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Karate: An Antidote to Modernism

By Jeff Brooks

The practice of any traditional art is largely a process of negation. This is the source of the power of these arts. It is why they continue to exist, providing a source of nourishment and fulfillment for generation after generation.

This fact is sometimes very hard to grasp because it contradicts our modern attitude. In modern life we learn to regard innovation and accumulation as inherently good. They are not. Contemporary art and pop culture, for example, often mock kindness, commend cruelty, and, fixed on souls in torment, spread misery.

As we accumulate wealth and gain access to increasingly sophisticated technological tools, our lives are occupied more and more by the unintended negative consequences of their use. For example: sitting in traffic for hours in big, fast cars. Spending billions on the drugs and medical procedures required to remedy sickness caused by overeating, inactivity, and smoking.

In traditional arts we find an antidote to the dangerous, mistaken assumptions that we modern people take for granted. In traditional practice instead of setting our hearts on innovation and accumulation, we master a body of knowledge handed down and use it, as a whetstone, to polish our bodies and minds. We wear down the imperfections in our bodies and fix the distortions in our minds. We get rid of the bad habits and junk that stands in the way of our freedom of movement, freedom to think, and freedom to live. This is true in the process of learning any traditional art, whether it be music, painting, martial arts, scholarship, hand crafts, and so on.

In karate, our kata -- pre-arranged movement sequences -- often require us to move in a way that is unfamiliar. In attempting to do what the kata is asking us to do, we learn something new. This is the first stage of learning kata. The new techniques we learn form a coherent basis for action. This first step is called learning the embusen or movement sequence.

The next step is called "ren ma" in Japanese. The words ren ma describe the pounding and polishing process used to make a metal sword strong and resilient. Through pounding and polishing - the high heat and pressure of training alternating with cooling and rest, with consistent repetition of technique over years - the skills of the practitioner develop. Without that intensity of practice the person's skills will remain shallow. They will look crude to a trained eye, and when tested in a moment of crisis, they will prove weak.

During the ren ma practice period, over a course of years or decades, we dissolve the limitations in our bodies' structure, and remove those in our character as well. Defects in our habits of movement or in our habits of mind are revealed. A skilled and motivated practitioner can detect them and fix them, and continue to wear away at the resistance and imperfection, the subtle gaps between will, mind and body that hamper freedom of action. It may seem strange to us, with our modern assumptions, that the result of such intensive self-discipline is freedom. But it is nevertheless true. No amount of free play, free-kumite, finger painting, or "self-expression" can lead to the same result. No pilot, surgeon, concert pianist would just go for it, and believe they could successfully practice their craft without many years of arduous, and often non-entertaining, practice.

After decades of dedicated practice we may leave ren ma behind. This stage might be called mastery. Although it is rarely achieved it forms an ideal which we can pursue, attain sporadically at first, and then deepen through our practice, for a lifetime.

Sad to say, in many dojos, especially for children but for adults as well, the objective of martial arts training is entertainment. The students are rewarded with empty ranks and praise, and an atmosphere of amusement exists, guided moment to moment by impulse rather than a vision of what a human being can be. Kids come for a month or two, play, get ten patches, a tangerine belt, a silk jacket, learn a different animal move every week, and next season it’s on to the next thing. This is not the worst thing in the world. It can be cute. But the children will walk away with nothing of value, and when they come across a genuine opportunity to train in a way that demands something of them they turn away. Because of their past experience they become cynical about the training process and the motives of the participants. They grow up accustomed only to stimulation and amusement. When I visit friends around the country and I see what goes on in their kids' martial arts places, and they tell me about the hundreds of dollars a month they have to spend on all sorts of extras, they ask me: Is this right? Is this what martial arts is supposed to be about?

In a traditional approach to karate there is a set curriculum. People are introduced to certain techniques and certain kata at each stage of their progress. For a while accumulation of new knowledge is emphasized. However, if their attachment to accumulation is not set aside, ironic as it may seem, the practitioner will not get any better. Their minds will never quiet down enough to find peace, enough to tune in to the students, training partners or opponents they face. Their body will fail to develop deep muscle memory, fail to connect with the mind and the will. They will fail to achieve deep skill, the capacity for spontaneous action and self-command. They will become arrogant, insecure and brittle.

I often practice one kata for an hour or more at a time. I have focused on one kata for a decade. It is not entertaining, but it is not boring, either. That is because my intention is engaged when I practice: I am seeking some results from my practice, and I am pouring my heart into achieving it. If I was distracted by having to come up with new things to work on all the time, or if I was locked into rigid assumptions about my practice and was afraid to discover new things, I would accomplish nothing substantial. It is liberating to be able to just train - freely, without the encumbrance of stray thought, or uncertain movement.

In karate it is this kind of deep, austere training that allows an understanding of the deeper levels of the art: of tuite (grappling), kyshojutsu (point strikes), atifa (power transmission) and dynamic tai sabaki (body shifting). This high level of sophistication in the use of the body is very rare to find, and very valuable. And it’s fun. It also forms the heart of kata practice. With all the insights, all the discoveries, all the connections, all the ways in which kata come to life, it is not a matter of "innovations." It is a matter of dissolving the obstructions to understanding in the transformative heat of practice.

At advanced ranks we don't stop. We continue working on deepening our skill, and mastering our body and mind. This comes more from a process of dropping off than from adding on. It is not helpful for a teacher to go into a class and spend most of the time on new things. Strange as it may sound, this deprives the students (especially those practicing in their first ten or twenty years) of the ability to go deep. It takes away their chances really to command their bodies and let their analytical thinking processes settle down. It takes patience on the part of the instructor to keep it simple. And it takes faith in what our traditions have given us.

I have had the good fortune of seeing traditional martial arts seriously practiced on my visits to Okinawa, in the US and elsewhere. When I first encountered these masterful practitioners I found the serenity and torrential vigor of their practice more completely to represent my ideal of human possibility than anything I had ever seen. I saw the rigor of the way of life of those practitioners as being a wonderfully disciplined release from the chaotic dissipation, waste and sensual overload of the world of modern cultural values and the tyranny of technology.

Martial arts can be taken up and practiced seriously by people of all ages and from all walks of life. Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of generations of people, practicing sincerely and sharing their knowledge and their lives in an unbroken chain down to this time and place, we have a wonderful opportunity to do it. Because of those great teachers and practitioners, we have a chance to live fulfilled and worthy human lives. It is a rare and valuable opportunity. We have a responsibility to be humble and relentless in practice.

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About the Author:

Jeffrey M. Brooks holds a Go Dan Fifth Degree Black Belt in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, training in Okinawa, Japan and the USA. He is a practitioner in the Soto Zen tradition. He has an M.F.A. from NYU Film School and works as a speechwriter for public figures. He is founder and director of Northampton Karate in Northampton, Massachusetts, offering classes daily for adults and children since 1988. Through Northampton Zendo he leads meditation programs for the members of the karate dojo, the community, as well as special programs for prison inmates and youthful offenders. ( Brooks is a regular contributor to including a column entitled “Zen Mirror.”

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Zen and the martial arts, Karate, embusen, ren ma

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