I Don't Care How You Spell It, Honor Is Important…

Honor is an important aspect of life and society. We hear a lot about it in the movies and in books, but we don’t always lend much thought to the prospect of honour within our own lives. Most people adhere to a system of honor without even realizing it. Maybe you were raised on a system of honor and you stick to it without acknowledging that this is what you’re doing.

Honor is a very fluid word, and holds a number of different definitions depending on the context. For the most part, it means sticking to what’s right or following a code of conduct. If you look at it as an action, it means to have great respect for something/someone or hold them in high esteem. it can also mean to fulfill a previously made agreement.

“Stand Up For What’s Right, Even If You Are Standing Alone!”

Suzy Kassem

For the most part, honor is mentioned and/or covered in great detail in many of the books I’ve read; the Hagakure, The Bubishi (Karate bible), The Art of War, Bushido’s Code and The Book of Five Rings, among many others. And those are just the “non-fiction” books. One of the main characters from my favourite book series, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, lives his existence based on a code of honor he sticks to quite fervently.

Depending on what system or style of martial art you’ve studied, aspects of honor is covered by a number of different rules; protect the weak, never attack the helpless, follow the rules, etc… Despite an inherent aspect of violence in the martial arts (kind of hard not to be when you’re training to punch and kick), there is also an inherent peace and discipline involved, which leads to a realized practice of politeness and gentleness. Some would call this “balance”.

Maintaining one’s honor is important; not only for yourself but for your family and the people close to you. And with that honor comes a level of irreproachable honesty that should be observed as well. ☯

A Reminder Of Respect…

I wrote a post about six months ago outlining the proper guidelines one should follow when attending ANY martial arts school. Some of these are simply a matter of tradition, some of them are necessary to ensure that a dojo runs smoothly. Some, mostly all of them, are also a show of respect for the school you’ve chosen to attend.

In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to observe some students, visitors and outsiders in a few different martial arts circles. Based on some of the things I’ve observed, I think it would be useful for me to repost some of those guidelines. Here we go:

  1. Bow when entering or exiting the dojo: This seems like a bit of a tiny detail, but it is an important one. It provides a show of respect; respect towards the instructors, respect towards the ones who trained before you, and respect towards the school;
  2. Ensure your Gi, or karate uniform, is clean and pressed: This one is important not only for protocol and etiquette, but for hygiene reasons as well. And you would be surprised how many people overlook it. There’s nothing worse than someone who assumes that their last workout wasn’t intense enough to warrant laundering their uniform. Make sure it’s clean. Not only does that ensure a more “pleasant” environment for yourself and the other students, it shows proper respect for the uniform you wear on your journey;
  3. Stand straight and pay attention: When not executing a movement in the immediate moment, it is imperative that you stand straight and tall, heels together and thumbs tucked into the front of your belt. Keep your gaze towards the front and pay close attention to what the head instructor is saying. Try to avoid looking around and fidgeting. A big part of discipline is being able to focus long enough to build an attention span beyond that of a goldfish;
  4. Acknowledge every instruction given: Different styles will have different ways of doing this. Some will choose a shallow bow when the head instructor provides instruction, some will answer in the affirmative by saying Hai (Japanese for “yes”) or something of the like… The method of acknowledgment will depend on the style and school you’re in;
  5. No food or drink within the dojo: You would think this one would be common sense, but a martial arts school is no place for you to sip your mocha-choca latte while your kid trains. Since the average martial arts class only lasts about an hour and a half to two hours, you can manage this easily without having food and drink within the confines of a training environment;
  6. Get out of the way: If you become injured or over-tired, bow, step back and sit in seiza (on your knees) at the rear of the class. Stay out of the way and remove yourself from the flow of the class until your fatigue passes or your injury allows you to continue. Of course, if your injury is severe or serious enough to think you need to remove yourself, you likely shouldn’t continue as you could aggravate the injury further;
  7. Don’t show up late: This one is and always has been, a personal pet peeve of mine. Some instructors will say that if you show up late, it’s better to get “some of the workout” in rather than none at all. Although that is a great concept, showing up late can be disruptive to a class and shows great disrespect to your class and instructors. We all have busy lives. It falls to you to plan ahead and schedule things so that you may attend class. Whether or not showing up late is appropriate will be up to your head instructor, but true respect dictates that if you aren’t fifteen minutes early, you’re already late;
  8. Don’t waste your instructor’s time: Although you’ve likely paid a fee for your presence, the instructor(s) within the school are there to impart their knowledge and skills to you and others. If you aren’t going to put in your full effort, then you’re wasting your instructors time. Effectively, you’re also wasting your time AND the fee you paid. You’re also affecting the other student’s ability to learn properly. Food for thought…;
  9. Respect and train based on your partner: You will sometimes be paired with someone of lower or higher rank than yourself. If you’re paired with someone of lower rank, you become the example of what is to be taught. If you inflict injury upon your partner, you may discourage them from further learning and you will have gained nothing yourself. If training with someone of higher rank, respect should be given and you should take every advantage to learn from this person as they are in the same position you would be if training with a lower ranked belt.

