The camp
It was August.
More than a hundred karateka from across Canada and the United States had once again gathered at the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. We had all come together this weekend for only one reason, to again train with and learn from a martial arts legend.
Sensei Richard Kim, 10th Dan, Hanshi, of the Zen Bei Butoku-kai, entered the gymnasium and acknowledged with a bow the single sound that resounded from the entire assembly coming to attention. He walked slowly to the center of the room, checked the time on his watch and nodded ever so slightly. In an instant the sound of running feet echoed loudly from all four corners of the room, feet driven with purpose in response to the call, “LINE UP!”
Descending with military precision in rank order we knelt one by one until finally everyone sat in seiza. The command “Mokusoh” from the most senior student present immediately plunged our individual worlds into utter darkness as we sought to clear our mind in preparation for the training that lay ahead, a daunting task for many I am sure given the adrenaline that flowed throughout the room. “Yame” followed all to soon, we rose by rank and then at the command we bowed as one, only to immediately be flung apart in organized chaos at the cry, “SPREAD OUT”.
Class had begun.
Following a vigorous warm up Sensei Kim called us all to the front of the room where we soon found ourselves seated on the floor in a wide semi-circle looking up into the face of history. As if in answer to our questioning gaze Sensei Kim asked,
“Do you see what you see?"
It is a question that I still strive to answer in all aspects of my karate and my daily life.
Who can play
The answer is anyone.
Male or female, young or old, it makes no difference, anyone can play. The techniques that are taught are the same for everyone, there is not a women’s way, a man’s way, or a child's way. Karate-do is simply karate-do. What makes this possible is that in truth power is not the secret to good karate, proper spirit is the secret to good karate.
In fact each day through out the world as literally millions of different people enter a dojo to practice karate, you will often find amongst those millions of students a large number of individuals who have some form of a handicap, either mental or physical. While their specific handicap may in some ways limit the student's ability to perform all of the techniques and movements that are required of an able bodied student, their personal handicap should in no way limit their right to study and train karate-do. In fact if you are a sensei and you have a student who fits into this catagory, consider yourself very fortunate, for they will not only test your ability to teach, but in the process they will teach you more about yourself as a person, and as a teacher, than you can possibly imagine.
All that is needed to study karate-do, is the willingness to train very hard for an indeterminable number of years, in an art form that you will soon come to realize you will never truly master. Karate-do you see is a life long journey, and on this journey you alone must decide if you have what it takes, to become what you want to be. You will find, however, that answering that question is a lot easier than proving it, even if just to yourself.
In any dojo the day you enter the class as a new student, your personal wealth, your perceived social status, or even your handicap if you happen to have one, will carry no weight. You will be given a white belt and you will be sent to the end of the line. I tell you right now that accepting your new status is the first true step in your karate training. The second step, is to remember that there is no such thing as an end to the karate road, there is only another corner to be turned, and another hill to be climbed.
But look on the bright side, by starting at the bottom you have no where to go but up.
Why play
Like any other endeavour the answer is, why not.
If karate interests you in the slightest way, then you owe it to yourself to test the strength and depth of your interest. Your commitment to the art of karate-do will in the end, be measured by your willingness carry out a regular training schedule over the coming years despite the many outside influences and pressures of your everyday life. If you stay in karate long enough to do more than just scratch the surface, you will find that karate-do will change your life forever.
Karate, however, is like an iceberg floating upon the ocean, with less than 10% of it's bulk visible on the surface and the remaining 90% hidden beneath the water. To be advance in karate you must constantly endevour to find what you can not see, by looking for it where you can not see it, within yourself. But trust me the search is worth the effort, for it is during this prolonged period of training that you may come to find your true self, and in the process you may even discover you are not the person you always thought yourself to be.
If you have an open mind, and if you can accept the fact early on in your karate training you are entering into a world where what you think you know is far less important than how willing you are to learn what you do not know, then your progress will be assured, and a world will open up to you the likes of which you could never have imagined.
Should you "play" - absolutely.
