(This is a fictional story with fabricated characters and events. Resemblance to real life individuals or incidences is purely coincidental.)
Coby’s black belt was beginning to show the first signs of frayed, white strands around the edges. He was by no means a master, but had become a regular at Yahara Sensei’s dojo. He fell in love with karate at a young age and never found a reason to stop. That is, until his work moved him hours away from his old home. He faced a choice – quit training, or find a new teacher for the first time since he started his martial arts journey.
Luck was with Coby as he was browsing schools online. Konishi Tsuyoshi, a nearby instructor, taught the same style as Yahara Sensei. Coby visited the Konishi school and was asked to sit and watch a class. Coby observed Konishi Sensei take command of the room, gliding across the floor in a stern and disciplined manner. Konishi lead the students through a brief etiquette ceremony, and then began the class. The training was hard and heavy. Konishi expected focus and effort from the students; anything less was met with a disapproving glare.
Coby shifted in his seat nervously, feeling a combination of fear and admiration for the Sensei. When it came time to sign up for class, Coby agreed. It was such a sharp contrast from his days with Yahara Sensei. He recalled his old teacher fondly; certainly Yahara made his students work and sweat, but he always had a grin on his face and music to his step. This would be a change of pace for certain.
* * * * * * * * * *
Coby trained diligently with Konishi Sensei. At first he found the dojo challenging, but soon came to welcome the rigorous workouts. It wasn’t until a full year had passed that Coby actually sat down with his teacher in a more informal setting, chatting and getting to know the man as more than just a Sensei.
While relaxing with Konishi Sensei at lunch Coby pulled out a small laptop. “Look Sensei,” Coby said. “I found an interesting video online. This appears to be some form of Jujitsu. They spend a lot of time closing distance and going to the ground. What do you think?”
Konishi Sensei eyed the video, then shook his head disapprovingly. “Too much time on the ground,” he said. “That’s exactly where you don’t want to be in a fight. While you’re down there, that close, you can get kicked by other people or stabbed if the opponent has a hidden knife. We always train to prevent going to the ground.” Coby nodded his head, accepting the obvious wisdom of the statement.
Later that week Coby returned to his hometown to visit family. While there, he stopped in to see Yahara Sensei. They sipped tea together and Coby recalled the Jujitsu video. “Yahara Sensei, there is a video online I would like you to watch.” “Ohh?” Yahara remarked, “Ok.” Coby showed the clip of Jujitsu practitioners throwing and grappling. Yahara Sensei stroked his short beard and eventually said, “I had a friend once who was tackled from behind while walking down the street at night. I bet he could have used some of these techniques to recover from the disadvantage, or, at least, escape the ground more easily.”
Coby hadn’t considered that possibility.
* * * * * * * * * *
Two weeks later Coby found himself enjoying more down time with Konishi. “Sensei,” he said.”I’ve got another video for you. This time it’s karate.” Coby showed a clip of two practitioners in flamboyant uniforms performing jumps, kicks, and rolls throughout their kata. Konishi Sensei shook his head in dismay. “How can this pass for karate?” he asked. “This resembles nothing of the art from my homeland. We work so hard to preserve the culture, kata, and art of karate. Yet here we have people propagating something completely wrong.” Konishi’s disappointment was palpable, and Coby wondered how the practitioners in the video could excuse their wayward performance.
Remembering his previous experience with Yahara Sensei, Coby decided to show the video to his old Sensei the next time he visited home. Yahara watched the video thoughtfully. After the performance concluded, Coby remarked, “What do you think Sensei? Certainly this doesn’t resemble the karate we do.”
“True,” Yahara Sensei said. “But you can see the passion with which they perform. We should appreciate their commitment to a craft.”
Coby found himself less-than-convinced. What if people continued to post videos of fake, watered down karate? It could increase in popularity and the real art could be lost forever.
