#26 in a continuing series

84 days in the teaching life of an
American sensei in 1999

Friday, January 15

Mitch arrives for his 10 a.m. private in his
green Ford pick up. He parks in front of the house. I can see him from my desk
removing a bulky package that I suspect is the damaged stretching machine he
told me about. I hear the snow crunching underfoot as he walks across the lawn.

  After some pleasantries I feel the need to
bring up the training issue of gleaning peripheral information from other
sources as a potential obstacle to his advance.

“Once I had an exceptionally good karate expert,
named Henry. I asked him to leave my school because he began to explore other
systems and ideas that so permeated his training he lost interest in what I was
teaching. He had spent time studying with Ron Richards, Dillmans’s number one pressure
point man. Henry wasn’t playing in my martial sandbox anymore, except to let
everyone else in the dojo know where his true interest lay. I told him that I
would always hold him in high regard but that he needed to go out into the
world and find what he was looking for, since it was apparent his head was no
longer in my teaching. I didn’t harbor any bad feelings toward him. I felt more
like a father kicking his twenty-year old out of the house for his own good.
Sometimes you just have to let a wandering student go.

was a brilliant student and a gifted academician. He earned a Rhodes Scholarship
to study for one year in Okinawa. He had visited Japan, where he took up
Renshinkan karate and was given the honorary ranking of third dan.  He had studied aikido, and was an accomplished
musician from Oberlin. But some of my senior students felt that Henry’s cup was so
overfilled he had become over-full of himself.

Henry returned from Okinawa he presented me with a gift of two hand-lacquered, ceramic
cups dipped in ox blood with tiny red Hibiscus plant motifs. The Hibiscus grows
prevalently on Okinawa. Henry and I have never had any real contact since I asked
him to move on. I often reflect on these these cups as the unfulfilled meeting we
may some day have in the future.

worried you are going to misperceive my intentions for coming back to train,”
Mitch spoke candidly. “I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that I am
back and I am not leaving until I get my shodan. You know that I have an interest
in knife fighting. I attend seminars to keep myself interested but this is
where I am now. I am going to finish with you. Dillman’s pressure point book was
interesting, but I admit that it did not hold as much of a charge as I

finished neihanchi kata with me that day. He found the neihanchi form to possess
an electric quality. He couldn’t quite articulate his feeling other than to say
that of all the katas so far, he could actually enjoy working on this one.

students find themselves making a connection with one form over another over
the years. Each kata has its own energy signature. Some kata resonate strongly
with students. Quite a few students take a liking to Chinto. This kata was
Chotoku Kyan’s favorite form and subsequently Tatsuo Shimabuku’s. Perhaps, it’s
no surprise that Kyan, Shimabuku’s teacher, conveyed his love for chinto.”

the end of his class Mitch wanted to know if I believed in all the form
applications I taught. He concluded with a facial expression that spoke as loudly
as his question, ‘I don’t believe in them.’

course, I believe in them! You don’t think that they are applicable in real combat do you?

“No,” he flatly stated.

think you’ve gotten that impression from some of your training partners. They
haven’t gotten their technique up to a credible level of skill. They may have
tainted your impression. Also, you don’t seem to have any trouble making your
strikes credible.”

think the kata’s primary lesson isn’t about applications. I think the forms
have underlying value indirectly related to fighting.”

“I concur
that there are hidden facets to the
forms. In fact, I can qualify this from personal experience. But I disagree
that the martial element is downplayed in the forms. With the exception of
Sanchin, our kata curriculum offers excellent practical responses to a physical
conflict. Credible skills however, take time to develop. You have to look at
the whole process before assuming credible technique or not is being shown. At
black belt the living blade is sharp.

an analogy of the martial process. Imagine, on this wall there is a vertical
puzzle being pieced together. Once it’s completed this puzzle will reveal the
true nature of karate Do. You begin laying pieces at the bottom, the ground
floor. You might have a few pieces that fit two feet above, but you cannot place
them on your wall puzzle. They won’t stick. There is no context for the piece
to exist without the support of the bottom pieces. When an instructor teaches a
lesson above the head of a student, we can say that he has certainly given them
some pieces of a puzzle. Maybe the student can grasp the logic of the technique
but there is no context, no sensitivity, as to how that piece fits together
with their current skill level. That isolated piece becomes an empty technique.

former instructor of mine was observed teaching yellow belts a scissor
takedown. Of course, the students were excited to leap sideways at their
partners and wrap their legs around the other and twist them to the ground. But
this was such an isolated technique that if small things didn’t go well, they
would never be able to pull it off. The same holds true giving a few pressure
point techniques to a student. It would be comparable to someone who could play
a Bach Concerto on the piano but never learned to read music or play any other

a truly organized martial artist to evolve he must ground his study in
principles, and carefully, like a mountain climber, select hand and footholds
just above him and within reach anchoring principle to technique. Advanced
bunkai without a secure foundation won’t work. It would be a stroke of luck to
pull it off. You haven’t gotten to that level yet to see the full face of your kata