Brawl-in Zazen

Karate is a violent art. A dojo contains the violence in form through kata. It gives it direction, consequence.

How people react to this fact determines their experience in a dojo and colors their karate practice.
There was a story about Kimo I could never confirm with the man. It had to do with his time as a Special Forces Instructor in the Armed Forces. It is said that before the assembled recruits in an open field, Kimo would lightly touch on all the privations which they would have to endure while he gently caressed a chicken. Should I finish this lurid anecdote or leave it swaying in the breeze of the unsaid? Let it swing, you must infer and surmise.

There is a lot you must infer and surmise in martial arts, as in any art. The canon is meant to be learned and then forgotten, broken even, but only when it has cured your every pore, can you caress the chicken, pull its neck and drink its blood.

Karate is an art to be grasped after time. How do you train an art if not by doing. "Train hard, and train often," Kimo would say. But what do you train, and how? Dojo practice is a simulation, a glance from afar at the umpredictability of violence. How could it be otherwise?

Do you train karate to win? Win where? Brawlers hated Kimo's dojo. Yoga airheads too. We were something in between. Because results are always late in coming, the impatient realists would seek elsewhere.

The time it takes for a bead of sweat to drop from your brow to the floor. Karate is a path defined by how you walk it.

The wringed neck of a chicken, the faint at heart.


Lost Kōhai

Every sensei has a favorite, his heir to be, the prodigal son, that by fortune or fate he loses, sometimes tragically.

When I first saw Ramón it was in the Ochoa Dojo, and he was 14-15 years old. A big kid even then, 6 feet tall or more. He was good, a natural, although somewhat of a badass with a short fuse. He'd stare at you like if he meant business. He reached brown belt while in Ochoa. Aloof and serious as a stick of dynamite.

Ran into him again in the Violeta Dojo under Kimo sensei. Same attitude, but stronger, he had grown, late teens. Kimo kept him on a short leash. Word had it that he was Kimo's pet student, he doted on him.

Oftentimes I'd see Kimo give him a dressing down off to a corner. Other times I'd see him sparring with Kimo before or after class, real intense kumite. The kid, as they say now, was awesome. Great style and powerful delivery. Very powerful.

Then one day I didn't see him anymore. I finally learned that Kimo had kicked him out of the Dojo for drug use. I couldn't believe it. They told me Ramón got heavy into drugs and that Kimo got tired of cutting him slack.

Many years later when in a conversation about the"old dojo days," I asked about Ramón. They confirmed the drug story but added that the real reason was that Ramón overdosed, got stuck in the "trip" and never really came back. They told that Ramón had gotten a girl pregnant while in Kimo's dojo, married her and shortly afterwards became a sort of walking zombie.

I knew then that the middle-aged guy I saw once in a mall was truly him: old beyond his years, trailing behind some woman. I couldn't believe it.

I was well into my 50's when in my last dojo we had a welcome party set up for Kimo who was visiting the Island. It was to be a surprise party where all of Kimo's past student,s active and inactive, in Puerto Rico would be present, including Ramón.

It was an emotional night for all of us, but when finally Ramón arrived with his wife and Kimo and he embraced, tears streaming down both their faces, there was a silence among those of us who knew and a vibe that sent chills up our spine. The prodigal son.

The circle closed.


Loser Takes All

"...learning the strange cunning of the defeated, those weapons that are not weapons, the dharma of survival."
Vikram Chandra (Red Earth and Pouring Rain)

When a boxer stays away from the ring too long, he might lose his edge, when a karateca strays from karate he might lose his soul. But you can lose sight of karate right smack in the middle of the dojo.

What did it mean for me to walk into Kimo's dojo? I remember it as a peaceful chaos. Throwing people and getting thrown. Losing it continuously, fighting back tiredness with only a sliver of pride. Feeling a kick and a slap during Sanchin, getting hit in the ribs. Kimo jabbing a shiatsu knuckle in my butt to lower a back spasm. Getting reprimanded for my by now rotting Gi.

