Monday, September 19, 2005

Random Update

Karate-wise, I've made the decision to drop Matsumura Wansu, Ananku and Seisan. I've been doing them, but I've not spent enough time on them to make them worthwhile. I'll keep Matsumura Hakutsuru Sho, though. That feels more like a "gift kata" to me from my Matsumura Shorin Ryu instructor, so I want to maintain it. I figure I know way too many kata as it is, and I need to focus my efforts better...(I still have my opinion about the old masters only knowing "a few kata" though...see my article linked in the sidebar if you haven't read it yet).

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Brief exposition on karate and character development

People always talk about how the martial arts improves character. I think it CAN, and often does. However, there are some things to keep in mind historically. And read the whole thing before you get offended...or don't...I don't mind.

People always tend to quote Funakoshi as one who exemplified high character and great karate. They point to his statement here: "The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat but in the perfection of the character of its participants."
I think that statement does at least two things which are not beneficial in my mind. First of all, it divorces karate from what it actually is: the technical science of personal combat. Secondly, it degrades one's quality of martial arts by ignoring the technical aspect and focusing on how one "feels" or how their character is.

I think the second is most tellingly told in the technical aspect of Funakoshi's karate. He did an excellent job of promoting karate to the Japanese mainland and was responsible for ensuring its viability throughout the world. But he wasn't that great of a fighter and most people on Okinawan had a very low opinion of his fighting ability. Furthermore, much of the technical aspects were lost in their transmission to the mainland. But does it have to be that way? Do you have to be only an "okay-at-best" fighter if you want to have high character? I don't think so. But to understand why, we have to understand the differences between Funakoshi's approach to character development in karate and the way it was approached before him.

Funakoshi's emphasis was something like this: Through your study of karate, you will perfect your character. The zen-hungry Japanese ate it up like takoyaki at a downtown stall in Osaka. The emphasis was shifted upon countless repetition of very basic techniques. Stances were changed to be more physically demanding and aesthetically pleasing-but a lot less practical in fighting. These changes were to impose difficulty on the practitioner and thus character development through overcoming struggle, hardship, and if you want to put zen into the equation (you must), the Self that is, but isn't. But is (As I've had several professors put it that way). This context has been totally lost on many practitioners, to the detriment of their karate.

Before, it was something like this: Karate is a venue to pursue character perfection, but it isn't always the outcome. You should focus more upon the perfection of character in all things, rather than making karate your vehicle. Unless you have character, everything is useless, whether it be your karate or your knowledge.

This is exemplified in the poem that went:

No matter how you may excel in the art of te and in your scholastic endeavors, nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life. (Teijunsoku Nago Oyakata 1663)

Therefore, it wasn't "from karate I improve myself", it was "from myself, I improve my karate".

It is a difference of approach and implementation. Those who say "I want to make karate my way of life, not just a martial art" are doing it "backwards", so to speak (not in the sense of value assignation). Those who say "I will perfect my character, and it will show through my martial arts" are doing it "forwards".

For those in traditions where it was the other way around, I know you might be offended. But that is an important historical context of your style and has to be addressed. Even if you don't make karate your vehicle of character development with these detriments to martial effectiveness, those before you have, and it shows in the teaching.

Doing it forwards means you can express your character development through your karate, but doesn't mean you have to do all those other things that will impair your karate. By choosing to express it or nurture it rather than solely develop it through karate, which is what one does when you make "karate your life", you can still gain improvements in character will maintaining your active improvement in combative ability. A semantic difference but an important one, as nurturing development means it is something that aids development yet the development would already be there.

Aristotle often said that excellent was a habit rather than an act. And he was right. Both of these approaches are in line with Aristotle's argument. It is all too easy with the first approach to do actions which only improve your character rather than both your character and your martial ability. Am I saying you can't improve the technical aspects of your karate using the first framework? Of course not. I think the benefit will only be less.

I suppose in the end neither approach is "wrong." If you achieve character development, that is a good thing. But I think it is useful to understand how history and context shapes this whole belief, and how that shift has changed karate (not only "spiritually" but "technically").