Finding Equanimity Part III

1985, survivors of the training. Sensei Cain is fourth from the left in front, Dave Blazer is second from the left in the standing row.

Movement is everything

By Dave Blazer

We returned to California from Okinawa with a new kinesthetic understanding of what constituted a strong karate practice. We had seen hints of it from sensei Cain’s approach before we went, but three weeks of focused intensity had imprinted a sense of urgency on the students. The experience changed our view of what it meant to work hard and practice the art of karate correctly.

When we met with hanshi for the last time before we left Okinawa he told us through an interpreter with great seriousness, that the chain of black belt ranks is only as strong as the weakest link, and he asked that we maintain the standard that he demonstrated. We had no reservations about that at all, and vowed tireless effort.

This new level of intensity was welcomed by the majority of the senior students, but it took a toll on some of the younger, less experienced students. Sensei Cain was fully engaged in the practice of karate-do, he wasn’t there to make money or provide daycare for other people’s children.

As we returned to the mix of other dojos other students and instructors we noticed that the sense of urgency we had, and the importance we attached to our efforts, was lacking elsewhere.

The last time sensei Cain dressed for a workout. The sensei and students gathered to celebrate Dave Blazer’s birthday

There are significant cultural differences between American and Okinawan students. In Okinawa, teachers are highly respected; students subordinate themselves to their teacher’s vision; students work hard to be part of the same lineage as their teacher and are grateful for instruction.

In America, on the other hand, people tend to think of themselves as paying customers; there’s a debt of service owed them. It is almost impossible to reconcile the two outlooks. Often, though not always, Western martial artists dismiss the deeper cultural aspects of their fighting art of choice and focus on the mechanics.

A lack of giri makes it much more difficult for teachers in the West to transmit the full message of their martial art.

Often, westerners want to acquire the skills, but they tend to dismiss the philosophy of the art and the significance of its cultural setting. In particular, the Japanese concept of giri*, the reciprocal commitment to effort, does not always carry over to America, or feature in many teacher-student relationships.

As I saw these differences and understood them, it aided me in the process of teaching, but generally speaking it made me feel frustrated. A lack of giri makes it much more difficult for teachers in the West to transmit the full message of their martial art.

I read a paper that hanshi Nakazato wrote concerning the sporting aspects of karate that are opposed to the original intent of karate and he made the point that working at play and working at combat are two separate things. In one you get the reward of a trophy, while in the other you get to live. These two are very different viewpoints to keep in mind when developing a training program.

There is a group dynamic which is part of any exercise involving synchronized movement; in this case the performance of kata. Roughly, if you have eight people engaged in a difficult physical activity and bring in two novices, the newcomers will strive to acclimate. But if you have two adepts and bring in eight newcomers, you lose the right balance.

During a formal training session with the students of a high-ranking sempai, one of sensei Cain’s students and I were giving it our all. A senior student of that instructor, seeing this, said:

Take it easy. Pace yourselves.

The best we could manage was a sidelong glance, but the message was:

This isn’t The Way.

The keepers of Shorin-ryu’s history lean heavily toward a first person, oral tradition and over time they have written little concerning the mechanics and goals of the practice. The reason became apparent: you can talk about intensity and focus, and even show videos, but the only way to fully capture it is through guided discovery.

The teacher must take the student to that place where they can feel what it actually is that you are talking about, and then you have to keep them in that state long enough to imprint the feelings associated with that state on the student’s mind and body.

I realised that I had always desired equanimity; I had always wanted to have a neutral, objective and informed view of the world.

One of the requirements for the highest ranks, 9th dan and 10th dan, and the hanshi level is unclear: you are required to be a man of broad vision. There is no written description of what it means to be a man of broad vision, but the trustees and the senior members of the ryu know what the phrase means through a hundred year tradition. They were shown what it means to be a man of broad vision by their sempai, who embodied the principle.

I realised that I had always desired equanimity;  I had always wanted to have a neutral, objective and informed view of the world. This equanimity is similar to the feeling demonstrated by the still-minded judo players described in an Alan Watts book I first read in the 1960s.

Shortly after we returned from Okinawa, sensei Cain shared devastating news. He had lost a kidney in a training accident during his military service. His remaining kidney was failing. Cain remained active, but at one point he had to begin dialysis and later on he underwent a kidney transplant; the kidney was donated by one of his siblings.

This threw me into a demanding role at the dojo. He needed me to lead more class activities. When he returned to training, he limited brisk physical contact with students and relied on me and other senior students for that. His focus was on ensuring that we maintain the energy, urgency and serious intent of our training. Now, where he couldn’t lead, he pushed.

At the same time, I was reading all about martial arts and Eastern philosophy. I was also in formal education; I studied anatomy and physiology, judo and body conditioning at a California community college, and to earn money to live I worked at less demanding jobs. This enabled me to focus on my training and school.

