budo

A martial arts teacher helps another teacher with her sword technique.

After a certain number of years in karate-do, I sometimes imagine that nothing can surprise me. However, when a friend related a conversation he’d had while attending an open clinic presented by a visiting instructor, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

My friend was introduced to some karateka who let him know very quickly that they were “seniors,” highly positioned instructors in their organization. As the seminar began, he noticed immediately that these people didn’t participate in the warm-up session or the training that followed. Instead, they stood at the front of the room and watched. During a break, my friend approached one of them and asked if he would join the training later on.

“I don’t train anymore,” the fellow told him, apparently surprised at the suggestion. “I’m a senior instructor. I don’t train anymore. I just teach.”

I tend to be cynical, being accustomed to stories of “10th-degree black belts” not old enough to remember the first Bush administration and of masters too deadly to practice their techniques in the vicinity of mortals. But the notion of anyone reaching a level at which no further training is necessary rendered me speechless.

Gichin Funakoshi demonstrates a punch on his training partner. Gichin Funakoshi (right)

The idea of graduating beyond practice in karate or any of Japan’s budo — including the tea ceremony and flower arranging — is preposterous. Try saying, “I’ve perfected my marriage to such a degree that I no longer need to be married,” without getting laughed out of the conversation.

Building, refining and keeping a marriage strong and healthy is a lifelong process. You don’t graduate from a marriage academy and become free of involvement. No, you must continue working, learning and contributing to the relationship until you or your spouse dies or you end the contract.

Let’s be absolutely clear: You don’t graduate from karate-do. There’s no summit, no peak to reach and say, “I’ve climbed to the top; there’s no place higher for me to go.”

Instead, karate-do is like slowly working your way up a hill. It’s not steep or treacherous, but it’s intimidating if you’ve never climbed before. You approach the top, proud of your accomplishment, only to see three or four larger hills facing you, each of which must be climbed.

When you ascend the first peak, it affords you a view of a half-dozen even higher peaks. The second reveals a vista of other peaks that are more like mountains. Each time you tackle a new climb, you’re rewarded the same way: another landscape with more mountains. Seeing them, you can’t imagine having the time, energy or resources in one lifetime to conquer even a fraction of the peaks you glimpse.

For some, this description seems familiar, even exciting and challenging. That karate-do offers such varied and profound vistas and destinations is a powerful attraction for them. For others, the view from the top of that first little hill is intimidating. Something within them, a tiny voice from the depths of their ego, urges them to turn away from the hills and mountains and proclaim, “I’ve reached the top!” and believe it.

They spend the rest of their lives not conquering new summits but marching around the crest of that first little hill, reliving that accomplishment and pretending that higher elevations don’t exist.

This is the only explanation I can find for people who believe they no longer need training. How else can they sit comfortably and shout instructions to those below while ignoring their own journey? True, they can help others climb to their level, but no higher. Those who have climbed higher and encounter such people realize instantly that they’re deluding themselves and possibly others.

Click here for more information on this online kobudo course from Fumio Demura and Black Belt.

The great joy and wonderful benefit of following a way like karate is in the process. That’s a big reason it’s called a martial way. It’s a path, not a destination. There are endless destinations along the way, and some of us will reach more of them than others. In the end, what matters is not how many summits we climb but the process of climbing.

Of course, there may be cases in which physical limitations mean a karateka can no longer be active. If one of my karate teachers was confined to a wheelchair or had to walk with a cane, I’d still seek his teaching and guidance.

In his final years, Gichin Funakoshi had to be carried up the stairs to get to the dojo where he taught. I suspect that even then, he was struggling, climbing new peaks in his art that we may never know. That is what is so terribly sad about the attitude of those “senior instructors.” A much older karate teacher once told me, “By the time I got old enough to know how I was supposed to do it, I was too old to do it.”

The notion of embarking on an endless journey — to a place where dimensions and boundaries are impossible to measure — can be daunting. That’s what we sign up for when we begin to follow the path of karate-do. An “instructor” who thinks otherwise will never be my teacher.

Dave Lowry is a freelance writer who’s trained extensively in the Japanese and Okinawan arts. He started writing Black Belt’s Karate Way in 1986.

Subscribe to Black Belt here. Your support ensures that we can continue to give you free access to articles like this.