When to play
There is no "right time" to start karate. The trick is to simply to start. 
It may interest you to know that the oldest student I have every trained with started when he was 65 years old. Frank joined because his grandson who was 11 at the time wanted to try karate, but Frank's grandson didn't know anyone at our dojo, and so he was reluctant to join. So Frank did an amazing thing. He told is grandson he would join with him.
Now in addition to being 65 years old it would be very kind to say that Frank was only slightly overweight, in fact I figured that Frank was at least 60 pounds overweight for his age, and his grandson was also very large for an 11 year old, but never the less they both signed up. As the months went by they both trained three days a week, their health improved, their weight changed, and they steadily moved up the kyu ranks together. Then one day another interesting thing happened. Frank's grandson decided that karate simply required far to much effort and he told Frank that he was quitting, and he did.
By this time, however, Frank had been training for more than a year and he really looked forward to the days he trained, so he stayed on, continuing to come to class as often as he could. Over the next few years Frank not only became a "regular" in the dojo but he also became a real role model for all of the other students, young and old alike. I am proud to say that Frank made it all the way to green belt before his health and age finally caught up with him and he was reluctantly forced to stop training.
Frank passed away a few years ago.
I miss Frank, and I think about him often, he was an great inspiration to me and to many others.
In Frank the "spirit" of karate-do truly lived.
Frank to me will amongst other things, always remain proof that anytime is the right time to start karate.
Six words above all others reflect the true meaning of Shotokan Karate.
"Karate begins and ends with courtesy".
Gichin Funakoshi sensei in addition to being the “Father of Shotokan karate" was a man of great humility. Today the beliefs he held so dear are reflected in the principles taught as the mainstay of Shotokan Karate-do. Upon entering the dojo for the first time a students first lesson will be the proper way to bow. This must be done with a "true heart" for the bow is meant as a sign of deep respect to the dojo and all that it stands for.
All karate dojos regardless of their style will have a shrine at the front of the dojo. Often this shrine will include a likeness of the Founder of that particular style, or perhaps some of the past Masters who have had a profound influence on the dojo, or it's Sensei (teacher). At the appropriate time the most senior student present at the start of each class will call “line up” at which time the class will assemble by rank and then kneel one by one in rank order until everyone is finally seated in seiza. At this time the most formal ritual of respect will begin. The first bow (rei) will be to the Shomen, this is in gratitude for the teachings that the Founder and past Master's fostered and the knowledge that they passed on to all those who came after them. The next bow will be to the sensei because without the sensei there would be no dojo, and no one to teach the students of today. The last bow is from the Sensei to the students, because without the assembled students there would be no one for the sensei to pass his knowledge on to.
Karate-do above all else is all about courtesy and respect, for the past, as well as for the future.
In karate-do, as in life, treating others with courtesy is not an option, it is an obligation.
As in life, your personal goals will be the map by which you travel down the karate road.
In karate you can best measure your success by establishing a series of short term goals. While it is admirable to have long term goals these may be far reaching, and only achievable after many years of sacrifice and hard work. Starting out by setting small obtainable goals will make your journey down karate's road that much easier.
It is very important that each karate student have a clear understanding of what it takes to reach their desired goal. Time away from family and friends, effort and energy, plus proper repetitive training in a high energy environment, all are required if the desired skill level and your goals are ever to be reached.
Each journey in life begins with a first step. For the would be karate student this usually comes when they find that they have an interest in studying karate, and then take the time, and make the effort, to search for a reputable dojo. During your interview with the "Sensei" or teacher you may be asked what it is that you hope to achieve from training karate. The answer to this question will of course vary from person to person, for we are all drawn to the endeavours that interest us for a wide variety of reasons, and karate is no exception.
For some it is physical fitness, for others self defence, and still for others, it might be the desire to obtain a new level of self confidence,which they have so far been unable to find in other aspects of their life. No matter what the reason, karate is a journey that can last you a lifetime, and your personal success will be greatly enhanced if you make it a habit early on in your martial arts career to set both realistic short term, and long term goals.
