Author: Shihan Graeme

Every martial arts teacher has been concerned that students, even the best students, randomly fail to attend class or step up when their attendance, commitment or support is needed. One day I was discussing this with my Shihan and he said to me "Some people do karate because it’s there. Others see it as a total life commitment and put it at the top of their priorities." I have thought about this a great deal because I, like many other martial arts teachers have suffered at the hands of students who don’t really seem to care, or don’t seem to care enough. Often times these same students say how they love karate and how much they are committed to it.

What does this mean? Well for example, you have an opportunity to visit your mother-in-law or go to karate class. Karate wins. Easy isn’t it? Or, you have an opportunity to go out with your friends to a concert or go to karate class. Not so easy now. Maybe karate wins, maybe not. Or, you have a chance to make $2,000, or go to karate class. Getting hard now. Or, your wife/husband says "I want you to do this with me. You can always go to karate another time." Now it’s getting really hard. The choice you make depends on your value system and how you have organised your life. It depends on a lot of things. You are a 6th kyu, so the choices aren’t so hard. But you’re a Nidan who should train more. Different now. Try this, you’re the teacher and 25 students are depending on you to open the dojo and conduct the class. Now what’s your decision? It’s all about commitment.

Well, the karate teacher is a nice chap, who won’t rant and rave. And you paid your fees. And you haven’t made any commitment even though you’ve been training for a long time. Anyway, you’re going to clean your act up and be more regular next year. Or the year after. Or whenever. I bet you don’t turn up to class or club activities a lot, but you’re always promising

Karate is always there right?

I am reminded of a story I heard a long time ago. A martial arts student in Japan said to his teacher: "Master, I could not attend class yesterday, would you please teach me what I missed?" The answer: "No, you have missed that lesson and it will never be taught again. Yesterday has gone. Perhaps the same subject matter will be covered again one day, who knows when, but that lesson is gone and you have missed it." There have been innumerable times when I have prepared and taught particular material in a class, and have been disappointed that the very student who would benefit most from the class was absent.

Years ago I lost my job in a reorganisation and down sizing of my company. I began full time martial arts practice. After some three months, I telephoned my Shihan in Sydney and asked him if I could come and study with him. His answer: "No, keep on going the way you are. Keep on practicing by yourself." I was very disappointed by Shihan’s answer. The club had just split up, I had lost my local teacher, I was running a dojo without any help, I had lost my job, I was a alone and struggling. Six or seven weeks later the phone rang. It was Shihan: "Graeme, pack your bags, and come up to Sydney to train with me, next week."

What was the lesson? Well I certainly learned it. Do you know what it was? Karate is always there, right?

Recently one of my Shodans failed to attend a Gassaku with our Shihan, even though it is a yearly event, and the whole year is spent in preparation and fund raising. He had every opportunity to attend, but was, at the last minute, overwhelmed by financial circumstances that he could not cope with. He spoke to Shihan about his inability and was told "You have a Black Belt in karate, now it is time for you to earn your Black Belt in life". I have thought about the meaning of Shihan’s words a great deal. I hope this young man has too. Because a Black Belt in life is a thousand times more valuable than a Black Belt in karate.

Most people start karate with either no idea whatsoever of what they are getting into, or some romantic notion that they are going to emulate the great martial arts movie stars (or turtles) of our time. I have lost count of the number of enquiries I have received from people wanting to learn fighting skills only. Equally, I have lost lots of students, (and lost even more who observed a class and never came back), because we train too hard. What they didn’t realise is that the karate training is easy. Its the training in life that is hard.

Any fool can train hard. There’s no prizes for sweat and aching or broken bones. We have all had those. It doesn’t impress me one little bit if you train in minus ten degrees under a waterfall or perform kata in bare feet on broken glass. Of course it’s important to train hard to polish the spirit, but some people train hard with NO spirit. A karate teacher’s job is to help students develop their spirit, and training in a broader sense than physical effort is required.

