Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Being a Black Belt


When I awoke in my bed in Charles house the first thing I did, was look under my pillow to find my new black belt awarded by the IKC under Lewis Sensei. It was still there, so I guess it had happened.


I was still a black belt and I would have to discover what that meant.


You realize nobody really wanted you to be a black belt, now did anyone want you to remain a black belt, you were on your own about that.


In a short time I attended my first karate tournament as a black belt, it was the Coal Kick-In held in Tamaqua. (in the Pa. region it was the annual first tournament with the approach of spring. A very small town in the Poconos, drawing many competitors from across the region all if them itching to get back into competition.


Having competed as a brown belt, I did know a few of the other competitors there. I competed in Kata, Kobudo and Kumite that day, at least I got through them at least, after all I now was a black belt. But Charles was involved with his church, and I was there, but on my own. And as it turns out for my Kumite I drew Sam Shepard.


Sam was an extremely strong competitor. Ranked the no. 10 heavyweight in the new PKA heavyweight division, but who also competed amatur, semi-pre as well as PKA, to keep busy I am sure. I would later realize because of my size I would normally draw the larger and much younger  black belts for my first fight when I fought. Competitors were most often paired off by size in the first fight of a division then.


I had read about Sam in the karate magazines. For one thing I knew one of my seniors, a very solid competitor in his own right, defeated him one time, of course in their fight Sam made a mistake, his jumping spinning back kick was off a tad, he connected to my senior’s neck as I recall, that ko’d him, and as head contact was not allowed, cause he was named the winner.


That was going through my head while I was standing there waiting to fight.

Later friends told me before I fought, I was growing pale white, whiter by the minute. But when called I was ready for whatever.


Kumite skills were never my strongest suite, however, after years facing Charles repeatedly on the floor, I was ready to do whatever my best was.


Sam was a real gentleman, he would fight you exactly as you fought.


In reality I was no threat, so Sam fought my as a gentleman, facing me, defeating me with grace in his actions. Of course I did not win, but I did surive.


No question to me, I was a black belt, and I proved it was real to myself.


Life moved on.


And in too short a time, Charles returned to the USAF for a career, and I was very much on my own.


I was my Isshinryu. I was not told I needed other instruction or needed other loyalty tests to prove myself for anyone. In fact what I did understand was that a black belt did not day ‘I can’t’ rather ‘I will try, succeed or fail, but try again and again and again.’ That’s all.


Time passes and among what I learned were the following:


. Tournaments were not your art, but at my beginning time, they were also part of what I experienced. They were also not the full art by any means.


. Another thing I learned, is that what you see at a tournament that an individual does, tells you nothing about how they train or what their real art is. That is entirely something else. This would be learned over and over again.


To begin to understand any art, really would take spending a great deal of time with them on their school floor, discovering what their art was through sweat equity, and only then would you gain a glimmer about what was really happening there.


What you might see at a tournament was very much not the totality of their art.



.  There are many who will tell you what won’t work, but you really learn that all that matters is that you do. Among the things I have heard, and then didn’t pay any attention to, You can’t be serious karate is not about teaching young people (I heard that from many well intentioned people at that time.), You can’t be serious holding childrens tournaments.


In fact the more I heard well intentioned ‘You Can’t..” the more I just didn’t listen to them.


. My instructors knew I was on my own, the only thing they cared about was that I should do the very best karate that I could. No limits on what that should be. No one to tell my you can’t, or you can, so I just did.


. I never set out to learn kata, I went to tournament friends dojo simply to have someone to train with. But I never started out saying I can’t to myself, and whatever was being done, I tried to do and worked to remember what I saw. As time passed those experiences accumulated, some perhaps less than averate, some average some far beyond what I came to see as average. In the long run I can see you have figured out where I focused my time.


On the other hand at one time or another I probably learned over 150 kata and forms, learned, practiced repeatedly, and in time chose which ones I would retain, for myself of for my student subisidiary studies.


. There were two exceptions one was my personal interest in tai chi chaun, and the other was having been taught one of the Bando weapons forms, my senior Reese Rigby studied and used from Bando, I did wish to learn the other Bando form he studied, their use of the short stick. In time I would have the chance to do both.


In 1984 I did attend one of those summer Bando camps, and while there a Bando instructor had two of his brown belts take 2 hours to teach me their Hidden Stick form. That’s it 2 hours, then the rest was up to me to remember, practice, let it sink into me and keep after what it held for the next 40 years. I did that and it worked out for me and then my students. Much later I discovered YouTube videos of that form as done by Bando, I was very much in the same dimension for the most part. No that did not make me Bando, but it also showed what work and practice can accomplish. The limits to what you can do are only what you place on yourself.



. Tai Chi Chaun became an interest to me from studied on Chinese Daoism during my University days.


I was a new very green black belt when I say Ernest Rothrock was doing a demonstration for his school in Scranton Pa. I was interested and I went. During that demonstration, I saw him perform his Yang Tai Chi form, or perhaps part if it, that was the first time I have ever seen what I had read about. When the demonstration was over I went up to Ernest, introduced myself, and asked could I learn Tai Chi Chaun.


