Archive for April, 2008

Calligraphy and Karate

April 25, 2008 2 comments

Hours scheduled to train: 9

Hours trained: 7

I’ve been reading a lot this month and not just the usual rote of karate blogs and sites but also collected essays and strange, archaic texts like the Hakagure. This is partly because I went on a spending spree in Kata Trading the other day and partly because frantic reading is my way of playing catch up for all the class I’ve missed.

Anyway, the books I’ve been reading these last few weeks have all be linked by what I thought was a strange common thread. Weirdly, each of them deals with calligraphy as an adjunct to martial arts training, which I found kind of strange.  I started to get the feeling that this wasn’t coincidence when I went on line to have a look at some of the calligraphy of Japan and found a large number of the finest pieces in museums today were produced by samurai.

So, curious about why those who had devoted their lives to combat would find so much value in an art form like calligraphy, I wandered down to the local art supply store to pick up a few rolls of cheap paper, some ink and a couple of brushes. Twenty five bucks later I went home to give calligraphy a try.

I should add here that the only instruction I’ve had in western-style painting took place perhaps twenty years ago, and the only instruction I had in eastern water colour painting was about ten years ago. Before embarking on my calligraphy exploration, I did about an hour or so of research which, in the end, was mostly looking at people in the midst of calligraphy and reading the wiki page.  So it’s a good thing my goal wasn’t to become a calligraphy master but to figure out how karate and calligraphy could possibly feed into one another.

The first thing I noticed that linked karate and calligraphy was the importance of stance. In order to do large pieces, I had to lie on the paper and position my body almost three-quarters prone in order to distribute my weight evenly and not wrinkle the paper I was writing on. The position I would have to be in so I could produce calligraphy (which, after tearing about four inches of paper with my elbow) was something I had never even thought about.   The three quarters prone position was one I wound up copying from a picture of an aged calligrapher online.  It was surprisingly comfortable, allowed good freedom of movement and left only a few crinkles in my paper.

As soon as I started to think of stance, I began to think of calligraphy in the same way I think of martial arts. That was when I started to notice other similarities between the two art forms. So this just in from the department of Tam Figuring Out What Everyone Else Knew: Calligraphy and karate have a whole lot in common. Wow

Calligraphy from the 19th century

To create a pleasing image, the calligrapher really cannot hesitate. They must be sure of the brush strokes they will make before they do them because to hesitate ruins the character they’re drawing; the paint pools and the paper warps. Any hesitation is starkly visible in the finished product. Equally, the calligrapher cannot doubt the character they are writing, the word that comes next or if they should have placed the brush down somewhere else. Once the ink is on the page, anything but a decisive stroke shows up as a blob or a streak and draws attention to the hesitation.

It’s amazing to see how an instant of doubt can destroy calligraphy just as doubt can scupper a technique. The thing about calligraphy is the practitioner can hold up the work and examine it to see their flaws rather like a sensei can see hesitation in a technique. Calligraphy is a sort of snapshot of the mind at a decisive moment. The more calm the mind, the more beautiful the image produced. Just as in karate a calm mind yields a beautiful technique, so too in calligraphy.

What seemed strange to me when I first encountered it, that karate and calligraphy should have a lot in common, now seems to make sense.  I don’t believe I have the time to devote energy to a serious study of calligraphy, but I think I have a better understanding of it now, and a greater appreciation of why the samurai found such an innocuous seeming practice such an important part of their martial education.

Categories: Drop in the Bucket


April 19, 2008 1 comment

Congratulations, Sensei Mitch!

Categories: 1

Tradition and Honor….

Without getting into the early origins of Karate…the Japanese art of Karate-do, “way of the empty hand” eventually developed into a hidden form of family defence. Those who taught it were quite selective about who they passed the art on to. Traditional values of respect, effort, patience, honesty, and discipline were considered the basic criteria for student selection with focus on building the body, mind and spirit. By the middle of the 20thcentury, this art had spread throughout America, bringing the benefits of karate-do training to our modern Western world, where it was popular despite sometimes being at odds with cultural norms of materialism, convenience, and tendencies to favor style over substance.

Nowadays, in most countries, karate is no longer required for day-to-day survival in a physical sense. In fact, it might be said that our karate training is used for a different sort of survival through improved health, focusing the mind, and strengthening the spirit. Traditional karate continued with a  focus on creating a healthy individual who is a strong member of family, community, and society.  Though Karate will change with the times by design, to keep it strong certain attributes and etiquette must be kept prominant in our training: 

