Practicing a thousand days is said to be discipline, and practicing ten thousand days is said to be refining. This should be carefully studied. Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
There always seems to be a next chapter to things, or sequels. Well, some time after I wrote my original article on kata, (Kata- The Heart of Karatedo), I thought that I should write more one day. But there wasn’t much else to say at that time. The time has come. I would like to think of this article as representing another step in the martial arts journey.
First let me put some things in perspective.
Each person’s experience with martial arts differs, as they bring differing degrees of commitment or purpose, and train and study, more or less. Their reasons for studying the martial arts and their expectations are all different. I feel however that fundamentally, the journey through the martial arts is potentially the same for everybody, because it is the same thing we are all studying, and the same experiences are there to be discovered.
At times in our study we come across things, or have experiences that we do not understand, or completely dismiss because we do not recognise their significance. Unfortunately, we may not even come across these events because we do not train enough or are unstructured or undisciplined in our life and our training. Having no master to guide them and to turn to must also deny many martial artists the opportunity to express themselves, and to discuss and comprehend their progress and experiences.
My articles are designed to accomplish a numbers of things. Firstly, they are somewhat cathartic for me, as it helps my own understanding to examine my karate in this way. Then, I think it’s helpful to write these things down because if indeed there is some sort of sequence or rationale to events, then one can look at learning or improving in martial arts as a process of development. Also, many martial artists out there do not have a teacher, or have only limited access to their teacher’s knowledge due to such circumstances as distance and language. Additionally, many martial artists have "teachers", who have not themselves developed to the highest levels of martial arts. The students then either stop developing at a point, or become somewhat disoriented when they encounter experiences that their teacher has not had, and therefore cannot explain.
Some students have a Master of the highest quality but do not see the wonderful opportunity they have. To them he is just another martial arts teacher. I’m reminded of the saying about "a prophet in one’s own country", or "familiarity breeds contempt."
My main desire is to talk to those martial artists who are seriously studying the "Way", and who wish to comprehend and grow. These people will understand the implications of my words, and I hope, find support and guidance in their endeavours.
Those who find my words empty are not ready to learn, or comprehend. Their glass is still full.
Most "martial artists" will not understand the implications of this article, or will dismiss it as bizarre or "beyond". In a sense they are right because it is evidence to me at least of "Yojigen-Budo", the "Fourth Dimension Martial Arts", and the highest level of karatedo.
Imagine a personal experience so profound that you were filled with wonderment, and wanted desperately to share with someone. Then you find that there is no one who can comprehend what you’re taking about, or dismiss your words as "interesting". Imagine Christopher Columbus, or James Cook. Surely they were bursting to call home and tell of their discoveries!!!
Because of my recent experience, I called my Master, Kenshu Watanabe. I had to tell him of my discovery. He knew and understood my experience. His advice? Keep training!
Anyway here for those of you for whom the journey is a lifetime of training and growth, let me share my experience and it’s impact on me. Perhaps it can help you too.
Training privately, in the dojo at my home I was practicing kata. Then it happened.
Crystal clear, my being "separated". I was performing kata, and my mind suddenly comprehended that my body was performing the kata on it’s own, and in fact was doing it differently from all previous experience. My "spirit" did not leave my body and observe myself from a third party position. The experience was internal. It was like there were two parts to me:- the physical body, and the mind. Both were joined together by spirit. But I was able to "see" or "comprehend" my karate from an entirely new perspective.
My body was more than on "auto pilot", because I had been there before. So probably have you, when you performed the kata in an almost trance-like state, hardly knowing where you started, where you finished, or where you had been. I am also familiar with visualisation techniques. And it wasn’t that.
This was a strange feeling like no other, a sense of exclamation grew over me as I said to myself. "This is it! This is it!" The breathing happened on it’s own, and coordinated with the tensions in the body. My body focussed immense amounts of tension for a split second at a time. There were focus points or "locks" appearing in my kata that until then I had to either struggle with, had omitted, or didn’t even know existed.
Imagine when the body focus and breathing coordinated on both breathing in and breathing out! I had always thought: soft is inhaling and hard is exhaling. I had always struggled with that anyway. We breathe in on blocks and out on strikes. Doesn’t this mean that the block is by definition, soft? Yes, but using angles and body movement means yield to the attack, therefore you can be "soft". That’s only half true. Come to think of it, it’s not true at all! Because for most people soft means weak, even if they understand the difference, making it happen is another thing altogether.
In my kata practice, a major comprehension came to me. I was actually strong and focussed on breathing in! Surely I thought, this must be the outcome of "Iron Shirt" training. When breathing out, or striking, I found the focus point was tiny, a fraction of time, and such a complete focus of power that the body actually shook with residual Ki after the technique relaxed. But what also blew me away was the discovery that this also applied to breathing in, and therefore to those so-called "soft" blocks. It even dawned on me that I could strike or kick with great power breathing in! Wouldn’t that make a difference to kumite!
