The other day I revisited a cartoon I used to watch as a kid. After about 10 minutes I realized I was gritting my teeth and wondering what the heck was going on.
The plot was nonexistent and the voice acting made me want to find the mute button in a hurry. Nevertheless, when I was young this cartoon made all the sense in the world and I loved it.
Was I wrong as a kid to hold it up as greatness? Am I wrong now for seeing it differently? No. I simply have a different mind today than I did all those years ago.
Of course, growing out of a cartoon isn’t a very monumental personal development. But there are more subtle examples of how the mind can develop year to year, week to week, and day to day.
Books, in general, are read once and then filed away. Every now and then one stands out to each of us in such a way that it demands closer inspection. Most prudent martial artists have a few specific books about the arts that they deem exceptional, and have revisited them from time to time.
The important thing about special books isn’t the raw information but the complexity of the concepts; the depth of the insight that reveals more over time, and improves as the reader’s experience improves.
The cartoon of my childhood was entertaining, but it lacked depth. On the contrary, I can watch certain movies that I grew up with and experience them like they are brand new, filled with powerful emotion and drama.
I’m not suggesting you should go reread old books (although you should). Nor am I suggesting you should revisit old movies (although you could). What I’m saying is that every day you have a new mind. Sometimes the difference between yesterday and today is infinitesimally small. But of course, the depth of that development is entirely on you.
Every time you step into the dojo you are bringing a new set of experiences, a deeper wisdom, and a broadened outlook. Just how much of that growth you supply is dictated by your desire to learn new things and keep an open mind.
This reality is critical when practicing the fundamentals of your system, sometimes called “basics” or “kihon”. Every time you execute a technique you have a chance to see it in a new light with new context. Your mind today can see with better potential than you could yesterday. Of course, not every repetition will result in spontaneous enlightenment, and if you get entirely lost inside your own mind you’ll soon feel mental fatigue. As in all things there should be balance. Indeed, sometimes quieting the mind through pure physical expression can be more valuable than analysis. Regardless, the decision should be conscious and aimed at higher goals.
If you find yourself settling for “knowing enough” or going through the motions, then you’ve allowed yourself to become stagnant. Participation without thought and emotion is a waste of Today’s Mind, and a disservice to yourself.
After a hard evening’s workout, a sweat drenched student approached her instructor. She shuffled her feet for a moment, then asked, “Sensei why do we always do our blocks the same?”
The sensei replied, “Because that is how my sensei always taught them. We are carrying on tradition.”
The girl asked, “But why did he do it that way?”
The sensei replied, “Because that is how his teacher taught him! You know, I’ve explained the fundamentals of our blocks, the physics of our movements and how each block compliments our stances. I’m surprised you don’t know all this already! Certainly by your rank you should know.”
The girl responded, “Yes, but I was just wondering if there is no better way to do it. Are we sure we are doing it the best way?”
The sensei replied, “Yes of course. This way has always proven effective for me and those that have gone before me. Are you doubting your own system?”
The girl responded, “Not doubting, just curious.”
The sensei learned a valuable lesson that evening.
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I’m pleased to present this interview with John Donohue, a karateka and kendoka who possesses a strong reputation as a martial arts author.
With over 30 years of training experience, Mr. Donohue has combined his martial arts with his academic life. As a result, he has created multiple high quality written works in both the fiction and non-fiction formats. He is most well known for the Connor Burke series, starting with the popular novel Sensei, and branching out into Deshi, Tengu, and most recently Kage.
Mr. Donohue is also an associate editor for the prestigious Journal of Asian Martial Arts. The following is a Q&A regarding his training experiences and literary success.
MA: How did you first get started in the martial arts some 30 years ago? What was your earliest experience?
JD: I was an adolescent in the 70’s at the time that the martial arts were really getting some popular exposure—Bruce Lee, the Kung-fu TV series. I was someone who had always been interested in other cultures (an interest that stuck with me—years later, I got a doctorate in anthropology). I was also fascinated by the Asian approach to traditional martial arts that integrated philosophical concepts along with physical technique.
My first exposure to actual training started with getting my hands on some popular “how-to” manuals for kung-fu, the Bruce Tegner stuff, and trying it out. I quickly realized that there was more to this than met the eye.
