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.