Personally I imagine he was amused that a karate guy was thinking that he could learn tai chi, but he accepted me as a student.


Then began private ½ hour lessons, that would last for 2 years until I completed what he was teaching. Among the practices, was the practice of tai chi push hands. I very much realize teaching me the first of many push hands drill was probably as exciting as doing push hands with a sack of wet cement, but he did teach me.


About 9 months into my study I approached Ernest before my class. I told him I was extremely unprepared at open karate tournaments when I had to judge Chinese stylists on occasion, I wondered if studying some Chinese forms would be useful to do a more honest job. He agreed it would provide some context for what I was seeing. Then he turned to a list of several hundred form on the wall behind his office, then those he was working on (his own studies in the Chinese Arts were deeper, way deeper than my own in karate by many magnitude, then and now.)


I told him I had no idea what those were and that he should decide for me. So he did, he looked at that list and pointed a finger at a form, telling me it would mean another ½ hour lesson a week for that additional study. I agreed.


I had no idea of what that form meant.  At that time his schools (there were 3 in that area), he had instructors for those schools, then rotated between them teaching too.


He selected a Northern Shaolin form, what I would later find out was what would be a black belt equivalent form for that style. Then class by class, week by week I slowly learned that form. And worked on it, eventually completing it after quite a while. Then the day came when I decided to compete with that form in a Chinese division at a tournament. When I decided to do so, he began a different level of training covering many small details to a higher level of execution. The day came when I competed. I did ok, and didn’t make any mistakes. I guess that day I was a Chinese competitor too.


After completing that form, I chose to continue other studies, to try and understand more. As time passed I experienced some Pai Lum, Northern Shaolin, Northern Mantis, Northern Eagle Claw and several weapons studies, All in addition to my Yang Tai Chi Chaun. I accomplished more than what I hoped for. That continued for a lifetime.


. At the same time that was taking place, as I had much free time on my hands, I was teaching my youth program at the Boys Club in Scranton, and also visiting many others to have people to train with. Never did my presence choose what was being taught in those classes. I simply paid attention always learning whatever I could.


. One of those I competed against was Tristan Sutrisno, who was competing as a Shotokan competitor, We became friends at tournaments, and talked with each other. He was extremely competitive in his efforts, often explosively so.


One day he invited me to visit his school in Hazelton Pa (an hour away from me. And on a dark cloudy night I did no. His school at that time was held in a small apartment within an apartment building. It did have a floor, never was anything else needed. I saw a karate taking place like nothing I had ever seen.

At one point he showed me a kata, teaching it to me. At another time his students were working an Aikdo drill using 8 different attackers, which also required the defender use 8 different aikido counters. After observing it for about 15 minutes Tristan turned to me and asked if I would like to try it. I did it, using those movements as they were doing. I believe Tristan did not expect that I could do that.


The next week I went back, Tristan asked me  to do the kata he had shown me the week before (when I returned home I checked out Ginchin Funakoshi’s Karate-Do Khoyan) noting the differences and then I practiced as I did). When I did the form I believe Tristan did not expect that I would do that, Whatever was going though his head about me, he decided I was someone he could share with. And that occurred. This time his family Shotokan tradition, his family Aikido tradition, and many other things including at times pieces of his families Tjimande tradition. That meeting  of minds lasted for 10 years.



.When I learned Isshinryu, that paradigm did not include the study of kata applications, nor did any of the karate programs I trained it include it as a part of their classes.  Then when I studied the Chinese arts, I was never a complete student of those studies. I did not do so to understand those movements application potentials.


I worked out what I believed could be the underlying principle behind application study, but I did not have a clear idea where to begin.


Then I found in Tristan Sutrisno his art was clearly based on ‘bunkai’ of his kata. Of course his use of that ter, was based a very unique paradigm for that term, including many subsidiary studies, especially at kyu rank preparing for the bunkai study to begin at dan rank. Structured to continue for a very long time..


Now I well understood the difference of being a direct student, what was possible to gain from a clinic, and what was possible to receive as a friend without many filters. But clinic and friendly even deep sharing was not close to being a student of an instructor.


What I did gain from his drills, learning some of his ‘bunkai’, from his Aikido, and from the tjimande that he shared, was an understanding how to move into the space around an attack, and then to insert your technique to allow that technique to in turn complete your defense.


Even when I had moved to Derry and was no longer close, I kept learning and of course practicing myself. Then in time I saw where to begin my own studies about where my Isshinryu application potential did lie.


Years later I was still working, no longer with Tristan, but taking what I had gained into my own study.


Then through fortunate happenstance, I met Sherman Harrill, who had been working diligently through the Isshinryu kata, movement by movement, application potential through application potential of Issshinryu, And he was very wiling to share this through is clinics. For the next decade I attended and assisted hosting clinic after clinic. He was providing a very advanced education for me, and I kept extensive notes. However, only when faced with his death did I pull everything together and discovered the reason it felt like a great deal was because he shared 800 applications and also underlying principles of what he saw in Isshinryu’s 8 kata, and I knew from what Sherman had said many times, those applications were only what he could share in open clinic with individuals who were not reallq experiencing training with him directly.


