I see things at the dojo on Curlew that make my blood simmer sometimes and sometimes I feel guilty that I'm being a karate snob. But it's so difficult to tell if I'm being too hard and expecting too much and assuming too much or if I'm in the right and my instincts are sound. One of the major lineages of karate, Goju-ryu, shepherded to the modern time by Chojun Miyagi and later Morio Higaonna, embodies karate's commitment to mind-body balance in its very name: Go is Japanese for 'hard', ju japanese for 'soft'. The hard-soft style, don't be always tight, don't be always loose. The hard part, obviously, is knowing when to be one and when to be the other. When the matter is a punch, effectiveness holds the key. Effectiveness in life is sometimes harder to determine.
So at karate tonight, I was doing the same go, san, ippon kumite that I absolutely loved doing last class. Except this time I was paired with a female yudansha, maybe a 4th or 5th dan. She's was middle-age, and her training has likely imbued her with the vitality of a younger person. She had pretty good eye contact and pretty good control. Is she a nice lady? Absolutely. Did she offer me pointers in a humble and discreet way? Yes, indeed. Was she sincere in her efforts to help my karate grow? No question. Should I expect the same sort of intensity in a 50 year old that I would in a 20 year old? No, and I don't.
Would I be afraid of this person, who has probably trained in karate as long as I've been alive, if we were to fight and one of us had to live and the other had to die?
This is my conundrum. Am I being too hard on this woman? Are my expectations of her unreasonable? Isn't karate supposed to imbue a fierceness within the meekest of people, a will to do what it takes and live or die with the consequences? Karate training should have enough toughness to it to give anyone a moment's pause when they look into your eyes. It isn't fear you project. It should be confidence. It should be Go, hardness, solidness. It should be certainty, the certainty that whatever the future holds, if you try to hurt me, you're in for a fight.
When I never see that in someone's eyes, it's hard for me. It's difficult for me to take their advice, or heed their counsel, when I know in my heart they wouldn't even put up a decent fight. These are the people that know a lot about Karate but don't know Karate. They know technique, but could never execute them with blood in their eyes. And they've never wondered whether or not they can. They can show you what to do, but not why you do it. They come to class, 3 days a week for years, and go through the motions, never pushing themselves, forever remaining Ju, soft. But if you don't reach down inside for that hardness in class, it won't appear out of nowhere when you need it most. The body that betrays you...the body that runs away, as Ushiro-Sensei says.
We're doing go hon, san bon and ippon kumite, and she punches and I'm blocking and she winces in pain. And since I'm not a monster, I ask if I'm going too hard (go), and she politely mentions that I am and I soften (ju). And she mentions it again. And I soften (ju). And she mentions things that I can try to soften (ju) more. And soften (ju) some more. I soften (ju) the motions so much that I'm not really doing them any more - I'm not trying to block her punch, I'm trying not to hurt her arm (And it wasn't a very good punch...people afraid to get hit are almost always also afraid to hit you and therefore pull their punches, which obviously, helps you both).
And this, sadly, is happening everywhere. Except in MY dojo. The owness is not on the person blocking to not hurt you. The owness is on you to either deal with the pain, learn to avoid getting hit there or get stronger. Especially when your partner is deliberately trying not to hurt you. I'm trying to be true to the exercise while being as gentle as possible and she's complaining I'm too rough, uncoordinated, out of control. But I could go really soft (ju) and it wouldn't hurt her arm at all - I just wouldn't be blocking the punch. Next we have to go to the opposite extreme. Imagine if I was trying to hurt her (go). If my best efforts at not hurting her can't succeed, how many punches would it take to down her if I punched her like my life depended on it? One?
In the oldest karateka in the world, I feel that that number should be two at the least. If you can't deal with, endure, withstand, deflect, avoid, or control two of someone's best punches before being overwhelmed, what is all this for? What was the 30 years of training for? Just to get into shape? Run marathons.
On top of all of that is the reality that the hard (go) blocks of karate - Jodan, Soto, Uchi and Gedan, - are supposed to be both defense and attack. Higaonna is fond of saying that if someone punches at you, your block should be able to break their arm, ending the affair in one motion. If you wanted to dance, dance. If you wanted to deflect, slap their hand away with a parry, like in boxing. This isn't dancing. This isn't boxing. This is karate. You are a weapon.
So there I am, being meek and respectful to a black belt with 10 years more training than me, who is telling me my blocks should be soft (ju). I don't want to compromise my beliefs and be disingenuous but I also didn't want to offend my sempai. I felt like asking her: Who should I listen to...you or Morio Higaonna? When Ushiro-sensei says to be soft (ju), it's softness wrapped around hardness (goju). His softness (ju) can toss (go) people. I've felt that softness that can toss people. This, was not that.
It would be one thing to say that you're block can be soft to grab someone or hard to hurt someone depending on the use. But that's not what she was saying. She was saying that what I was doing was wrong. When it wasn't. And I'm tempted to say that the pain in her arm was more important than whether what I was doing was effective. I'm also tempted to say that she just never took her training seriously enough to get blocked without bruising. Well, if you're afraid of bruising, why do you do karate? I'm mean, yeah, it's unpleasant. But it's also honest - the key to whether you're actually doing something or pretending to do something. Whether there was actually contact, or near contact. I would argue that if you went through a karate class without a bruise, bump or ache, your karate won't help you that much when you need it. How could you take karate for 3 decades and still be afraid of a punch?
Brown belts who don't know how to fall. Black belts afraid of punches. I really wonder what an Okinawan master like O-Sensei, who trained on grass and concrete and punched makiwara for hours and could pull his balls up into his abdomen, would have said about a couple of bruises. Am I being too go (hard)? Are they simply learning at their pace, in their way, all things relative, nothing hard (go) and fast, nothing absolute? Do I actually need to soften (ju) my blocks and soften (ju) my demeanor to be like the others at the dojo on Curlew? Do I want to be soft (ju) like them? Is it right to demand more: to expect more of myself? I'll meditate on these things.