The tie that binds
There was a wonderful email being circulated not long ago and I was fortunate that a copy of it came my way from a dear friend of mine. When I first saw his tag line that morning in amongst a bunch of business related emails I immediately opened his message first, since I already knew from past experience that whatever he sent me was usually well worth reading.
After opening his email I quickly realized that this was going to be a rather long read, and since at that moment my day was already off to a hectic start I set the email aside, planning to finish it at a time when I could give it my undivided attention. Later that afternoon when my desk was finally clear, I once again opened my friend's email, and this time I read it from start to finish.
When I was done I realized that while the story was unrelated to karate in anyway, it had never the less set me to thinking about what I had just read in precisely those terms.
The story was called "The Dash".
Perhaps you have seen it.
If not, and to make a long story short, the email I received was in essence about a man who had recently passed away, and at his funeral he was being eulogized by a very close friend. The friend's eulogy centred primarily around the man's newly carved head stone, and in particular the two dates that were inscribed on it representing the span of the man's life, for example 1910 - 2003.
This friend went on to say that while it was obvious from these two dates that this man had indeed lived a long life, the numbers in and of themselves did not tell the whole story. The real story of the man's life; who he was as a person, what he managed to accomplish during those years, what impact his life had on his family, his friends, his business associates, or for that matter the rest of humanity; everything about him his friend said, was really represented by the small little dash that lay in between those two specific dates.
The sad part his friend went on to say, was that for most people that small little dash was simply an appropriate punctuation mark, carved about half an inch deep into a marble head stone. As such he declared, the dash's true secrets would always remain well hidden from those who never knew the man, never to be discovered unless someone took the time and made the effort to look closely and deeply enough.
So what does this story have to do with karate you might be asking yourself right about now, well I will tell you.
Every day throughout the world in more countries than I can think of, students of all ages, faiths, and nationalities, enter a dojo to practice one of the various styles of karate, or as it is also commonly referred to, "karate-do". Now as you are probably aware the word "karate-do" when written in Japanese is actually made up of three distinct characters. One character for the word "kara" which mean "empty", one character for the word "te" which means "hand" and one character for the word "do" which means "way". When these three characters are combined they form the word "karate-do" which then literally translates as "the empty handed way". It is when it is used in this context that karate in reality ceases to be merely a form of combat and instead becomes an art form with a much deeper connotation.
Now it has been said that all of the major styles of traditional karate practiced in the world today Shotokan karate is the most widely spread, and the most popular. Like most styles Shotokan can trace it's earliest roots back to China and beyond. It was, however, on the small island of Okinawa that Shotokan unknowingly took the first step in what was about to become a global journey. Taught in secret, and then only to the most trusted of individuals, Okinawan te (hand) or Chinese te (hand) as it was sometimes referred to back in the late 1800's was something that few islanders knew of, or for that matter, ever came in contact with. Yet here on this small island which had been fought over by nations for centuries, a man named Gichin Funakoshi was born in the year 1868, and it was to be through him that the art of karate-do would finally see the clear light of day in the early 1920's. A school teacher by profession, it was because of his skill and reputation within the martial arts community that he was one day asked to travel to Japan to lecture on, and demonstrate, the art of Okinawan Karate-do at the First National Athletic Exhibition. This was to be a historic occasion indeed since this would be the first time that karate-do had been publicly demonstrated outside of Okinawa.
As fate would have it after his demonstration Sensei Funakoshi was asked to remain in Japan for a while longer in order to give further demonstrations, and he agreed. As a result of that seemingly casual decision his destiny was sealed, and he subsequently remained in Japan for the rest of his life teaching and spreading the art of karate-do to people from all walks of Japanese society, right up until his death in 1957. As a result of his life long dedication, today Sensei Funakoshi is known world wide as The Father of Modern Karate.
Shortly after the death of Sensei Funakoshi a plan for the globalization of karate-do started to take place under the guidance of his most senior students. The first tentative steps in this plan took place when through their organization, known as the JKA, or the Japan Karate Association, the decision was made to start sending skilled instructors from Japan to the West as a means of spreading karate-do to the rest of the world. During these past forty odd years since that day, the growth of Shotokan karate-do has been unprecedented, and today it is practiced in almost every country in the world, with many of the largest Shotokan karate organizations still being headed up by Masters trained by the JKA. I do think, however, that it is fair to say that today regardless of whether a person studies Shotokan or some other traditional style of karate, in many respects the art of karate-do is no longer based solely on the values and the principles to which Sensei Gichin Funakoshi and the other Masters of his time were so truly devoted.
The simple fact of the matter is that like all things karate has changed and evolved, and it has done so to the point where today karate can really be divided into two main categories, "sport karate" and "traditional karate-do".
Now at first it may appear to many outsiders, as well as to some students, that these two approaches to karate are one and the same. This, however, could not be further from the truth. Despite their many similarities there is in fact a huge fundamental difference between "sport karate" and "karate-do".
The difference for the most part can be defined as follows :
"sport karate has at it's core, the ultimate goal of victory over all others through competition".
While on the other hand,
"traditional karate-do has at it's core, the ultimate goal of victory over one's self through the "way" of karate".
You see sport karate, in effect revolves around public competitions where each competitor performs a kata that usually contain a large number of gymnastics, and other acrobatic skills that are performed in concert with a wide variety of karate movements and/or weapons, such as the bo, sai, kama, spear, and sword. These modern, and sometimes personally made up katas are often performed to music, and are usually designed to be "crowd pleasers", while at the same having been exclusively crafted to fit the skill level and athleticism of one individual, and no one else. In fact many competitors include in each of their modern katas unique movements that often come to be known as their personal "signature move" and that over time they alone become identified with at each tournament. Of course since each competitor is always looking to out do his or her opponent, the need to be even more creative often means that many of these modern katas develop into contests of flash and speed with countless spins, tosses, and twirls being the order of the day. While it is self evident that these modern katas obviously require a very high degree of skill and physical fitness and need to be combined with a great many hours, months, and years of training on the part of the competitors, "sport karate" at it's heart lacks two things that more than anything else set it apart from "traditional karate-do".
First, "sport karate" has no true historical connection to any past Master.
Secondly, because each of the katas is "made up" and so unique to that individual, it makes passing on these katas to all other students virtually impossible, since the aerobic movements, are usually well beyond the capabilities of the average person.
Traditional karate-do, however, unlike "sport karate" is based on katas that in some cases are hundreds of years old and can often be traced back through history to a specific Master and they are performed primarily for the personal physical, mental and spiritual development of the individual. Secondly, and more importantly though, under proper supervision these traditional katas can over a reasonable short period of time be taught and handed down to thousands of people of all ages, shapes, and sizes, including children, since by the nature of their design, almost of the movements can be performed without any other specialized training.
It is for these two reasons more than any others, that traditional karate-do as survived and prospered throughout the years and it is this continuity that lies at the heart of what really separates those that do karate for sport, and those that do karate for life.
So you see the dash that joins the dates on the man's head stone to create a lifetime, and the dash that joins the two words "karate" and "do" into "the way of karate" is really the tie that binds.
It is the dash that holds the details and the essence that make both the man, and the art of karate-do worth knowing, treasuring, and passing on in turn to those who choose to follow in their path.
So the next time someone asks you to explain what type of karate you study, think carefully before answering, and if you feel it is appropriate, be sure you put in that small little dash.
Little things make a big difference.
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