close their fist, how to stand, how to breathe and walk, where to look and where not to look. But not as an invitation to dialogue. It is a “no questions asked” stage. Monkey see, monkey do. To teach anything beyond this is showing off, showboating under the guise of sharing. Only when a person truly accepts that they know nothing are they willing to learn. That white belt doing Gekisai ichi with barely two months of training may feign he or she knows, may ably fake it. But if I am able to stick my finger in his fist and undo it, he or she knows and has learned nothing. That is the “basics” I am talking about.
So I walk slightly in front, close my fist and say “do as I do.” They must follow, I must lead. This is heavy shit. There precisely lies the humbleness: to assume the lead, set the example.
Although now I am a “dojo of one,” I began and am a product of a dojo of many. In that sense, I was privileged to begin in a Dojo that was fully formed when I got there. By this I mean, a good sampling of ranks from white to black, with hierarchy, and linked to an established organization, which in my case was the Shoreikan Goju Ruy Karate of Seikichi Toguchi while he was still alive and kicking. It was a good size school of more than 30 to 40 students, plus instructors. Of course, the Dojo wasn’t always so. There was a beginning, and the beginning was a teacher and white belts. Dojos don’t come out of the blue; they begin with one sensei who must create a school out of nothing.
Unless a sensei migrates with a core of instructors or is an offshoot of an organization close by, he or she must first create what will be this core. No easy task. This core will be the foundation of the Dojo. This first crop must be sowed well for therein lies the seeds of the future. Ideally, these first seeds will be heterogeneous, come in all sizes and temperament, their only common element being their zeal.
It takes 6 months or more to “season” a white belt. A staggered entry of “whites” with no organization to absorb them results in a lot of “unseasoned” whites.
This brings me to the point of this post. If a sensei wants to create a school he or she must hibernate the idea of school and concentrate on creating the core. If he or she just wants disciples, 5 or 6 will do. Is a sensei with his or her close knit coterie of the chosen few a Dojo? No. Out of this group can come the Dojo, eventually. There is a difference in saying I study or am a student of Sensei so and so and saying I belong to a Dojo.
I had the experience (as a black belt) of belonging to an ever-aborted Dojo. I was invited to practice with a sensei who ran a very small school where I hoped to learn from him and hone a few “classic” Goju katas. The price was belonging to the Dojo and helping out. Since he had no instructors and constantly admitted new students there was never enough sensei to go around. He gave everybody the same class. I ended up doing basic katas with one day students, six month students, and the occasional 10 or 15 year lapsed karatecas. And since he also wanted to go over the advanced katas with me, they all joined in too. Sounds democratic. But in reality it was anarchy and chaos. People got frustrated and left constantly. Funny thing was the sensei is a great karateca with a lot to teach. His philosophy of teaching undermined his school, constantly aborting all his best efforts.
He should first have dedicated a year to creating a core group of students, say 6. Work this group to assume within a year his future core. Get them well started and seasoned. Invite guest instructors, recruit old lapsed green, browns, and blacks and bring them up to speed. In other words, invest, seed, harvest…and then open a dojo that can absorb new students weekly or monthly without holding back those in progress and not frustrating newcomers.
The core. From which all else spirals and come forth.
For ZenHG and Shinzen Nelson
A Dojo is not a church, monastery or mosque in the sense that all who go there share a common belief that may or may not transcend their differences. Yet a Dojo may appear to have all the trappings, codes, protocols of conduct, and rituals that invite comparisons.
(Right off the bat I must clarify that I believe that in the best and broadest sense of the word, a Dojo is where a sensei, or school of martial arts, has decided to practice its art, and to impart the learning of that art to others.)
The fact that for the most part the martial arts had their origins in societies with philosophies closely linked to Zen Buddhist, Confucian or like systems of social and moral comportment meant that Dojos would reflect these in their organization, codes, and methods of teaching.
The practice of an art could seem to be like the practice of a religion, and there was a time when this divide did not exist: art was in the service of a faith. Art and religion use similar strategies still, the break was not as incisive as the one that came between religion and science where the boundaries are clearly and boldly drawn, where everything beyond the theoretical explanations of science becomes the proverbial “leap of faith.”
