Monday, August 13, 2007

Faith and Rank

When Nathan asked me to guest post, I thought I was agreeing to a solitary post. Instead, he chose to give his guest bloggers three days each to post. Since I sustained a neck injury a couple weeks ago, I've had a hard time coming up with post ideas. Writing about class isn't an option when you can't attend, so I took this down time to read some books that I felt might further my knowledge of the martial arts. One book in particular gave me lots of blog fodder, so I figured I'd share the wealth and put my second post on "Karate Do My Way of Life" by Gichin Funakoshi right here, on this illustrious blog. If you'd like to read the first post inspired by Funakoshi, you can do so here. Be sure to check back as the days go by because Funakoshi is nothing if not full of useful quotes. Now, without further delay, I bring to you the controversial side of Black Belt Mama. . .

Is faith and religion about the church you attend, or is it about the individual and their own journey? It's an interesting question.

While I don't attend church on a regular basis, I do consider myself someone who has faith. Many people would say that true faith is going to church each week and worshipping with a community of people who feel the same way you do. To me, the church is a building. The relationship with a higher authority comes from within the individual. It doesn't matter if that relationship takes place on church grounds or if it's in your bed each night as you say prayers. Of course this is coming from a person who is practically a "Chreaster" (regular Christmas and Easter church-goer) so I may be a bit biased; but biased or not, I think I'm right about this one.

Because the martial arts are often associated with spirituality and development of the person, I started to think about the same concept in terms of the martial arts. Is the martial arts about the dojo you attend, or is it about the individual and their own journey? Does it matter if you study on your own, or within an organization that has rules, standards and kyu ranks?

I used to think that the martial arts was about the color wrapped around your waist. But with each successive promotion I realized that the color and stripes really can't reflect true knowledge, or the inner workings of a martial artist. Should rank be wholly about kata and memorization? Or should it be based on something more substantial? The original martial artists didn't have colored belts to signify their importance, so why do martial artists now place so much emphasis on them?

In "Karate Do My Way of Life", Gichin Funakoshi writes the following:


"Some youthful enthusiasts of karate believe that it can be learned only from instructors in a dojo, but such men are mere technicians, not true karateka. There is a Buddhist saying that 'anyplace can be a dojo,' and that is a saying that anyone who wants to follow the way of karate must never forget. Karate-do is not only the acquisition of certain defensive skills but also the mastering of the art of being a good and honest member of society."

So can you encounter "true karateka" in a dojo setting? Not all dojo's are run by "mere technicians" but the point is definitely a valid one. Anyone in the martial arts has heard the term "McDojo" and stories about dojo's charging a ridiculous amount of money to learn their chosen art. Unfortunately, there are also stories about karate instructors who have less than noble intentions. We've all heard stories about domineering instructors and even students, who use their skills to intentionally hurt others to prove how "good" they really are at their "art."

Funakoshi makes it very clear that it takes a certain kind of person to be a true karateka.


"He who thinks about himself alone and is inconsiderate of others is not qualified to learn Karate-do. Serious students of the art, I have discovered, are always highly considerate of one another. They also demonstrate the great steadfastness of purpose that is essential if one is to continue studying karate over the long period of time that is required."

It is often heard that once you attain black belt, you're always a black belt. However, any rank up to black belt means nothing if you quit and go back years later. You have to start from scratch. Starting from scratch of course, assumes that you think your accomplishments can only be verified by the color wrapped around your waist. The knowledge that any martial artist takes away from the dojo is theirs to keep and no one can strip that from them, even if the belt and its perceived meaning is taken away.

What is happening on the inside is always more relevant and important than what is happening on the outside. People attending church each week, who leave the building and don't practice courtesy towards others are not going to get an easy pass to heaven just because they are sitting in the pew each week. And karate-ka's who are only concerned with how hard they kick and punch are missing an important element of the martial arts, one that great masters knew was inherently important.

4 comments:

John Vesia said...

I remember the stories my father would tell me about the mafia guys from his neighborhood that would show up for church every Sunday. Like that really helped. I should talk, I haven't been to church in years.

Your point about colored belts reminds me of a scene from The Karate Kid. Mr. Miyagi says, "Karate here (points to his heart) and here (points to his head); never here (points to his waist)." I never read that famous work by Funakoshi, but I know that the development of character was central to his way of karate. It's all about the inner journey. Good post, BBM.

Steve said...

Two things came to mind when reading this post. First, it reminded me of an article I read once on what the author believed to be common Martial Arts training myths. While many are debatable, I found the article thought provoking in that it distinguished for me the respect and personal growth inherent to effective training and the airs of authority and mysticism that are found in some modern schools. I personally agree with the author that, while courtesy and respect are important, many of the trappings of martial arts are unnecessary to training and, at least for me, are more of a distraction than anything else.

Second thing you brought to mind is an article I read on Dojo Rat's blog where he wrote an article called When Does a Class become a Cult.

I guess the way I see it is that for a spiritual person, every activity will carry with it some degree of spirituality, whether it's golf, martial arts, cooking or whatever. Also, spirituality, while a perfectly valid reason to pursue anything, should be secondary to gaining some degree of martial skill if the activity is a martial art. In other words, regardless of spiritual gains, a martial art must first and foremost teach martial skill. I hope that makes sense!

As always, very interesting read, BBM.

Black Belt Mama said...

John: I've heard those stories too. That's exactly what I'm talking about. And why didn't I quote Mr. Miyagi? I should have-I loved that part in the movie.

Steve: Yeah, I'm not interested in all the mysticism and hoky cult-like rituals. But (to go back to Karate Kid for a brief moment here) Cobra Kai like schools and attitudes in the martial arts absolutely do exist. My point is that a good martial artist should know the appropriate time to use his/her skills, and that as you learn skills in the martial arts, you should also learn the proper restraint and respect for the arts.

Funakoshi also said that "karate begins and ends with courtesy"-something like that anyway, and I think that should absolutely be the case.

If you read Funakoshi's book, what's striking is how different society was then from the way it is now. There was much more courtesy shown towards other human beings, less jealousy, and an overall sense of responsibility to be a good and honorable person. That's what I was talking about, not the crazy candlelight knife ceremonies as DR discussed. ;-)

Thanks for your comments!

Scott said...

The school and belt importance reminds me of my first taekwondo instructor. I knew him for 5 years. At the start, he was fresh out of the Air Force and had integrity and was a good guy.

But at the end of the 5 years he had mutated into a real slimeball. The culprit? Money! He turned into a liar, abused his assistant instructors, stopped teaching classes himself so he could sit in his office and count stacks of money, and was basically running a belt mill.

(Belt Mill = show up with a progressively larger check every 3 months, take your test, and you get a new belt!)