Studying an Asian martial art can be a daunting task for a non-Asian student. Not only do you have to learn the physical postures and how to move from one to the other, you also strive to master the seemingly endless number of techniques. As well, the cultural milieu in which the martial art developed is often confusing. Many times the task you undertake is compared to climbing a mountain, and for good reason. Like those who aspire to ascend geographical peaks, martial artists must equip themselves with the right tools, and perhaps more importantly, with the correct attitude; setting out on either journey without these is a guarantee of failure.
Climb to Summit of Budo Mountain
In karate you sometimes hear people talk of the Budo Mountain, and you learn that the path to its summit is a long and difficult one. You also learn that for each of us the way to the top is an individual and unique experience. If you want to arrive at the summit, you will have reached it by your own path. Once there, you will soon realize the view is the same for everybody who makes it to the top of the Budo Mountain. In reality, the study of karatedo is an internal journey, not a race to any external summit. In one of the many apparent contradictions found in the study of all martial arts, the higher you go on the symbolic climb of your personal Budo Mountain, the deeper into yourself the journey takes you.
Now, when I say this, I am not trying to be mysterious or esoteric; I am merely highlighting the shifting sands of reasoning Western students have to navigate when coming to terms with the philosophical ties binding the physical training together. Implicit from the outset is the belief that the way of karate (karatedo) is not just a physical pursuit. This concept alone often requires a change in thinking for many Westerners, as does the level of openness and acceptance to an alternative set of values from those you may have grown up with.
While you should always guard against abandoning an inquisitive and enquiring mind, there are many concepts in karatedo that appear at first to be contradictory. Remember, karate is a child of Okinawan culture. With its genesis in Asia and its birth in Okinawa, developing at least a modicum of insight into the history and traditions of this part of the world will assist your own passage. If you wish to make progress, to climb higher on your Budo Mountain while at the same time to go deeper into yourself, you will have to learn to reconcile the apparent inconsistencies you meet along the way. Failure to do so will result in a failure to perceive karate as anything other than punching and kicking.
My Early Karate—Eastern and Western Observances
When I began my karate training as a teenager, I sometimes wondered if practicing karate in England was really so different from training in Japan. I can remember being told that kneeling in seiza (the traditional Japanese sitting posture) in the dojo was easy for Japanese people because this is how they normally sat at home. It was not until years later, after I made friends with Japanese people, I learned that seiza was just as difficult at first for them as it had been for me. I also discovered that karate was no easier for them to learn either.
My Japanese and, later, Okinawan friends did have one advantage over me, however; they already understood the way karatedo was transmitted from one generation to the next. They understood this because karatedo, indeed all Japanese and Okinawan martial arts, follow the same pattern as every other learning situation in the two societies: shu ha ri. I was yet to discover such ideas and so for my fellow students and me, it was a matter of trying to remember as much as possible so when promotion tests came around, we could repeat what we had committed to memory.
Learning that things were done differently in Japan came as a surprise to me. In fact, many things I took for granted growing up were done differently by the Japanese. Doors opened outward in Japan; they open inward in England. Handsaws cut on the backward stroke in Japan; they cut on the forward stroke in England. Where an English sword cut by way of slashing or stabbing forward, the Japanese sword was designed to slice on a backward stroke.
Even the bells in Japanese temples and those found in English churches not only look different, but are also used differently to make sound. In England, bells have an edge or lip that points outward like a trumpet, and it is struck from the inside producing a sound that soon fades to silence. In Japan, the larger temple bells have no lip and are struck on the outside, their deeper tones hanging in the air longer. The smaller bells in Japan are even more dissimilar to those found in the West, as they look more like a bowl and stand on a cushion with the opening facing upward. These bells curve inward at the lip and are often not struck at all; instead, a wooden baton moving gently around the rim brings forth the sound. It is a pulsating resonance that has the ability to penetrate the body and has to be experienced to be believed.
It is interesting to note that the Western handbell produces its sound as a result of collision (conflict) between the bell and the stricker. The smaller Eastern bell, on the other hand, finds its voice by harmonizing with the baton. To maintain the sound with a Western bell, after the initial strike, it must be struck again. The Eastern bell will sing for as long as the baton caresses it.
I eventually came to appreciate how the key to understanding karate, and everything else, could not be found by trying to remember everything I was taught … actually it's closer to the opposite. Instead, it had to do with my being open to learning this martial art in the way it had always been taught.
Many years after my small epiphany, I came across a quote by Professor B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), the noted American psychologist, which seemed to capture the essence of the contradiction I was facing. It read: "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten." When I read this for the first time, I knew I was no longer lost. I still did not have a clear vision of my destination. I needed more education, but I now understood that my education in karate would not depend on remembering a syllabus or on the attainment of a particular rank. All I had to do was take each day at a time and be attentive to the bigger picture instead of looking only a few months ahead to my next promotion test; as a young man who was eager to make progress, this was easier said than done. When it came to grasping the meaning of the ideas I was struggling with, I found one way extremely helpful, which was to look closer at the kanji, the Chinese characters used when writing the Japanese language, and in this way I would try to gain at least some insight into the meanings behind the words.
(The above excerpt is from Shin Gi Tai: Karate Training for Body, Mind, and Spirit by Michael Clarke.)