Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Commonality of Training

When I first started training, many years ago, the first belt I wore was a white belt.

It signified that I was a beginner, that I had just started my journey. Now many years later and still on the path of my own training and now responsible for the training of others, I can see the factors that tie us all together.

One of the things I learned early on was not to focus on belts or rank. This did not mean you did not respect those higher ranked than you, but rather that ranks were not the goal, nor should they be. I can't say I fully understood the words of wisdom that were being shared with me at the time by several black belts. I, like so many others had gotten caught up in rank fever.

It's a condition usually prevalent in the beginning ranks and children who train. What occurs is that the journey is lost and the student becomes fixated on what rank they are and how rapidly they can advance to the next rank. Left unchecked, the student loses sight that training is not about rank and more about the journey itself.

After a few years of this I finally came to the realization that it is not about the rank or belt or stripe, but rather being the best rank I was at the moment. Let me pause here for a moment. This doesn't mean you shouldn't strive to reach the higher ranks, what it means is being fully present right where you are, the advancement, belts, stripes etc. will come of their own accord if you are diligent and practice being present right where you are.

So what are the commonalities? We all start as beginners. All of us have at one point, been beginners. More importantly, those of us with a few years under our belts would do well to keep the beginner mindset to prevent the onset of ego. After all, what does a belt mean anyway? All it means is that you have been training for X amount of time and that you should know Y material. That is all it means, at its essence. Character or level of maturity is not indicated by the belt around your waist, for those to be seen or experienced you must go beyond the belt to the person wearing the belt.

There are no extraordinary powers conferred upon you when you don a black belt much to the surprise of the many students who achieve shodan (Shodan literally means "beginning degree" and is the subject for another post) each year. What you do discover upon reaching black belt or any of the senior ranks is that now you have a responsibility towards those who are on the path after you. Rather than lord it over your juniors, your purpose is to serve them in any way that you can, not the other way around. Unfortunately there are training halls where this relationship is skewed and the meaning lost. In a school devoid of ego this will never be cause for concern, since the seniors will remember that they too were white belts or beginners and empathize with what the white belts are going through.

The other major commonality is that we are all human beneath our gi. We may have some differences in the way we train, but we all sweat, train, and bleed on the dojo floor together. We all have setbacks and successes on our path of training. The important thing to remember is that we are not the first to go through this, and more importantly that we are not the last.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What is Budo Karate?

Budo is a compound of the root bu meaning war or martial and do meaning path or way. Specifically, do comes from the sanskrit word marga (meaning the path to enlightenment) The term refers to the concept of creating propositions, subjecting them to philosophical examination and then following a "path" to realize them. Do signifies a way of life. Do in the Japanese context, is an experiential term, experiential in the sense that practice (the way of life) is the norm to verify the validity of the discipline cultivated through a specific art form. Within modern budo (Gendai budo) there exists no external enemy, only the enemy within, our own ego which must be fought. Bujutsu, very similar to Budo is a compound of bu and jutsu. Budo is translated as the way of war or "martial way" while bujutsu can be translated as the science of war or "martial craft." Budo and bujutsu have a subtle difference. Bujutsu focuses on the physical aspect of fighting (what is the best way to defeat an opponent), while budo gives attention to the mind and how one should perfect oneself.

According to karate master Gogen Yamaguchi:
Budo did not originate in a peaceful atmosphere. In was necessary to protect one's life at the time, and to learn how to use Budo as a weapon and achieve one's responsibility as a warrior. It was the warriors duty to develop spirit. It was necessary to obtain technique to protect oneself, and one had to have a strong spirit to correspond to that.

Mas Oyama was quoted as saying:
Karate is the most Zen like of all the Martial arts. It has abandoned the sword. This means that it transcends the idea of winning and losing to become a way of thinking and living for the sake of other people. Its meanings therefore, reach the profoundest levels of human thought. For a long time I have emphasized that karate is Budo, and if the Budo is removed from karate, it is nothing more than sport karate, show karate or even fashion karate-the idea of training merely to be fashionable. Karate that has discarded budo has no substance. It is nothing more than a barbaric method of fighting or a promotional tool for the purpose of profit. No matter how popular it becomes, it is meaningless.

