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Emulating The Masters

By Eddy Schumacher

One of the basic tenets of success in anything is to find someone who is successful at that thing and to emulate them. When I was young and playing basketball, I would try to be Dr. "J", or Pete Maravich. Today's generation might imitate Michael Jordan. In the martial arts, we generally look to those who have established themselves as masters of our art.

In emulating masters, "follow" is the key word I believe. I hope someday to be where they are, but it won't happen in a day, so rather than trying to "be there" I should instead focus on how to "get there." I will never "be" like Michael Jordan unless my daily workout routine is like his. It's the same in our martial arts journey. We often see Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, as that little white haired man who moved like magic. We rarely are reminded of the younger Daito Ryu Akijujutsu-ka, at age 30, or even 50, who looked more like a pit bull than a humanitarian. There are many today who try to move like Bruce Lee, but few, if any, ever work out as hard or achieve his level of physical development. How them can they hope to move as he did, or be capable of the same feats? The same is true of any martial arts master and our desire to emulate them. Higaonna's, Oyama's or Nakamura's raw power. Shinyu Gushi's physique. Uehara Seikichi's health and longevity. We cannot simply copy the end product and have any realistic hope for success. We must, at least to some extent, follow in their footsteps from the beginning and do what they did to get where they were.

Does this mean that we re-invent the wheel, so to speak, as it pertains to our martial arts training? No, of course not. But in terms of physical attainment, physical effort is still required. There are no shortcuts to kicking faster. Practice is required. Powerful punching, speed, balance, coordination, and all other physical attributes applicable to our martial art come only from serious, continuous, arduous, assiduous practice.

Many of the masters we look to emulate are in the twilight of their journey, having already been through much before arriving where they now are. To attempt to be in the same place without traveling a similar journey is not possible. To further elaborate the example, the pioneers of old walked across the country. Today, we may ride a bus cross country, or drive, or even fly, which is by far the easiest method. I have driven cross country myself, which while harder than flying, is still easier than walking or even a bus ride. In each case, the same destination is arrived at, but with vastly different lessons learned from the journey. The more difficult journeys teach the most profound lessons. The patience learned, the knowledge of the countryside, the sense of achievement are different for each journey. I am certain from my own experience and reading of the pioneers that they were far more patient, long-suffering, tough, etc. as a result of their experiences than my cushy life will ever lead me to be.

Now we don't have to relive every lesson, of course. If I'd had to walk across the country to college, I'd have never gotten there. Similarly, we should learn to build on the lessons of the past without having to repeat them. That is why we read about them and hopefully learn to appreciate the lessons without personally reliving the experience. Still, this is not entirely possible without some degree of personal experience to relate to those written lessons. Doing a 20-mile hike and 2-week canoe trips in Boy Scouts went a long way toward my understanding of the pioneers that reading alone would never have provided. No steel can be hardened without the refiner's fire.

Nor are the lessons purely physical. Choki Motobu, rough as he was in his youth, learned to mellow as he grew in experience. Musashi Miyamoto went through similar epiphany with the help of a priest friend. They learned through their own hard experiences the concepts of courtesy and development of character their teacher's were attempting to teach them, and which many point to as the key lessons of karate training.

I think this is where we transition to the next concept. Exactly how do we appreciate the experiences of the past and learn these lessons without really duplicating the experiences ourselves? That is, how do we learn the hard life lessons without living the hard life experiences? I submit that these lessons of courtesy and character, often pointed out as the real goal of our martial training, can only be gained if our training is based in the reality of violence, as passed down to us by those who on occasion had to live it - thus the word "martial." If from time to time karate's effectiveness must be used to quell the violent nature of others, does that diminish or enhance the lessons we espouse?

As I mentioned previously, the 20 mile hike, though small compared to a pioneer's cross country trek, helped me appreciate the pioneer experience? So what then do we substitute for the hard, fighting life of the past masters so that we don't have to be 80 years old by the time we mellow in character, if we even survive that long?

The answer, I believe, lies simply in the training. "Michi wa shugyo desu" - The path is hard training. We must engage in austere training, preferably daily, but at least regularly with the occasional gasshuku (Spirited training session, usually outdoors) thrown in to test our mettle. There is no substitute for facing one's self through hard won sweat and seriously focused training. The focus of our training is based in the realization of the hard path followed by the past masters.

I would submit, in conclusion, that while we do not wish to willfully subject ourselves to the hardships of the pioneers of our art, that without them, the lessons of character we purport to teach would not have been present in the art at all. Possessing power and not using it is true greatness. Not possessing the power in the first place is merely weakness. While we should not seek violence in any form, it is the capacity of returning violence to those who would inflict it on us that defines our magnanimity and courtesy as karateka. When someone avoids a fight because he cannot fight, he is acting selfishly to preserve himself, and cannot really be considered magnanimous. When someone capable of inflicting serious harm refuses to fight, he is displaying the height of magnanimity, humanity, and consideration for those around him. This is how we emulate the masters of old.

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