A 50 year journey through oriental philosophy and Karate
By Dave Blazer
I don’t really remember when the martial arts and their related philosophy first came into my consciousness. I’m going to guess it was through something in entertainment, such as a rerun of ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ with Spencer Tracy demonstrating some judo moves. Perhaps I saw something similar in a war movie of the time, probably in the late 50s to early 60s.
I do remember clearly what motivated me to start my 50 year journey along the paths of Asian martial arts and Buddhist philosophy. The older sister of a friend was studying philosophy and German at Rutgers. She was three years ahead of us in school. In the summer of 1968 I was about to start my last year of high school and she was about to be a junior at Rutgers.
After a couple of talks about her interests, I mentioned that I hadn’t bonded with Christianity. She pointed out that there were other options – a fairly unusual point of view in rural Ohio in the 60s. She gave me her copy of ‘The Spirit of Zen’ by Alan Watts. Reading that first Watts book I was intrigued by the reasons he gave for why martial artists were drawn to Zen. He said it was for the development of a still, balanced and ready mind.
I wanted that thing I called calm fearlessness.
As a smaller than average, near-sighted and anxious young man, that idea appealed to me more powerfully than anything else I had encountered up to that time. More than any proficiency at sports, or my previous hobby, shooting, I wanted that thing that I called calm fearlessness.
To describe the 16-year-old me as jumpy is a real understatement.
At some point while reading Watts, Philip Kapleau, and trying on D.T. Suzuki (which I found too scholarly) and moving on to Shunryū Suzuki, I got the idea that martial arts were, or could be, a ‘moving’ Zen practice as opposed to sitting meditation; doing something to find the goal in spiritual terms, rather than doing what to me was ‘nothing’, holding still to find something.
Exactly how to explain what that meant at the time escapes me to this day. I do know that I was terrible at holding still, a combination of impatience and probably more than a little ADHD, coupled with over-easily activated adrenal glands prevented me. To describe the 16-year-old me as jumpy is a real understatement.
There wasn’t much going on in the martial arts or Asian philosophy in rural Ohio in the late 60s,
It was a chance to get somewhere without having to settle myself down; which I later realized should have been my initial goal. I didn’t want to be a scholar; I wanted a tangible, physical result. I didn’t know where I wanted to go exactly, so that complicated the process of finding my way.
There wasn’t much going on in the martial arts or Asian philosophy in rural Ohio in the late 60s, so other than reading the material available locally courtesy of Andrew Carnegie, the action portion of my quest was on hold until I went into the Navy in 1971. After training in cryptology, I was deployed to the Philippines at the end of that year.
The isolated base I was stationed on, Naval Communications Station San Miguel, San Antonio, Zambales Province, was on the beach on the west coast of Luzon about 60 miles away, as the crow flies, from Manila – twice that in actual road miles. It was really a beautiful place, but the first thing I noticed was that a karate class was available on-base. It was run by some young adherents of the Shotokan school of Japanese karate, a very well developed and respected school. I started spending what leisure time I had with them.
I only knew that karate was difficult; physically demanding and that it was intimidating in the extreme to do karate in real life.
I worked hard at learning the kata. These are movement forms that are shorthand versions of fighting techniques. They have a logical order and are practiced for muscle memory, and a sort of operant conditioning to alter your reflexive response to stimuli. Over many years the concept of visualization of an opponent enters into play, but initially just remembering the movement patterns was challenging enough.
I got a good start over two years. At that time I only knew that karate was difficult, physically demanding, and that it was intimidating in the extreme to do karate in real life. Also, the weather in the Philippines was punishing. Sparring, a loosely controlled form of near fighting, was daunting.
In some respects, doing a kata well is like the pinnacle of dance performance
It’s possible to learn a lot about a physical sport/activity without experiencing the full range of mental, emotional and physiological stresses present. Having experience of that same activity is a different story. I adapted, but the reality was an eye opener in that regard.
In some respects doing group kata well is like the pinnacle of dance performance, what Wm. McNeill addresses in his book ‘Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History’. The class resembles choreographed rugby, at full tilt. Imagine doing kata at high speed, using all of your strength, and for two hours. Then, line up 8-12 individuals and have them do it together at the same time. It’s like riding the biggest wave you’ll ever find.
Doing Karate well is like playing choreographed rugby, at full tilt.
When I returned to the U.S. I sampled a couple of other schools, or ‘ryu’, but nothing really grabbed my attention. I tried judo at a community college with a highly qualified Japanese American sensei (teacher), a sixth dan (rank) from the Kodokan, the recognized world headquarters of judo. I also had some experience of Aikido with a well-respected teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. Judo had a very competitive aspect, which didn’t really interest me, and Aikido was a bit too esoteric for my mindset at the time.
I vaguely wanted results without actual defined goals. During that time I met a student and qualified teacher of Shorin-ryu Shorin-kan karate of about my age who was teaching in the Bay Area town of Fairfield, California where I was living. Shorin-ryu is a very well known ryu in Okinawa, one of the originals. I went to see his class in operation and it was much more intense, fast-paced and demanding than anything I had been involved with previously.
I was both intimidated and impressed, but ready to see where it might take me. The instructor had spent years on Okinawa serving in the Air Force, and was a dedicated student and teacher, and more importantly for me a direct student of Hanshi, judan (10th rank) Shugoro Nakazato, the grand master of Shorin-ryu Shorin-kan. In my mind at the time, the real deal.
If you weren’t there, dressed and ready at 7:30 pm you couldn’t come in. There was a formal bowing. No talking, leaning on walls, or other distractions.
My teacher’s name was Gary W. Cain, at the time ranked yondan, (4th rank) and a certified shihan (certified instructor/model teacher) he put forward the idea that if you know that the material is comprehensive, and leads to the goal you seek; you can feel confident to just do the work and realize the benefits of the training for yourself. I set out to do that to the best of my ability.
