Wednesday, April 2, 2014


I need to go back to school.  Not school in the physical sense.  School in the physical sense is about paying a tuition, sitting down, listening.  But, having been to university, I can surely attest to the fact that going to school physically doesn't count for much.  As Coolio said, "If knowledge is power and power is knowledge, how come so many idiots keep graduating from colleges?"  The answer is that putting your ass in the seat is key, but it isn't anything if your heart and mind are elsewhere.

I haven't been a student in the general sense in a long time.  Of course, I am a lifelong student of karate.  But you get the piece of paper: black belt certificate, high school diploma, college degree...and it is very easy to put the spirit of study; the spirit of being hungry, growing, learning and preparing for the next test that awaits, in your rearview.  You hold that paper and all of a sudden - the lessons are over, you know what you need to, you don't have to stay hungry or grow or prepare for the next test.  Except, of course...nothing could be farther from the truth.  A life without hunger, testing oneself, growth - such a life isn't even worth living.  You get tested in video games, you get tested in sports, you get tested by friends at school, and you get tested by life without realizing it.  Your heart pumps and you either rise to the occasion or you falter.  But either way, its much more interesting than the 9 to 5 that is everyday the same.  We ask ourselves what we're missing - why life seemed so much more satisfying when we were younger.  Was it freedom, time, lack of responsibility?  I don't think it was any of those things.  I think it was the knowledge that we hadn't peaked - that we were still on an upward trajectory, that we were still defying gravity and mortality - that tomorrow we'd be even smarter and taller and faster and stronger than we were yesterday.

This process is called living.  Being tested and believing that tomorrow you'll be a little higher up the mountain than you are today - even if you mess up or fail or embarrass yourself - is what made it so much fun.  That is the essence of joie vivre and we forget this when we satisfy ourselves that our formal learning is at an end.  We forget because we convince ourselves, no matter how little, that it is all downhill from here.

So it occurs to me that I haven't graduated the way that my black belt diploma or the University of Toronto would indicate.  I have graduated at all.  I have still higher yet to climb and my best days are not behind me.  I want to be a student of human nature.  I want to be a student of strength training.  I want to be a student of flexibility training.  I want to be a student of massage.  I want to be a student of basketball.  I want to be a student of the Japanese language and shodo.  I want to be a student of Iaido and Kendo.  I want to be a student of Brazillian Jiujitsu.  I want to be a student of swimming and running.  I want to be a student of my love, Sheba.

I'm going back to school in the most important place of all: my heart.  That will make sure that I sit my ass down in the seats that I need to.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


I've thought of the 'why' for sometime and dismissed the question consciously because I'd made peace with it. But only after reading this post from Mr. Miller, did I feel a need to articulate it.  People ruminate about the physical and temporal costs of training - I see a post like this on blogs about once a month. I have always framed it in another light: As low as the possibility of violence is for all of us in the developed world, and as high as the rigors of training might be, the physical and emotional costs of peril and violence can be enormous even if it happens once. Training - both physical and technical - is just like buying insurance for your business or saving for the future: just because you might never need that money doesn't mean you shouldn't have it. Having that extra money gives you peace of mind that is disproportionate to the amount of money that you saved. That peace of mind informs dozens of decisions that have nothing to do with the actual investment. There is a tangible value in that. In the same way, training and thinking about minimizing physical risk and danger synergizes with other aspects of your life to make that physical and temporal investment pay dividends in visible and invisible ways.

In short, how much time and money would you invest in becoming a better person, a tougher person?  A person less likely to be confronted, a person less likely to be attacked or victimized?  To do things out of love is a great motivation.  But love can't be the only basis upon which you do things.  There are plenty of things that we don't particularly love or enjoy - like saving money - that we should do and plenty of things that certain people love that they shouldn't do.  Smokers love to smoke - just because they love it doesn't mean they should do it.  I feel as though martiality and thinking about violence, confrontation, conflict are one of those things that we should do and learn regardless of our attitude towards it.  By framing it merely in subjective terms of love, fun and enjoyment, I feel it kind of reduces the endevour to something that is arbitrary and banal - like any other hobby that people delight in.  We should reach for a deeper motivation - a more profound calling to this pursuit. Protecting yourself - being a strong creature worthy of respect from others, a natural deterrent to violence - this isn't something to pursue just because its fun or because you enjoy it.  This is a quality that all humans should build within.  We should teach it to little boys and little girls - little boys should grow up knowing that if they try to hurt a girl, the average girl knows how to hurt boys.  We shouldn't live in a world where everyone can be made a victim.  We should live in a world where people operate with open eyes, know how to protect themselves physically, mentally, spiritually, and prepare for the future.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Essential Reading list

