Secrecy is a long standing tradition in the martial arts. When you analyze how most arts developed, it's easy to understand why.
Take kenjutsu (sword arts) of the Samurai for example. A kenjutsu headmaster was in charge of training his disciples with the deadliest skills he could. Those men would then take their techniques to the battlefield and fight for their daimyo. Unfortunately, during the Warring States Period, backstabbing and side switching was so common it was almost unremarkable. The daimyo changed allegiances depending on what elevated their status or saved them from annihilation. They also intermarried among clans, which shifted the power of alliances. The Samurai were often doomed to follow along, even fighting against clans they once considered allies.
These switches could happen in a hurry, even in the middle of a war. The outcome of one of the most famous battles in Japanese history, the Battle of Sekigahara, was significantly influenced by a few properly persuaded commanders right before the battle took place.
Imagine now if a skilled kenjutsu instructor was wide open with his teachings, sharing all he knew with anyone who came to him. How soon would that information be used against him?
This secretive behavior persisted even after the Samurai were less needed on the battlefield. Sword schools transitioned from focus on large battles to more individual development. It was at this time musha shugyo became more popular. Roaming Samurai desired to test their skills against headmasters and make a name for themselves. If a headmaster was loose with his knowledge and word of his tactics got out, it could mean an early demise.
Karate and kobudo also posses a history of secrecy. After the invasion of the Satsuma warriors, quite a bit of tode and kobujutsu training was conducted away from prying eyes. The Satsuma had roving metsuke (armed informants) who would be all too happy too report or outright extinguish suspicious behavior.
It wasn't just threat of death that kept the lips of instructor's tightly sealed. Both Japan and Okinawa developed under Confucian philosophy. In Confucianism, there is little tolerance for questioning of those in higher stations of respect than oneself. Further, it is expected of seniors to maintain a certain level of aloofness above those below them. The result was a lot of show with little tell.
Our modern era has it's own excuses for secrecy. Luckily the amount of "roving fighters" has gone down (but not disappeared thanks to the everpresence of ego), so it's not a particular need for tactical secrecy that keeps teachers quiet. More often than not, it is a need to retain students. If a modern teacher with limited skillset teaches everything they know, then students will inevitably grow tired of the training. Some may have the natural ability to surpass the teacher and go beyond their lessons, but then the instructor may become concerned about the student opening a school nearby and taking students away (or just becoming better, which hurts the ego). One safe bet to keep students interested and at a comparatively low skill level is to institute varying degrees of witholdance and secrecy.
The Wayward Student
There's one reason for concealment that we haven't discussed, and it's perhaps the most important. Whether in the early days of karate or today in a modern dojo, the possibility of "wayward students" exists. Despite a teacher's experience and intuition, some people are capable of hiding what's in their hearts. On the surface a student might seem dedicated and cautious and honorable, but deep down they could be manipulative and devious. Some of the most important martial artists in recorded history have fallen prey to charasmatic "disciples" who have siphoned power and influence from them.
One or two of these deep burns is enough to make any teacher pack his/her belt away for awhile.
Aside from the political aspects, teaching a wayward student the most debilitating, deadly, and effective aspects of an art is not only regrettable but dangerous to society as a whole.
Truly, wouldn't it be safer just to teach the bare basics and not risk it?
Giving the Bleeding Edge
The task of finding an honorable student and helping them to higher levels is a monumental task. After getting to a certain point, the instinct and tradition of letting things "coast" is very strong. After all, it's been done that way for generations.
However, in this modern era, it is appropriate (and even vital) for teachers to draw students to the edge of their own understanding***.
Today, it is very unlikely that martial artists of the same school will ever appear on opposite sides of a battlefield. Nor is it likely they will face other martial artists who have received inside information about their tactics. Instead, students are probably going to encounter street violence. Technique foresight is not an issue; the training will work or not work based on quality, not on secrecy.