I can train just about anybody to achieve their Black Belt, but my mission is to help people unleash their full potential by discovering their true selves. Dojo around the world are full of people wearing Black Belts, but amongst them are very few who are true martial artists, who are consciously and unremittingly working towards developing their own human excellence in every aspect of their lives.

In discussing this with Shihan a long time ago, he said to me that every master dreams of finding a true martial artist amongst his students, and at the end of his life can consider himself very lucky if he has found just ONE! He is indeed blessed if has two or three!

But karate is for everyone, even those who are not the "one in a million". So where does this leave the karate teacher? Well, every person who begins karate, even for a short time is touched by it, and their life is permanently altered, even if only in a small way. Every single life experience we have alters our future. If the student stays with the martial arts and progresses through the Black Belt ranks, they are rare people indeed, because most don’t even make it to Shodan. It is these rare people that the karate teacher or Master focuses upon and commits to teaching the true ways of the martial arts. Of this small group, only a very, very small number actually respond to the Master’s teachings. The others improve of course, and become better people, even perhaps karate teachers of sorts in future years. They will end up with students of sorts, until perhaps they are lucky enough to have a "one in a million" student who will outgrow this teacher and leave, looking for a true master.

I have a Nidan who said to me, Sensei, I cannot attend advanced training this week, because I have a party to attend. A PARTY? Yes, seems this young man had been invited to attend a meaningless drinkup of university "friends" and was about to put this ahead of his own training, and the need to support his club and his colleagues. Well, despite strong counselling by two sensei’s, he decided that the party was more important in his life at that time. It was a pity this conversation had to take place at all, because I had hoped for better, but I am glad, because it gave me the opportunity to discuss the concept of "Instead of, or As well as", with my Black Belts.

Life is full of choices. It’s full of conflicts and pressures upon us. If these conflicts and pressures were to cease we would be dead. Life is a series of challenges. How you step up and deal with them speaks volumes about who you are as a person. And I can’t make these decisions for you because your own existence as a person depends on you confronting and dealing with reality. Of course you may need guidance, support, and encouragement, but finally you must take responsibility for yourself. In any event, if I tell you what to do, or what’s worse, make you do it, then it’s meaningless, because it’s your life, and you’re you and I’m me. I am talking about mature people here, not children, who of course must have some decisions made for them because they are not capable of making some decisions.

Most human problems are caused by people making ill-informed, or wrong choices. Growth as a human being reflects your ability to use discriminating thought, and to make the right choices between competing priorities. This infers you have a well developed value system and a clear understanding of potential outcomes. Every human being is confronted by these conflicts, but it is the way in which you deal with them that defines your true spirit. It’s also possible that you may put different values on some things than me, but, as your teacher I am trying to develop your broader understanding of your life, and the ramification your decisions may have on not only yourself, but others.

All human beings would benefit enormously from making it their business to expose themselves to the art of decision making. This can be by reading books, listening to cassette tapes or attending a course. Without some understanding of the process of decision making, we run the risk of having a very poor average in the quality of the decisions we make, no matter how smart we are. I commend the work of Louis Allen, James Rohn, and Anthony Robbins to anybody wanting to learn more of this subject, although just about any management text will provide guidance to you.

In exposing yourself to some decision making techniques, you will take away the "hit or miss" nature of your decisions. They will stand up to rigorous examination, even if wrong. They will make you open to viable alternatives and tell you the potential costs, dangers and advantages in particular courses of actions. A decision making technique will also open you to the concept of can I do "A" and "B", or can I achieve both results differently, or is it truly a case of only one course of action possible, in which case it’s really important to pick the right one. In other words, a more flexible thinking process can open up the possibility of achieving several things at once. Or, letting you explore whether it is a case of "instead of", or "as well as". As you get better at decision making it becomes an internal thinking process which can take place almost subconsciously. As you learn over the years you will become wise.

An early karate teacher of mine put enormous pressure on his students to train and strive for martial arts excellence. He lost many students because of this. His wife told me one day that one of the Shodans complained to her that her husband put too much pressure on people. He didn’t realise that is the teacher’s job. He can put more pressure on you than you can put on yourself, therefore he is encouraging you to a higher level of performance and therefore assisting you to grow. To the best of my knowledge, that Shodan has ceased training. Another one who couldn’t respond to the pressure.

