4 - Street Kobudo: When the spirit moves the water

There are pockets within a city, my city, where karate walks in peace. There would be times when Kimo would move the dojo to a pier by the bay, to the grounds of the Spanish military fortress El Morro, or to the beach near the entrance to the San Juan islet. Most within walking distance.

Kata in the open is different from kata within a confined space, the energy moves different, it could disperse and you with it. Energy, ki, is a voluble thing. Group kata is also different than solo kata, the difference between singing in a chorus and singing alone.

Where once I sang in a chorus, now I sing alone. I often walk now through the same darkened streets I once walked, sometimes passing dojos that no longer exist. One carries the past dojos, senseis, and people in oneself. It has taken me many years to move the many as one.

Dojos and faces fade, but the kata moves on. All one's life is there in the kata.

It is ebb and flow, the spirit that moves the water.


3 - Street Kobudo: The Ethics of Retaliation

Is it ever right to answer violence with violence? I'm talking about the violence on a personal scale, not the State-sponsored varieties of war or the realities of insurrection. Neither am I considering the violence one can experience by virtue of racism, intolerance, poverty, or any other social ill.

But even on a personal level, it is hard to define just what violence is answerable ethically. There is a lot of violence that one may experience that one does best to let slide. Where to draw the line? I believe it is that which (1) poses a threat of bodily harm, and (2) that which jeopardizes one's personal integrity. The second can be retaliated by a harsh word, civil action or attitude stance, although violence of this nature is a tricky one since people can exert violence towards one without even touching one with a feather. But let us leave number two aside for awhile and focus on number one: threat of bodily harm.

Notwithstanding his violent past. Kimo sensei was essentially a peaceful man, not given to the blustering of a "dojo sensei" devoid of street experience, those teachers whose only experience of violence was in a dojo or a tournament. On the one occasion that a neighbor complained rather hotly about the noise (his mother was very ill) and quite verbally abused Kimo, the sensei listened quietly, although his face was redder than a ripe tomato. It was close to the end of class and he asked the senior students to remain seated and accompany him in zazen. It was a long session where he asked us to repeat the chants he would utter. He thanked us afterwards. We left confused, knowing all too well that the neighbor was just a hair away from some very serious pain that did not take place. That is a number two.

Not all of us are Kimo. And not all situations are so easily diffused or afford the time to examine all options to retaliation. The street is one place where this proves to be all too true. You may just have milliseconds to decide whether verbal agression is not the foreplay to subsequent physical attack. But let's keep it simple. When is movement alone the preamble to attack?

One night as I walked a dark and deserted street with a woman friend as a shortcut to where we planned to sit on some steps, converse and drink wine, I spied two men on the sidewalk walking rapidly. One continued walking as I lost him behind a parked car, the other turned abruptly towards us, cutting between two parked cars. Maybe he just wanted to bum a cigarrette. I decided not to wait to see his intentions since I had lost sight of his partner. I walked towards him and christened his noggin with a thick bottle of wine. I heard the other one run away. I quickly took my friend by the arm and pulled her away. She had seen nothing, she was stunned. When later I explained she was very upset at what I did. None of the reasons I gave convinced her. I had committed an act of violence that in her view was unprovoked. In my view the person was approaching me rapidly and in silence on a dark street, not announcing his intentions, if any, and not taking into consideration that I was escorting a woman, which, chivalry aside, usually represents a liability.

Two mind sets at odds. Who was right? God knows. One lives by codes, and that guy, unknowingly or not, violated mine. Codes have to be followed regardless of the consequences, some good, some bad.

Time passes, things change, for the better or for the worse. I find that my code is of no consequence to anyone else but me. So I apply it sparingly, or try to spell it out beforehand. It is just that there isn't always time, violence happens in a blink.


2 - Street Kobudo :"It's a jungle out there"

One goes from the finesse of kata to the rough-hewn symmetry of the street. In that direction only. And yet, kata should walk the streets to toughen its metre and rhyme. Karate is alertness and savvy, puts nothing to waste, makes use of what is at hand, open hand, karate.

As I have said before, have no qualms. Karate is a violent art. Take it apart: violent, art. It is to be artful in your exercise of violence. It is the art of resourcefulness.

The most useful things are sometimes within your everyday grasp. I always carry a long, yellow, useless one among the house keys that I can easily knuckle. Apparently harmless, I bead them like a rosary as I muse on the vagueries of life in darkened streets. If you can conquer squeamishness, many kata applications are possible, no limits to the imagination.