Life pressures were difficult to avoid. I changed jobs to one where I needed to commute to the San Francisco Bay Area. I still lived in the same town as the dojo, but my commute made it more difficult to maintain my karate training and teaching schedule.

After receiving my associate degree in science, I transferred to the Dominican College of San Rafael (The Dominican). For two years I was enrolled in their Movement Education Program. The core of the curriculum was built on identifying and remediating movement related learning disabilities, something that I thought melded well with my intention to become a sensei.

Dr. Pat Hegerhorst, director of the program, contrasted the aims of her program to a similar programme at University of California at Berkeley like this:

If you go there, they’ll teach you how to measure how many children in an age group fall downstairs, I will show you how to teach them not to fall.’

I was a ‘two left feet’ type of guy. I thought I could better prepare and improve my own movements, as well as learning how to provide others with the guidance they would need to succeed.

I felt I had to move closer to the action and went to live in Berkeley. I was still driving to Fairfield for sensei Cain’s classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and also to Benicia, where I had started teaching my own karate classes to a small group of students on Friday nights and Sunday mornings. I did so in hopes that sensei Cain would recommend me for my instructor’s certificate.

I ran into the same problem of motivation I had been seeing there. They usually had prior martial arts experience, but were not easily brought into the routine. They weren’t used to working this hard, really pushing themselves both physically and mentally, but to their credit they began to get it.

Sensei Cain came to teach my small class once, and worked us all into a wet, steaming frenzy. It was cold in the Benicia dojo. Columns of steam rose off us while he talked.

If you are in peril for your very life, and you have one chance to make one more move, how much effort will you be willing to put into it?

Find that level and bring it into every move you make, even into the period of relaxation between moves. Never back off.

I had encouraged them to aspire to that level, but he made them feel it.

I was promoted, first to 2nd dan, then 3rd dan. The tests didn’t feel novel or dramatic any more, though they were still very demanding. I was used to the process of being examined and tested and becoming good at it. This raised the question in my mind. Was that real equanimity, or was it simply a state of calm competence coming from experience? My concept of the goal I was seeking was changing – not always consciously.

Was that real equanimity, or was it simply a state of calm competence coming from experience?

Fighting is part of all the promotion tests for adult karate students. It is something that initially is universally dreaded. But familiarity, and success, lower your anxiety. Sometimes you fight someone from a lower rank, sometimes a higher rank.

Cain would at times put you up against two people, and later even three opponents. The rules were spartan; no direct attacks to the eyes or throat, no attacks to arm and leg joins against their regular range of motion. Start when sensei says start! Stop when sensei says stop! Or suffer the consequences. Beyond that, anything went. On a hardwood floor the chances of getting bruised, scraped and dented were right there at 100%.

Around the time I was nervous while testing for 2nd kyu at brown belt level, sensei took me aside. He gripped my upper arm tightly, and in a low serious voice said:

Forget what you know or don’t know! Forget what you’re worried about! Relax! Give up! Go into it!

Yagyū Munenori would say this to you: ‘No design! No conception!’

And then he sent me out to fight.

I fought better than I ever had done, and remembered in Okinawa hanshi who told us that when we were concerned about the effect of something:

Find out what the effect is!

Studying at Dominican I began to see the interrelationships between the writings and thoughts of people like Michael Polanyi, Mircea Eiliade, Jean Piaget and Melanie Klein. This greatly expanded my understanding of both the teaching and learning processes. We depend upon movement to live. We can’t learn or teach, explore or guide without communicating through movement. Speech is movement. Movement is everything.

We depend upon movement to live. We can’t learn or teach, explore or guide without communicating through movement. Speech is movement. Movement is everything.

Michael Polanyi, especially, influenced me. You can learn everything there is to know about a subject, but fail to gather direct, personal experience. Polyani differentiates between having information about rather than true knowledge. His ideas are expressed economically in his book The Tacit Dimension (1966). Polanyi says: We can know more than we can tell. Not only is there knowledge that cannot be expressed in words, but all knowledge is rooted in what he called tacit knowledge. To me that meant experience. To learn karate is a place I could lead you to physically, but I can’t talk you there.

To learn karate is a place I could lead you to physically, but I can’t talk you there.

At Dominican two other courses influenced me: Theories and History of Personality given by the late Dr. Robert Shukraft, and Anthropology of Religion with Dr. Philip Novak. The first gave me greater insight into the way we think and relate to others, the second helped me become more aware of the frangiblity of the view humankind has of itself and the approach we take to exploring our world.

To learn karate is a place I could lead you to physically, but I can’t talk you there.

Dr. Shukraft suggested that our personalities consist of a collection of stories we tell about ourselves; some entirely true, some embellished or rewritten in our minds, some a memory of what we would like to have said or done and others outright fabrications. I was dumbstruck. I felt as you might if you were caught naked in a library.