So what is Budo Karate?
For me Budo karate is karate that has cast off the focus on the superficial, to go deeper into the character of the practitioner. It is karate that cultivates spirit and a strength of being that overcomes all obstacles, in and out of the dojo. It means training as if your life depended on it. Let me reiterate and clarify. Training as if your life depended on it does not mean you can quit because you are tired, or bored or even exhausted. It doesn't mean that you need to spice up the routine because it's so drab and can use some much needed flair. It means having an intensity to your way of training and life. It means honoring your commitments (and your word) in and out of the dojo. Budo karate is a way of life that demands your all when you are on the floor, and proposes that you live your life fully present in every moment.

Budo Karate is not romanticized and in fact is not what may be considered attractive. It requires you to delve in deep and face yourself, your fears, your insecurities,and your inadequacies, and to continue to reach for perfection despite it all. It means tears and doubt, with the certainty that if you continue, you will be transformed. It means being on the path of the mountain realizing that you will never reach the summit. Budo Karate is not for everyone, many are content with a martial art that does not go deep into the character of the practitioner, and that's fine also.

On a another level and in the context of when karate started, Budo (and Budo karate), usually meant life and death confrontations. Not many of us train as if our lives depended on it. In many minds, training in a dojo is no different from going to the gym. There is however a vast difference. The training in a gym while it may transform your body, usually has little or no impact on your character and way of being. The transformation that occurs in a dojo, happens because the circumstances are vastly different. You are confronted with yourself, your ego and you can not run from it.

Training this way (as if your life depended on it) adds another dimension to what may be an otherwise regular training session. When this mindset is in place, we are fully present in the moment, appreciating everything we can do and have. Nothing is wasted and our desire to learn and grow increases. The maxim "Train as if it is your last day" applies here. It directly translates to how we live our lives. If we regarded each day as if it were our last, it would radically alter how we spent our days, and what activities we deemed" important" or relevant.

Budo karate is a rare occurrence and many schools do not advocate this kind of training because it is not mainstream and does not appeal to the general populace. When it does it exist, it is something to be appreciated and continued.

We should all strive to live our days as if it were our last one.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Martial Art or Martial Way?

I have been asked on several occasions what kind of Martial Art do we study? For some reason the question has always made me pause, not because I don't study a martial art (as loosely defined by society) but because I have never equivocated my training with an art. I have never viewed myself as a martial artist but rather a follower of a Way. I have always felt that the term martial artist lends itself to open interpretations and falls victim to what most people perceive to be the disciplines practiced by those of us that have chosen to practice or follow the path of martial ways. These opinions are usually fuelled (erroneously) by the media and the entertainment industry.

Many reading this may feel it is a matter of semantics, and I have found in my own personal experience that unless a person is actively pursuing a discipline, all of them get lumped together under an umbrella of "it's just kicking and punching - so it must all be the same."

So what is a martial art ? The term martial art is used to loosely describe the many combative systems and sports that exist here in the West. If we examine them closely however, we will discover that they are not all truly martial in nature or arts for that matter. The literal sense of the term martial, implies that it must have a military application, and historically many of the combative systems that exist today have their roots in systems that were used in military settings.

The same can be said for those systems that were developed by the "civilian" populace (like Karate) and many of the combative systems were employed in military and paramilitary settings. For this reason I think the literal definition is too limiting. In fact many of the "civil" arts are part of the curricula for the military forces today.

The real difference is found when a combative system makes the transition to combat sport. I find that one of the stark contrasts is that within the realm of "sport" there are rules and a framework to contain those rules. What may work on the tournament/arena floor, can be completely ineffective in an actual combat situation. The danger then becomes a false feeling of preparedness. A sport practitioner may feel they are practicing a martial art but they may be mistaken. It is certainly not a martial way, but if that isn't, then what is?

In order to shed some light on this term (martial way) we need to go to the Japanese terms of bugei and bujutsu - both which mean literally "martial art" and the term budo (martial way). Where a practitioner of a bujutsu system is focused on learning how to prevail and succeed in combat, a budo practitioner has embarked on a system of physical, mental and spiritual discipline to in order to perfect his character and self. This is not to say the bujutsu systems do not require physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, but it is not their focus. Several of my instructors and Sensei have taught me that to achieve the "do" you have to enter through the "jutsu". Which means that while a system or art may be effective as a fighting system it needs to have the components both jutsu and do to be effective. Too much in either direction can lead to imbalance.

So which should you pursue? Only you can answer that question. Yes I know I sound very much like those teachers who answer a question with a question. The truth of the matter is that we each come to the Martial Arts for unique reasons, be it confidence, discipline, learning to fight etc. I can only say that personally for me the Martial Way is a way a living. Which is why I say, when asked, that I practice Budo or budo karate (which is a subject for another post).