It was enough to move me forward into my own further study on application potental and in more time to study of application realization, yet another different, very different step.


Fortunately in time I then met John Kerker, his senior student, and discovered more about what Sherman did.


Truly learning never ends, Just leading to more experiences and more opportunity to continue learning.


. When I relocated to Derry, NH, I began my youth program anew through the Derry Boys and Girls Club. At that time I began to include mandatory subsidisary studies to my students studies. We were still studying Isshinryu, always my primary, but I was beginning to add things to enhance what my students must do,


The first additions to slow down beginners, making them take more time to learn before their Isshinryu studies, More time meaning they would have stronger technique and a better understanding of their karate to make their Isshinryu studies more meaningful.


Then with the passage of more time, as the adult group move faster, I began to add other subsidiary kata.


 First to honor those who had shared with me so my students could also gain from those sharings.


 Second to allow my students to have a grasp of those systems. I felt that would make them less apprehensive of others in those systems, and that would be good.


Third, expose them to challenging movements allowing them to increase their potential. Some of these forms certainly did that.


Fourth to give them a wide pool of attack to use in their study of Isshinry application potential. This was the most important thing for me.


Most of my work on application potential was on the Isshinryu kata potential, at times I would touch on that of these forms movements, but that was never the main purpose these studies were used for.


. I saw a different use for the Isshinru kobudo kata (bo, sai and tonfa), and I shifted them into dan study. Then in more time I came to realize those studies were most useful for long term value, becoming kata movement force enhancers, Especially valuable to face decline from aging, the decades of work developing movements use to a finer point.


I realized that kobudo was far less important for self defense in this world.

We already had a very useful study with the Bando Short Stick form we used. It could be used with anything held in you hands, including potential as empty hand possibilities. Meaning becoming able to use everday items, even ones that can pass through metal detectors unnoticed.


Of course this potential for the kobudo longterm study (over the decades) was more valuable than just using them against a kobudo attack.


. Another layer of study was that of methodology for developing the student, kyu and then dan. Being able to determine each ones potential and working with them to use that potential to become their reality.


The kyu instruction a vital but also beginning step. The longer term study developing dan potential. Truly much more important, not to diminish the kyu effort, because all dans begin there after all.


Being able to inspire the dan toward greater and greater knowledge. Yet understanding each dan was unique, with their own goals for their training, and that was their right too.


. Another layer, that of developing the Instructor. I used 15 years of continuous training as a starting point, allowing anyone so inclined to first really have time to develop themselves in the art. Then if so inclined (they have to have the desire after all), having them participate in a 5 year mentorship program, offering a different focus than just that of their training. Only then could they be ready to assume the instructor burden.


No one guiding these steps, No one verifying the would work, Each one requiring much sweat equity. Moving toward a different understanding.


Take one issue, there is a book that has proven popular, 5 Years on One Kata.

Often used as an example of some. Not bad or good as far as I go. Of course for me it might become 44 years on one kata. Seisan and perhaps a hundred uses for it’s first technique.


I have come to look at what karate might be in a different way. Let’s start with a simple diagram as from high school days. One showing  3 separate planes.



And for this discussion we will define those planes a follows:


X – Let this be the potential kata you might learn

Y – Let this be the potential applications for each of those kata movements

Z -  Let this represents your own potential movement development.


For the sake of discussion each line night stretch to infinity, we are not going to place limits as a starting point.


This can be useful to understand what a person works against.


And then have that diagram move forward in time, each representation becoming a new student to develop. Many, many different slices moving through time.


This is a very different way of looking at karate, and what any instructor is dealing with.


Perhaps they chose 3 kata, another choice 8 or 16 or 27 or more, unto infinity. As an instructor and as an individual you make the choices that seem most reasonable, choices as passed down to you, or at times choices made because you just did it. Choices.


I have not suggested a diagram showing the choices an instructor may address how to teach the earlier diagram, even one student. That would well be a very different sort of diagram. Perhaps a cloud of choices made at each point in time. That is a different sort of discussion.


What I am suggesting is this is a bit of what I see at this time.


All I am learning to do is keep becoming the black belt as best I can.


Leaning a bit along the way.

1 comment:

Victor Smith said...

Just a point on long term study of 150 kata, in those years I had literally unlimited time outside of work to train. Years later that became different. And I had to make choice which forms would remain, for I could no longer have the time to train that deeply. While I never looked for those forms, I also did not want to lose what I had learned. I remarked about the sadness I felt one day to Ernest Rothrock, who I knew far deeper in the Chinese Arts than my own karate studies.

His reply "That is natural as time passes, however what is more important, you never forget each lesson learned from learning each of those forms. You will retain the lessons and that you did it forever."