How does he know that about me?

I was stimulated into to a new level of genuine honesty, or the best I could manage in order to maintain my positive self-image. Over time I was developing a much more refined filter with which to view my own life and activities. I favored action over theory.

Karate was created and developed in an atmosphere influenced by Buddhists and Chinese thought; a teacher at Dominican gave me a quick and dirty explanation of the relationship between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist thought. She said:

Theravada, the lesser wheel, commits you to enlightenment in this body, in this lifetime, Mahayana, as the greater wheel, commits you to staying in the world until all things are liberated from attachment and suffering.

Zen is moving forward in practice as fast as you can while helping anyone on a similar path to advance, as long as it doesn’t diminish your personal effort. It’s a balance. It’s the Middle Way.

After I graduated from Dominican in 1989, I got a job as a stockbroker at the invitation of one of my karate students. I went through the Dean Witter Reynolds company’s stock broker training program at an office in Northern California. Even so, I managed to maintain my training schedule for many years with little interruption. Still, real life was beginning to encroach.

Do shihan have the kind of equanimity I was looking for in my youth, or are they just supremely confident as a result of practice and experience? Is there a difference?

In 1991 my girlfriend and I decided to live on the Western Slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. After 10 years of consistent attendance, my regular attendance at the Tuesday and Thursday dojo classes was interrupted. But soon I was soon commuting to the Bay Area for work, and was I able to resume class attendance and work toward my shihan* license.

The western slope of the Sierra Nevada

Ten years after our memorable visit to Okinawa, Hanshi Nakazato came to Chico, California in 1994. The camp training sessions were held at Chico State University. Many people attended from all over the US. Sensei Cain, some of our other dojo members, and I spent a little time with him; we joined in with master Nakazato’s training sessions.

At the camp I made friends with Gamini Soysa. I am still in contact with him. Karate practice, quite naturally, has always helped form bonds of friendship -perhaps similar to those bonds formed by people joined together in other difficult endeavors. Respect is given and received in acknowledgement of levels of effort and accomplishment that are known and understood. This is the camaraderie of serious athletes.

Do shihan have the kind of equanimity I was looking for in my youth, or are they just supremely confident as a result of practice and experience? Is there a difference? I thought about it without reaching a conclusion.

Fighting is the thing I like least about karate.

When I was tested for 4th dan and the fighting segment came around, sensei Cain asked:

Are you worried?

No. I answered.

Do you need any guidance on how to deal with your opponents?

No thank you, Sensei.

I don’t remember enjoying the fighting, but I was happy with it because I was relatively unscathed. Fighting is the thing I like least about karate. This seems like a contradiction, but it is not. After the testing and awarding of our certificates he took me aside and said,

You don’t have to fight in the future if you don’t want to, unless I need you to help someone.

Why, sensei?

He said, Because you’re not afraid of it any more.

The vitality of hanshi Nakazato in his 80s

I gave up my classes in Benicia and started teaching at two dojos; one in Elk Grove, CA and another in Shingle Springs. I trained and taught at the former on Thursday nights on my way home from work in the Bay Area, and gave a morning class, to children and younger beginners on Saturday mornings, but the intensity of my own training was definitely on the wane.

Sensei Cain recommended me for my instructor’s license. I received it from hanshi Nakazato in April 1995. At this point, I suppose I should have tried to open my own dojo. Instead I spent less time on karate. In the mountains I had to work hard; I had to gather wood to keep us warm in winter. I needed to continue working in the Bay Area to finance our life in the Sierras. I was still functioning at a high level, I was not advancing significantly in my personal performance.

How did I feel about that after 20 years of hard work and loyalty? It felt good. Extremely good.

I started attending an annual camp in El Centro, California run by kyoshi, 8th dan, Nabil Noujaim, who I had met at the 1994 camp in Chico. In 1998 sensei Cain recommended me for promotion, which turned out to be my last. I was tested and promoted at the El Centro camp to 5th dan by a panel of three 8th dan kyoshi. To be honest, that was my peak as a performer of kata.

I was strong, and never got stronger.

hanashi Nakazato and shihan Blazer

Hanshi came one more time in 2004. There is a photo of hanshi and I shaking hands was when he recognized me at the 2004 El Centro camp. He saw me, stopped a hundred or so people working out in the gym, and called his photographer over for a picture. How did I feel about that? After 20 years of hard work and loyalty? It felt good. Extremely good.

After that, I focused on learning more and refining technique rather than trying to increase my strength. Being able to endure has become more and more vital to me.

*Shihan is an honorific title for expert, master, or senior martial arts instructors and is created using two Japanese characters: shi (師) meaning example or model and han (範) meaning master or exemplary practitioner.

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.