Great for impromptu shopping lists
, to jot down musings of the heart and mind, credit card receipts, and...oh yes, to gouge a peeper or execute a life-saving tracheostomy. I never leave home without one, the venerable ballpoint.

Take your pick. These mortal weapons are freebies at any sit-down in a diner, courtesy of management in tony restaurants too. Hunting knives are usually stored away or strapped somewhere inconvenient to the moment. Since you mostly have these in hand, use them.

Nothing like a hot, very hot, cup of java to stimulate the senses. Great at close quarters, a flick of the wrist will do. Does wonders for the bags under the eyes.

I call this the Samurai Combo. Splendid for crowd control. Wine glass temporarily blinds assailant 1, follow through with a bottle to the beaner on assailant 2, heave table at reinforcements approaching
from either flank, retreat with the stool as shield as would a lion tamer exit the cage.

Hey, this is Bar Brawling 101. I beg to differ. All the street kobudo techniques described above need the finesse of dojo practice for their successful execution. They require the calmness and focus that only comes from years of Sanchin and zazen. They are grounded on the ethics of survival.

They have all been tested in the laboratory of life by dojo-trained karatecas the world over.

Wouldn't a Navy Seal knife be more practical? That's illegal.


1 Street Kobudo

Fighting is about having no qualms, whether you're in a bar, a street at night, walking home, in a bus stop. Weapons are what you may have at hand, and you may not have anything but your body and your commitment to the moment. Attack or flee is the basic premise, a most primitive unit of survival.

Where does karate come into the picture? Nothing can teach you how you are going to react to an imminent danger of bodily harm. A dojo is to fighting what boot camp is to war, an approximation. In a dojo you hone your fighting skills, learn to move, advance, retract, in a zillion drills over the years. Although it is a simulation, nonetheless, you are in a combat mode more often and more repeatedly that your average person. With the exception of a professional fighter, your average dojo practitioner is mixing it up with someone on a weekly basis all year around. It does count for something. If, and only if, the person takes it seriously, contemplates the possibility that he or she might have to go at it for real and can't chose when.

Then you make the dojo a laboratory for conflict, learn to read intent, size up bodies quick, learn to pick up cues. In other words, the person is there, aware and alert in the dojo to all that is happening around him and within himself.


Culture Clash

Throughout my time in the Violeta Dojo in the early to mid '80's we would receive students from Kimo's "other" dojo in University of Massachussets in Amherst. I had never practiced karate with anyone not from Puerto Rico until that time. I was to learn in time that a lot of people from the Island also studied at Amherst, some starting Goju there under Kimo, and for those, Amherst was their "Ochoa".

Although we practiced the same katas and the same style of karate, the cultural differences were telling and expressed themselves technically in subtle ways. I realized that even Kimo had "adjusted" to how we did karate because, after all, most of his students here were formed by the sensei in Ochoa and they, in turn, by Shinoda. The Amherst students were more informal and quite a few had practiced other martial arts which was a novelty then for most of us that only knew Goju. On the other hand, the Amherst crowd seemed more knowledgeable in terminology than us. The woman karatecas that came down were also more committed than ours in general, more intense in their practice.

Reading intent has a lot to do with cultural traits and we found out that we read each other differently, often misreading looks and corporal cues. Kimo must have known this because he laughed a lot when we paired off with them in a kumite or bunkai. Eye contact, above all, proved to be the most difficult to sustain without misreading.

I encountered this many times afterwards and learned that it was an element that needed to be factored in when practicing kumite.


The Touch

It is only natural that the martial arts are closely linked and interwoven with the healing arts. The hand that slays and the hand that soothes is one.

Ever since I began practicing karate I've suffered many accidents, many of these mishaps were overcome, others have had a lasting effect. There are some movements I can no longer do. All could have been avoided with a dose of common sense and shiatsu.

They used to say that all that happens to you doing karate can be healed doing karate. A catch-all phrase that more often than not meant suck it up. I carried over to the Violeta dojo a sprained back I got in Ochoa. When it acted up too much, an intravenous muscle relaxer was the solution. Then one day at practice Kimo saw me bent over sideways and asked me the cause. I explained. He told me to put my arm over his shoulder and to stand on one leg. He accupunctured my buttock with a knuckled fist. I saw the stars, then all pain subsided, just puf! went away. Shiatsu, he explained. Shiatsu.

We had been taught a few massages, but nothing like this. Now Kimo is into thai masage and all this is good. Although a little late for me.