There is a strange cunning to be learned from not being that good a karateca, from knowing you look like a soggy pretzel doing kata. In a dojo you learn a lot of stuff you don't precisely understand. The ratio is sometimes 20 minutes of mechanics versus one of magic.

I took forever to learn saifa and more than ever to learn seiyunchin kata. The myth was that the old masters taught a new kata just once. Mind-boggling proposition. Miyagi surely would have kicked me down a ravine and good riddance. Kimo had just about given up on me with Kakuha, his signature kata. Then he told me to just do it however it came out when he attacked me. And so he did. I didn't have time to think I didn't know it because it simply meant I would get kicked again or punched in the face. They were not hard blows, they were humiliating.

Survive you must somehow. After many blows I felt no fear at getting hit. It happens and you got to deal with it. After a time I got used to being hit, thrown, limping through kumite, blocking with my fingers cramped and injured. Until I didn't care anymore about looking good or "winning."

Karate, empty hand. That is all you got. Nothing, but it's everything. You just got to know how to lose it.


The Third Eye

Everybody has felt at some time or another a prescience, a knowingness beyond the rational. A blur at the corner of your eye. A warmth or cold on your cheek. A something that bristles the hair on your neck. In the martial arts it is called a heightened awareness. Is this bogus? Is it hocus pocus? And, finally, can karate bring this "altered state" about? Any long-time practitioner of the martial arts has experienced moments, maybe just seconds, during a kata or form where something else takes over just when you are on the brink of falling apart, losing it. Then you're energized, the kiai barks from the gut, and you're flying. Then it all goes away. It also happens that one day you come to the dojo feeling like shit and then everything you touch turns to gold, and other times you feel on top of the world and you botch up every kata in sight.

Kimo sensei would touch on this "third eye" business constantly; wanting you to train every sense of your body until you're tuned to the slightest blip on the radar, to what invades, or better yet, what could invade your circle, the one you trace on the street at night: the hovering eye. "An ounce of Prevention is worth a pound of Cure," so the saying goes.

Hours, days, and years of training karate makes one sensitive to movement. But intent? How does one train to foresee intent? I'm not talking about two combatants in a ring or dojo, or even a street fight, because once engaged, your in and all bets are off. But can you avoid this point? Can one resolve before engagement? In other words, can you see it coming?

If there is one true lesson you must learn after years in karate it is that kicking and hitting isn't all that there is to it. For instance, walking swiftly up a crowded street, evading contact at the last instant, and without this being apparent, is also great training, as is trying to read those around you, total strangers. What can you glean from obervation alone; the guy sitting there, the girl looking askance. What?

Well one night after the dojo I was walking the streets, a bit late and trying to get where I was going in one piece, I heard a light thud some 45 degrees behind to my left. I stopped in my tracks and felt someone also stop. Keeping my "sense" on that presence I tread backwards until I felt I was beyond their ability to see me. I saw a young man hunched between two cars. I felt strangely calm and also felt that the person was also at ease. He could not see or sense me approaching him from behind. I touched his shoulder and asked him if he was hurt. He calmly replied that he wasn't. I said good night and walked on. He continued trying to rob the hubcaps.

I had finally experienced the third eye, that which sees what my regular two do not. I've fingers left over in one hand the times I've experienced it. But each time it has saved my life without one blow.

Is this karate? I think so.