Ask any practitioner to speak of his or her art and the answer may seem like the words of a “religious zealot.” That close is Art and Religion in their effects on the practitioner. And herein lies the rub. It just sounds religious. When I talk of karate and poetry I “sound” religious because the transfigurative effects of their practice partake of similar vocabulary, symbolic and evocative. In other words, practice or do anything long enough and it is going to become a religion, an act of faith, a view of the world.
Of course, REALITY is the eternal party pooper. No dojo fits the ideal of the Dojo in the mind. No zen is as fluid and perfect as ZEN. And, of course, some will say that even this is Zen.
I practice karate, Okinawa Goju-Ryu, as seen through the eyes of Seikichi Toguchi, interpreted by Kimo Wall and Kow Loon Ong, and taught to me by their students: Gusi González, Jaime Acosta, Dionisio Pérez, etc. The specificity is important. Teachers, styles, time play a part. Influence and context.
The Las Cumbres Dojo (my last) was a dojo in the real world and yet ethereal in its evocations to what was lived before and after me. It was religious and earthly, noble and venal, honest and hypocritical. It was experience.
And experience, lived intensely, can seem religious too. But is it? No.
Despite the inevitable trappings of any art, religious and aesthetical, it must be learned and practiced in the rough and tumble system of trial and error. It is a “zigzaggedness” whose pattern can only be discerned, at best, as a belated afterthought.
And I say this fervently, almost religiously.
I now train alone. Solo. I slowly diagrammed the available space in my very small living room and traced the trajectory of every kata in my Goju syllabus accordingly. It wasn’t easy and it took me some time before I was able to memorize my surroundings to the point where I could forget about them safely and not end up tripping over a rocking chair and flying headlong into my bookcase. But it wasn’t always so.
There was a time towards the end of my dojo experience when I had to allow an hour and a half to make the trek that involved taking a bus to the end of the line and then walking to a plaza to board a “pisicorre” (which is a local mode of transportation to the outer barrios), whose name literally means “step and run.” This was in late afternoons on weekdays and mornings on Saturday. I was able to do this because I was then working freelance. The problem always was hitching a ride back after 9pm when there was no viable public transportation. It was a necessary madness. All this stage transpired in my early 50’s. Life, if anything, was getting harder by the year. Serious injuries distanced me from practice (Terrazzo Tile Dojo) and eventually I had to leave freelancing and take my old “day job” back.
That was the end of those late afternoon treks, there was just no way I could make it back to dojo training even if I wanted to. In the intervening years I tried mixing practice in other small Goju dojos nearer my home but the experience proved to be not worth the effort. It was then I tried to practice at home in an outside terrace. I would do the full class, imagining I was in a dojo, the whole enchilada. I knew of the dangers of solo training and, sure enough, trying to simulate the energy of a full dojo alone in a darkened terrace brought problems of energy control. I didn’t have the protection of my fellow karateca’s energy fields around me. My energy flew around loose in the air and sometimes came down on me like a wallop from a 10th Dan hanshi.
I realized I could not go back to formal dojo training. The thought of giving up the practice of karate (once again) was not an option. I didn’t come so far and through so much shit to now let it all go to hell like so much else in my life. I had made too big an investment. Karate was as intrinsically threaded to my sense of self as writing is and has been. Surfing through the net and seeing others in similar predicaments and others who complemented their dojo practice with their own small home dojo setups, I slowly began considering practicing alone, if just to keep my hand warm, stay in the game so to speak.
And like I said, it wasn’t easy. In time all karatecas see that their practice slowly curves inward as a natural evolution from their young “outward” experience. Then an old sensei said, “Jorge, you’ve been in this a long time, this is just the next step.” This blog, my YouTube videos, it all came from this solo experience. I don’t miss the dojo much, although I appreciate the years and friendships, fully aware that without this foundation what I do now would not be remotely possible. I know now that I cannot go back to the old dojo because my dojo is right here, in this same space where I write this.
So now it all boils down to me. Alone I must do honor to my style of karate, to my teachers, and all whom I have practiced with. I must generate this commitment within myself. All the years and sweat, faces, and memories whir around me as I do kata in my living room dojo.
Rooted to the floor, it dances in my fingertips.
