Monday, April 21, 2008

Martial Arts Teaches

In reflection, the least important thing I have gained from martial arts, is the ability to fight. Most martial artists, with true skills they are confident work, avoid confrontation whenever possible because they fully understand the deadly power of which they posses.

Bullies and cowards are the ones who prey upon the weak. They face an even tougher inner battle. The purpose of martial arts is not to teach you to conquer an opponent (that is just a by-product), the real purpose is to conquer self.

A good martial arts class will teach you to overcome your own fears and weaknesses. You explore and test the limits of your mind and body. A good martial arts class will build your character, coordination, endurance, precision, confidence, deductive reasoning, grace, speed, power, muscle elasticity, and much more.

A good teacher will instill in you humility. Soke Shiyogo (also spelled Shogo) Kuniba said, “humility is Karate’s greatest virtue.” Kuniba had high degrees in many arts*, yet he was one of the most gentle and humble men I have ever had the pleasure to meet and study under. He was also one of the most deadly. His school, founded by his father, was called Seishin Kai (pure heart).

Today, most classes are watered down to be more commercial. You choose your teacher and school. In the old days, the teacher chose you. You had to qualify to be in his class. You had to display a willingness to learn and retain what you learned. You had to possess a certain amount of patience, and persistence. It wasn’t just a sport or an activity you were learning, but more a way of life.

A friend of mine, Paul, who went to Okinawa while he was in the armed forces, informed me that he wanted to learn from the great master there. They originally tried to teach him the kind they taught American servicemen. But he insisted on the real thing. Finally, he got to meet the master. But, he had to clean the man’s chicken coops for a whole year before he got to enter the school. He was being tested for his resolve and dedication. He now possesses some true skill with his black belt. (He taught me tricks on the speed bag that some boxers would envy.)

Many great masters are often sought after as healers even more than doctors. It is their exploration of the body and how it reacts to various things which give them great insight. They know how to balance the inner workings of the body and the mind that causes these ailments.

Martial arts, like religions, contain scoundrels, saints, sinners, and saviors. It is a journey where you meet remarkable people in pursuit of remarkable things. Much of what I have witnessed seems to defy explanation. I feel privileged to have experienced the lessons of some great men and women.

All that is not to say I did not have more than my fair share of skirmishes. I was fortunate there too, because I survived them without any harm to myself. I was in a different state of mind and environment then. I tested my techniques in real life situations. My best, most useful, technique then and still is a “look.” This “look” is foreboding and warns people not to continue bothering me; to cease and desist immediately whatever they were doing to warrant such a “look.” It is the one technique I still practice regularly because I don’t ever want to hurt anyone again when I can avoid it.

*Some of Soke Kuniba's rank when we met him:
  • 3rd Dan --Aikido
  • 3rd Dan --Kyu-do (Bow & Arrow)
  • 4th Dan --JoJitsu (Short Stick fighting)
  • 4th Dan --Iai-Do (Sword Arts)
  • 5th Dan --Judo
  • 7th Dan --Okinawan Kobudo (Ancient Weapons)
  • 8th Dan --Motobu-Ha Shito Ryu
  • 8th Dan --Go Shin Budo

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Challenge

The challenge is from one’s self to one’s self.

You are not in competition with anyone but yourself. Your goal is to improve each time you practice. Everyone has varying degrees of strengths and weaknesses. You may be better in some things than your classmates and worse in others, but your objective should be to improve yourself, even if only in tiny increments as long as they are steady.

An adult trying to compete with a youngster in some things, like flexibility, may be setting themselves up for disappointment. You need only get better than you were and you will be progressing. It is not a sprint to the finish line, but a long journey towards accomplishment. Those who understand the marathon ahead of them will eventually surpass those who were only in it for the quick sprint.

Challenge yourself to do better than you have done.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fiction vs Reality

People often watch martial arts movies and get a false impression about martial arts, unable to separate fiction from reality. They see actors with flashy moves and trick photography and believe it is so easy. Some even get a false sense of bravado and go around to challenge other schools. We had our share of challenges at the Authentic Karate Club on 35th Street in Norfolk, Virginia.

It never ceased to amaze me how people could just walk off of the street and have the nerve to challenge someone in a martial arts school. Such a person had to be terrific or delusional. I think some watched at least one too many karate flicks. They overestimated their skills or underestimated ours, but they would come in and challenge the instructor.

Sometimes a battle would break out over who would fight the intruder. Sometimes Master Hankins would offer the challenger the opportunity to pick an opponent. A few fools even managed to try to fight the instructor (which was the most folly choice of all). No matter what the choice, there was a no win situation for the challenger.

There is a proper way to conduct yourself if you want to go to someone’s school and test your skills. It begins with respect and humility, not with arrogance and false pride. It seemed many of the challengers were talented, but self-taught mostly. They judged their skills against untrained or little trained practitioners. It is a whole other level to face a person who is trained well in martial arts and knows how to fight and not just spar--there is a difference.

Some techniques which work well to score points in a tournament, don’t translate well in the street against determined and motivated fighters. Sadly, far too many people have mistaken these diluted techniques and tried to utilize them in a real fight, only to get their feelings and body hurt. I know, because I have inflicted such pain on too many disillusioned black belts and fantasizing fighters (they put me into that position).

I have a treasure trove of incidents where people came off the street, walked into the Authentic Karate Club, and got a rude awakening to what martial arts were all about. But I’ll save them for another time. Just realize there is a difference in tournament and real fighting, movies and reality.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Diluted & Delusional

It seems to me as if much of the martial arts being taught these days is diluted and the people practicing it are delusional. There are no standards of excellence and anyone can claim rank without any accountability or repercussions. It is a sad state of affairs which weakens the over-all perception of martial arts masters.

It is true, an instructor can’t teach in the ways of the old masters, without fear of being sued or worrying about maintaining enough students to pay the bills, so part of the blame is on the society in which we live. There are also instructors who really don’t know what they are doing but want to capitalize on a na├»ve and easily impressed public.

But there is also the parents, who are more interested in awards, rewards, and accolades for their children, instead of insuring that they receive a proper education and acquisition of real skills and techniques. These over-eager parents have crippled the learning process. They care more about style than substance, praise instead of proof.

I remember a tournament I attended. A little boy (I‘ll call him Billy), a blue belt, was competing in fighting. The first competitor he faced, immediately hit the little boy with a beautiful round kick to the head as Billy stood there oblivious. No head contact was allowed (even though they had on head gear), so Billy won his firs fight by disqualification in a matter of about five seconds.

The next fight, the competition faked a high kick and punched Billy with a reverse punch to the stomach. Billy doubled over and hit the floor. His competitor got disqualified for excessive contact. Billy won and moved on to the finals after they got him to stop crying and breathe.

For the finals, Billy’s competitor danced around a little, threw a couple of feints, and then stuck a pretty side kick up which Billy ran straight into. As the blood trickled down Billy’s nose, the referees decided that they better disqualify this guy too (even though Billy ran into the kick). So Billy won first place by getting beat up and never throwing one punch or even blocking one technique.

The worst part of it all, was how Billy’s mother was so proud of her son. Billy, in reality, got a big 1st place trophy for not knowing how to defend himself. I was flabbergasted. What was the purpose of studying martial arts? To get a trophy? Billy was 1st place punching bag. Meanwhile, the students who displayed good technique probably felt cheated.

Martial arts should not be about trophies and belts. It should be about knowledge, skill, and character. Trophies and belts should be by-products not goals.