I've been doing more reading than writing and its time to rectify that.  Today is the start of a series of ten posts and reviews for the most essential texts on Karate that I have come across.  These books are treasures to me.  I recently moved in with the love of my life and she asked me when we were moving what was the most important things to take with me.  And I looked at my little room, my little bed, my phone and laptop, my shoes, my clothes.  My black belt.  And then my eyes floated up to my bookshelf - to the top shelf.  These are the books on my top shelf.  They are what I would save from my room if it were engulfed in flames.  Were it not for these words and ideas I would be a very different person, a lesser person.  I hope that my enthusiasm in presenting them will encourage you to look for them yourself.  And while I may rank them, they are, in my humble opinion, all essential reading for the true deshi - the true karateka.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Longevity in the Arts

Coach Scully discusses the reality of training and the mindset of acquiring longevity.  High quality thinking and explanation, easily applicable to any martial art.

How to Train BJJ and Grappling for a Long Time - Grapplers Guide Soapbox - YouTube: ""

'via Blog this'

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: Shotokan Secret by Bruce Clayton

I read this a few months back and wanted to put my summary thoughts into the same place.


Clayton makes a lucid argument that a lot of modern karate's development occurred in the lifetime of Sokon Matsumura and that most of what we know as karate was created by Okinawan nobility (Shuri-te) for the purpose of protecting the king, not by farmers or laborers (Naha-te and Tomari-te).  This lines up with Kenei Mabuni's sentiment that Shuri-te is the true root of karate, despite his father's inclusion of Naha-te kata in the Shito-Ryu. He also adds a lot of context to the idea of "village-te" by pointing out that the area between Shuri Castle, Naha harbour and the village of Tomari could all fit into Central park in Manhattan - suggesting that it would have been mostly impossible for a Tomari-te or Naha-te to develop in isolation (everyone knew everyone else).  Finally he gives a great historical sketch of the difficulties faced by Okinawa being caught between China and Japan with the periodic influx of rowdy foreign ships using the undefended port of Naha whenever it was conveneint - which was of course punishable by death under the Tokugawa shogunate - all while the Okinawans were more or less, weaponless.

However by saying that Shuri is true karate, that most of karate is the work of Matsumura and Itosu and that Shotokan is the true lineage of karate, he manages to completely takes for granted the hundreds of years where indigenous fighting arts would have been developing in Okinawa.  "Okinawa-te" or "Ti' was a combination of native fighting methods and Kung Fu that had been coming to the island for centuries.  He dismisses the hundreds of years when these arts would have been exposed to Okinawans - both the nobility and the commoners - and then says that Shuri-te is somehow a purer form of karate which by extension makes Shotokan the purest modern style.  All things that he can't possibly know.  And all things that, even if they were true, never made any karateka safer or better - an empty comparative exercise.  He uses imprecise terms like "linear karate" to describe Shuri-te, calling it a revolution, as if no one punched in straight lines before Matsumara. He takes the expression 'Ikken hissatsu' in its utmost literal sense - one strike, one kill - as if it is commonly held that these men often killed people with one punch - and says that it is what sets Shotokan karate above and beyond other styles.  I'm really curious if Clayton possesses the ability to kill me with one punch.  Unnecessary conjecture on almost every page.  He makes contradictory statements - at one point he says that Ikken hissatsu has nothing to do with vital points, only to later reverse his statement; at another he says that sabaki and footwork was a problem that linear karate solved, later he says that sabaki is good.