Recently, I’ve seen everything from kids running around, coffee, students fidgeting and looking around… There was even one guy who showed up forty minutes late for class with a bag of cheeseburgers and ate while the rest of us did calisthenics! Besides the fact that the smell of burgers was killing me, a karate dojo is definitely NOT the place to eating, much less junk food.

Folks, no matter what sport or art you study, there will always be guidelines to follow. The martial arts simply has more, and that’s part of the charm. Although the above guidelines are only basic, they apply to any martial arts school you attend. Your specific dojo may have more, and this is one of those moments where it’s important to take the initiative and ask. After all, respect is a primary aspect of karate and all martial arts. ☯

The Burden Of Knowledge…

To teach is an interesting prospect. It requires a person to take the accumulated knowledge they’ve gained on any given subject and impart it on others in a way that is clearly and easily understood and absorbed. Since people aren’t exact copies of one another, this becomes all the more difficult when one considers that every person absorbs knowledge in a different way; some people listen, some people watch and some people must DO in order to learn. And I have dealt with them all…

Through the years, especially the past decade or so, I’ve had plenty of people ask me why I haven’t opened a school of karate. One of the biggest obstacles that I’ve faced is that my job usually has me moving to a different location every three to five years, which is definitely not conducive to the long-term teaching required for martial arts.

But the main reason, and the one that keeps me from slapping my style’s logo on a door is simply this: I just don’t want to. I should probably explain that statement. When a prospective student walks into the doors of any dojo, they take in the wonder and fascination that comes with watching a karate class. The students, garbed in crisp, white uniforms lined up facing the head instructor. The head instructor, or Sensei, providing the evening’s teaching in whatever form is required, be it calisthenics, forms, techniques or otherwise…

Meanwhile, what does the instructor get out of all of it? Yes, it’s important to acknowledge that learning and teaching go hand-in-hand in karate, no doubt about it. But teaching a class on any sort of permanent basis requires a certain level of loss that not all sensei are willing to pay.

If I take myself as an example, I have a certain amount of material that I need in order to pass my next grade of black belt. Now, I can train for probably about 90% of that required material by myself. But the remaining 10% usually requires a partner, specifically one who has the skill and technique to match what I’m trying to learn.

When I had opened my previous school, I would head to the dojo full of proverbial piss & vinegar, raring to go. Then I would face the dozen or so students who had attended class that night and begin our warm-up. As class progressed, my focus would always lean towards what the students required for their next grading or for the proper learning of the techniques. Sure, I’d enjoy myself and even get a good workout from the class (I could never do otherwise) but ultimately, my training and requirements came to a standstill.

And this is usually a common element of any instructor worth the belt around their waist. They put their own needs and requirements aside in favour of providing the best learning environment for the students. The students usually don’t recognize just how much of a commitment that actually becomes. I can even recall evenings where my own Sensei would only have three or four students and would openly ask what we wanted to work on that night. No matter what the answer, I would often hear a sigh and a far off look in his eyes, which I have no doubt was his recognition of the fact that he would be teaching and doing the same thing for what probably seemed like the umpteenth time, setting his own needs and wants for that matter, aside.

The only thing that ensures the survival of any martial art is to teach it to others. And most people who embark on that journey are genuinely interested in learning. But the commitment and sacrifice that happens is required from both sides: student and teacher. So, if you enjoy your training and consider it an important part of your life, thank your Sensei. He or she is giving more of themselves than you know.

As for me, the day may come when I’ll open the doors of my own dojo again. And when I do, I’ll show up and train my students with the same enthusiasm and commitment they require. No true student of the way would do anything less. ☯

Peace Or Power Through?

Life certainly has its share of difficulties and nothing is intended to be easy. As I’ve often said before, life doesn’t care about your plan. Given the various schools of thought that I study, I frequently find myself in conflict. What do you do when your faith conflicts with what you’re built to do?

I have often found that my faith tells me that I should pursue the most peaceful way possible, to follow the path of least resistance. I’m inclined to eliminate suffering as much as possible, if you will. And to be honest, this is the normal human condition, if you think about it.

As humans, we are biologically designed to take the easiest path to any result. Like the flowing of water, we tend to follow until we reach our lowest point. This isn’t always ideal, and can sometimes cause more issues than it solves.

