Reader Article #1: A Shotokan Perspective on Teaching and Self Discovery

GUEST AUTHOR: David Light is a third dan in Shotokan karate and a member of the International Shotokan Karate Federation (www.iskf.com) and is the instructor at the Two Rivers Shotokan Karate Club in Glenwood Springs, Co. (www.trskc.com). David trains under Sensei Yutaka Yaguchi in Denver, Co. and is a member of the ISKF instructor Trainee Institute.


The student/ teacher relationship in a dojo, or what ever your style calls the training hall, is not the same as a typical classroom. The differences between eastern and western cultures are clearest for those who train martial arts when we learn about dojo etiquette. As I watched my students take a grading exam I was anxious not only for them but for myself as their teacher. Have I prepared them properly? Will they be able to do what the examiner asks if the drills are not ones I have used in class? Do they have the confidence to go on with intensity if they make a mistake? All this questioning made me think about not only my abilities as a teacher but also the differences I would have with my Japanese counterparts.

I tell new students that once in the dojo, they are in Japan. The rules of etiquette are very clear for beginners. No talking, No questions until I ask for questions, do what I say and nothing else until commanded. Commanded is the proper word, for a martial arts instructor must be in command of the class. What we do is potentially lethal and the training atmosphere must be focused and safe. As we progress and training gets more advanced, the rules are pretty much the same with a little more wiggle room for higher ranks. Now this may be a result of some westernization here in the U.S. Western education encourages questioning as a way to develop critical thinking, especially with young adults and older. One Japanese instructor once told the story about coming to the U.S. to teach at a University and was so frustrated with student’s questions, the first phrase he learned in English was, “Shut up and do it!” He has since adapted to western method of education without sacrificing true dojo spirit.

Karate is strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism. Self discovery is the core of Zen learning. Students in a traditional Japanese dojo in the past would not be told that their rising block is too low; they would instead get a whack on the head with a shinai and find out for themselves what was wrong with the technique. Zen style training taught by the first Japanese instructors in the U.S. didn’t go over very well and dojos didn’t grow beyond the few who were willing to subject themselves to this type of training. Repetitive kata training exposes the idea of self discovery. As you train your favorite kata over a period of years, your teacher may correct technique without much explanation. The kata will reveal itself to you as you continue on with practice. My first Sensei spoke of “little epiphanies” in training as one progressed.   Now we get some explanation of the whys and wherefores of waza (technique). Constant repetition and self discovery are still necessary to fully understand your art and to the attainment mushin. Just knowing theory will not enable you to react without thinking. Robin Rielly, 8th dan ISKF, states in his book, ” The Secrets of Shotokan Karate”, …todays training is not better or worse, just different.

Giving too much verbal explanation is something with which I struggle. I didn’t start karate training until I was 40 years old and was perfectly willing to accept the discipline of the dojo. But as an instructor I found myself explaining too much about a technique, especially to kids. They “zone out” and lose concentration, which is hard enough to maintain. At times I still fall into that pattern but have become more conscious of my ramblings. As class size grows it becomes more necessary to keep the energy level up and not have students suffer for lack doing.

Self discovery puts more responsibility on the students for their growth in their art. I have discussions with martial arts students who complain about not receiving good “real world” application of what they are learning. Is it the teacher who isn’t giving them a way to figure this out or is the student expecting too much verbal explanation? A student must use his/her mind as well as body when training. In the dojo we do repetition to make good technique without thought. We build muscle memory, groove the nuero-muscular pathways, and become accurate and controlled. Often bunkai is demonstrated so we know why we do these things. Now we come back to my concerns about being a good teacher and serving my students well. Can I show them the waza, call out drills, and try to correct any errors or bad technique? I can’t do it for them. When I train and don’t put my best effort into it unless my Sensei is watching, I’m the one who is cheated, not the teacher. Training should be a daily endeavor that increases in importance as we progress. Self training is a good time to focus on the questions of why; what’s the point of this technique; why does Sensei tell us to do it this way. Try the waza out with a training partner, work with a senpai before or after class. As an instructor, I can give you the tools, you must use them.

There is a concept in zen related arts; shu, ha, ri. Shu is obedience, to the tradition. At this stage we follow exactly what is taught. Ha is divergence, from the tradition. Now we begin to make the waza our own, we adapt it to better fit our own body. Ri is transcendence, beyond the tradition. At very high rank, we go beyond waza to the spirit and philosophy. Without self discovery Shu, ha, ri is not possible. In the training hall we are faithful to our Sensei’s teaching and make the necessary effort to find out for ourselves what the teaching really means, not just in general but for ourselves. When a student can make that art their own, spiritual growth continues beyond the physical.

As students we get out there and sweat. We must also engage our brains. Do the waza over and over and feel what works and be alert enough to recognize when those little epiphanies come. As teachers we must give our students the tools to make good technique and let them make it their own. Sometimes we find a little explanation goes a long way and we more often need to shut up and do it.