After al,l if you never set goals, how can you know if you are where you are suppose to be at any given time.
The system
The belt levels, or kyu's, are the visible system by which a karate student can identify their specific place at any given time within their dojo society. The colour of the belts and the order in which they are awarded may vary from style to style, but in most Shotokan dojos today the kyu ranks go from the lowest to the highest as follows: 10th kyu - white belt, 9th kyu - yellow belt, 8th kyu - orange belt, 7th kyu - red belt, 6th kyu - green belt, 5th kyu - violet belt, 4th kyu - blue belt, after which there are then three individual levels of brown belt, 3rd kyu, 2nd kyu and 1st kyu. Once a student has achieved their last brown belt, or 1st kyu, they will in all likelihood have been training karate for about 3 to 4 years, at which time in many dojos they can normally expect to grade for their first level of black belt, or Sho Dan, within the coming year.
The actual time from white belt to black belt will of course vary from individual to individual, but as a rule it should as I have said, take the average person approximately four years, provided they train at least three days a week, two hours a day with the appropriate attitude, effort, and spirit, and in a dojo that offers proper technical supervision by a qualified Sensei (teacher). Any less and you simply won't make the grade because karate is not a team sport. The rank you achieve you may achieve in the company of others, but it will be, and must be, strictly awarded as a direct result of your own personal effort.
Today we live in a fast paced world, fast food, fast cars, cell phones, email, and many other systems by which the things we want we can quickly obtain. Karate fortunately is not a fast process, yet many students still feel that they have to grade as often as possible or they will be "left behind". This is not true. Sometimes, yes, students who started at the same time as you will grade more quickly and move ahead of you in rank, perhaps only to find that they themselves then stall at that higher level, only to find that they in turn are overtaken by you as your own skills develop. Like cars passing each other on the freeway there is no one true leader for very long.
The fact is that the ebb and flow of your karate training will be filled with many highs and lows, peaks and valleys. When you are on top you will think there is nothing you can not accomplish. When you are in a deep valley you will come to believe that no amount of effort will ever get you ahead of where you are now. You will sometimes feel like you have reached the end of the road, and you may even consider quitting karate altogether. This feeling I assure you will pass in due course if you just remember to focus on your goals and to keep going no matter what comes your way, but whatever you do, don't try and "cheat" the system. Even if the opportunity is given to you, don't jump ahead in rank just because someone is willing to give you an "easy ride" up the hill, especially when you know in your heart that your knowledge, and your techniques, are simply not up to par with your fellow students who have truly earned the rank that you seek.
If you do, I guarantee you that in the end, you will only be cheating yourself, so take your time, and go at your own pace.
Time frame
There is no time like the present.
This is always true. Any student studying the art of karate-do would do well to remember this.
"Now" is the time to practice your kata, "now" is the time to do a hundred reverse punches per side. “Now” is always the time to do whatever needs doing in your life.
Regardless of your present age or physical conditioning if you have the desire to learn, the time to start is now. Yesterday is gone, let it go. Tomorrow does not exist, and for many of us unknowingly, it may never come. So there is only "now". Do not ever let your “now” go by unutilized, or unmaximized, for it will never come again. Perhaps you think you can turn back your clock, but "true time" never can be repeated. 
Despite the fact that our time is ultimately finite, every student must be very careful not to rush through his or her training, otherwise it would be like driving a hundred miles, at two hundred miles an hour, you never truly see the scenery, you never truly know what has passed you by, and you never truly know where you have been. So remember, poor training habits will in the end leave you with cheap techniques, and a false sense of where you really are, and what you are capable of, never fall into the trap of trying to "keep up" with your fellow students. Grading to quickly, or being promoted just because your friends are, can be in the end be an ill gotten gain. Students who fail to train with the proper attitude, and with a strong level of personal dedication, will often find this to be the case if they are honest with themselves.