Sensei has always told me that I shouldn’t force things so much, that I should go with the flow and allow life to guide me on the path I’m meant to take. Although the prospect of simply sitting back and allowing life to guide me along the lazy river, this isn’t the easiest thing to do when you have a home and a family to support and need to follow the expected requirements of modern life.

Meditation can often provide some clarity when trying to decide one’s path

The other side of the coin is that I was unfortunately raised as a fighter. I don’t give up and I never surrender, even when it causes me pain. If my life, my way of life, my family or my country are threatened, I won’t stop fighting until I win. For obvious reasons, this is also not always the best path.

It’s kind of ironic, because the same man who raised me to never stop fighting is also the same man telling me not to force things so much! That’s how things tend to get convoluted, when messages get confused and you don’t know which direction to take.

Ultimately, I don’t have an answer. If I did, I can promise that I wouldn’t be writing this post! No matter what path you choose to follow, life takes a lot of work. There’s no getting out of it. And when you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, it makes the journey take twice as long. ☯

Just Call Me "Teacher"

Over the decades, I’ve had the honour and pleasure of studying and training with a number of different martial arts and fighting styles. During these studies, I’ve taken note of some of the similarities and the difference between those styles. One of the important aspects is how to address the instructor of one’s respective martial arts style…

Depending on the background and what origin your martial art may have, the title given to the instructor may differ. Some styles may actually have no title for the lead instructor and may resort to something simple, such as “sir”. In this post, I will endeavour to cover the most common terms for martial arts instructors.

  • Sensei: Obviously, I’m going to start with mine! The term Sensei means “one who comes before” but literally translates as “teacher”. The term is used in most Japanese martial arts (such as karate, d-uh, Judo, JiuJutsu, Kendo, etc) and in SOME Chinese styles. The term Sensei can be used to address anyone qualified who teaches you a particular subject, and isn’t limited to the martial arts. For someone ranked at 5th Dan or higher, the instructor can be addressed by the title of “Master”. This is generally an honorific title and many instructors will choose to continue to be called “Sensei” regardless of what degree of black belt they hold;
  • Sifu: This is the term for an instructor in the Chinese styles of martial arts, most prominently Kung Fu. It can mean both “master” and “teacher” and in some circles can also be used to mean “spiritual father”. The problem with this term is that it can have different pronunciations depending on the art you’re studying;
  • TKD: TaeKwonDo is one of those complicated creatures, because they have so many different organizations, rules and denominations of the style, that they differ a great deal from one another. Depending on what TKD organization your school may fall under, terms such as “Boosabum”, “Sabum” and “Sahyun”. That being said, TKD is one of those schools where all the instructors I’ve ever met have been referred to as “Sir” (In Canada, at least);
  • Coach: This is a term used in most schools of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools, albeit some of them will use the term “Professor”, which is just an honorific. The term translates directly from the Brazilian term for “teacher”.

There are plenty more terms out there, but I’ve covered the most common ones: karate, kung fu, Tae Kwon Do and Jiu-Jitsu. Believe me when I say that there are many more styles and terms out there that may be different. The important thing, especially if you’ve just started a new style, is to ask. Don’t be afraid to ask how you should be addressing the instructor.

I still remember my first encounter with Sensei. We were doing kicking and punching drills, and I was confused on the exact step for one of the techniques we were studying. I tried getting Sensei’s attention for several minutes, until I finally yelled out, “Sir, I need your help…”

Sensei was good enough to wait and let me ask my question, then took the time to answer it. Then he asked “Got it?” I said yes and stepped back into line, at which point Sensei said, “Oh, and by the way… My name is Sensei and if you ever call me something different, you’ll owe me a hundred push-ups…” Then he walked away from me, leaving my jaw dropped wondering if he was kidding. He wasn’t. But that’s another story…

The point is, if someone has successfully opened a martial arts school and is successfully teaching, he or she has earned the respect to be addressed by the title their art entitles them to. So, be certain to be respectful and ask if you’re not sure and use the title once you are. After all, respect and discipline are practically synonymous with the martial arts.

FYI, it’s been 31 years and I’ve never had to pay out those hundred push-ups. Jus’ sayin’… ☯

In Teaching Others, We Teach Ourselves

I can’t recall where I read the proverb I used in my title, but it’s pretty accurate. If there’s an important lesson I’ve learned in almost four decades, it’s that we gain almost as much from teaching and passing on our knowledge as we do from obtaining it.

