A few months ago, my son pointed out some peers who were pretending to be him and his girlfriend online. The stuff being said in a chat room under his name was disgusting. My son just kind of rolled his eyes and noted that anyone who knew him knew he wouldn’t post some of the things being said. “I would hope you wouldn’t type those kinds of things” I noted. His response was very interesting. He said, “I wouldn’t, but I’m talking about how they tried to prove they were me. They said, ‘I take karate.’ I would never say that. Karate is not something I ‘take,’ it’s part of who I am.”
A rather bold statement by karate master, Hohan Soken, jumped to mind. In a famous interview conducted by Ernest Estrada (no relation to Ponch from CHiPs), Hohan Soken observed:
I found that there were two kinds of students – one was a dedicated and motivated student who wants to learn the Okinawan martial arts. The other is an individual who only wants to say he is learning karate. There are more of the latter. It is the latter that you see everywhere. They say that they “know” karate or that they “use to” practice karate – these are worthless individuals.
It is not far of a stretch to view Soken Sensei as differentiating between those who study and internalize the way of karate (i.e., karate-do) versus those who “take” karate. I would suggest, however, that in some circumstances a student may begin by “taking” karate only to one day find him or herself on the path of karate-do. I certainly would not posit that karate-do is the only path to positive character development, but I would vigorously defend the position that it is an effective one.
Mahatma Gandhi once said:
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
And this is the train of thought I had this morning on the way to work — the birth of tonight’s blog topic. Yu, depicted in kanji above, means courage or bravery (not exactly the same concept, but will be treated as such here). It is one of the seven virtues of Bushido – the Samurai Code of Honor.
I usually arrive at our dojo a little early on adult training nights and watch the end of the youth class. At the end of the class, there is a bowing out ceremony where students stand at attention while our Sensei makes reminder announcements. Students then kneel, bow, thank our Sensei for his instruction, and then stand to bow and say goodbye for the evening. If you find yourself on the dojo floor at the time of the youth bowing out ceremony, you participate but from the back row. As I watched one of our youngest students, I pondered whether samurai and true karate masters have to go out and try to be brave or courageous or if actions we would deem brave or courageous are simply effortless expressions of who they are. In other words, is courage simply a habit that the master has no conscious awareness he or she is exhibiting?
The young karateka that led to such intellectual musings is a beautiful young girl of five or six. To hide her identity from non-dojo members and to keep with an Asian theme, we’ll call her Bride of Godzilla, or Bridezilla for short. Now, Bridezilla is a fair maiden who has an older brother of 9 or 10 who is as handsome as she is pretty. He is also a member of our dojo family. We’ll call him Rumpelstiltskin, or Rump for short. Just so I don’t worry their parents about a creepy old guy stalking their kids, my only point is that Bridezilla and Rump are two of the cutest kids you’ll ever meet.
Now something that is no joking matter in any way is that Rump and Bridezilla are afflicted by a HORRIBLE disease called cystic fibrosis. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation describes the disease in the following manner:
Cystic fibrosis is a life-threatening, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and progressively limits the ability to breathe.
In people with CF, a defective gene causes a thick, buildup of mucus in the lungs, pancreas and other organs. In the lungs, the mucus clogs the airways and traps bacteria leading to infections, extensive lung damage and eventually, respiratory failure. In the pancreas, the mucus prevents the release of digestive enzymes that allow the body to break down food and absorb vital nutrients.
In fear that I would not do the reality justice, I will simply say that my limited understanding is that treatment involves daily procedures to break up the mucus and constant vigilance to avoid exposure to environmental dangers that a non-CFer’s body easily fights off without breaking a sweat.
Anyway, I was watching Bridezilla stand at attention while she wore a colorful mask that matches her personality and it struck me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Bridezilla, Rump, or either of their parents complain about their lot in life. Never. No doubt they have private moments of frustration and pain and perhaps even sporadic public moments of Bridezillification – every 5 – 10 year old or parent does. But how is it that these kids and their folks don’t go through life moping about the unfairness of being such awesome people and being affected by such an awful disease?
The biggest concern I’ve ever seen Rump have is being forced to be behind me during testing. Now I’m a big guy with deep set eyes that make me look serious and angry as a natural expression. I don’t doubt, especially to a child a fraction of my size, that I can look kind of scary. So the instructor orders that back kicks are to be performed next. He does, however, take a moment to say, “Shawn, it’s crowded in here so be a little careful because Rump is right behind you. … Rump, you might want to move back a little.” Everyone kind of chuckled because Rump was indeed positioned in a prime “I’m about to get launched across the dojo by an overweight angry guy” location. I simply turned around, held my fist out and said, “don’t worry, I won’t get you.” He could have wilted under the sudden focus of attention from the entire dojo or from the thought that I may introduce him to Newton’s Second law in relation to a pretty strong leg as an outside force. He didn’t do either. Without hesitation, Rump gave me a fist bump and kind of smirked like “what, we’ve rested long enough, let’s get on with it.”
Bridezilla is equally as composed. When she goes to spar, she means BUSINESS. She has great focus and determination. Sometimes I’ll playfully tug on her hair and then turn away before she can see who the culprit was. She doesn’t think twice about it and just mozies off to her destination.
Some would say, “yeah, they have a choice – they can fret about life not being fair or they can be courageous and brave in their approach. They are choosing to be brave and courageous.”
I don’t think so.
Brave and courageous? Yes, by anyone’s standards. Choosing? No. I’ve watched these kids for a year or so now, and I don’t believe there to be any conscious choice involved. I think whatever comes their way in life, they deal with it – it’s who they are.
BAM … I had my answer. It gave me goose pimples and that warm feeling you get when you watch a movie with an inspiring ending. Be it through excellent parenting, life experiences, innate ability or some combination, the portion of these kids’ approach to life that we term courageous or brave is simply who they are. It is part of their being. I would doubt that they are even aware they are inspiring the old scary guy in the back who is waiting for the adult class to start.
Lately, especially when I’ve thought about whining about something at work, I think about Bridezilla, Rump, and their folks. Not all days, but more days than not now, I think, “OK, I’ve whined long enough. Let’s get on with it.” The approach is still a conscious effort to ‘change body’ as my Sensei would say, but not as much as it once was. Instead of wasting effort looking around to see who pulled my hair and stomping my feet, it is, VERY SLOWLY, becoming more natural for me to offset my course by 45 degrees and then to simply mozy along to my original destination. My own and my dojo family are responsible for providing this gift of personal growth I am experiencing.
Karate-do as the only path to character development – of course not. It can however, be THE PATH should you choose to seek it.