What I do and I hope encourage my students to do, is live in way that reflects a life of discipline and pursuit of excellence not just in the dojo or training hall but in life. My training is not just something I "do" on certain days of the week. It is not interchangeable with other activities, because its a way of living, not an activity I just engage in. It means sacrifice at times, hard work and perseverance.

So distilled to its essence, a martial art is something you endeavour to do and become proficient at, while a martial way is a method of living. They are not mutually exclusive although at times it may seem to be the case. In fact, they are and can be two halves of a whole. Strive to maintain balance in the do or Tao (from the Chinese) and the jutsu.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Power of Sharing

Space, the final frontier...even for those of us that are not Star Trek fans will recognize those words. Back in 1966 there was a show that was ahead of its time. Many of us were children and even more of us were not even born. This show despite its themes, developed a following. When it was threatened with cancellation in its second season (it only had three seasons), it was the power of sharing (through a massive letter writing campaign, today it would be through blogs and email) that brought it back for a third. Had it not been for this power of sharing we may never have heard of this show that has become a part of our culture and has generated numerous spin offs and several feature films, cementing for all time the original cast members in the annals of television history. So why am I sharing this with you? There are many times that we fail to realize the power we possess when we share. Those of us who have worked with sales or in sales realize the power of referral, but what does it mean really, the referral? Isn't it just another form of sharing? You were pleased with a product or service that you just had to tell your friends or family, in essence you had to share. We have all been to a fantastic restaurant, the service was amazing, the ambiance perfect, the meals succulent. Our experience was so incredible that we rave about it to our friends, family, and even strangers that may ask us about a good place to eat.
On a deeper level we share ourselves with our families, children, and spouses. By sharing ourselves we impart those people in our lives a glimpse of who we really are. We make ourselves vulnerable, but we also form strong bonds, we become a community.
When we decided to start a martial art school, it wasn't on a whim. The reason was because I had and have Sensei who have shared themselves with me. With that sharing came a responsibility to pass on the knowledge that was given to me. Within their sharing was an implicit message: "To keep what I am sharing with you, to yourself, is being stingy and selfish. Find a way to share what I am sharing with you."
Amazingly, we have a habit of being stingy and selfish, especially with ourselves. We don't celebrate our accomplishments with those closest to us, we don't let others acknowledge us, many times we don't accept that we have transformed, in many cases drastically and positively.
So what should we do? If you have something positive and good in your life, share it with others.
I recently had a parent tell me about how great their children are doing in the school, naturally I was pleased. In fact in many cases I'm just as pleased as the parents because, like I tell all the parents, once your children join our school, they are my children too. In my discussion with these parents an interesting comment was made. They were so excited about our school they told me they were "preaching" to everyone about us. After giving it some thought, I realized this is what we do when we have something good (or bad) in our life, we preach to others about our experiences. In other words we share.
I also realized something else, almost everyone in our school has done the same, shared about us to someone else. It's a telling indicator, that when we have something positive in our life and we are not sharing it with others, then we are veering into being selfish. You will find that if you are being selfish in one area of your life, it impacts other areas. At its core this selfishness creates an state of scarcity that can influence every aspect of your life.
So how to correct this state? Share. Share of yourself, share those things that are positive in your life. Share with everyone, those close to you and strangers as well. When you share this way you will find that people will be just as willing to share and give of themselves to you.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Walking in Alignment

What does it mean to walk in alignment? If you have ever attempted to bring to fruition any project great or small, you need someone to walk in alignment with you. Whether it be something small (pass the sugar?) or something large ( lets transform the world we live in), in each case alignment is called for.
One very vivid example for me is kumite, or what we call free sparring. Even though my intent is to hit my opponent and my opponent is trying to do the same, in the larger scheme of what is happening we are in alignment. Some have equivocated fighting to a type of dance, and in many cases it is. You read your opponent, the subtle moves, the shifts and move accordingly. You step when they step, shift when they do. Block, parry, evade, strike or take down are all part of a greater whole.