Therefore, it is the duty of an instructor to give all they can in order to help students protect themselves and their loved ones. After years of getting to know each pupil the instructor can make an educated decision about sharing deeper knowledge in the hopes the student will carry on the desired "way".
Teaching to the very edge of skill level is also critical for an instructor's growth. "Toping out" in regards to skill and knowledge while strategically keeping students at a lower level is a very effective way to never grow. If, however, a teacher actively pulls students up as far as he/she can, the teacher will then be challenged to improve even more in order to continue sharing and helping the students.
Personally speaking, a lot of new ideas and developments in my own training begin as feelings. I sense that something is coming within reach and manifesting into potential improvement. However, it isn't until I attempt to verbalize and demonstrate what I'm thinking that it takes ahold in my own skillset and becomes available to me in a more complete way.
This very blog post is part of that process. If I don't truly understand it, then I can't help others understand it. So in order for me to understand it, you have to understand it.
See, now you know all my secrets! (or do you??).
***(please keep in mind I write this as an instructor with limited understanding and experience. Kyoshi and Hanshi level practitioners may possess a different perspective given their experience, but I do currently believe this advice applies forever in one's training).
Throughout our day we stream commentary on everything we see and do, telling ourselves stories. These stories can range from conscious rants to subtle considerations as we attempt to make decisions. Certain practices, like martial arts and meditation, can help temper that amount of self chatter…but nevertheless, it's persistently there. It has to be.
Our self filters dictate our ability to function in polite society and learn from our surroundings. If we didn't have this capacity for reflection we would be stuck in a permanent state of mental immaturity.
Understanding how we sway ourselves can be highly informative (if we know how to assess it).
Reaffirmation vs Reassurance
Decision making comes with an interesting byproduct: explanation. Sometimes we attempt to justify our behavior using contextual information, reasoning, or lying. Other times we choose to behave in a way that conforms to how we see ourselves. More often than not, each decision results in a different kind of self speak, two of which are reaffirmation and reassurance.
To illustrate these concepts and their differences, I'd like to introduce a character named Ryoko. Follow some of Ryoko's everyday activities and see if you can detect how she reacts to her own decisions.
It was a long day at work and Ryoko was dead tired. She had been straining to reach a deadline, and just barely completed the project before her office shut down for the evening. On the drive home she noticed a distinct grumbling in her belly. Since it was only a few minutes from her house, Ryoko decided to stop at a local fast food chain and pick up a quick burger and fries. She reassured herself that she had earned it with her hard days work, and that she didn't feel like cooking that night. Really, it couldn't be avoided.
Coming out of the restaurant she noticed a cart from a neighboring grocery store rolling toward a nearby car. Unfortunately her hands were full and all she could do was cringe as it made contact against the paint. She reassured herself that there was nothing she could do in time.
The next day Ryoko went back to work. As much effort as she had put in the day before, it simply wasn't good enough for her boss who demanded a wide range of changes to her current project. Ryoko found herself sapped of energy and enthusiasm.
Coming home that evening her arms were weighed down by paperwork and corrections needed. Sure, she could get them done by the new deadline…but the thought hardly excited her. Even worse, it was a dojo night and she needed to get back on the road in two hours.
Between the threatening paperwork and her growing headache, Ryoko reassured herself that she would probably be useless anyway in training and that her time would be better spent at home.
It was a long day at work and Ryoko was dead tired. She had been straining to reach a deadline, and just barely completed the project before her office shut down for the evening. On the drive home she noticed a distinct grumbling in her belly. Since it was only a few minutes from her house, Ryoko decided to stop at a local fast food chain and pick up a quick burger and fries.
Upon arrival she remembered that there was a grocery store next door, and that she could grab salad and fruit from inside. Doing so reaffirmed that she was indeed a healthy person, conscious of the old saying that "you get out what you put in".
Coming out of the grocery store she noticed a cart rolling toward a nearby car. Despite her hands being full she ran over quickly and stopped the cart with her foot. Ryoko always believed in random acts of kindness, and stopping the cart reaffirmed her desire to be someone who didn't need external thanks for helping.
