On the first and third Tuesday of every month, our Sensei (or his Senior Student) conducts a focused training class just for Brown Belts. The need to be vigilant in maintaining one’s own proper actions served as a prominent theme during last night’s class. As the most advanced of the kyu rank (non-Black Belt) students, Brown Belts are expected to model proper technique, intensity, attitude, and protocol to a greater extent than students of other kyu ranks. A Brown Belt’s position at the front of class during training means that he or she is always on display for other students (and teachers) to observe. Despite their own and others’ high expectations, Brown Belts are fallible like everyone else. An interesting thing happened in class last night.
Ippon kumite (one step sparring) comprises an important part of our training. A specific sequence of punches, kicks, and blocks are practiced with a partner. Among many other benefits, ippon kumite helps one’s body develop almost an automatic response to a stimulus ( e.g., a punch to the head) such that very little conscious effort and processing time are required to respond to the threat. We took turns demonstrating the 10 Brown Belt Ippon Kumite techniques in front of the class last night.
My partner and I positioned ourselves in front of the group for our turn. I brought the punch. My partner performed the block/counterattack. WHACK! (Think Batman graphics and sound effects from the 1960s and 1970’s show). The sound from the strike caused a collective “oooooh” from my classmates. What you have to understand about ippon kumite is, as the initial attacker, you end up in a position of severe disadvantage and wide open for counter-attack. As Brown Belts, we are expected to have developed sufficient skill and control to make contact or near contact when counter-attacking, but not hard enough to cause serious injury. My partner struck harder than I expected (enough to leave a bruise), but not excessively hard. I kind of raised an eyebrow, but more at everyone’s reaction than to anything else. We moved on to practice the same technique to the other side of the body. Punch, block/counter-attack – WHAMMO! Geez, another loud contact, another bruise. The Senior Student made an interesting remark – something to the effect of “oh, payback is always a possibility in ippon kumite.”
It is. You see, it was now my turn to practice the counter-attack. We often will joke with our partner by making the type of comment made by the Senior Student when any technique is performed by a partner with a little bit too much enthusiasm. Think of it as kind of a light hearted way of communicating with your training partner that a little less force would be appreciated. The fact of the matter is that my training partner is an amazing karateka and a great person who has my complete trust. I consider him a friend. The thought of intentionally harming him in response to being accidentally hit a little too hard (not that I was) did not even cross my mind. I completed my turn with the exercise without incident, and we moved on.
We later stepped in for our next turn. I am the lower rank so I always serve as the first attacker and ultimately victim. I punched. My partner blocked and struck. POW! Yet again, the contact was clearly audible and exactly in the same spot as where the first bruise had been left. On the one hand, kudos to my partner for such precision. On the other hand, I experienced enough discomfort to cause me to open my mouth to offer some verbal feedback. No one will ever know what was about to be said. To be honest, I am not sure what I was going to say either. But in that split second, I took a deep breath, shut my mouth, and kept it shut. I turned and took two steps away from the group. With no exaggeration, in almost movie-like fashion, a visualization of one of my favorite stories jumped to mind – The Story of the Samurai and the Fisherman. …
Centuries ago, a samurai set out to collect money he had loaned to a local fisherman. Arriving in the village and finding no sign of the fisherman, the samurai travelled to the shore to find the debtor mending his nets. Distracted from his work by his colleagues scurrying out of the way of the approaching samurai, the fisherman realized his day of reckoning had arrived. The fisherman threw himself to the ground, bowing his head in the greatest show of respect he could muster. “Get up,” commanded the samurai. “Your grace period of one year has now passed. The time has come for you to repay your debt to me.”
The fisherman rose to his feet but kept his gaze focused toward the ground. “I understand our agreement,” trembled the fisherman, “but the seas have not been kind to me and it has been a very bad year. I fear I do not have the money to repay you.”
“What?!” bellowed the samurai. Despite his position of stature, the samurai was not known as a man of patience. The large group who had gathered all turned away at the distinctive sound of a sword being expertly drawn from its sheath. The silver blade flashed in the sunlight as the samurai prepared to strike the fisherman down where he cowered.
“Wait! Please!” cried the fisherman. “I am nowhere near as skilled as a noble samurai, but I have been studying the martial arts for some time now. My master teaches that one should never strike when angry. I beg for your mercy and one more year to repay my debt to you.”
The samurai carefully considered the man’s words. “I have studied my art under the finest masters of the sword,” said the samurai as he slowly lowered and sheathed his sword. “Your master is wise. My teachers also instruct that to wield one’s sword in anger is a defect in character. I am very angry with you, fisherman, but I will not turn to violence in vengeance. You shall have one additional year to fulfill your agreement. Should I return next year and you not have the money to repay me, I will take your life instead.”
The samurai made the long journey home, only to arrive well after nightfall. He quietly entered his home so as to not disturb his wife. As he entered his bedroom, he saw the silhouette of his wife and an unknown person, fast asleep, side by side. The clothes of the stranger, however, were unmistakably those of another samurai. Enraged, the samurai drew his sword and prepared to slay them both. Before he delivered the fatal blow, however, he remembered the words of the fisherman, “never strike when angry.” Upset that, twice in one day, he had nearly dishonored his own masters by not following their teachings, the samurai stepped back in haste, accidentally knocking over a chair in his chambers.
The loud noise caused the samurai’s wife and the stranger to startle. The samurai’s wife quickly lit a candle. The flickering light revealed the stranger to be none other than the samurai’s mother.
“I almost killed you both,” screamed the samurai. The samurai’s wife quickly explained that she feared for her household’s safety when the samurai had not returned home by dusk. The samurai’s mother had dressed in the samurai’s clothes so that any intruder who dared enter the bedroom would think the powerful samurai still at home and would run away frightened. It was at this moment that the samurai realized that his tendency to strike out in anger without thinking nearly cost him the life of his wife and his mother.
One year later, the samurai returned to the fisherman’s village. The fisherman excitedly approached the samurai. “My Lord, the sea has been very good to me this year. Here is all of your money plus interest. I thank you for your generous mercy.”
Dwarfing the fisherman with his size, the samurai placed his massive hand gently on the fisherman’s shoulder. “Keep your money old man,” replied the samurai softly. “You repaid your debt to me long ago.”
… When I turned around, the Senior Student had stepped in to replace me. I’m not sure if he thought I was going to retaliate or if he was just annoyed that I had caused a brief pause in our training. Ultimately, it makes no difference. I thought of the wisdom of my Sensei who, less than an hour earlier, spoke of the need for Brown Belts to always be mindful of their actions as they are explicitly and implicitly observed for guidance. I glanced at the three youth Brown Belts in the class, all of whom were looking at me perhaps wondering what I would do next. All three of them outrank me. All three of them surpass me in skill. Consequently, they have nothing to learn from me in terms of martial arts technique. Nevertheless, as an adult, I must express great care to not model unacceptable responses to frustration. I simply said, “No, I’m good Sempai,” as I finished the drill with my partner. With eyes upon me, I made a very conscious effort to make sure I brushed my partners gi with my punch but made no contact to the body.
I hope someday to be more like my son, Isaac. He is a second degree black belt currently. He handles things with an outward calmness and compassion well beyond his years. If I were more like him, I wouldn’t have felt the need to consciously make sure my punch made no contact. I wouldn’t have felt the need to take a breath. I wouldn’t have had any reaction at all to what was simply a normal part of training in karate. But, like I said before, no Brown Belt is perfect. Sometimes though, how we choose to express our imperfections is as much a valuable lesson to others as if we had done things right the first time.