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Shu..But only for a Time

Is truth still relevant? Does it matter?

I am not referring to telling the truth, I am talking about authenticity, about integrity in people and things. The people part I am not going to address because authenticity in a person is difficult to determine and I don’t typically try.

But what about truth, integrity, and authenticity in things and in concepts. Is this even a conversation we can have in terms of our Karate training?

Perhaps we need to.

I have been dismayed lately as I watch some of the fundamental parts of our society, parts of our heritage, have its legitimacy stripped away due to such things as ‘advancements’ in technology. Photography is a good example.

I have pictures that I cherish. Pictures like my late Dad and me on the Salmon River fishing, posing with our catch and smiling. It’s a paper photo, not edited or adjusted or ‘enhanced’ in any way. The picture is a near-perfect replication of the way it was that day: a little overcast, we looked sunburnt but as happy as a father and son could be. If I look closely, I can see a small reflection of the river in dad’s glasses. He’s holding his fishing rod in one hand, and I can make out his Blue Charm fly that he was so enamored with. I can believe this picture to be true because it was taken at a time when altering or editing it would have been very difficult.

Of course, nothing is a perfect reflection of history, but this picture is close. It has integrity and I knew it to be in its original form.

In our Karate experience is there anything original? Should we care if there is? Do evolutionary changes mean Karate is no longer authentic? Or should we be more concerned that Karate has a truth for us, individually?

In my day job I am referred to as a Senior Government Business Analyst. In essence, I help departments and divisions figure out what solutions are out there to make their work more efficient and progressive, saving them time and energy. This scene is changing rapidly due to AI (Artificial Intelligence), the biggest imposter society has ever seen. This poses the fundamental question of whether we are ok with a machine owning, processing, and delivering elements of our work and our leisure. The answer to this is that it has already been laid out for us. AI has incorporated every aspect of our lives: proposing what we should watch and buy; writing our articles, songs, and essays; checking our heart rate and blood pressure; to name a few.

In a similar way, is something (a ‘style,’ Dojo, or organization) or someone (a Sensei or instructor) still owning your Karate? I know that in my history of training, I have seen practitioners got stuck (and are still stuck) on the Shu aspect of Shuhari. As you know, Shu is the “Follow the rules” and “copy” stage in Martial Arts training.

I am not judging or condemning here, I am simply stating a fact. In the Shu stage of practicing Karate, a person follows the Sensei, copies all of their movements and tries to mimic them, sometimes in every way. At this point Karate truth isn’t your own, it’s the actuality of your teacher, and that’s ok…for a time.

This period of Shu is meant to be a step in the Karate journey, and never moving past it means that the authenticity of your Karate resides with someone else. There is an infinite and perpetual reinforcement of their methods, idea, and philosophies. This is exactly as it should be - for a few years, even. Some say this should continue into the early Dan grades. I don’t think there is a cutoff, but I do believe that to ‘make Karate’ your own, one must evolve.

This is a tricky stage. At what point do you know its ok to press on and paint Karate with your own brush? At the level of Sandan? After thirty years pof training? I dont' know the answer to that, but I do know it is necessary for your own Karate journey as well as for Karate to progress. If our own Sensei and teachers hadn't been progressive, we'd still be doing waza like mawashi geri in a manner that tourques our joints.

The Ha stage of Shuhari is the ‘break the rules stage,’ or ‘testing for yourself.’ This stage is where I believe Karate becomes more authentic in its meaning to your own self.  After receiving my Sandan rank, some of the Sensei and colleagues I train with started reminding me to start to own my Karate: “Find a tempo in Kata that is your own!” “In your own practice, use the technique in a way that makes sense to you.” “If you want to try that with a tate zuki as opposed to a choku zuki, try it and see how it feels.” Hanshi Don Owens tells me he doesn’t want me to be a carbon-copy of him. Yes, I will teach what he has taught me, but I will do it in my own way, emphasizing what parts I see as most important to me – my truth.

Of course, moving past Shu does not mean breaking the link to your own Sensei and teachers. No matter where we are in the Karate timeline, we still need mentors and those who guide us and help us navigate the intiricasoes of our amazing Art. Becoming an island as a Sensei is like saying, "Ok, I know it all now!"

Sensei Brian Power (Right) with Avi Rokah Sensei, his two bothers, and a friend, at a recent instructors treaining session

Another aspect to consider here is that becoming an exact copy of your Sensei probably isn’t realistic anyway. Sensei Brian Power has taught me a ton on concepts such as pressure, distance, timing, dead time, and kumite, but try as I might, I am not going to become him.  He has internalized and refined Kata like Unsu, and Kumite, to a level that is formidable. His Unsu ebbs and flows with precision, and his Kumite shows his years of competition fighting at an elite level. 

That’s not me. I don’t have that adeptness or experience. So, I need to take bits of what he is teaching me and add them to my Karate training, adjust and adapt them to fit my truth.

As a caveat here, I am not saying that finding your own authenticity means recreating aspects of Karate or changing it dramatically. In fact, what that would do is chip away at the authenticity of Karate.  But, karate will never become better if we don’t add our idiosyncrasies and time-tested philosophies to it.

We are no longer using wooden wheels on our modes of transportation for a reason. Along the way, someone agreed that the wheel was ingenious, but it could be given attributes that made it an even greater invention. You can change the properties of a thing without losing its originality and reason for being.

Figuring out my own reality in the Karate world has been influenced and impacted by injuries, teachers and teachings of the past, current Sensei, considerations for where I want to take my Karate, and what I see as must-haves benefits for me. Perhaps our Karate training needs a long-term plan.

I’ll conclude with an example. Hidetaka Nishiyama Sensei was a student (for a period of time) under Gichin Funakoshi, the father of Shotokan. Nishiyama Sensei went on to refine Karate and to give it new life and practical functionality. Karate needed Funakoshi, but it also needed Nishiyama.

I think we’re all appreciative that he didn’t get stuck in the Shu stage of his journey.


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