My Shihan puts more pressure on me than I think can stand sometimes. But if pressure is constructive then it’s a growth mechanism. So I in turn put pressure on my students. If they grow, then fine, if not, then fine.

A Shodan of mine recently made himself unavailable for a club meeting which he was instrumental in setting up, and for which his input and commitment was important. Now his reasons for not attending were to him, very important and he was sorry that he could not attend. I cannot fault his decision because he had to weigh up all the factors involved and come up with a decision that fitted his value system. He said to me that he wanted to attend, and that circumstances made it very hard. Without those particular circumstances it wouldn’t have been hard and he would have happily attended. I replied that if it wasn’t hard, that if it had been easy, it wouldn’t have called for any particular effort, and therefore wouldn’t have provided any opportunity to display extraordinary action. If it’s easy it’s no challenge.

One of my Shodans wrote in his Shodan assigment when he was 17 years of age: that "......if Karate was easy, anyone could do it, therefore the individual and the Art would no longer be special." This is a very special insight from one so young.

An ex-Prime Minister of Australia is famous amongst other things, for saying "Life wasn’t meant to be easy". How true.

James Rohn said something that I have always remembered and have tried to live by: "Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better". I guess we should go further and say, work, work, work, on being better. As a person. As a true person.

For this is one of the greatest challenges in life. It is the great challenge in martial arts. It’s what the "Do" in karate-do is all about.

I had lunch a few years ago with a prominent Melbourne Psychiatrist, over a very nice lunch, which fortunately he was paying for, he said to me, "Graeme, you study martial arts. Answer me a question. Most people who consult psychiatrists are wrestling with a single, fundamental question, irrespective of their apparent reason for seeking help. It is the question actually that all human beings ask. It is the question that is answered in your study of karatedo. What is this fundamental human question?"

The question is "Who am I?"

This question is at the back of everybody’s mind. In martial arts, your teacher is helping you to find the answer. The answer is your own true self. That’s easy for me to say, but actually finding your true self is a long, hard and tortuous journey, the journey of life itself.

No matter what you say, or what you do, you are you. But you can grow, polish your human spirit and become a better person. Become more and more your own true self. But you have to work at it. You must sacrifice, you must study Zen and explore your own existence and meaning. Your teacher will help you but you must be there. In spirit as well as body. Otherwise you are just another of the million. You are not yet extraordinary.

But you say, if I work at getting my life in order, and get over all these problems, then I will be able to concentrate and give my full attention to karate. Wrong. The problems will never be over. It will always be a case of this, or that, or karate.

Can anybody become "extraordinary"? I suppose its like the question "is intelligence inherited or learned?". I think very few people will discover their own true self in this life. However everybody can grow and learn, and improve themselves. So that is part of the karate teacher’s job. As Shihan said to me, a karate teacher must be like a parent, helping students to grow and develop. Sometimes he must be harsh, sometimes warm and nurturing. But it is all for the good, to help people to grow and improve so that one day they will understand and see themselves clearly. Then they will know who they are.

A little while ago I said to Shihan: there are people who lead bad lives. Cheat, lie, steal, murder, commit crimes. Then on their death bed, confess and find religion. Are they saved? Does one minute of repentance and "discovering God" make up for an evil life? Shihan said no, they cannot make up for a bad life like that. In Buddhism they must be reincarnated to suffer because they failed to grow in this life.

Can you put off your deeper struggle with martial arts until you are ready? No, because martial arts is life. Imagine you died tomorrow. What regrets would you have? Think on this, would you regret cutting karate class? Well, there’s a lot of things you would do today if tomorrow was going to be your last day. Would karate be one of them?

Live every single day as if it was going to be your last, because one day it will be. Or if you like, live everyday as if it’s the first day of the rest of your life.

But live today and stand up and say this is me, my best me. NOW.

In all things, to your own true self be true.