I'm more careful now and am very aware of my body's signals. I truly believe in the healing aspects of kata, having taken some Tai Chi, and having at long last learned to breathe properly with movement.

A lot about this was glossed over in my time, unfortunately so. I've learned through my own painful experience that the hand that slays must also be the hand that heals, that opposites must meet, that life must dance with death, and death with life. It is all part of the path one walks in any martial art. Had I that knowledge years ago, that the shit that happens is all part of it.


Keeping Out of Harm's Way

A lot is said about how to deal with the threat of bodily harm, as if it were possible to train body and mind for the unpredictability of violence, rupture, a realignment of the stars, a cataclysm.

Mostly this is Monday morning quarterbacking. It is in retrospect. That's the problem. I'd reached brown belt, black point, in the Violeta Dojo and thought I reached a certain pinnacle. Then it all came tumbling down. I put myself in harm's way. My wife asked me to leave the house, I never saw that punch coming, or if I did, I paid no heed. I fell into a dark hole no Sanchin could avert. The center would not hold, I fell apart. Confused, I strayed from the dojo onto the street, my only exercise routine was the ten-drink sit down in a continuous two pack a day zazen.

When I finally surfaced I found my wife leaving for New York with my two kids. The night she told me this I had a meeting with an old professor friend, a business deal he wanted me in with a bookstore. Drinking on an empty stomach, and trying to follow the conversation with this very edgy bookstore owner looking for a silent partner in my professor friend, I stood up woozily and tipped the table over and fell on the man who screamed for help. Out sprang the bar help, pool cues in hand. All hell broke loose. My first in-karate brawl, as luck would have it. I came out okay, would have made Kimo sensei proud, but it did not. I lost control. I found out that my Goju worked in the worst possible scenario, I was completely out of it and hurt a lot of people. It cost my professor $300 to keep it out of court and jail. He took me then to my apartment and laid me on the floor. I spent the better part of the next say putting the pieces together and and expressing my regrets to whomever I tussled with the night before, it seemed like everyone. Word got back to the sensei.

I spent the other half walking in a daze, couldn't bear to see my kids off, and ended up at midnight in a corner street looking at my reflection in a store window. Swore off the booze as a vow until my kids came back.

Got the black point stripped off my brown belt. Made amends.

Moral of the story: Keep out of harm's way. The best strategy for fighting and life. But once in harm's way, deflect or engage fully. Life is no joke, and death is no laughing matter. Trust what you know, it will save you in a clinch. Some harm can stay with you forever, so deal with it best you can. Study virtue, no harm can come from that.

Practice often and practice hard, as Kimo would say.

10 Rules of Engagement

  1. Steer clear of harm's way.
  2. Sticks and words may break your bones but a gun or knife will probably kill you.
  3. Do harm unto others lest they shall do harm unto you.
  4. Do not argue with the enemy it shortens your breath.
  5. A fight is not a dance, end it quickly.
  6. Have absolutely no qualms.
  7. Any fight could be it, act accordingly.
  8. There is no going back once in.
  9. Don't stop until he drops.
  10. Retreat with haste.


Doing Kata for its own Sake

Can Kata done for its own sake stand alone? Can it, devoid of any interpretation, stand on its own two feet? It is form. It is flow. It is intent onto itself. It is art. It can stand alone. Application is at best subjective. It has a logic inherent to itself. It is a martial artist's manifestation of doing his art. It is a stylized rendition of reality that transcends its individual parts. Taken apart and seen in itself, a kick, a blow, is just that. It is not kata. Make up a kata and it is always derivative, as all art in a way is, it is an old thing done newly. Unless...unless the new kata is born out of necessity, the imperative to create, to say, to mean. Yet kata evolves from its very doing or interpretation in the doing.

Do you look for intent in the kata or is the kata its own intent? Can I isolate a punch, kick, or transition, whatever, and call it studying kata? Is that what the kata meant or is that what you wanted it to mean? You can follow a healthy lifestyle and any exercise regime and attain good health. You can practice yoga or zen and attain inner peace or knowing. You can train with a master of streetfighting in real life scenarios and learn how to defend yourself skilfully. Why do kata?

Is the mastery of the kata in and of itself a useless thing?

And to those who relentlessly question the utility of kata for the real down and dirty, just depart the artsy fartsy they love to demean so much, but as they sally forth also strip away the connotation of martial artists, and plainly refer to themselves as what they truly are: street brawlers, new age sumarai, meanest SOB's in the valley, snarky blowhards.

The artistry of the kata below, says it all for me. It humbles me, as any good art should.