The training was physically demanding, and the dojo rules were strict. If you weren’t there, dressed and ready at 7:30PM you couldn’t come in. There was a formal bowing. No talking, leaning on walls, or other distractions.
We trained from 7:30-9:30PM two nights a week, sometimes later. I began to see a correlation between my feelings of anxiety over being there on time, knowing the material and performing well the rituals of the classes. I could see that the framework for improving my abilities in those areas presented an opportunity to reduce my anxiety.
I could see that the framework for improving my abilities in those areas presented an opportunity to reduce my anxiety.
In our time away from the formal classes students were encouraged to practice what we were learning, and to work on cardio, lightweight training, and anything else that would increase our endurance, strength and agility. I didn’t have a lot of local friends at the time other than from the motorcycle dealer where I worked, so this opened a door to a new circle of friends.
The social aspects of the dojo became an important part of my life. We started hiking, camping, fishing and otherwise enjoying the outdoors in Northern California. Sharing karate with people I knew well enough to discuss my fears, hopes and concerns with enriched the experience for me. As in any social group, we had people come and go through personal crises, military transfers, loss of interest or motivation, and other reasons.
There was always a core group of 6-8 students who had the drive, energy and commitment to be there; to learn the formal exercises which are divided into kihon (basic drills) and kata (forms) properly takes around 3-4 years of pretty constant work and attention.
I was tested, usually twice a year, in the spring and fall. The tests were grueling; half-day marathons of exercises
There are six basic blocking and punching drills and 14 open hand kata. The kata consists of a pattern of predetermined movements, most having between 30 and 50 component moves. Each of the moves is either part of the kata or stands alone as an application, or bunkai. These, more or less, are the rules of the game, and then you have to work on the practice.
I became friends with another student, who came to the dojo from Oakland on Thursday nights. We would meet in the park and start practicing before class to get some extra time in and for me to help him with his forms. The repetition by teaching what I had learned, and verbalizing and physically actualizing it, built further self assurance and confidence in my new skills. That friendship and mutual effort continues to this day, now over 40 years later.
I was living with a woman … she understood my motivation and didn’t challenge karate for my attention.
Together with some of the other students, we started informal classes. It was just kata practice a couple of days in the week; in the park, or in the garage of one of the members, or wherever we could find a quiet space. I threw myself into it and had few distractions. I was working at an easy job that allowed me to devote my main focus on the practice and go to school, and I was living with a woman who participated in the class initially and, although she eventually dropped the practice, she understood my motivation and didn’t challenge karate for my attention.
As time went by I was tested, usually twice a year, in the spring and fall. The tests were grueling; half-day marathons of exercises, performance of the forms and demonstrations of knowledge of the bunkai. To do 1,000 setups, 1,000 pushups, and 1,000 jumping jacks was a regular warmup for the rest of the day.
I reached 1st kyu, brown belt, in the fall of 1983.
We operated within the Japanese rank system, for ten kyu and ten dan, “place” and “rank” respectively, which was first introduced in the 17th century by Honinbo Dosaku, a grandmaster of the Japanese two player logical board game ‘Go’. He introduced the system, as a method of handicapping the game. It was adapted first by the judo community and then expanded to include other Japanese and Korean martial arts. Over the next three years I was promoted through the kyu levels, advancing every six months to a year, until I reached 1st kyu, brown belt, in the fall of 1983.
I found my confidence rising and my anxiety about confrontations, physical, verbal and emotional, fading noticeably.
As I began to advance in knowledge and experience. I found my confidence rising and my anxiety about confrontations, physical and verbal and emotional, fading noticeably.
One of the key ideas put forward by Master Nakazato was that the ultimate goal of mankind should be co-prosperity in peace, and another that students should develop a democratic spirit, with which they should feel free to speak their minds on social issues. He believed that in the absence of fears related to conflict, a more receptive, relaxed and confident person would benefit their society through strength of character, not violence.
I have always been a non-violent person, but out of fear and anxiety. To be that from a position of strength was an enormously powerful idea for me. After three and a half years of working on performing the kihons and kata and learning the bunkai, our teacher proposed an adventure.
One of the precepts put forward by Master Nakazato was that the ultimate goal of mankind should be co-prosperity in peace, and another that students should develop a democratic spirit,
Three of us were eligible in all respects for promotion to shodan, the 1st level or rank of the black belt. He suggested we plan a trip to Okinawa to test for our black belts before master Nakazato and the association members. The idea was to go for as much of a month as time and money allowed.
I had been saving for a newer car for a couple of years, my first marriage had ended at the same time as my decade of naval service, and money was in very short supply. I had about $3,500 saved toward the car, and immediately decided I’d rather go to Okinawa for a month and drive the old one as long as I could. A chance to travel to Japan, and see real karate at one of the true sources of the practice. How could I refuse?
Three of us were eligible in all respects for promotion to shodan, the 1st level or rank of the black belt
After comparing everybody’s windows of opportunity it was decided that we could all go for three weeks in the spring of 1984. Four of us, sensei Cain and three 1st kyu students would go. My job in a large multi-franchise motorcycle business was slow in the spring, and my boss said I could take a month off, unfortunately without pay. That was daunting at the time, but I decided to just go with it and I am and will remain eternally grateful that I made that decision.
Dave Blazer is a retired financial securities industry manager and technical expert with a life long interest in Asian philosophy and martial arts. He is also a struggling left handed Blues Guitarist.
He served as a cryptographic and systems management technician in the U.S. Navy for nine years, and attended the Dominican College of San Rafael, CA. He was involved with the securities industry for nearly 30 years.
His martial arts career has spanned 50 years.