Testing Testing

Just got through watching a randori testing video at Dan's Dojo where a bone-tired brown belt testing for shodan was taken to the cliff-edge of his endurance. The man was running on fumes and instinct, between the void and satori, the place where all true black belts dwell.

There comes a time when you might know everything you need to know to pass to another level, except for one thing: can your spirit take your body over the divide. This is the one true test. You can't theorize it, you can only know it being there, experiencing it. Prior to my "last" brown belt test, I had had a horrible day. A family problem had put me through the grinder some 48 hours before the test. I was sleepless, tired, eyes bloodshot, wasted. Pissed too, because I felt in no condition to take the test. I was well over 40 and it was the second time I tested for brown belt in over 12 years. I went to the dojo merely to excuse myself. Jaime Acosta Sensei just nodded and told me to change to my gi. He called me anyway, in no uncertain terms. I rose like a lamb to the slaughter, but half way through something kicked in. He made me bunkai with every black belt...

Next week I sauntered into the dojo with the brown belt Kimo had given me 12 or so years before.

So I know what Dan was testing and what he was looking for. It is undefinable and can only be experienced. It is the spirit that moves the water.

The water stirred


Bunkai with Dan

I've always been amazed as I watch YouTube that I never see kata bunkai as I practiced it. It got to the point that I thought it must have been some "karate hearsay" on the part of my sensei. The Toguchi Shoreikan kata bunkai is rare on video except for a few half-ass attempts that I can only ascribe to well-intentioned in-dojo teaching vids. None are done at a black belt execution level. Most Goju bunkai I see is an individual technique divorced from the whole, not the dynamic, "in the melee" (to rob a term from my good friend Dan) experience I had, especially from green belt up. It seems that everybody has got their shit up there but us.

This got me to thinking about why some schools, like mine, never took much beyond group photos. Even now with the advent of inexpensive video cameras and free online platforms my brother karatecas still don't get it. It is as if the mere notion of puting ourselves out there is sacriligious, a violation of some secret code of purity. It is a pity. I think we have a lot to offer and share.

It is in this vein that I totally applaud and admire the effort of people like Dan who freely shares his insights and martial arts experience in both a visual and written format. It is an invaluable contribution.

I'm no Dan and I also haven't the collaboration and space in order to expand my internet dialogues beyond these paltry words. In other words, to put the kime where the mouth is. His and other martial arts sites have deepened my awareness and learning.

Maybe one day I may be able to convince a few of my old dojo buddies to upload some bunkais, but I won't hold my breath.

Recently in a post on The Way of Least Resistance, Dan made some very valid points as to the stiffness and by rote execution of some Goju Kata bunkai versus his looping drills, and he's right. Dan began in Goju and I have to take his words seriously. And this was the case with bunkai mostly up to green belt. The reason for this is pedagogical, a view born out of a philosophy of teaching karate basics within a strict program of ecalating ranks to all sorts of people who don't have a natural aptitude for karate, and thus the by rote bunkai and kumite drills that so belabored us both.

My last Goju experience was in the Chi-I-Do school of Kow Loon Ong. It is a stretchy, coily, and loose Goju, with a lot of xingyi moves akin to what Dan does in his school. Of course, within the Goju format. Thus, while I am strictly a Goju practitioner (because it is all I know) I can fully understand his blending of these schools and the loops approach to bunkai, precisely because my saifa and Kakuha bunkais were done somewhat in this manner.

Although not exactly what I would have wanted to put up as a reply to the "Kimo" vid, the following is close enough to make my point.


Choppy Seas

If I were to choose an image that best depicts my "voyage" in Goju Ryu Karate it is a lone skiff in the rough seas between the small isles that were the dojos I practiced in. In other words, I had to rough it alone with whatever I could remember from my last dojo. This is not to say that the dojo was not important, but that it was mostly, as is now, a solo flight.

A teacher once told me that he happened upon a small Buddhist retreat in Central America where he was invited to stay for a spell. When they learned that he was a sensei they asked if he could teach them some karate. He complied, starting them off with the standard syllabus as if he were teaching in his old dojo. He had only been able to teach them some very basic fundamentals, Sanchin and the beginner kata when he had to leave. Years passed and when he had occasion to visit the country again he looked up the retreat out of curiosity. He found them still practicing the little that he taught them, religiously. The forms had morphed into something vaguely resembling what he taught them ... but oh what kime!

