I have always been fascinated by numbers. I've always looked for relationships among them to find meaning; I've tried to find patterns that can help me to understand, to some limited degree, this huge and complex universe.
And to me, some of the most interesting numbers to look at are those relating to time. When I was a boy, I figured out, to the hour, precisely how much older than my brother I was. (Three years, four months, nine days, and thirteen hours.) I figured out the day when I was exactly as old as my father was when I was born. (January 18th, 1995.) It might seem silly, but somehow being aware of time like this helps me sort things out.
Looking back on my Seido karate training as I began to prepare for this promotion, I realized that I started training sixteen years ago - and I was a few months shy of sixteen at the time. I've now been training in karate for a little bit more than half my life.
Of course, that's no great accomplishment; there are people who have been training longer than I've been alive. But as I try to put my training into perspective as part of my life, I find that I can't draw it out from everything else. Somewhere along the way, being a karateka became more a part of my experience than not being one.
It's not just that I've been training longer than I haven't. It's also a matter of when I started. I began my training just as I was on the threshold of growing from a boy to a man. I've been a karateka for my whole adult life; it's hard to know how much of how I've changed over that time is from karate, and how much is simply growing up.
But as I've begun to move more into a teaching role, I can see the effects of Seido training on those I teach. I see the way that training helps them to grow, regardless of age, and I know it's put me through the same changes.
We all know the physical benefits of karate training; and in our increasingly sedentary society, this training has much to offer in helping people stay healthy. And we know the mental benefits: greater self-confidence, improved concentration, and strong self-discipline, all badly needed in a fast-moving, confusing world.
But beyond these somewhat obvious things, there is what we can call a spiritual side to the development of a karateka. What is it? And how can we see it and help it grow in ourselves and others?
Consider the maxim ``Know yourself.'' This was the inscription on the temple of the Oracle of Delphi. It was the advice of Socrates to his students. And it's the heart of the Zen mindfulness that we strive to develop in karate-do - it is the heart of bushido.
There are several different levels of this self-knowledge. As we grow in our study of Seido, our training shows us strengths we never knew we had - a most enjoyable kind of self-knowledge, even if bought with a lot of sweat, and a little tears and blood. It's nice to find out that we can do more push-ups then we thought we could, or to find unexpected reserves of spirit and determination that carry us through hard training.
But training also brings us face-to-face
with our human limitations, frailties, and weaknesses. We think we are
brave; then we meet our fear in a difficult kumite match. We think we are
kind and loving; then we get hurt and see our dark anger, ready to lash
out. We think we are modest; then we get tangled up in our egos when we
can't immediately master some new technique or kata, and find that our
skills aren't as developed as we like to think. We think we are patient
and helpful; then we see how short our
patience really is when we get frustrated with a student we're helping. We think we're physically strong; then an injury shows us how fragile we really are.
Self-knowledge is not always a pleasant thing. It's easier, at least in the short term, to live in the illusions our ego provides, and in the distractions of the outside world. Easier to not question or examine our lives too closely, lest we discover unpleasant truths. But in the long run, those truths will come out. When we discover them in training, we have the opportunity to deal with them in a constructive way, rather than have them come out on their own at the worst possible moment. We have to take the unexpected strengths we find and use them to fully and honestly face the weaknesses.
On a deeper level, as our training progresses we gain knowledge not only of our strengths and weaknesses, but of our true natures. Through the ``moving Zen'' of karate we come to understand how our mind works, how attachment to thoughts and desires carries us out of the present moment, and how to find and act from our undisturbed still center.
Over the years of my training, I've learned a lot about myself, in all three of these ways. But it's not a task that's ever complete. For not only is true understanding of the self a long and difficult process; in the very process of coming to know ourselves, we change - a sort of ``uncertainty principle'' of the spirit.
The self-knowledge we gain in our training does not benefit only ourselves. Sun Tsu's famous maxim, ``Know your enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated,'' builds on the notion of knowing the self. But this thought does not apply only to battles and competition, to situations where there is an enemy or opponent to defeat. It also applies to situations where two people have to work together for mutual success: a friendship, a romantic relationship, a collaboration at work - or in teaching karate-do.
If our training helps us to know ourselves, how can we know these other people with whom we're involved?
Our training is not an individual activity. As we work together, with our seniors, peers, and juniors, one thing becomes clear: fundamentally, we're all the same.
We share the experiences of our peers. We come to understand what our seniors and instructors have been talking about. And we see newer students going through exactly the same experiences and revelations we remember.
There are differences, certainly, and these should never be downplayed - diversity makes us strong. But while the forms may be different, we all have the same wants and needs, suffer the same pains, have the same hopes and fears. At the core, our minds work the same way, and our human experience is the same.
Knowing this sameness lets us
understand one another. We see that everyone has strengths they are unaware
of; and weaknesses they are trying hard to hide, even from themselves.
We see that other peoples minds work the same as ours, often distracting
us from the present moment; and when we find our true unmoving center,
we find it is shared by all people. In
knowing ourselves, we come to understand others - indeed, we find that, in the Zen sense, there is no ``self'' and ``other''.