The next day Ryoko went back to work. As much effort as she had put in the day before, it simply wasn't good enough for her boss who demanded a wide range of changes to her current project. Ryoko found herself sapped of energy and enthusiasm.
Coming home that evening her arms were weighed down by paperwork and corrections needed. Sure, she could get them done by the new deadline…but the thought hardly excited her. Even worse, it was a dojo night and she needed to get back on the road in two hours. Despite the threatening paperwork and her growing headache, Ryoko slapped her hands on the table and refused to listen to her own excuses. She ate, got changed, and made it into the dojo. It wasn't her best performance that night, but getting to class energized her and reaffirmed that she was a dedicated person.
Not Right and Wrong
At first it might seem like the stories above illustrate a simplistic state of right and wrong. Doing nice things is right, being lazy is wrong, etc etc. The truth of the matter is not so clear cut.
When speaking of "right and wrong" in the traditional sense, we are acknowledging the generally accepted human perception of proper and improper behavior. While slathered in gray area, for the most part we've come to a societal collective on critical matters of "good" vs "bad" (hence the penal system).
What Ryoko is going through is much more personal than that. She is facing day-to-day choices that reflect both the context of her situation and her own expectations of herself. Therefore, when she does something that sparks doubt in her mind, she has to reassure herself that it's ok (even if it's not). When she does something that feels right and in tune with who she wants to be, she instinctively reaffirms her path.
The slightest change in detail to the stories above could result in different decision making. Furthermore, following the "Reaffirmation" decision path won't always guarantee positive results (what if Ryoko missed her deadline due to her dojo time?).
Reaffirming Your Way
Like any higher calling, following the martial way can be extremely tricky. Getting lost and sidetracked is habitual and is simply part of the exploration. However, by using the idea of reaffirmation vs reassurance you can FEEL when you are leaving your path consistently. It's not always possible to intellectualize this sort of thing; some of it is pure gut instinct.
Therefore, it is advisable to continue studying and finding individuals whom you admire. Using that, you can build a sense of what you perceive your "way" to be. From there, you can act as much as possible in a manner that allows you to reaffirm the path you had set out on. It won't be a smooth ride the whole time, but you can push forward with belief in yourself.
I'm very happy to present this interview with Jody Paul Hanshi. Counted among some of the earliest westerners to experience karate on the island of Okinawa, Paul Sensei has a rare combination of influences. He is a senior practitioner of Seidokan and Motobu Udundi, as well as having extensive experience in Okinawa Kenpo Karate/Kobudo and Shorinji Kempo.
Paul Sensei has distinguished himself through years of military service and deligent training. Some of his accomplishments include being a part of the inaugural Seal Team Two, as well as being one of the first western students accepted by Uehara Seikichi into the previously closed Motobu Udundi system.
Paul Sensei has continued to pass on the lessons taught to him by his instructors, and brings a special energy to each of his classes.
I recently had a chance to sit down with him and ask a few questions about his training and theories surrounding the martial arts.
JP: I was listening to a couple of guys talking about it. Actually it was judo. Later I watched them throwing each other around and I thought that was kinda neat. I got into karate because of watching the judo guys.
MA: How old were you when you made the leap into karate?
JP: I was about 19 or 20 at that time.
MA: When did you enlist in the military?
JP: It was about 1960. Around 1962 we had the cuban missile crisis. I was involved there, and it was one thing or another for the next several years. Soon after I retired it got a little better, haha.
MA: As I recall you were involved with the Navy throughout your career, including the Seals. What can you tell me about the early days of the Navy Seals?
JP: back in 1960, around March or April, Lt. Commander Roy Boehm was the Officer in Charge of Team Two. That was right in time for the cuban crisis. Team Two was comprised of the new navy seals and the UDT teams.
MA: Were you handpicked to be part of that team?