Incredibly, a book that was badly in need of an editor, in fact had 5 editors. Removed of its bias, it could have been a classic for all karateka, despite its focus on Shotokan.  In the end it just descends into a thinly veiled apology for Shotokan practice, while subtly diminishing most of the other lineages of karate and most of the other martial arts generally - but IN THE SAME BREATH claims that most of the virtues of Shotokan karate are actually hidden!?!  Which is childish, unhelpful and false.  Haven't martial artists gotten to the point where we can all agree that people make a style what it is, not vice versa?  That the "best" style practiced lazily, badly, without direction or introspection, will produce a weak person and poor karate?   That there are no 'secrets' that can't be determined on your own through hard, honest training?  Matsumura wasn't a great karateka because he killed people with one punch (which, by the way, he didn't) or punched in straight lines.  He was great because he'd mastered a discipline and that discipline allowed him to subdue an attacker.  It is likely that his mastery would have involved finding a proper balance between advancing AND withdrawing, punching and blocking, moving in straight lines and flanking, strengthening body and mind.  Then he passed it along.  

Clayton is like the person who looks through a pinhole to try and appreciate the night sky or as Bruce Lee said "focuses on the finger that points at a star, while missing all the heavenly glory".  Karate isn't good or effective because of one or two arbitrary things - pulling our fist to our hip or punching in a straight line.  It is good and effective because karateka work long and hard to make it good and effective.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Kuro Obi

So I don't forget...

カナダ 千唐 流
和 忍
心 技 体

Ka-na-da Chi-tou-ryu
Wa Nin
Shin Gi Tai
Tsutomereba Kanarazu Tassu

Canada Chito-ryu
Peace and perserverance
Mind technique body
Endeavour ceaselessly to succeed

Friday, March 29, 2013


Kenji Ushiro uses a word that I have yet to hear any really notable martial artist use.  The word is verification.  He uses it often and precisely.  Kata is practice.  What it teaches must be verified in bunkai and kumite.

I raise this issue because I was watching a very precise and technically marvelous kata presentation by the Japanese female champion, Rika Usami:

To which I commented in the comments section below:

Her kata is sharp and decisive. But it seems that a lot of people forget that the point of the kata is the bunkai. Her kata is validated only when she can do what she has practiced so often against a person trying to strike her. It seems a strange thing to try to judge a kata without judging whether it actually enables her to be effective. That's point of practicing it.

A user, Ivan Carvalho, made this response:

your argumet is fail because in a competition you don't have do see the bunkai. they know the kata she is doing. she not create new one. and is individual she must be avaliaded by the kata himself not for the bunkai. sorry for my english

Ivan, don't worry.  I'm sure I speak your first language worse than you speak english.  And beyond that, he's right.  My argument is flawed.  The purpose of Ms. Usami's kata is not to verify what she knows.  It is to show the technical brilliance necessary under a specific set of guidelines in order to win at a kata competition.  Ivan rightly points out that no one expects her to demonstrate the bunkai and beyond that the bunkai are known - she isn't trying to educate anyone.

I suppose that I take issue with the premise of kata competition itself.  The premise is that if Ms. Usami's kata follows the evaluative criteria of the judges better than another competitors then her kata is "better" and she should win.  But what does "better" mean in this case?  Does it mean that she should be better able to defend herself?  Attack someone?  Would she be able to defeat her fellow competitors if they were to attack her?

It should be clear that though she may demonstrate magnificent body control alone, that doesn't automatically mean that it will translate protecting her against true attack.  I also think it should be clear (though obviously it is not) that the translation part is the most important thing of all.  That translating your individual practice into functional technique against an attacker is the point of practicing alone.

Too much of karate today is this broken, dissassembled practice where everything is disconnected and addressed in separate boxes.  Kata has nothing to do with kumite, kihon nothing to do with bunkai.  Goshin has nothing to do with sport, Wado has nothing to do with Shito, etc.  Instead there must be reassembly, unity.  The parts must be unified.  Kata should tie together with bunkai.  They must verify one another and show that you are making progress.

Instead, kata competition today is a lot like bodybuilding competitions.  Bodybuilders look very strong.  But it is all appearance.  If they were really strong, they would be able to compete in strongman competitions, actually lifting weights rather than appearing to be able to lift weights.  They would lift weights as they struck their poses. If they were really functional, then the finest athletes in the world would look like bodybuilders.  But neither is true.  Kata is not meant to be merely the appearance of having control or focus.  It is supposed to be practice of control and focus that gives you control and focus for when it is not practice.  But to praise a kata "performance" without determining whether it actually allows one to perform when it counts - how is that different from marveling at the size of a muscle without finding out how much it can lift?