karate

Be wary of simple answers to complex questions.

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With the internet there are so many ways to put your opinions out to the world and the problem is that when people are given the platform to state their views they will seldom have the courage to change those views should some new piece of knowledge come to light that challenges them.

If you do find that something you’ve stated as a fact turns out to be untrue, what do you do? Stubbornly hold on to your theory clinging on desperately to any piece of scant evidence that will support that view? Or do you crawl into a hole never to venture out into the world of opinions again? Or, do you re-evaluate, take stock, admit you were wrong and re-calibrate your views? I hope that all of us are big enough to do the latter. A quote attributed to Mohammed Ali is that If a man looks at the world when he is 50 the same way he looked at it when he was 20 and it hasn’t changed, then be has wasted 30 years of his life” .

So it is with views about martial arts. I would say that people often carry on doing the martial arts for different reasons than the ones they started. For some people it starts with lack of confidence or even fear, for others it’s the buzz you get from the physical exercise. But carry on long enough and these issues either disappear altogether or are pushed to the back of the list. Opinions change, ideas change, your attitude changes, lifestyles and life choices change and your body changes. If your martial arts training is grown up enough and has scope and depth there will be room for changes of opinion or even changes in lifestyle.

If your martial system has the hallmark of a certain maturity to it then lives and opinions can flex comfortably within the framework of the system. The irony is that viewed from the outside Japanese Budo may look rigid and locked in its bubble, but this should not be the case. Budo should help to make better people and it is my view that it can act as a lens to help you address some of the bigger existential issues in life.

But understanding what goes on inside the world of Budo is not easy, even though we tend to reach for easy descriptions. Human lives are just as complex if we live in Western Europe or the Far East.

To bring it closer to home; when we try to get a handle on what Ohtsuka Sensei was thinking when he devised the Wado Ryu, we have to place our thinking in a Japanese context. Things don’t happen in a vacuum; creations such as Wado Ryu are influenced by all manner of cultural forces. When Ohtsuka Sensei first presented his creation it wasn’t to the world, it was to the Japanese Budo establishment, the world had to come later. This creation did not spring fully formed; it was refined over subsequent decades, even today there are people who cannot comprehend this idea of refinement over time and want to preserve Wado in a time capsule. If the Art world had allowed such a thing to happen artists would be scrawling on cave walls!

Like Art Wado moved on and still continues to move. But I think that where Wado has an advantage over other martial arts who may be struggling to move forward or even survive, is that its key principles are simple. In Wado there are no flowery extras, no pseudo mystical obfuscations, the rules are easy to understand – it’s the ‘doing them’ bit that is difficult.

Tim Shaw

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

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Both Abraham Maslow and Abraham Kaplan are credited with the phrase “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I have seen this phrase used as a great leveller in discussions relating to martial arts training, particularly when someone’s entrenched ideas need a good shake up.

In 1964 Kaplan called it ‘The Law of Instrument’ and it is used to describe the tendency towards very narrow explanations. Although it has negative connections it can be a useful litmus test for our own ideas and assumptions.

I remember getting into a discussion about punching in Wado and trying to suggest that there was more going on than just the idea of developing punching power. The person I was discussing this with was very much of the opinion that power punching was the only reason we operate Junzuki and Gyakuzuki the way we do. I have to admit that in my early years of training that was the way I thought too. Any kind of strike had to have as its one single goal destructive power. Later on I was to meet people from other styles who also used blocks as strikes – I liked the idea and started to use forearm conditioning training, until I smartened up and realised that I was just inflicting damage on myself for short term gain.

For me it took an embarrassingly long time to shake these ideas off. ‘More speed more power’ didn’t cut it any more. The idea of turning myself into the human version of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile was all beginning to look like a juvenile fantasy. But it is an argument that is bolstered by the view that the destruction of our ‘enemy’ using only our fists and feet is our sole objective – that is, the ‘hammer’ approach.

But our Wado toolbox is a much more interesting and sophisticated place; yes I’m sure there is a hammer in there; in fact there is more than one kind of hammer in there, but there are far more subtle tools. Some tools at first glance look bewildering complex, some, annoyingly simplistic yet still do not easily reveal their usage.

But to continue the analogy; being shown the tools or even laying your hands on them for the first time does not mean that you can use them effectively. Like a good workman on the job, there is a lot of accumulated knowledge that comes into play even before the toolbox is properly opened, and practice and reflection, as well as learning from those more knowledgeable than ourselves are essential to becoming a skilled craftsman.

Tim Shaw

Old Bull and Young Bull.

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For those of you who know the joke about the old bull and the young bull contemplating a neighbouring field of heifers, I won’t bore you by retelling it. For those of you who don’t know it, Google it.

But basically it’s a parable highlighting the benefits of age and experience over youthful enthusiasm.

So… how to relate that to a martial arts situation?

Look around most well established Dojos and you’ll see a range of ages and grades. But it’s not the spread of grades that interests me, it’s the age demographic.

Personally I find that as a rule the more mature person can often be the better student. Yes their flexibility and general physical condition will not be as good as the youngsters, but their life experience and knowledge of their own capabilities tends to be more grounded. Mentally they are generally able to evaluate their developing knowledge and skills in a more mature way, and as long as they are able to ‘empty their cup’, their capacity to digest the more complex ideas is greater than most people half their age. For Wado this is a great advantage. The late Reg Kear described Wado Ryu as ‘a thinking man’s karate system’, and the more you climb the tree the more there is to take on board. Not that we should get carried away with the cerebral aspect of what goes on in a Wado Dojo, because it’s no good just having it in your head, you have to be able to physically do it. The intellectual and the physical in Wado are like two wheels on an axle; one without the other would make forward motion impossible.

I remember in the long distant past a particular Sensei criticizing another Sensei’s karate as ‘old man’s karate’, I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. But I believe there is a maturity in karate practice.

A 5th Dan’s Pinan Yodan should look quite different than one performed by a 1st Dan. As long as the mature karateka has kept their training consistent and not wrecked their body through silly training methods they have the capacity to work towards the higher ground.

But what about the youngster?

Twenty year olds should train and fight like twenty year olds, not like fifty or sixty year olds. All experienced Sensei should see this and create training opportunities that are age-appropriate. I always think of my cat and what he taught me. When he was a kitten he would frantically climb the curtains. Why the curtains, there’s nothing up there, I wondered? Answer; because he’s a kitten, a fizzing ball of pent up energy looking for an outlet. I ask all the senior experienced instructors; what were you like when you were twenty?

I suspect you were like the young bull.

Tim Shaw