So how do I bring this into my life? Especially if I'm not a fighter or don't practice a martial art?
Even the act of being in a relationship is an example of alignment, both people agreed at some point to be with each other, to grow in love, to make themselves open and vulnerable so that love can grow. When you are in alignment, your thoughts are rarely about "me" or "us" but they have a tendency to be in the frame and context of "what does he want/need or what does she want/need?"
Being in alignment has you see yourself in relation to a greater whole and so you don't have an overinflated view of yourself, you stop being so significant and you become relevant. The needs of others become paramount because, you realize that as those needs are met, yours are met as well, after all, being in alignment precludes connection. Which means that as you progress further and further along this path of alignment you realize that we are all connected and that no one persons needs are more important than any others, rather that all are equally important and pressing.

The inverse is also true, when we are out of alignment is when we are the most petty, egocentric, and selfish. We trample the feelings of others with no regard, because in our view those feelings cant be as deep or as heartfelt as our own. If you look at the majority of arguments great and small, they stem from some moment of discord that has at its roots,being misaligned.

Harmony, peace, tranquility all arise from being aligned, as does power, velocity and strength. I strive to be aligned to the people in my life constantly. It is not always easy, and many times I fail. The important thing is that I realize when I am not aligned and rectify it as soon as I am able to. When I do, my day, my life shifts and my perspective does as well.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Be Like Bamboo- Flexible in the midst of stress

I have taken up running as of late. This is not to say that I didn't run before, but unlike my running in the past, the running I am now undertaking has a certain sense of purpose to it. Inevitably at some point in my running, I encounter the moment that I feel every runner has faced. The moment when you hear that voice that says, maybe you should stop now, this is too difficult, why are you doing this? More on this later.

In our classes which, thanks to a very hot summer have an added challenge since several of the senior students don't endorse running the air conditioner (much to the dismay of the junior adult students) it can be very easy to give up. It gets very hot very quickly and we train hard. What to do? Aside from the expected ( hydrating and stretching) what we need to do is be flexible and adapt, like the bamboo we can bend but not snap. There are many occasions in our lives when we are faced with situations that threaten to push us to the snapping point. What we must strive to do is bend with these situations, while keeping our centers and our senses of humor.
If we are to be like bamboo, we must be versatile. We must learn to adapt quickly and thrive in any type of situation. Bamboo is capable of growing 24 inches in one day depending on soil and climate. This makes it one of the fastest, if not the fastest growing woody plant. In terms of versatility, bamboo is a food source, used in construction, has medicinal properties, and is used in the textile industry. Musical instruments are made from it, and water can be desalinated with it.

We are taught in martial arts that force meeting force is not the ideal situation, but rather blending or creating an opening is what we should aim for. Being like bamboo is very much like this. When a stronger opposing force presses down on the plant it yields, and in so doing preserves its integrity. By bending with the wind or the storm it can weather these rough moments, to emerge whole and stronger afterwards. We would do well to take this lesson from bamboo, when a stronger force confronts us, do not meet it headlong, find a way to bend and overcome. By so doing you to will emerge whole and stronger.

Getting back to the running and that little voice that says you should quit. Barring any real injury ( I dont think performing any activity while injured is healthy), you need to evaluate where that voice is coming from and why. Is it an attachment we are dealing with? A perspective that is skewed? When you can ascertain why, then you can deal with the source of the voice or attitude that threatens to undermine you. Once the source is dealt with you can truly be like that plant that can weather typhoons and hurricanes and still remain standing.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Being Unreasonable

We live in what is considered an age of reason. When things are spiraling out of control we want to get a handle on the chaos, we want things to be manageable, reasonable. When we feel a person is acting extreme we request that they listen to reason or be reasonable. I would like to propose a different definition for "being reasonable" today.
When we say "be reasonable" or I should "be reasonable". What we are saying is that a behavior should exist that is acceptable to ourselves or to society as a whole.
So what does it mean to be unreasonable? In the context of our training it means not accepting any excuse we may come up with not to train. It means being committed to our training and our health and well being. It means taking a stand for ourselves and honoring our word. There are many times that I may feel like not training, then I remind myself that this is not about how I feel, but what my stand, my commitment and what my word is. I made a commitment to my health than an integral part of that is training. If I am committed to teaching karate to everyone who desires to learn then I must be unreasonable in my stand. It means being unwavering in the face of criticism, reversals and difficult times. Many times it means standing alone. It is most certainly an issue of integrity, first and foremost with oneself and just as important with those that count on you being your stand.

So lets bring being unreasonable to the context of the world so we can better grasp this concept. A few examples of unreasonable people:
Martin Luther King
Mother Teresa
Wangari Maathai
John F Kennedy
Barack Obama
This list is by no means extensive.
What all these people mentioned above have in common is that they took a stand and were unreasonable in upholding that stand. They made a commitment and honored it, for some the cost was their lives. This is what it means to be unreasonable. It is realizing and committing to something larger than ourselves, larger than our life and giving it our all.