* * * * * * * * * *
Coby continued to train diligently. He focused less on the internet and more on the dojo, until one day he stumbled upon a video of the very same style of karate he studied. Surprised and excited to see someone who’s kata and techniques resembled that of his instructors, he decided to approach Konishi once again. “Sensei,” he said. “I know our style isn’t the most widespread in the world, but I found someone else performing our art online. Take a look!” Konishi Sensei viewed the video, then pressed his lips thinly together while shaking his head. “This is not good Coby-san. I know the man in the video. He lacks our understanding of kata and application. You can see it all the way down to his foundation and his stances. Of all people to post videos online, it should not be him. This speaks to his arrogance.”
Coby understood Konishi Sensei’s point. It was definitely audacious of the man in the video to think he was the best representative for the style.
When last Coby and Yahara Sensei spoke, Yahara provided thin answers to Coby’s concerns. Nevertheless, Coby still respected the man’s opinion. He visited home a few weeks later and arranged to speak to Yahara once again. “Sensei,” he said. “I found a video of our style online. Would you take a look?” Coby showed the video to Yahara, waiting tensely and attempting to read the old man’s face as he watched. After the video concluded, Yahara nodded and scratched the small hairs of his beard.
“What do you think Sensei? Should this be posted online?” Yahara Sensei looked up in surprise. “That is not for me to say Coby! I do not control the actions of others. However, if it raises awareness of our style’s history and methods, I don’t see the harm in it.”
“But Sensei,” Coby replied. “Don’t you think this man is lacking foundation? Doesn’t he seem arrogant in his own knowledge, despite how much he lacks?” Yahara Sensei sighed, then said, “If we are all overly humble and choose not to share, the art will die with our humility. Even if this gentleman is not the best, perhaps it will inspire students to seek out the more senior teachers of the style.”
Coby considered the matter closed, but Yahara Sensei continued, “Coby-san, your critiques have merit. But be careful. The spirit of karate is not one of judgment, but of acceptance. One of support and protection, not of aggression. When watching others we may not see what we think karate should be, but our aim is to help them, not to steal their passion from them.”
“Sensei,” Coby replied. “isn’t it our job to protect our art and see it preserved properly? Aren’t we doing a disservice to others by not correcting videos like these?”
“I admire your sense of duty,” Yahara said. “But if you wish to make others richer, do not begin by stealing what they already have. Find what is valuable in what they do, and do your best to build on it. If they truly aim to achieve their best, they will likewise find the wisdom in your teaching and correct their path. I don’t dismiss the faults you observed in your videos…but I hope you see the importance of the mindset in which you judge.”
Coby thanked his instructor, and bid him farewell…until the next meeting for tea.
Prior to this past weekend I had never been snow shoeing before. It always seemed like way more work than it was worth and a regular hike was fine by me anyway. However when I called the park service hotline at Rocky Mountain National Park the pleasant man on the other end of the line informed me that almost all the trails were still buried in snow. Any trail worth seeing, he pointed out, would be accessed primarily through snow shoeing.
It was at that time I felt the first tinge of ‘quit’ rising up in me. “Wouldn’t it be smarter”, I thought, “to try snow shoes some other time?” I glanced out the window and noticed the perfectly blue skies, 60 degree weather, and clear-as-day mountains in the distance. I decided there was no time like the present.
After I secured the proper equipment I made the drive up to Rocky Mountain and took off to meet Loch Vale, a rather well known hiking destination and point of natural beauty. The following video takes place at the summit of Loch Vale. I was quite alone and had a chance to collect my thoughts. It was then that I made a few connections between that hike experience and martial arts, namely how two different voices influenced my behavior that day – one telling me not to bother, the other challenging me not to quit.
Enjoy the video and I’ll share some pictures afterward:
The following are a handful of photos that help illustrate some of the points in the video. Loch Vale provided a very scenic, very challenging experience that I am glad to have undertaken.
I hope you enjoyed this little reflective trip through nature. All the best in your continued training!
Mediocrity, by its very definition, is what surrounds us. The world is constantly seeking a balance of order. As such, we as a species follow suit and establish an acceptable average of behavior and endeavor. That’s why excellence is so noteworthy and challenging to achieve.
