Tuesday, May 26, 2009


There is a line in the Bible that lay at the heart of the dispute between Catholics and Protestants. Matthew 16:18 says...

"I tell you that you are Peter, and it is on this rock that I will build my congregation, and the powers of hell will not conquer it."

On the one hand, Catholics think that the rock is Peter, the person, and as the first father - or Pope - of the Church all heavenly authority derives from him. On the other, are the Protestants who believe that Jesus is speaking to Peter's faith and his disciple's faith - along with the faith of all believers - is the Rock which lay as the foundation for His congregation. As such Protestants believe that faith (and not adherence to the word of the Vatican) is the path to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Funnily, Islam has the same problem: the Hadith of the Pond of Khumm is interpreted in two fundamentally different ways leading to the schism between the lineages recognized by Shia and Sunni Muslims.

“Whomsoever’s mawla I am, this Ali is also his mawla. O Allah, befriend whosoever befriends him and be the enemy of whosoever is hostile to him.”

Sunnis interpret the word mawla to mean 'friend' making the hadith an innocuous statement on friendship and loyalty. Shias interpret mawla in this passage to mean 'master' - that he who follows Mohammed should follow Ali as well, establishing him and his line as the true authority descended down from the mighty Prophet. Sunnis make up the overwhelming majority of Islam, while Shias are overwhelmingly the majority in Iraq and Iran.

What does this have to do with me? I went to Karate today, to the dojo at Lawrence and Curlew. For the first time in at least 8 months, I ran on the hardwood floor, punched and kicked, kiai-ed and talked to my teacher. And I did the basic exercises that we've always done, the exercises that seemed so helpful and purposeful when I was younger and seem so contrived and monotonous now. I was there in the dojo looking at myself in the mirror asking myself - why? Why am I here when it seems like its going backwards? I've done so much thinking and work in the fighting arts and they're still moving like robots. How does this help me?

They were doing this one kihon in particular: open stance, tori steps forward and punches, uke sidesteps backwards, blocks then counters. I muddled through the exercise, trying to remember not to hit anyone too hard (one lady yudansha actually admonished me for hitting her at all) and politely accepting advice from sensei and other senior belts. And all the while I'm thinking: in a million years I would never step back from an opponent. If we're going to fight, why wouldn't I step forward? If I wanted to run, why wouldn't I just turn and run? How many hard strikes have ever been delivered by stepping backwards? I'm standing there thinking: If I needed to hit anyone in this room and they were stepping away from me, while trying to block, while trying to counter, I'd break a lot of noses. They could never step back fast enough. I'm standing there and the other belts are sheepishly pointing out where I'd gone wrong and the whole time I'm thinking: I don't want to be right...if fighting like this is being 'right' then I'd much rather be wrong and not suck. I'd much rather win a fight than internalize this little stepping game we're doing.

I'm thinking about how everyone there lowers their eyes to the target rather than keeping eye contact and seeing globally. I'm thinking about the fear I still see in the eyes of the yudansha when they see a big black dude in from of them (yeah, I know, they think I'm big -- it's pretty sad) and they are already thinking about how much my badly-controlled punch will hurt. I'm thinking about pulling my punches off course so that the exercise will work at all. I'm thinking about changing my footwork from what comes naturally to what is expected. I'm thinking about countering with a punch instead of the grab that would make more sense once the range has broken down. I'm thinking about all these contradictions, all these small annoyances that keep me from moving without thinking, that keep me from letting go. And I ask myself, why am I doing this? What's the point? Is this really my dojo?

My answer is twofold: Yes and No. 'Yes' in the sense that it is a building that gave me a start, set me on the path. 'Yes' in that it provided the foundation of the way that I fight, much as the Vatican serves as a foundation of Christian discourse. But 'No', my karate is not limited by this building. This building is not the end all. My dojo is within me. Much like the church is a part of each of us in the Protestant tradition, I carry my dojo around all the time. My mind is the place of my learning. I remember working with a fella once who said that he never let his schooling get in the way of his education. I resolve not to let the limited exploration of Karate and physical conflict at the dojo dimish my exploration of the same in MY dojo. I resolve to see Sensei not as some overarching, definitive fighting master: malwa, who stands above me but rather as a friend - malwa - a colleague helping to find what works best for me. I'll keep an open mind and show the respect due, but I won't follow blindly. I will see things for what they are.

It occurs to me that I very much want to be the example to them of what is possible. I want to get my black belt so that I can be in a position to open their minds a bit to ideas that are long overdue. Notions like real hikite from blocks and infighting, countering with different ranges. Throws that lead to immobilizations, strikes that set up foot throws and JKD's 5 ways of attack. I want to show them the difference between strikes that are defended by pushing forward (ju) and strikes cause you to pull backwards (aiki) and show why a straight back is essential against them both. I want to talk about ryote - married hands, sen, go no sen and sen no sen, kime, mushin, zanshin, fudoshin, ki. I want to take a punch, a hard punch from my rohai, and not wince...I want to encourage them to not pull punches, to practise on the makiwari and the heavy bag, to show them that there are worse things than getting hit and that Karate is about being strong and brave enough to take at least one punch. I want to show them what they've been missing.

I've seen what Karate can be, what fighting can be. To see the dojo is to be transported into the past - a look at just how far I've come. I've still a ways to go. But the good news is My dojo's door is always open.

- Kamil


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