The difference between Kimo’s Kodokan and the Shoreikan in Ochoa was, for all practical purpose, none. The syllabus up to black belt was the same, with added katas that Kimo picked up from various other teachers, including Toguchi (Kakuha), which were taught after black belt. Kodokan’s distinction was Kobudo that Kimo learned under Matayoshi. The difference was in how the class was conducted. I dare say that Kimo didn’t put too much stock in belt rank aside from the material taught. As soon as I learned the nuances of how he wanted the katas done, was up to speed in my physical condition, and refreshed all the programmed kumite and bunkai drills, I was given my green belt back in 10 months. Kime was crucial, not so a perfected style. Discipline was based on respect and courtesy. Kimo was hands on, but at the same time hands off. Coaxing instead of coercing. The higher the rank, the more respect was demanded. Everybody practiced together, so lower belts constantly saw classic kata performed. No secrets. You were expected to train your material and any belt higher than yours was expected to answer questions and clear up doubts. Every so often all the kata syllabus was done and the ranks would sit down in progression, and Kimo would be the last one left standing as he did one of the classic katas alone. I mention kumite and bunkai and must clarify that within my Goju training this was not free fighting or a portion of a kata done as a drill. A kata bunkai was the entire kata with another person and lasted as long if not longer, exchanging attack and defense in a prescribed manner. Kumite were normally six technique drills and there were six to eight kumites spread out through the different ranks that would progressively become more complicated and intense. You were graded on these as if they were katas. In all, the kumites would include techniques from all the katas up to Suparinpei. These kumite and bunkai drills were done in two lines facing each other, switching partners constantly and everyone took part. As the ranks reached their material, they would go elsewhere to continue their training under a senior student. This would mean that in any given night a lower belt would be doing 100 plus kumites with people of their own rank and higher. Kumites and bunkais done by brown and black belts would seem to be real combat. Knowing the drill allowed higher ranks to fully attack knowing the partner would know where to block. Control was important. Injury was avoided by having intense kumite only between a lower and higher rank. Brown and black belts. Lower ranks, meaning anything below green, were allowed then to attempt a real strike. It is hard to explain since I’ve never seen anything like it in other styles. It is not your one or two step parry and counterpunch, but a continuous give and take. These drills could go on for 30 minutes or so. They were exhausting and trained your focus. Pauses in dojo training were minute, mainly a moment of transition you would go from one thing to another seamlessly non-stop. You trained your stamina and how to apportion your energy. The higher you would go up in rank the more intense the training. A brown belt could be more than 45 minutes doing katas in every direction. These drills were done every day you went. You finished training drenched in sweat, sweat over sweat. You learned how to move your energy around just to survive. If you felt sick you could ask to sit down in zazen until you got yourself together and went in again.

Then after all was done, meditation. Arigato gozai mashita.


A Dojo by the Bay

Kimo Wall's dojo atop La Violeta became part of the my boomer generation's reimagining of Old San Juan in the 80's as an all-inclusive 24 hour a day movable feast of the senses and experimentation in lifestyles. My generation's last stand before reality kicked in. So when they talked about a karate school in the 400 year old and fully restored historic zone just steps away from art galleries, pubs, fine restaurants and the like, it had a different ring than a stinky dojo in a garage in the burbs or a padlocked hell hole in the barrios. Kimo was lucky to get in quick and get in cheap before real estate in the old city skyrocketed.

The downside was that with all the delectable distractions it took zen-like discipline to trek through all the partying to sweat for 2 hours and come out smelling like a hog. Because of its location in one of the most travelled streets in the city, the dojo got a spillover of the ritzy crowd of boomer professionals, artists, and pub crawlers that provide a healthy turnover of students in 2 to 3 month stints. But it didn't become a boutique dojo. That was, ironically the problem in the long run. Kimo stayed true to the roots of his Okinawa training, and the dojo remained as always a temple of wisdom and pain, marinated with the sweat and tears that give meaning or strip it all away.

Kimo sensei lived on the premises in small room the size of a walk-in closet, with just a curtain for a door. He'd prepare his frugal meals of rice, vegetables and fruit in the tiny kitchenette alongside the shower where the students were obliged to rinse their feet before entering the practice area. You'd find him eating with chopsticks from a bowl of rice, watching that you washed your feet well.

Practice would start around 6:30 and last to 8:30, after which the brown belts would stay for 30-45 min. longer for either kata training, kumite or kobudo. As in Ochoa, we'd do exercises for close to an hour, this included endless punching, blocking, and kicking drills, then go on to kata and kumite.

