Karate requires a lot of dedication and commitment. This should go without saying, although as an instructor I have often found myself HAVING to say it. I have had a number of people who have come to train and have seen it all: sports enthusiasts, athletes, boxers and practitioners of a different style of martial art. But one thing remains consistent, regardless of your background: you have to start from scratch.
“Empty Your Cup…”Zen Proverb
I’m sure some of you have heard the story… The one about a scholar who visited a wise Zen master and asked him to teach him Zen. Although the Zen Master did his best to try and teach the scholar, he kept interrupting and providing his own stories and opinions. The Zen Master calmly suggested that the pair have tea.
The Master poured a cup for the scholar. Although the cup was full, the Master kept pouring until the cup was overflowing. The scholar asked the Master to stop because the cup was already full. The Master agreed that it was and replied, “You are like this cup; so full of ideas that nothing else will fit in. Come back to me with an empty cup.”
There are a number of different versions of this story. I believe that even Bruce Lee offered up his own version at some point, but the lesson remains the same. You can’t walk into a dojo with a chip on your shoulder and expect to learn something. This reminds me of two stories…
“Empty Your Cup So That It May Be Filled; Become Devoid To Gain Totality.”Bruce Lee
The first story goes back to the late 80’s, early 90’s… I was a white belt on the cusp of promoting to green. I had been training hard; three days in class and the remaining days, training at home. I was pretty good, despite being in my teens and how much of a conceit that likely sounds. I had gained mass and became larger than life; speed and precision were my tools.
One day, we had a guy who walked in off the street and wanted to learn karate. As was our custom, we explained that he could try a couple of classes to see if he liked it and if it would be something he would pursue. The man agreed to this and participated in his first class. It seemed to go well.
On his second class, we were paired off and practiced some punching drills. As luck would have it, I was paired with him. He struck me several times, causing pain and some mild injury. He had a grin on his face and when I explained that we weren’t supposed to be having contact with each other for this drill, his explanation was that this was karate and I should be able to block if someone punched. Really, asshole? That’s what you’re taking from it?
Sensei saw the entire exchange and opted to pair up with the man on the next run. Foolishly, the man tried the same tactics with Sensei, who was having none of it. Sensei exchanged blow for blow with the guy, without harming him (in any significant way). The guy inevitably ended up bowing out and stepping to the back of the class. Sensei stopped the drill and followed the man to the back of the class and spoke the words that have stuck in my head for almost three decades…
“We are here to learn and teach karate. In order to learn, you have to let yourself be taught. You can’t learn if you bully your way through the people trying to teach you. And you certainly don’t come into a karate dojo with the attitude you possess. Come back when you’re ready to learn…”
The man left and we never saw him again. The second story comes much more recently… It started when I joined the Regina Institute of Kempo Karate in 2016. By that point, I had been studying karate for over 28 years. I hold a black belt and have proven my skills more times than I could count.
But when I walked into Kempo to watch that first night and the head instructor asked if I’d ever studied karate, I admitted that I had. But I wanted to learn their art in as pure a way as possible. I told the Master that I wished to start with them as a white belt. He was taken aback, considering I was already a black belt.
I walked into the Kempo dojo the following class with a white belt around my waist. I’ll admit it felt strange, wearing white around my waist when I hadn’t done so in over twenty years. But I bowed into the class and was as proud of the white belt around my waist as I was of the black one that represented my style.
The head instructor ended up forbidding me from wearing white, as he considered it an insult to my Sensei for me NOT to acknowledge my rank. The next class saw my gi adorned with my black belt, but I still held fast to the back of the class and remained humble. And this has been my practice for the past three years.
I’ve had opportunities to coach and correct some of the junior students, which has been great. But for the most part, I’ve accepted my role as a student and have spent the majority of my time learning as opposed to teaching. And this is the important part of today’s post…
The most important part of mastering any skill is rooted in one’s ability to learn. You have to open yourself up not only to learning, but to criticism and correction. Even if you’ve studied something prior to walking in, you have to be willing to admit that you may know NOTHING about the art you’ve chosen to add to your repertoire.
Although studying two arts at once includes a significant number of issues on its own, as long as you humble yourself and be wiling to empty your cup, there’s always a little more room to learn.
Think about it… Let’s examine one of the most basic techniques in the martial arts: a punch. If a 20-year student tells you that they’ve learned how to punch, that’s fine. If that same 20-year student told you that they “mastered” how to punch, they’d be lying as there’s always something more to learn.
And that’s how you should approach anything you try to learn. Face it as a beginner and learn as much as you can. Even a master can be humble in the face of learning something new. ☯