JP: Yes, most of the guys selected were divers and UDTs.
MA: When you were stationed in Japan, because of your experience in karate, did you immediately try to get involved with martial arts?
JP: Yes I did.
MA: Who did you end up connecting with?
JP: I trained with Watanabe Sensei, who was one of master Doshin So's students. Then from there, I continued with So Sensei in Shorinji Kempo.
MA: Was the training regimented?
JP: In Japan it's a lot more regimented than Okinawa. everything is very stand in line, and so forth.
MA: How did they take to you as a westerner? Was there any friction?
JP: A little bit of…skepticism. of course. but overall fair treatment. I thnink in some instances I got more preferential treatment because they wanted to make sure I got it right, haha.
MA: What ultimately led you to transfer to Okinawa?
JP: Okinawa was the departing point to Vietnam in the early days. We staged a lot of people out of Okinawa. I didn't have a choice in that matter. My teacher (Doshin So) had trained years and years before with some people on Okinawa, and I had a letter of recommendation from him to show to Okinawan sensei.
MA: Did you spend any time in Vietnam itself?
JP: Yes, I spent a bit more than three tours there. I got to come back to Okinawa between and after.
MA: When you had your letter of recommmendation, which Sensei did you choose to go to?
JP: I went to Toma Shian Sensei and Uehara Seikichi Sensei.
MA: Was there something in particular that stood out about Toma Sensei?
JP: Ohh yes, he was very strong. His techniques were similar to what I learned in Japan and I felt comfortable doing his style. In kumite, weapons, and everything he does you could sense the power.
MA: Could you describe a bit about the Okinawan training culture?
JP: In the dojo it wasn't quite as regimented as it was in Japan. It was loose, people were warming up and training on different areas of the floor. There wasn't as much 'yes sir no sir'. There was respect of course. Another thing I noticed was the kids that would run through the dojo. You might be working out and doing kata and a little one would run under your feet. It was more of a family environment. It was like one big family. Everyone would take care of each other.
MA: Did you find that there was a lot of opportunities for cross training, or perhaps teachers visiting each other?
JP: Yes, a lot of times. For Toma Sensei, he had one kata for each weapon. if you wanted anything more advanced, he would send us over to Odo Seikichi Sensei. he would say "you need to do more weapons, you go see Odo." Odo Sensei was happy with that too. They were both of the same mindset.
MA: Speaking of Odo Sensei, could you describe your time with him? You were one of the earliest westerners to train with him.
JP: He was an integral part of my kobudo and karate training. I did a lot of the tuide for his forms and his weapons forms. It was quite similar to what Toma Sensei did. Back then a lot of it was similar to each other, there were only different nuances depending on how the person was built and how they liked to act. There were a lot of common threads. Odo sensei could show you 20 minutes of connections to a 2 minute question. And that was great because I was always asking why, how, how comes…, he was always happy to share. Odo also had a very good way of showing you new forms, he explained it to you very well.
MA: Asking questions seems to be a western approach to learning. Did they ever seem to mind it?
JP: It depended a lot on what you asked. Sometimes they minded, but other times they would jump right in to explain. Toma sensei's English wasn't too good so he usually would grab you, throw you to the mat and say "you do this way". You could feel where it was hurting, so you got the picture.
MA: Did that generation ever have big training gatherings?
JP: It was more of a "sharing students" type of perspective. Students would go to certain instructors depending on their interest and the instructor's area of expertise. but sometimes we would have a big function on the beach or something like that. It was an outing where we all brought our gis and worked out.
MA: Could you talk a bit about what day-to-day training was like? Was there a certain amount of time you trained, and was it the same time every day?
JP: The training wasn't a strict regiment of a certain number of kicks, punches etc. We would go to the dojo or beach and do some basics. We would train some punches and kicks and throws in the ocean with water up to our neck. Then get out on the beach and do some running (Uehara Sensei was always good for this kind of training). It was very very hot there, so you couldn't train for as long. We would work out for an hour and then have a beer break. It was tough for me to go back to training after one of those.