Time is the great equalizer. In the end the time it takes to reach the rank of Sho Dan will differ for each individual student. The important thing for you to remember is that it is the journey that matters, not time it takes to make the journey. After all karate-do is meant to be practiced for a lifetime, and I assure you that the faster you try and go, the more you are likely to miss the things that really matter, and in doing so you will never truly understand what karate-do is really all about.
As with your journey through life, your journey down the karate-do road is one to be savoured, so take your time.
“What rank are you?”
This is a question that has been asked of every sensei more than once in their career. In North America people seem to have a fascination with big numbers. As a result often the public is left with the false impression that the higher the numer in front of the rank the greater the teacher must be, this, however, is unfortunately often far from the truth.
A karate instructor should never be selected solely on the basis of a number.
So what does rank really mean, and how is it obtained.
To me, "rank is awarded as a reflection of proven personal achievement, that has been verified by the Chief Instructor of a recognized karate association, or any other person granted the authority by the Chief Instructor to make such an award". This rank is then a visible public confirmation of an individual students current level of progress, as justified by their efforts and skill to date.
You are in essence, only equal to what you physically, technically, spiritually, and mentally put into your karate training, no more, no less.
Rank does not change a students ability. I guarantee that if you were made a 10th Dan tomorrow it would not make your kata or your techniques one bit better than they are at this very moment in time. In fact the complete opposite would probably start to happen, the rank would go to your head, you would begin to feel that there is nothing left to learn, you would start to think that you are now qualified to teach, and you would probably quit training with the same level of intensity, and before you know it you would be going backwards, and in most cases without even knowing it. What a shame that would be, and all becasue you thought you were better than you really were.
Gichin Funakoshi sensei, the "Father of Shotokan karate" never awarded a rank higher than 5th Dan in his lifetime. He always considered this rank the ultimate pinnacle of success, and many of his most senior students despite a lifetime of training never accepted a higher rank. In fact prior to the end of World War II and despite the number of students he had it is said that Gichin Funakoshi sensei only awarded the rank of 5th Dan, twelve times during his life. So you see in reality, numbers are not where it’s at. Any karate instructor, regardless of style, is only as good as the knowledge and skills they possess, and true knowledge takes decades to acquire. So when looking for a dojo and a qualified sensei look very closely.
There is a saying: "when the student needs a teacher one will appear".
In the beginning above all else, the original purpose of karate was the self-preservation of the practitioner.
Even today when you practice karate it is not enough just to "go through the motions" to train in this manner would not only be very disrespectful, but it would also be a complete waste of time, and diminish the art to nothing more than a poor form of dance. It is, therefore, imperative that if you wish to be able to appreciate all that the art of karate-do has to offer you must first begin by taking the time necessary to develop good basic techniques.
Technique begins by first creating in your mind a mental image of what it is you are attempting to accomplish and then first going very slowly through the proper motions, time and time again. Over time as your skill level develops you will be able to train with greater speed and power, but to do this with any degree of skill will take you many years, and you should not become frustrated if at first your progress seems slow. Nothing of value is ever created in a hurry.
At the start of your training you will begin by learning how to make a proper fist, and then by learning how to punch. This is not a easy as it sounds. To learn to punch effectively and accurately you must always evaluate your technique each time you perform it, do not wait for your sensei or a sempai to spot obvious errors in your technique and come over and correct you. The real question is if they can see it, why can't you feel it. Also learn to be aware of your posture, and when required adjust your actions until proper balance is achieved. It is said that for every one hundred punches an experienced karate student practices, only one will truly be perfect.
To aid in this process it is not uncommon for students in the dojo to practice in front of a mirror where they can see their form and correct the accuracy of their techniques. It should be recognized, however, that while the image that is reflected back may show good technique, in order for the practice to be complete, the mirror should also reflect the proper spirit. You must from the outset learn to appreciate the fact that body mechanics themselves play only a small part in the overall picture. While it is true that punches, kicks and blocks are fundamental to the art of karate, and that they can be practice and honed to a very high level, without learning to appreciate the value of the mental side of the equation you will always only have half a technique.
Remember, listen to your sensei, practice with a true heart, and in the long term your efforts will be rewarded.
