It was a picture not unlike this one that sparked my obsession with Martial Arts. On my very first day of school, I brought home a flyer advertising the little karate dojo that was being run out of the hall in the afternoons. Much to my dismay, my parents said “no” and I had to be content watching Bruce Lee movies and doing “this-explains-my-knee-problems” flying kicks off the top of the Jungle Gym in our garden instead.
But even the most ironclad resolve has limits and although it took a few years, working as a team, my brother and I finally wore the old folks down to the point where they relented. We were signed up at the dojo down the road and I received my black belt (shodan) four-and-a-half years later.
Our Sensei always used to tell the class that everything up to black belt level was simply mastering the basics and once you achieved this you could really start delving deeper into what karate is actually all about.
So, what’s it actually about then? Hint: It’s not flying kicks
A quote was included on every monthly newsletter: “The ultimate aim of the art of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the characters of its participants” – Sensei Gichin Funakoshi. Being a Martial Art, the punching and kicking bits obviously do come into it, however focus is placed on the more intrinsic, character building side of the discipline too.
To many outside of the dojo, any Martial Art appears to be little more than flying kicks and chopping through wooden boards. In a lot of ways, these stunts are the complete antithesis of what these Arts are all about – flashy, difficult to control and rather pointless in the greater scheme of things.
One of the first things that gets taught to bright-eyed beginners is a set of rules called the Dojo Kun – a guideline of sorts that should be applied not only to time spent inside the dojo but life outside of it too.
Be humble and polite
Train considering your physical strength
Practise earnestly with creativity
Be calm and swift
Take care of your health
Live a plain life
Do not be too proud or too modest
Continue your training with patience
—– Sensei Teruo Chinen
Since my folks caved on the Karate thing, I took the opportunity to also dabble in Kendo, Tai Chi and Kyusho. All of them have a “code of ethics” similar to the Dojo Kun.
If someone asked me to name the cornerstones of each discipline, the 2 that stand out most are humility and respect. From being on time for classes and bowing before you enter the training space, to putting equipment back where you found it and always giving more senior students right of way… Whether accepting a loss with grace or tempering a celebration after a win – everything is built around these two principles.
Quite ironically I never actually learnt to perform a flying kick like the one that originally inspired me, preferring to focus on the intrinsic goal of preventing my life turning into some sort of metaphorical flying kick – flashy, difficult to control and rather pointless.
Despite no longer attending classes, I still try to apply the Dojo Kun. I’m pretty sure that I fall short more often than I admit to myself… But it’s still something I feel is worth striving towards.