A little can go a long way if practiced often and well. Unless one has a personal sensei, dojo practice is an essential part of one's formation as a karateca. But it is not an absolute, it is not indispensable in what concerns the inner core of the martial arts. The risk always in practicing alone is that you have no one seeing you from the outside and you can stray from the form too much. Luckily, I was a brown belt when I left the Violeta Dojo and had in me a good 10 years of dojo practice. But still it was hard not having someone look at my kata or to even look at the kata of others. Remember this was way, way before YouTube.

The reasons for this solo journey were many, I had a lot on my plate with my sons, a sick mother, and the fact that I had to hold down two jobs sometimes to make ends meet. But there was also the fact that dojo politics kept splitting the group and I lost touch with the people that could possibly tell me where to go and practice Goju. The people I could approach were nowhere to be found (I later knew that some had gone to New York to practice under Kow Loon Ong, others to the interior of the Island, etc.)

So I practiced whenever I could and wherever I could. Why? Because somehow the dojo lived on in me. It had become an essential part of what I was. Whether I practiced in a dojo or not, I was still a karateca. That much I knew, in many subtle ways karate had changed who I was, how I walked in and saw life. I don't know if I was a better karateca for it or not, these were just the cards I was dealt. There is a code that seeps into your skin.

Went through two relationships, the death of my mother, and three books of poetry before I found myself again in a dojo, tightening a white belt (again) over my gi.


Ghosts of Dojos Past

Just a few weeks ago I had one of those encounters you wish had happened earlier in this blog but, as always, happens when and where you least expect it. It was on Good Friday during the Holy Week ceremonies in Old San Juan, on the Cathedral steps. I ran into an old sensei, my first sensei, whom I hadn't seen in some 30 years: Gusi González (The "Soft Sensei") from my Ochoa years.

He looked at me quizically and it was only after I said my sister's name that he acknowledged an old student, somewhat. Not that I expected to be recognized. We fell into talking about the old days, and what had happened to us since then, etc. And as happens when karatecas meet, a common ground is found, the invisible bonds of an acknowledged brotherhood in the martial arts.

This is something not to be taken lightly in this haphazard world we live in. The martial arts bring people together from very disparate walks of life in this one thing that bonds them.

We exchanged cards and eventually I sent him the link to this blog of which he is part. He answered me and I hope in the future to expand on those years, clarify those gray areas that he experienced first hand.

It is a window to a time past and I look forward with his help to fill in the blanks. Gusi sensei has a dojo in Maryland, under the Chi-I-Do organization, a link to which I put in my "Links of Interest."

I'm joyous!

(Finally, a photo of the Ochoa Dojo, courtesy of Gusi sensei's dojo site))


Where the wind was blowing

One's life has a lot of before and afters, and in-betweens. It was a long "in-between" after I left the Violeta Dojo, which, like Ochoa before, splintered. Some stayed with Kimo's Kodokan, most followed Sensei Jaime Acosta to Chi-I-Do under Kow Loon Ong (Cayo). I did not know this at the time, having exiled myself from the dojo. My other "art" took up the slack, I wrote a lot. But I would still from time to time wander into other dojos, in other styles, even Kendo for awhile with some old sumarai who taught in a community center in my old neighborhood. It was a time to be a dad again, although divorced. The ulcer forced me to an almost vegetarian diet. Kept off the booze.

With the change to Chi-I-Do, Sensei Jaime went to New York to train with Cayo. Kodokan morphed into a few dojos, one of which was run by Dionisio Pérez, but in general, most of the Goju practitioners slowly drifted into Chi-I-Do. The original group expanded, a whole slew of karatecas went up through the ranks in the ensuing years, I was left behind, again.

As far as my practice was concerned, I reduced the katas I would do to four: Sanchin, Tensho, and the Kakuha (Toguchi) katas I learned with Kimo.

I dreamed of the day I would return. I dreamed.