This is not just a practical matter for teaching karate. Seeing this sameness is the basis for compassion. Compassion leads to right action. And so by giving us insight into our true selves, our karate training ultimately shows us the path we should follow in our lives.
As over the past few years I've begun to move into a teaching role in the dojo, what has served me best is not my limited knowledge of how to do karate correctly. It's the memory of all the mistakes I've made in learning that helps me to understand the confusion of a new student. It's knowing what it's like to get hit during kumite and feel frustrated and angry that lets me guide another person though that situation. I see the sameness.
The insight into myself that I have gained in the dojo, and in growing up with the guidance of my training, has helped me understand the minds and spirits of those I now teach. I hope that I will be able to help others to train well and find the same sort of insight, to understand themselves and to understand others for the benefit of all.
(warning: long ramble ahead)
I know this defining of a Master is a popular subject,
but also a very individual thing, be it by rank, organization etc. As a
kyu rank, what I've learned from the internet is that rank doesn't mean
so much (or translate aptly) outside of the system that created it, and
that different styles emphasize different qualities all making it difficult
to create a definition of universal significance. But lately I've come
up with my own
hypothesis, that I'll put out here in interests of having it torn apart so that I can learn more and re-define as necessary. I don't expect to come up with any definitive meaning, even for myself, but this is kind of a "stop along the way" for me.
First of all, I'm reading a tai chi book that mentions an old Chinese proverb that neatly described one aspect of it for me:
"If the wrong person uses the right means, that right means work in the wrong way."
That makes sense to me in a definition of "master." Because it gets away from the physical sense and implies there is more and speaks to character as well.
Then I started thinking about people I've been impressed by--people who are the "right people." Even though I live in a small town and haven't been studying long, I've been fortunate to meet a few folks who themselves would cringe at being called a master, but have inspired plenty of hot diggedy dog thoughts in me.
So, a few weeks ago, one of them was a guest in my kitchen
over green tea, and at 5 am we were STILL GOING, much like the energizer
bunnies (kind of old bunnies though), but as I was complaining about a
certain move in a certain kata which wasn't making any sense for me, he
pushed his tea cup aside, and stood up to demonstrate his point. And I
noticed something interesting. We were pretty mellow there by 5 am, but
when he stood up and moved into stance I saw a visable "relaxing"
(for lack of a better word)
that went through his whole body-- a kind of settling into himself. And I also thought to myself...hmmm... I've seen that before. But it took a few days and some sleep to remember where.
As it so happens I figured I'd seen it twice before. And another time was in my kitchen as well. Now I can go ahead and name names:-). Because it was Hoosain... when he was playing with my son, and at some point what looked like two kids wrestling, started to look like karate, and I saw Hoosain (who in real life is very focused and intent, but also Mr. Mellow) also visably "relax" and "settle" as he moved.
The third example I thought of wasn't in my kitchen, but it was also at an unusual time.. about 8 am. Chinen Teruo Sensei was at our dojo for a weekend of seminars, and on Saturday morning he was scheduled to start a kids seminar at 9 am.
You know it is a strange thing, but I've noticed there is something like "Sensei Standard Time (SST)" where guest sensei arrive late a lot. Maybe it is just here in Vermont, where sensei's miss turn-offs, get stuck in leaf traffic, or just can't find us. And there are those like Shihan Palumbo who have to e-mail me three times to ask if I'm sure the closest airport is in Hartford and how could that be and I could I possibly check again to see if there is one in Vermont that I might have missed:-))).. okay.. I'm digressing.. but, anyway, they are usually late. So, when Chinen Sensei visited us and was set to teach at 9 am, I figured I'd arrive at the dojo at 8 am, check to make sure everything was set for the seminar and that I'd have PLENTY of time to eat my bagel and drink my coffee. In reality, I pulled up to the dojo at 7:50 am (operating on PSST--Perfect Student Standard Time, ie. an hour and10 minutes early).
But much to my surprise.. Chinen Sensei (with my "not really a morning person" Sensei) actually showed up a few minutes after I had, and I had to scarf down the bagel in the car and hide my coffee and take surreptitious sips in between going about the job of setting up. But it was that same thing with Chinen Sensei--he just wanted to get out there on the floor. And again, I saw that visable "relaxing." It was very obvious--even though he had a whole day of teaching to do, he got there an hour early and just wanted to be training.
So, what I realized that the "relaxing" I was seeing meant, is that these three karate-ka actually are more at home in their skin when they are doing karate than when they are not. And that must come with years of training, but maybe even more than training itself, from just years of "being" a martial artist. In other words, doing karate is a more natural and happy state for them, than not doing karate.
So that's my definition and yes I know I took a looong
time to state it. But I think a master must be someone that is more comfortable
(physically in these cases, but presumably mentally and spiritually also)
doing a kata or some karate movement than not doing it. For me as a kyu
rank, and for many others I've seen, when we stand up to go out on the
floor, there is more of a tensing, or a gathering of strength, or something
more deliberate and forced than a relaxation. Or almost a "putting on the
karate hat" type
thing. It might also be a difference in zanshin and the method used to achieve that.
And thank you for reading thru it.
Sara (who figures she's a coffee drinking master
by this definition)