Self defence
In Shotokan karate the first rule of self defence is:
"Karate ni sente nashi” – “In karate there is no first attack”.
Times have changed. Today the purpose of karate is no longer first and foremost about self preservation. Yes the world can be a dangerous place, but we no longer face the prospect of hand to hand combat and personal challenges on a daily basis. Today if you asked the average karate student why they signed up to study a particular style, the answers you will get are as varied as the people themselves.
For some it is a matter of getting physically fit, for others it is the desire to strengthen or build their self confidence, while at the same time learning self discipline, and respect. Still for others it is as simple as “ it has always interested me so I thought I would give it a try”. Very few students it seems express self defence as their number one reason for joining a dojo, that reason may be there, but seldom is it at the top of the list.
Regardless of what brought you to karate, the basics you will learn center around age old techniques, that when properly executed by a skilled practitioner have the ability to quickly subdue, or in some applications even kill an opponent. For this reason the mental attitude of a karate practitioner is of the utmost importance. It has been said that a sensei should always make an effort to establish a student's true character and their real reason for wanting to study karate before any student is accepted into the dojo, since they will be taught skills that could one day be used against an innocent, and unskilled person.
So take your training seriously, this stuff can be very real when it has to be. In addition to learning to control your hands and your feet don't forget to train your mind, and to make every effort to adopt a proper attitude. If you learn to have a positive attitude about yourself, and if you make a point of looking for the best in others, both inside and outside of the dojo, chances are your skills will never be put to the test.
If you look for the best in others, you can't help but also find the best in yourself.
In karate the truest test of a students skill is measured by the performance of their kata.
My definition of kata is as follows :
" A kata is a series of pre-determined defensive and offensive movements and techniques that have been handed down from past masters as a means of helping a student to understand, and cope with, their personal physical limitations, while at the same time teaching the student to develop a strong spirit, and a peaceful mind, through the art of karate-do."
Most Shotokan katas practiced today are very old and have been handed down from teacher to student for generations without any significant changes to any of the required movements and techniques. Each move in any kata must always be performed with a specific purpose in mind, this should never be forgotten. For without the proper mind set the movements themselves will have no value, and a waste of time. No movement or technique is frivolous, each has a specific reason that is not always evident, thus forcing each student to look deeply for the true meaning hidden within each kata.
Visualization is paramount to giving life to the kata.
The hardest part of any kata is the unseen part, this is the mental side of the kata. Practicing the required techniques with a partner is easy, practicing alone and truly visualizing an opponent, or a purpose for each movement is something else entirely. With each step, with each movement, your mental concentration must be total and complete, or your kata will suffer for all to see. To watch a student rush through a kata without experiencing it's true depth is a sorry sight indeed. This type of training is to be avoided at all costs.
Shotokan karate takes most of it’s katas from early Okinawan forms brought to Japan by Gichin Funakoshi sensei. These katas must be learnt by each student during their journey, and the rank of each student can be seen reflected in the complexity of the techniques and the kata they are currently being taught. A students goal should be to not only learn the specific pattern and movements of a kata, but to also try and reflect on the deeper meaning that exists in each technique and movement, to seek within each kata those hidden techniques not visible at the first, or the hundredth glance. Only after many, many years of diligent practice and concentration will the karateka begin to see the kata as it was meant to be seen, and only then will they be able to present the kata as it was meant to be performed.
To do this with a "clear mind" is to truly see into the mind of the katas creator.
The end of the begining
In this article I have tried to answer the question, "karate-do, what it is and what it isn't".
In trying to do so I have brought you to the end of the begining, where you go from here is totally up to you.
Should you try karate for the first time, should you continue karate if you are in a valley and thinking of quitting, should you put your name on the next grading and go for it, only you can truly answer these questions.
What I have tried to do here is to get you to ask yourself, why not.
You alone know what is best for you,
everyone else is just guessing.
Part the clouds - see the way.
"The objective of karate-do is to contribute to the evolution
of the human spirit through physical and mental training."
Sensei Peter Lindsay