MA: Could you provide a brief outline of the styles you’ve studied over the course of your training, and under whom you studied?
JD: In college, I started taking karate classes that were offered either as intramurals or for PE credit. At Stony Brook University, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Shotokan Karatedo by Mori Masataka. He was a tremendously skilled sensei and I studied with him for a number of years. After graduating from college, I studied judo with Shiina Kiyoshi. As a graduate student, I conducted research on the martial tradition had an opportunity to be exposed to kendo with Kataoka Noboru and aikido with Hagihara Edi. Later on I continued studying karatedo with Liu Hong-guang, who also exposed me to some taiji. Finally, I studied kendo with Kimura Hiroaki.
I’ve been very privileged to study with some fine sensei.
MA: Who do you consider your biggest influences in the arts (your primary instructors)?
JD: Mori Sensei, since he opened my eyes to the power and beauty of traditional budo and Kimura Sensei, who set me on the path of kendo.
MA: Could you tell us a bit about their background and whom they studied with?
JD: Mori Mastaka studied at Takushoku University, joined the karate club there and eventually became team captain. He joined the JKA in 1955. He became Chief Instructor of the Karate Association of Hawaii (KAH) in 1963. In 1968 he relocated to New York and became the North Atlantic regional chief instructor of the JKA. His dojo is located in New York City.
Kimura Sensei showed interest in martial arts at a very young age (his father was the kendo coach at the local high school). He studied kendo and then began studying Shorinji Kempo in college. He moved to the United States when he was 22 and continued to study and train, but also recognized that there was strong interest in the martial arts in the United States. He has been teaching kempo for more than thirty years and was instrumental in introducing kendo training to Western New York.
MA: You’re an associate editor with the Journal of Asian Martial Arts. When did that happen in context with your personal writing career? Was it before or after you became a published author?
JD: I was fortunate to meet Mike DeMarco, the publisher of JAMA at the very early stages of the Journal’s development, sometime in the early 90’s. At that point I had published a version of my doctoral dissertation (The Forge of the Spiri—1991) as well as a few scholarly articles on the subject of the martial arts. Mike, along with a handful of other interested scholars, encouraged me to pursue more research and writing on the topic. It wasn’t until about ten years later that I started to write martial arts fiction—my first novel, Sensei, was published in 2003.
MA: The Journal of Asian Martial Arts is considered one of only a few highly reputable publications for traditional martial arts. Could you talk about the mission of the magazine and how you contribute?
JD: JAMA is devoted to providing high-quality scholarly and technical articles on the martial arts. Its mission is to take writing about the martial arts as seriously as we do training in them. It tries to bridge theoretical, academic, and technical perspectives on the martial arts and provide readers with well-written, accurate, and engaging material.
MA: Over the years you’ve developed a successful academic career as well as writing career. Has it sometimes been difficult to find time for training?
JD: It has. I think that the demands of family and career mean that there are times when training needs to be put on the back burner. It never goes away completely (and the desire and interest is always there) but the reality of it is that I am not a professional martial artist. I am a committed martial artist and I value the lessons that training has given me. When I can’t train regularly I miss it. But I’m also clear-headed enough to know that first things need to come first.
MA: Since Sensei you have written Deshi, Tengu, and now Kage. Has the story unfolded more and more naturally in your mind, or has it been difficult to improve upon yourself?
JD: Since I’ve invested considerable time and energy into making Burke’s world a fictional reality, I don’t have much difficulty generating possible story lines. I have about seven burkebooks outlined in my head. But one of the real challenges of writing a series about a set group of characters is that you have to make them change. This sometimes can be upsetting to readers, since they like things the way they are. Familiar characters that always act the same are in some ways comforting and are also probably related to the fact that we’ve been programmed to expect this from watching too much TV.
That said, I’ve tried to make the story of Burke and Yamashita and the others unfold with a little realism—Burke needs to grow, Yamashita is ageing. Yet at the same time I try to hold on to the essence of the characters and their settings.
The real challenge for me is in the technical sense of writing. I try to get better at it. The craft of writing is really important to me—I try to write clearly and to engage the reader and not fall into some of the more hideous mistakes that are often too abundant in popular fiction.