Of course, with the advent of TV and the internet we can see excellence at work everyday. Tune into a basketball game featuring LeBron James to see what talent plus hard work can accrue. But the flashy kind of success isn’t what I want to talk about today. What I find noteworthy, and truly enjoyable to see, are people who endeavor to be the best they can be at whatever it is they’re doing, no matter how seemingly mundane. Indeed, a person of excellence can turn the routine into something remarkable.
A Not-So-Average Grocery Store Trip
Not too long ago I found myself at the grocery store doing typical grocery store stuff. As I finished gathering my items I walked past the checkout aisles, recognizing the predictable looks of mild impatience from the customers and general malaise from the cashiers. They all appeared roughly the same until I came upon an aisle that was moving faster than the others. Not only that, but the common air of drudgery was suspiciously absent. I saw a few smiles as person after person wrapped up their business. I decided this was as good an excuse as any to hop in.
When my turn came to checkout I got a good look at the young man behind the register. He wasn’t remarkable in stature or appearance; just in average, slightly nerdy fellow. But what DID stand out was his presence. He stood with excellent posture, not puffy but not meek and defeated either. He scanned items deftly, manipulating fruits, vegetables, deli items, and more with ease. While working he engaged me in just enough polite conversation to make me feel attended to but not burdened. Before I knew it I was out the door and headed home.
There’s no outrageous end to this story. The young man behind the counter didn’t rescue any kittens or stop any thieves that day. But what he achieved was quietly noteworthy. He tolerated nothing less than excellence from himself.
How Habits Can Alter Our Destinations
It wouldn’t shock me if the young man behind the counter became a manager one day, or even a business owner. In fact, I don’t see any particular limitations for him as long as he can maintain the same attitude as he displayed during that one work day.
Like Aristotle says in the quote above, excellence is not something that occurs once in a vacuum. Certainly people are capable of heroic acts and unusual moments of achievement, but more often than not those who succeed understand that the destination is a result of how the journey was made. The trap most people fall into is putting focus on the major events at the expense of all the little moments in between.
I remember a friend telling me a story about his father, Roger. Any time Roger went out of the house he refused to dress in anything less than his best. It didn’t matter if he had a critical business meeting or a stop a the post office, Roger carefully selected a button down shirt, dress slacks, polished shoes, and a tie. When asked about this peculiar habit Roger simply replied: “It’s not for other people. I don’t do it for them. I do it for me. If I don’t set high standards for myself, who will?”
It was Roger’s intolerance for mediocrity that made him noteworthy. It’s also something that others around him could sense. There’s an old saying that goes “chance favors the prepared”. In much the same way, achievement favors those who aspire everyday and look inward toward refinement.
Hinkaku – Character in Martial Artists
Striving for achievement is one of the most ingrained aspects of martial arts training. Every serious student has felt the grind of repetition and the burn of correction. The dojo is a rare place in modern society where the idea of habitual excellence is lived out in real time.
However, it’s just as easy (perhaps easier) for martial artists to miss the subtle message espoused by Aristotle. Discipline, character, temperance, and control are elements stressed inside the dojo but are often left at the door as students walk out for the evening. The refinement that was preached during kata training might not make the transition into day-to-day living.
In Okinawa there is a very important term known as “hinkaku”. On the surface it can be translated as “personal dignity”, but really it tells a much deeper tale. Rare Individuals who display hinkaku have overcome the hardships of life yet still exhibit kindness and understanding. They move with a refinement of posture, motor skill, and balance yet do not make displays of it. Their intensity and focus is coated in contemplation and open-mindedness.
Hinkaku is the result of a lifetime of personal refinement and achievement mixed with a fervent maintenance of humility. Hinkaku is impossible to fake and is exuded not intentionally but as a result of “living the martial way”.
Striving toward this improbable feat of character is one of the most important aspects of karatedo training and the mark of a rare person. Making excellence a habit, therefore, is not an option, but a responsibility for any dedicated practitioner.