The true fruits of practicing martial arts are long term. One has to be in it for the long haul. The life of a martial artist is an arc that can only be discerned from afar, from the perspective that only the passage of time can give. In my last post I touched on my own personal awareness of this process in the last stage of my formal dojo experience in Las Cumbres. My good friend Dan Djurdjevic commented on the bucket v. thimble paradigm of energy that every martial artist confronts as the years pile on. Dan is a true and serious martial artist with a lifetime of continuous commitment to the study and practice of the martial arts who has had to overcome myriad obstacles to remain true to an art to which he owes so much. He is a long-term warrior. Dan’s commitment and arc reminded me of a fellow karateca and senior black belt in the Las Cumbres Dojo: Ángel Santana.
Ángel exemplified all that was good about Goju-Ryu, all that a Goju karateca could achieve through the continuous and profound practice of Goju (which can also be said of the commitment to any serious martial art). When I met him, Ángel had well over 20 years experience as a black belt, more than 30 practicing Goju, as far back as Ochoa when he was a university student. The point here is that this practice of karate was continuous. He never took a sabbatical from the dojo, never strayed from the path. By the time I met him he was no spring chicken. Ángel was not in the dojo per se for class, but he was a hovering presence of “old-school” karate training in the flesh … and spirit. Professional and family commitments did not allow him to go to a formal dojo session every day, and yet he found time to practice every day. This was obvious in the impeccable execution, relentless energy, and unyielding martial spirit he displayed when he did come an hour before class to practice solo. He was one of the founders of the Las Cumbres Dojo and one of the financial supporters of that old wooden structure atop a hardware store in the outskirts of San Juan. The dojo was, in a manner of speaking, his other home.
Ángel defied the passage of time. I remember now sitting sweating on a bench with other black belts watching how he did ten-step pushups with the ease of a teenage Chinese gymnast. He could do more of these heart-wrenching pushups that anyone there, young or old, and did so after practicing katas and doing drills without rest for an hour or so. Many were the times I saw him running past me up the stairs, still dressed from work in shirt and tie, lugging this huge bag where he carried his assortment of gis, kobudo arms, and whatnot. He’d make the fastest transition from street to dojo that I have ever seen and by the time I sauntered out of the dressing room he had already worked up a sweat. His warm up acceleration was astounding, looking as focused as if he had been at it for an hour instead of the 15 minutes since I saw him going up the stairs. Only years of continuous practice can give this level of performance.
Yet Ángel was the exception, not the rule. There were others with as much time and as much commitment, but not at his level. When he did give a class it was with the same kime he brought to everything, and not from the sidelines barking orders, but from the front leading by example. Ángel was an example of what any young person starting karate could and should aspire to be, physically, morally, and spiritually. But does this mean that if one does not reach his level that one should seriously consider leaving karate, or maybe stepping up the level of practice? Is the “way” of Ángel the only way to be a martial artist? Of course not, and Ángel would be the first person to say so. He believed that karate was basically an individual journey in the company of others.
The acute awareness that martial arts tries to teach us is not only the awareness of danger, of the opponent, or even at the moment of engagement, it is also an awareness of self. Of how one fits into the major scheme of things at any given moment of that arc. Mind you, I say arc, not an ascending straight line. Or forget arc, and think spiral.
I was not Ángel as much as I would have wanted to be. It would be foolhardy to believe that the practice of martial arts has one unbending rule of perfection. The practice of the martial arts is also one of learning to eat humble pie. As my other good friend Shinzen Nelson would say, one cannot go against Nature, but only flow with it.
As one ages, oxygenating the body becomes a prime concern in practicing the martial arts, not only for the obvious health reasons but to regulate the qi that could either flow or bottle up. In other words, growing old could either be a blessing or a curse. Even though I knew about qi, I never thought about it much when I was young because my body would force itself through any quagmire through sheer force.
The Las Cumbres Dojo was witness to the last eight years or so of my formal dojo practice; my passage as a middle-aged black belt raging bravely “against the dying of the light.” Although there were quite a few 40 + practitioners, the dojo, as it always did, catered to the very young at heart … and body. My broken chain of training through the years and the reckless life I led outside the dojo exacted their due. Every session was a coin toss between surviving and a sudden heart attack. I prayed they would skip the warm ups that in traditional Goju are the most grueling. That way I would have a modicum of energy left over for the kumite and bunkai. I never actually attained a plateau of conditioning where I could feel comfortable. Denied the external strength that my youth provided by the bucketful, I had to make do with a thimble of energy that I had to learn to use sparingly and wisely.