The next time you have to train, the next time you can make a difference, understand that we are all connected and that our actions, like the pebble tossed in the pond, ripple outward and touch many others, many of whom we will never meet. Do not shirk from your commitments, but rather embrace them, expand your life to encompass them. You will never be disappointed if you do this.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Promotion-What does it mean?

Last Sunday we had our first belt promotion in our new location. As it usually is with these kinds of events, most of the people participating are filled with nervousness and uncertainty. They don't know what to expect or what will occur. Even though I informed them many times that there will be no surprises and the material that will be covered in the promotion will be the same they have been going over for months, some part of our being human dreads the unknown. Within the context of a martial art, a promotion takes on a slightly different context than say, in the corporate world. Within a martial art, a promotion signifies that you have a working knowledge of a certain body of material. Your new belt or rank means that you are in essence, starting over again. This can be a frustrating concept for some students, who upon reaching a new level of study suddenly feel overwhelmed by a large amount of new material to learn.

The definition I found that most fits this concept of promotion is : Encouragement of the progress, growth, or acceptance of something; furtherance.

Within our school, a promotion is not only a factor of time but also of ability. I was never an advocate of the policy that if a student has been studying for an X amount of time that they should automatically be promoted.

That being said, I am immensely proud of the students that did go for promotion this past weekend. They each performed to the best of their ability and exemplified what it means to have a strong spirit.

Perfection is not a quality that is ever sought at a promotion, in fact in a martial art perfection is never attainable. What is sought over the long term(usually defined by many years of study) is mastery. Mastery means that a person has attained a high level of skill in an endeavor, in this case a martial art.

In a promotion what we do in our school, and in most schools, is create a situation of pressure and stress and then request that you perform what you know. Because this situation is not the norm, what is being tested is not only your physical skill, but also your ability to deal and cope with mental pressure.

I recall quite vividly during one of my promotions where I forgot a move in one my katas. It was the reinforced block in Pinan (Heian) five. Somehow I kept ending the kata before all the students performing the kata with me and I was so exhausted that I could not see that I was missing the block. Add to that the fact that we started the kata in a different area of the dojo(which, of course was intentional) and my mental state was completely out of sync.

I share this to illustrate that this does and can occur to anyone. The important thing is not to allow yourself to remain in that state but to continue with your training realizing that the concept of ren ma ( diligent practice) is applicable to us all no matter the rank.

It's often been said that the martial arts is like a mountain with a summit that is obscured. No matter how high you climb, you never reach the "top". I have found this to be true in my training. Every time you learn something, a technique or kata, you find that you still have so much more to learn, that there is still more of the mountain to climb.

It is an honor to have a new group of students who are just beginning to ascend the mountain into what I hope is a lifelong journey.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kagami Biraki-The Start of the New Year

At the beginning of every year, many dojos celebrate a ceremony to start the year with a new spirit and intense energy. This is usually a ceremony to introduce the year with a spirit of camaraderie and unity. The class is usually very difficult and full of kiais ( shouts) with many basic techniques. In most traditional dojos preparation for the new year's season begins as in most households. Toward the end of the year dojos are cleaned, repairs made, mirrors shined and everything made tidy. In Japan many dojos retain the tradition of a purification ceremony. Salt is thrown throughout the dojo, as salt is a traditional symbol of purity (goodness and virtue), and then brushed away with pine boughs.

For martial arts students today, however, the New Year's celebration of Kigami Biraki does not carry religious significance. It does, however, continue the old samurai tradition of kicking off the new year. It is also a time when the participants join together and rededicate their spirit, effort and discipline toward goals, such as training.

Many of us start off the new year with a slew of resolutions, only to have forgotten them in a months time. Because of the nature of training, meaning that the journey is what is paramount not the destination, the significance of Kagami Biraki lies in the fact that we take each year as a another part of our personal journey towards perfection of self. For us as practitioners of a martial art it is a time to renovate, reflect, and recommit ourselves to the training we have dedicated ourselves to.

It is not just a physical act of intense training, but also one of profound contemplation. It is my heartfelt desire that this year all of my students surpass the goals they have set for themselves.

Wishing all a New Year full of possibility and adventure,

Sensei Orlando

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body