Acceptance:    When someone is instructing you, you have the obligation to listen intently and just reply Hai…(In our dojo we say “Osu!” for just about everything, so feel free to use this as well!) This means you understand. (Or wakarimasen – I don’t understand…) Don’t offer excuses, or that’s not the way someone else teaches it etc. If you wish to question in further detail, do so after class.
Attitude:     Attitude is the key. Go in with open mind and absorb all that is good!
Concentration:    Keep your mind on what you are doing. We all make mistakes, but lets not make them because were not paying attention. 
Consistency:    Consistency should be your number one objective. Consistency will beat out talent every time. Be regular with your training schedule and your efforts will pay off in the long run.
Courage:    Remember that you do not have to train physically to learn. Just watching a class when you are not feeling 100% can be very beneficial. You will also be counted for full attendance just for showing-up!
Dojo:   The Dojo is your other home. It is a safe place you share with fellow students.. Treat it with the same respect you treat your own home.
Dojo Rules:    The rules of the Dojo are not just guidelines for the dojo. They can also teach you a valuable code to live by. Learn their meaning and try to live by them.
Gi:  Gis should be washed regularly and have only a few wrinkles (for your own benefit as well as others).
Instructor (Sensei):   The instructors job is to push the student to the maximum of his/her abilities. It is the students job to monitor their own health levels. It is never the goal to injure someone.
Intent:   Or no intent. If you punch someone in the nose, or break a rib, it doesn’t help to say, “I didn’t intend to do that, sorry.” No intent, was really a lack of attention. Stay focused!
Loyalty:  Your dojo and it’s affiliates can be considered your extended family. Loyalty to your family is as important as it gets. Treat your instructors as you would elder members of your family and the rest like your brothers and sisters.
Mokuso:   Meditate by clearing the mind of all outside thoughts in preparation for full concentration.
Obi:   The Obi (Belt) should always be treated with respect. While the color of the belt is not so important, the effort to gain the belt should be remembered and cherished!
Patience:   Have patience not only with others, but also with yourself. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes, so learn from it, and go on!
Pay back:   Not pay and go. As we progress in the martial arts, we gain the responsibility to give back that which we have learned!
Rank:   Does not confer privilege or power. It imposes responsibility!
Rei:   Bowing to show respect for the art, the dojo, the instructor, each other and for oneself. 

*When arriving late, (and after you are warm-25 to 30 push-ups and sit-ups usually do it!), kneel respectfully near the door. You are essentially uninvited until summoned to come in by the instructor!
Rudeness:    Pointing,  walking in front, wearing jewelry, talking/making noise when the instructor is speaking & yawning are all considered rude!
Seisan:   Usually a bow is given after being dismissed by Sensei to show respectful appreciation for the class and the instruction given.
Sempai:   It is the responsibility of the Sempai to lead. The responsibility of the Kohai, (Beginner and intermediate ranks), to appreciate the experience and knowledge being passed on! Dojo manners and traditions if not taught, cannot blame the Kohai for not observing. It is the responsibility of Sempai to be an example and educate!
:  Training at the Dojo is a gift we give to ourselves and should be considered a precious time to savor. Most times we might be mentally tired, but not physically spent. Push yourself. Deliver the body. Getting to the dojo is most times the hardest part of training. Once you miss, it is easier to miss the next time!
 – Original Body & Text accredited to Senpai Jackie Long of Genbu-Kai –

Categories: The Knowledge Pool


April 9, 2008 1 comment

Hours of training scheduled: 9
Hours of training attended: 4

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In my first column I believe I indicated some concern that my current training regime was intense and unlikely to last. I seem to recall mentioning that my training schedule is rather flexible and my training waxes and wanes according to factors sometimes entirely unrelated to martial arts.

This fortnight it’s been a cold that settled in my lungs and a book deal that have kept me away from the dojo (Incidentally, training hours scheduled for next fortnight: more than last fortnight. Number of hours spent sending e-mails and sitting in waiting rooms: Seven. Four and a half of which were contract negotiations conducted (at least partially) at my day job.) Of the four hours I did spend training the last two weeks, half were qi gong, half were Wa Ki Ryu. All of them were intensely yang and left me drained for days.

So when my MD suggested I get some extra rest and drop my classes for a week, it was something of a relief. It was nice to be able to settle down with a book I got from my sister, The Secrets of the Samurai – not just because it’s a good read but because it’s fantastically researched and all those footnotes just feed right in to more research.

I don’t often read books about martial arts because they tend to a) tell me stuff I all ready know and b) assume I’m a sixteen year old male. And, in all honesty, I’m pretty damn picky about my non fiction. I come from a background in Greek and Roman studies and if I open a non fiction book and don’t see footnotes, an index, a list of citations and further reading I’m unlikely to read the text. I want my non fiction to be heavily researched, carefully written and I want to be able to verify all the claims myself (I never actually do, it’s just the principle of the thing).

Anyway, Secrets of the Samurai is fan-freakin-tastic. I’m sure it isn’t the only scholarly work on fighting arts in Japan from the fifth century to the Meiji period, but it’s the only one I’ve found that satisfies my pickiness. It’s loaded with primary source texts (mostly from the Meiji period. Who knew the samurai liked to write so much?) in translation and has a special section on weapons and styles that reads like an expanded glossary.

If I had to place this book somewhere, I’d put it in Top Five Martial Arts books. It certainly falls into the Books that Have Changed My Training category where it and The Martial Arts (the textual equivalent of the fantastic documentary Budo) vie for first place. The book transformed my constant dismissal of in-class history lessons into active curiosity about why we tell the stories we do, how much truth is in them and where they originated (and who thought them up).

In fact, Secrets of the Samurai was the first book to make me realize that some of the history we learn in class is myth, and is not mistaken fact. The myths we tell were created to serve a purpose, nurtured, and still exist, so their purpose must still be vital. And, it was the first book to show me that, by training, I was connecting myself to a long line of students, a line that stretches continuously from master to master, through style, through time, back to the fifth century and probably earlier. And that’s just amazing. Makes my skin goosebumpy every time I think about it.

I couldn’t argue that the book is flawless. It was written in the eighties so as an up-to-date overview of the theory and history of the fighting arts in Japan, it’s perhaps not so great, but for the average armchair scholar there are enough footnotes to have you cross referencing all night when you’re at home, coughing up a lung and skipping class. And if there’s a blog reader out there who is a footnote-chasing cross-referencer, I’d be happy to lend you the book. But borrow it when you’re sick because once you get into it, you’re going to miss some class. Trust me on this.

Categories: Drop in the Bucket