My mind said:" This is it! This is Goju. This is hard-soft. This is what it is." The difference between hard and soft was crystal clear. It redefined soft. Now I understood the meaning of Shihan Watanabe’s words maybe 15 years ago. "Look for the hardness in the softness and the softness in the hardness. Strong softness. Soft does not mean weak……" As I performed each kata, I also became aware of a very interesting phenomena. My breathing, using Reverse Breathing or Taoist Breathing technique remained normal. I wasn’t breathing hard or in the slightest "puffed out". I was not sweating like pig either as I usually do. Just a light dew across the forehead. What an experience!
I performed some fourteen or fifteen kata, one after the other. Sanchin and Tensho kata suddenly took on a new dimension too. Particularly Sanchin. I found that the body tension throughout was different from previous practice. For the first time I discovered that the muscles under the ribcage remained contracted throughout the kata. which had the effect of translating the "strong" to all parts of the body. So this was how you could "receive" a blow and withstand it, when theoretically you were inhaling or "relaxed", or "gathering Ki".
This is one of the moments a trained goju fighter will chose to attack. They will chose that window of opportunity when their opponent is breathing in. The more your opponent gets exhausted, and the louder their breathing, the easier it is to pick the moment. Because they are not truly relaxed, but full of tensions, they cannot react to the attack. On the other hand, the goju master, being relaxed in body and mind, in a state of "munen muso", can react instantly and defeat the opponent easily.
Whilst having the clarity of thought to view myself with an internal eye and to take cognisance of the performance of the body, what was remarkable was the ability to "feel" technique, examine it and understand it in continuous motion.
When each technique was performed, a strike, a kick a block, it seemed that at the precise millisecond of application or "contact", a switch was thrown and instantly turned off. It was as fast as blinking. Where was this happening? In the stomach, at the hara or lower dantien. When the stomach "locked", for an instant the whole body locked. Like flicking a switch. The difference between hard and soft was clear. It was amazing to say to myself "Hey, I didn’t know that was a focus point!" My body found it by itself. I was running on high octane!
And fast! Punches and kicks with full snap and recoil were relaxed and sharp. The joints cracked time and time again as techniques were performed. Elbows and wrists were "cracking" on chudan soto uke, and I was creating explosive "cracks" on mae geri. Amazingly, both hands "cracked" making fists. I was not training in a gi, I was wearing gi pants and a T-shirt, so I could hear my body.
Did I just have a crazy, one-off experience or was it something more substantial. Had I actually achieved a progress. Had my martial arts training actually accumulated to a real point of achievement?
Well I have spent some time now analysing my experience and I have come to a conclusion more important than the discoveries I made that day. For the first time I could clearly comprehend the difference between body, mind and spirit. I could see how the mind can operate independently from the body. How the body, after years of training can operate on it’s own, without conscious thought (the mind) directing it. Most importantly, I found and touched my spirit, which connects body and mind and is my timeless own true self.
From an intellectual standpoint, this is fairly easy to come to terms with. But for me this went beyond intellectual reasoning. It was a comprehension based on feeling and an understanding on another level, one that I cannot define.
In martial arts training we work to polish the spirit, because if the spirit is strong, the body can be strong, the mind can be strong. And we polish the spirit through hard training and sacrifice. The personal realisation for me was that I could comprehend how the spirit could live independently of the body and consciousness, and not only live on after the body dies, but how it existed before I was born.
What’s next? Is there another level, another watershed of discovery? I’m sure there is. What is it likely to be? I don’t know, I have no idea. But that’s ok, because I could never have conceived of this experience before it happened. I couldn’t have planned to "reach there". But Shihan Watanabe knew that one day he would receive that phone call from me. It was inevitable that if I kept training with focussed dedication and unswerving commitment that one day the phone call would come. That’s kama.
Shihan asked me many questions about this experience and said that kata is actually "moving meditation", and that insights and enlightening experiences are to be found within kata training. But it requires many years of continuous training to come anywhere near this. In my case, over 18 years. And they were all full-on 18 years, none of this training once or twice a week, or, not turning up to class, or making excuses.
Also, it can’t be found in a dojo class environment. It comes personally and privately in your own place and time. Also you cannot find it by "looking" for it, for it will always elude you, and you may think you have found it but it is your imagination playing tricks.
When you truly comprehend it, when the time is right, you will have an experience like mine. So enormous that it is virtually impossible to express. You will feel exhilaration and happiness. You will be sad too because you have received a gift that few others will receive. Your greatest desire would be for everybody to see themselves as you saw yourself.
Post script: In subsequent discussions, Shihan Watanabe told me what the next discovery will be. This is the first time that my teacher has ever told me what my training holds for me, and what I will eventually discover.
I also now know the answer to the koans I have struggled with privately all these years.
Through parting clouds
Blades of light strike.
Human senses: touch, taste, sight and sound
Nature’s elements: heat, wind, tide and time
In an instant
Here it is, this is it, all now,
© Japanese Karate Academy Inc. 1999