Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Forging the Black Belt

Each of us is on an individual journey as a martial artist, discovering who we are and what our art personal art is. My first 5 years I was training exclusively in Isshinryu. Long intense training. I had reached black belt, started teaching my own youth program. Personally experienced another art, but too soon I was also on my own. I knew I needed more.
Obtaining a black belt is really the first step of an individual journey. Remaining a black belt the next 5 years is the real test.
I was and am married, but as my wife was working through the YMCA, primarily as a swimming coach, which meant very early morning workouts, evenings coaching and working at the Y, and frequent weekend travel to swimming meets. I had a great deal of time that I was on my own, and no family responsibilities in Scranton, either.
Being on my own, except for the youth program I had begun teaching, I realized how much not having others to work with was making my karate suffer. So I began to compete regionally to push my self. In time I made friends with the other competitors and received invitations to train with them.
I began training with a local group of Kempo Goju stylists, having people to spar with.
Then I saw a local Kung Fu school was having a demonstration. I went mostly because I wanted to see tai chi in action. I had read a deal about that art, but had never seen it. What I saw intrigued me, and I approached the school owner, Ernest Rothrock, about the possibility of having lessons. He agreed to a ½ hour lesson per week. And I continued that for the next two years, learning the Yang Long Fist system.  I discovered quickly that having a black belt in karate did not mean there was an advantage in tai chi study. I am sure I was about as much fun as pushing around a bag of wet cement. But I did not stop, and in time learned something new.
I am sure most people would find that enough, but I still had free time, and my journeys’ continued. I wanted more experience sparring, so I visited other dojo, And guess what, at none of them did I get a chance to spar, but I went to train and joined in with whatever they were doing.
A form of Goshin Jutsu, a school of Shorin ryu, one of the schools connected with Hidy Ochai and Washin ryu. And there were other programs like Jim Martin’s program. I rotated my time between them. On Saturdays I would visit 2 or 3 programs.
Those experiences were different, but I attempted to learn whatever they shared.
About 9 months into 1980 I approached Ernie Rothrock and asked him if I could study some Chinese forms. As I was judging some Chinese stylists at tournaments, I thought I could be a better judge if I tried to learn some, knowing more about what they were doing. As Ernie knew me somewhat at that point, he asked me what I wanted to learn. Then he pointed to a list behind himself. It contained several hundred form names that he had studied at that point in time. I told him I had no idea what I should learn. So he selected a Northern Shaolin black belt level form. So for an additional ½ hour a week I was learning that too.
That might not seem like much, but that was plenty for me. That was a long form, took me 9 month to get it. I think he was having fun with me, the form I studied were not what his students studied. Perhaps so see what I could get. I didn’t stop. Not realizing or accepting I could not do it. A black belt can’t say I can’t. They may not be able to do, but they try.
And I kept going to tournaments and competing with my Isshinryu. Charles had taught me what he knew, and I diligently practiced it continually 3 or 4 days a week.

Then I would make trips driving 5 hours to Salisbury to train, then get back in the car and drive 5 hours back to Scranton to make work. If possible I would also visit Dover and train with Reese Rigby.
No all programs are not created equal, but I am not going to talk about that, I still got something from each place I trained.


Finally I took up the invitation of a fellow competitor, Tris Sutrisno, and went to visit him. It was a hard workout, but he challenged me and shared the 5 Heian kata with me. I drove home and that night pulled out the Funakoshi Karate Do Koyan. And observed where his versions were different. As I had previously studied them in Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan it was just a matter of adjusting to his variations.


The next week I went back and did them for him. No, nothing perfect, but I did them. Then he has his group doing an aikido drill which were 8 movements. After watching them for 15 minutes, he asked me if I would like to try it. I did it. Which I guess impressed him, then more followed. And I kept training there, though it was a good hour from my house.


Now, the thing is I was experiencing all of these things at almost the same time. And all I was trying to do was have people to work out with. I wasn’t trying to gain other systems. But I never assumed that I could not do anything, just kept trying..
In my ongoing studies in tai chi and kung fu, I completed the Northern Shaolin form study, Then I was interested in Chinese sweeps like iron broom, and Ernie took me into a Pai Lum Leopard form. In the long run those sweeps were beyond me, better suited to someone younger and thinner, But still I learned something. Then he gave a clinic ona  Northern Preying Mantis form. I learned it and worked on it, it was interesting. Eventually other studies followed. He gained permission to teach me Northern Eagle Claw, a very long form. And I studied that.
Many other studies followed, I was getting what I wanted some knowledge about how movement in the Chinese systems should be done.
Not so much focused on the applications, but some of them went along for the ride.
As Ernie and I became friends, instruction took another level than just forms study. He would often ask me leading questions, ones he could have shown me answers to in seconds, but he never did that. Rather I would spend much time trying to answer why that was in karate to explain my thinking to him. That more than anything helped me grow into what I was seeing and practicing. It was a very old method of instruction.
Eventually I found an answer to one of those questions, I had been attending a midnight showing of Gorky Park, the movie. I worked out what any karate technique should be seen as, Of course I called him a 2am where he was living in Pittsburgh and gave him my answer. It was the least I could do, considering.
My Saturday mornings visiting Carl Long and his teachings from the Shimabuku Ezio lineage of Shorin Ryu were also productive, We compared Seisan, Chinto and Kusanku kata in their different perspectives, Shorin to Isshin. I saw him teaching Annaku one day, and picked it up. Eventually 5 years later incorporating it into my students studies as a tribute to Carl. Likewise there were many drills I saw that were also interesting. Carl was very skilled, later he would become a proponent of Japanese sword and other arts. Training in Japan.