I'd get there straight from work three times a week to do penance for my sins. My sins? I'd party after the dojo and drink myself silly, smoked too. I'd go to the most out-of-the-way and Kimo-proof bar to have a few, accompanied or otherwise. Karate was a before the fact bodily confession for the sins of the flesh. Kimo did not judge, but Kimo knew.

And he'd whisper a reminder in my ear when I grunted and collapsed during a push up, or when my eyes wandered during kata and found his gaze and he'd yell: "come on Jorge san, lets see some kime."

He knew who you were, what you were, and how you were. After all, he was my sensei.


My Undo-ing

When I started in the Violeta Dojo I was in my early thirties, had two very young boys, and was at the onset of a marital crisis. Going to the dojo three times a week wasn’t going to help much. Yet I needed the grind and sweat, the extremeness of it to break the placidness of the everyday. I worked in a small, dark office translating legal opinions of the court to English. This is a painstaking, lonely, and tiring job. It was a far cry from my previous work at an ad agency where producing TV and radio spots for retail accounts at least got me out of the office for most of the day and sometimes part of the evening. Karate was one of the very few things in my life where I saw results and that had any sort of meaningful structure. At the time it seemed a reasonable alternative to going mad or ending up sprawled drunk in a blind alley. That was the consensus of all concerned: go back to the dojo and work it out through the kata, and the 10-step pushup (some things never change).
So much for spiritual enlightenment. I was a mess so I thought I’d throw Goju into the mix and see what happened. I’d get to dojo running from work, change into my fucked up old gi and rinse my feet (courtesy requirement), then enter to warm up, do my hojo-undo. That was a change. Kimo had the whole array lined in the back of the dojo and after teaching you the basics, would prescribe a routine suited to your needs and ability. The chi-ishi was what he’d start you out with. Kimo stressed this sort of training but only after he was certain you had the physical preparedness for it. At the beginning you did it under the supervision of a senior student or Kimo himself.
I slowly realized that I was more a white belt than green belt. Even though I knew the steps in my kata I was still a greenhorn. I knew nothing. Kimo tore apart my Gekisai, undid my Saifa, retooled my Sanchin.
Kimo told the story of how a black belt through sweat, use, and time started to fade, become white; and how a white belt through the same process darkened in time. The color of a belt just says at what stage of undoing you’re at.
I began my undoing.


La Violeta Dojo : Beginnings of the Kimo Years

On this corner on the top floor was where Kimo had his dojo in the 1980´s, on the other side of the first two balconies. The name of the first-floor restaurant changed from La Violeta back to its original name, La Danza. It is now a tourist trap restaurant spilling onto a side street cul-de-sac. No sign of the past dojo evinces its past use. Like the Ochoa Dojo, La Violeta Dojo lives on in memory only. And maybe not even there. Yet a lot of the black belts who run things now in the present permutation of my Goju style got their goju-ryu shodan here, including my last sensei, Jaime Acosta. It was the second generation karatecas with whom partook in much the same manner as in Ochoa, from the outside looking in.

After hearing me shout my onegaishimasu out of reflex, Kimo approached me where I was standing at the back of the dojo floor. Asked me if I had taken Goju before and I gave the karate equivalent of my name, rank, and serial number. He made me do all the katas I knew, correcting my stance here and there, and asking if it was at all possible that I could get a new gi. Told me to follow the lines in front, just like a newly born white belt. I took the hint, thanking all heavenly bodies for my decision to forego the green belt.

This was the first time, though not the last, where I would be asked to shed my rank and start anew. Through the following weeks I realized that the syllabus was basically the same. The difference was that Kimo ran this dojo hands on, sempai notwithstanding. No yelling or posturing was necessary; you knew he was the sensei, your sensei, from the get go. Very few from Ochoa were around, yet I did see a some old green belts from the University branch as top rank brown belts, and some old brown belts had their black points, and one black belt, a black girl, who I knew but had never practiced before, Doris Pizarro. But generally, Kimo ran the class, from the floor. He sweated right along with the rabble.