I had to learn to breathe and move accordingly with its ebb and flow. I had to put ego aside. It was not easy. As a racing car would square itself behind a lead car, I learned to latch on to whatever energy was around. Usually someone else’s. Qi was an elusive butterfly flitting seductively beyond my grasp no matter what I did or did not do. But ego was my albatross as I succumbed to the fear of losing face and would push myself where my body could no longer go.
In the dojo they drove us hard and my old clunker of a body would have to put back all the spare parts that had fallen off during a practice session, spare parts that I could no longer replace nor retool. Every week I would discover a new ache or sprain, sometime not being able to fully close my fist for days.
Style and technique were the least of my concerns after doing katas 200 times. After an hour of continuous katas you really don’t care if you look good. Just being on your feet after wards is all. Slowly I learned to hold back a bit with the outward kime. In reality, I stopped caring how I looked and started paying attention to how I felt. I gave it up. Didn’t care if I got hit or not. I learned to give up before I started and inch my way up from there, from surrender to survival.
So then Sanchin stopped being a test and became a rest. I took refuge in it to fill up the tank. It became my watering hole. I began doing Sanchin for me instead of the sensei and took the blows in stride.
Karate can either bloom or die in a dojo. Karate almost died for me in that dojo. It was after I left that dojo that I learned karate. There I only learned the katas and how to survive. Maybe that was a necessary step to get where I am today. Sometimes dojos unwittingly foster a boot camp mentality, a survival of the fittest in mind and body. Maybe I question that because I lived it and can now discard it, much like a person that has gone to war can claim then that peace is better.
After the first few months in Jaime Acosta’s Chi-I-Do dojo in Santurce I began to get a proper perspective about the evolution of my old Ochoa group through the different Goju schools (Toguchi―Kimo―Kayo) which I heretofore was oblivious. I never fully grasped the differences, to the point of not even remembering the different insignias. It was basically, as I’ve said before, a Shoreikan style of Goju marked by Toguchi’s particular syllabus and training format.
I learned that most of the karatecas I knew were now in the Chi-I-Do organization, with the exception of Dionisio Pérez who was still practicing in Kimo Wall’s Kodokan school close by. Yet even most of his students had migrated to Chi-I-Do, primarily in the main Chi-I-Do dojo in Las Cumbres. It was all very confusing. On the floor it was all the same to me, give and take a few kumites, give and take a few katas.
The dojo had an extremely small student body stretching from five to twenty. It was precarious financially; you could neither grow because of the space nor pay the rent to the dance school with so few paying students. It forced the Sensei to give class to children and adults together, which is not always wise. The Sensei took the plunge and moved to yet another dance school recently opened that was closer to my house. I had never been a walking distance from a dojo and it was short-lived. But while we were in Santurce we did receive visitors from Las Cumbres and among them I saw familiar faces from the Ochoa years. The move to the new dance school facilities did not bring along with it the desired hike in registration. It had a lot of space but horrible parking options. We were forced to return to Santurce where I finally got my brown and black belt.
The school became better, tighter, more disciplined, but it was made up of old students that found their way back to the dojo now in their 30’s and 40’s. Young students were scarce. The few that came were forced by parents and these stayed but a short time before they got “bored” and dropped out. The computer game raised generations did not have the patience for traditional karate. Raised in the fast and furious pace and logic of electronic gaming, they had more short term obsessions than discipline. The only two young people, in their late teens, were Pablo, a black belt (whose mother was also a black belt) and Brian who took the black belt with me and my sister Rosa. These two would years later eventually drop out. Pablo, whose mother owned a small supermarket, left for studies and eventually ended up in his mother’s business. It was during this time that I met Ángel Santana, a senior black belt from the Ochoa years that practiced out of Las Cumbres. I hadn’t met him then because he practiced in the University dojo in those years. I realized that if I had remained in karate I would be where he was, although not technically perhaps (he is really good).
Circumstance finally forced Jaime Acosta to merge his small dojo with La Cumbres, which was, for me, way out in the sticks. The first day there Jaime Sensei sat us in a circle with the Las Cumbres instructors and black belts. They looked at us with disdain, amusement, and curiosity. I finally went back into a full-scale dojo with history, a history I had no part of, with its own anecdotes, players, myths, and “secrets.” All of a sudden I felt old; I shivered less with anticipation than with anxiety. I felt out of it before I began.