MA: Tell us a bit about the new book Kage. What elements of adventure and martial arts can readers look forward to?
JD: The new book finds the protagonist unwittingly getting involved with the shadowy world of cross-border smugglers in Arizona. The action takes place in the American Southwest as well as in the New York area and involves competing smuggling gangs, shadowy operatives from the Border Patrol and Federal government, as well as sinister hit men of various types. Connor Burke has to use all the skill developed in years studying under the master warrior Yamashita to come out whole.
MA: What are your plans for future books, and do you have an idea for how long the Connor Burke saga will last?
JD: As I mentioned, I’ve got at least seven burkebooks in mind, although I’ll probably keep writing them for as long as readers are interested. I’m also developing some new series, one involving an ex-Army Ranger named Oso Moreno—a hit man with a conscience who studies Daito-ryu aikijutsu—and another series that focuses on paranormal aspects of Asian culture with a heroine named Sharon Kao whose love interest is a top-notch judoka. Lots of action, lots of martial arts. I hope people like them.
MA: Thanks a lot for your participation and we look forward to more of your work!
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I’m not big on cities. Being in close proximity to nature has always been important to me (as evidenced by the design of this blog).
But living as close to Philadelphia as I do, I would be remiss to miss out on Chinatown so I recently took a trip down with some of my family.
Among Philly’s many sectors (Old City, Fishtown, etc), Chinatown is a very authentic and sizable chunk. While it’s impossible to replicate real immersion in a foreign country, Chinatown provides the sounds, sights, and smells (both good and bad) of the culture.
The first landmark worth noting is the front gate as you approach the main market strip. It is beautifully adorned and kept in nice condition. We didn’t stop and marvel for too long though as it was 103 degrees out and we wanted to find a nice market or store that featured air conditioning.
Littered amongst the more pedestrian buildings were a few that captured my attention.
These buildings, while historic, were certainly wearing their age. I would have loved access to explore them but there is little doubt the interiors were rough at best, unsafe at worst. A shame because even with some decay they were far more impactful than the typical city row homes.
One of our main stops for the day was The Bazaar, a deep reaching variety shop that features everything from tourist gifts to traditional instruments. The Bazaar was easily the biggest physical location I’ve ever been in dedicated specifically to Asian goods.
I had to exercise extreme self control to avoid spending a bundle. There were so many interesting scrolls, kimonos, pieces of art, and oddities that it was tough to walk passed any aisle without a second look. It was also a pleasure spotting the curiously out of place items that made it onto the shelves (such as the complete Mr. Bean collection).
Chinatown had a lot of those little quirks that you hope and expect to find. For example, one candy store was running an excellent special on their floor:
I chose to go in the Pocky direction, but the floor was tempting too.
As we sampled various shops and bakeries I couldn’t help but notice the steadfast street venders. Even out in the 100+ weather there were merchants with various forms of clothes, fish, produce, and undergarments. Basically everything you could need during your day. I chose not to indulge in the street fish though as we were headed to our primary restaurant destination.
The eatery on our radar was an unassuming facility located underneath a convention center overpass (not exactly prime real estate). Nevertheless, we had heard from a reliable Philly resource that this was a hidden treasure.
What the Dim Sum Garden lacked in flash it made up for in selection and speedy service. Traditionally, Dim Sum dishes are served by an attendant who wheels out multiple bamboo baskets with varying food items. You then take what appeals to you and are charged at the end. In fact, Dim Sum began as an exercise in tea tasting at roadside inns. Once the Chinese realized it was also pleasurable to snack while tasting tea, the destiny and development of Dim Sum was set.
Our food arrived with much less fanfare. The workings of the restaurant resembled that of a standard Chinese sit-down/take-out, except with a noticeably different kind of menu and procedure. As we ordered our Dim Sum items (such as pork and crab dumpling, steamed shrimp dumpling, etc), they came out in roughly 4-5 minute intervals. Before we knew it we had a whole sampling of delicious dishes in front of us and were enjoying it quite thoroughly.
We took a gamble heading into Chinatown during a prolonged heat wave, but we decided it was worth the trouble in order to enjoy the spirit of the neighborhood. If you ever find yourself in Philly, you could definitely do worse than a visit to Chinatown (no really, you could do a lot worse so don’t wander around).
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