In the dojo at night, you could bring a gallon milk jug of water and a six pack of beer. You would drink the water during the class and then the beer after. We would hear a lot of interesting stories and ideas then.
MA: Uehara sensei is an interesting story because he comes from the Motobu Udundi line, which has a unique history and flavor to it. could you talk about how you met him and came to train with him?
JP: Uehara sensei is one of the people I was introduced to by So Sensei. when I got to Okinawa and started training with Toma Sensei I saw that Toma was friends with Uehara (With the rengokai coming together, Toma Sensei got a chance to learn more of the toide from Uehara Sensei). Everything fell into place then, I went to visit with Toma and began training after that. Uehara Sensei was a very interesting person. He was very close with his students, which I enjoyed a lot because he took a lot of time with his students individually.
MA: Toma sensei had a lot of power and impact with his method, while Uehara Sensei's style features a lot of flow and dynamics. Was it difficult trying to learn Uehara Sensei's methods at first?
JP: Ohh yes, every time I would punch and kick Uehara would say "ohh…you do like shorinji ryu" (back from my Japan days). He spotted me right away. It took several years for me to get used to the ideas of hard and soft. The older I got the softer I got I guess, haha.
MA: What was Uehara Sensei like as an instructor? Did he demonstrate a lot and was there a lot of conversation?
JP: Doing the toide techniques, he would demonstrate a lot. Then everyone would break up and try to do it. Uehara Sensei would then come around to each person and correct things and fix us. He didn't teach everyone the same way. I asked him this question one time – "why does so-and-so do it this way, a little bit different than me", and the answer was that my body was different than the body he had. If you were powerful like Toma Sensei, he would have you punching real strong, but the long tall skinny guys couldn't do it the same way so he adjusted what would work for them.
MA: Did Uehara Sensei ever talk about why he decided to open up his style to non-family students? This was rather unprecedented in the Udundi line.
JP: To me that was a hands-off topic. They never really discussed that with me. That was mostly a matter for the family itself.
MA: When you came back to the US, were you given instructions to begin a school or organization?
JP: Toma Sensei had requested that I start a school and association. I came back in 1970, but in 1984 we brought Toma Sensei to Pennsylvania. at that time we started our first association. We had a big seminar and formed the first USA Seidokan association where Toma Sensei appointed the different officers.
MA: Did you spend a lot of time at tournaments in the earlier days?
JP: Not that much. I went to a few of the original tournaments. To me it didn't show what the arts were all about anyway. Also I wasn't used to pulling punches and kicks which was a problem. Master Odo and Master Toma tended to fight with bogu gear and hard contact. so if you got in the "ring" you hit the other person. Here if you did that they would throw you out. That's what happened to me at least. I never denied my students the experience though. If they wanted to give it a try I would support them and go with them.
MA: With your experience across Okinawa Kenpo, Seidokan, and Motobu Udundi, how important do you feel natural movement is to success at higher levels?
JP: Kihon, basics, and everything is set in iron because you have to learn the core of the movements. Without that you can't get into doing natural stancework and techniques later on. So it's important, but not without the earlier stuff.
MA: Do you have any tips for individuals who have good kihon but are trying to get to that next level?
JP: Sure – relax and train. When Toma Sensei would see something that's not quite right he would just say "…more practice".
MA: Modern karate tends to be a mix of business and training, the balance of which can be difficult. What do you see as necessary for keeping the Okinawan spirit of karate alive?
JP: Toma Sensei always wanted us to open schools, and if you do that you have to have some business with it too. Here in the states that's just the way it is. Uehara Sensei didn't believe as much in having a formal school where you charge money for classes and so forth, so he never did that. I think if we stay true to the art and the way that we learned, the original way that we learned from our teachers and carry on what they were trying to give us, martial arts can still go a long way.
MA: Thanks a lot for your time and insight Paul Sensei!