Training with Tris Sutrisno was also very interesting. I was seeing drills unlike any I experienced anyplace else. He also was using terminology that was different from what I had seen anyplace else. Before the magazines began using the term ‘bunkai’ he was using the term. Of course the paradigm in which he use it was quite different from how others began to use it. So before the term came into use, I was being shown his family use of the term. BTW it was painful and direct. I never felt the term as it was used by others would become ‘Bunkai’ to me. Then one day he began a series of very painful technique series. He called what he was doing as Holy Hands or tuite. The next week we were at George Dillman’s together, competing once again. Now I was a nobody there, but a 2nd dan, but Tris was a regional champion. I recall George coming up to him talking about Oyata Sensei who was coming in for a clinic, and how Tris could learn tuite from him. This was also before Oyata Sensei became a magazine fixture, and when Dillman Sensei first met him.
Many of the drills and lessons I received years later became staples in my program, of course after I had worked on them myself for years. They were different, such as Indonesian methods for walking in a forest. Or the use of pain to make technique series work. I was keeping extensive notes on what I was learning. Most of them one time lessons for me, as I was not able to attend every class.
And there were the forms. Nijushino, Gojushiho, tjimande Matjan Tildur, Bassai Dai and Sho, Weapon studies in Bo (3 kata of the O Sensei no Kon series), Kama (2 kata of the Chosen No Kama series), Tanto drills and a kata and more. At times the advanced versions or corrections came years later.
From my varied studies, I had come to realize many times I would only have one chance to acquire the lessons. I worked on ways to remember them more clearly in the future.
The foremost was never ending practice. Each morning after my 5 am run, I would be on the sidewalk outside my house, practicing them over and over.
Depending on the day of the week, it varied what art I was practicing. Some of the lessons and trainings were long ones, at times one time practices. A student and very good friend attended Ithica University. While there she took advantage of a good Goju program they had, and worked he way through Goju studies. One day I visited her program, that time the instructor spent the time with me, sharing his Seiunchin, and Saifa with me. Later, on another visit, he spent all his time sharing 4 other kata with me. It helped me understand Goju better for a long time, and would amaze Goju friends that I could do their kata. Not that I was a Goju expert, just knew more than a novice too.
Then there were the tournaments. Mainly I competed with Isshinryu forms, often Chinto kata, and Bo Shi Shi no Kon no Dai. But I did use the Bando staff form and that worked well for me. Both Ernie and Tris gave me advice on the form. Then I competed in Chinese divisions with The Northern Shaolin form amd shotokan divisions with Nijushiho.I stopped fighting when I realized I had no one to train with and all the guy I was fighting were 10 years younger than I was. That was a very had adjustment, but I came to the realization I was just spending money to let younger guy’s beat on me. I competed and I judged, always pushing myself forward.



I had an idea for youth only tournaments. Ones where the kids would not be lost among the adults. We ran 3 and they were very successful. Only charging $5.00 to compete and any profit going to the Boys Club.


Then one summer in 1983 I attended the Bando Summer Camp. Mr. Lewis got me the invitation as he was friends with the camp organizers. Most notably while there I learned a version of the Bamdo Short Stick form, probably one of the most valuable things I ever learned.


This captures the broad outlines of what I experienced, but there is far more detail during those times that I can relate here.


Then time progressed as it does, and I had to move for a new job. The time passed into my memory.


As I look back on that time, I am amazed that I did that. But I did.

I learned a great deal, for one thing I learned how little I knew.

Having those experiences if anything, made me more determined to learn more about my Isshinryu and make the training I would offer, even better for my students. I had to end my program in Scranton, but I intended to continue it in Derry.


Charles James said...

Nice article ...

Charles James said...

As an aside from the article, thought you might find the following of interest:

Isshin Shuchu [一心集中]

The characters/ideograms mean, “One Heart/Mind/Spirit Concentration.” The first character means, ‘one,” the second character means, “heart; mind; spirit,” the third character means, “gather; meet; congregate; swarm; flock,” the fourth character means, “in; inside; middle; mean; center.”