I’ve previously mentioned the martial arts ladder, and the importance of helping other students climb beyond you, once you’ve reached a certain level. Some “old school” martial arts teachers will often claim that it’s important to hold something back; keep that secret technique to yourself so that you always have a finishing move to fall back on. I was raised on a system of martial arts where the students have the potential to learn EVERYTHING the style has to offer.

Shintaro-san showing me some specifics of a kata
Okinawa – 2001

Humans are competitive by nature. There’s no getting around it. Something about “survival of the fittest”, and one of the aspects of that competitive nature is showing off your skills. Most people are inclined to show others what they’ve learned and showcase their skills. That’s why most sports are competitively displayed for spectators. Although some instincts are hard to fight, one can easily turn that competitive nature into an instinct to teach.

One of the best times of my martial arts career was when I had a school of my own, back in New Brunswick. It was a wonderful feeling, opening the class with all the students bowing to me and following my instruction. There was a deep feeling of satisfaction in knowing that these people were learning and progressing based on what I was teaching them. Seeing their progress taught me a great deal about how I was learning.

Leading a junior class in Sanchin, sometime in the early 1990’s

I was reminded of all this when I saw a Tai Chi group practicing in the open hallway of a local shopping mall this morning. The group was a bit on the smaller side, maybe more than a dozen. I don’t like using the term “elderly” but the group was a touch on the older side, and you could see that the person leading the group was deeply invested in coaching a guiding the people that were there.

I had to close my school in early 2009 as I had to move across country for my career. Since my job usually moves me around every few years, I’ve never had the stability to open another school. It wouldn’t be fair to any prospective students to start training with me, only to have me leave after a few years.

But it got me thinking about decades down the road, and wondering if perhaps eventually I’ll be teaching my own group once I retire and finally settle to a permanent home.

Learning any new skill is exciting and loads of fun. But should you ever have the opportunity to teach what you know to others, I highly recommend it. Like most thing in life, teaching has its difficulties but can offer great rewards and satisfaction. ☯

Accept The Knowledge, Or Get Out!

I don’t know how to do yoga. I know, shocking right? Can’t do it. I know it involves specific poses, stretches and stock ownership in LuluLemon apparel, but if you asked me to stand in front of a group of folks and try and teach them yoga, three things would happen: my pants would likely split from the attempt, all my joints would create a sound likely to frighten all those who hear it and last but not least… You wouldn’t learn yoga! Plus, picturing me doing downward dog is likely causing all the angels in heaven to simultaneously throw up…

Learning a new skill or art can be fun and exciting, but there are certain steps to acquiring that knowledge. If I walked into a yoga class today, I wouldn’t expect exclusive lessons and mentorship from the instructor. After all, he or she would have a classroom full of people to take care of. One would be inclined to assume that one would have to simply follow along and gleam what learning they can as they go along until they acquire the basics they need to start advancing. Some classes are like this. Another option is that you would perhaps need to accept coaching from someone not too far above your skill level. This is more likely.

And the case would be the same for the martial arts. If you walked into a karate class on your first night of training, you could hardly expect that the lead instructor would be the one showing you the basics. Maybe they would; it depends on the school you train in. But unless the school you’re starting with is overrun with black belts (in which case, you should run from that school as fast as possible and find a different one) the safe bet is that you’ll likely be learning from a junior belt, perhaps even a white belt. And not everyone is okay with that.

I’m reminded of a class from just a little over twenty-five years ago… I was stretching and shadow boxing, preparing for the gruelling two hours that awaited me. I was early, as usual, and I noticed a new guy in class. He was wearing a loose t-shirt and sweatpants, looking awkward against the backdrop of students in crisp, white karate uniforms.

Sensei walked up to me and introduced me to the new student (I honestly don’t remember his name. It’s been over twenty-five years, give me a break!) He asked me to show the new student our ten basic exercises and aiding movements as well as the opening of our first form. I gladly agreed and introduced myself as Sensei walked away.

I noticed that the new guy seemed a bit distracted as I spoke to him and I asked him what was wrong. The exchange went a little something like this:

ME: Is everything okay? You seem distracted…

New Guy: No, no, it’s fine. It’s just that… Shouldn’t I be learning this stuff from him? (points to Sensei)

ME: Well, Sensei usually takes the first fifteen minutes before class to stretch and has one of us teach basics to new students. Is that a problem?

New Guy: Honestly? No offence, but I didn’t join karate to learn from a white belt! I want to learn from a black belt… (walks away and starts stretching in imitation of what Sensei was doing)

Now in this guy’s defence, I WAS wearing a white belt! At the time, I had a white belt with a solid green bar, meaning I was ready to test for green belt. I was far from new and was more than capable of teaching what was asked of me. But from this guy’s perspective, I was a white belt and unfit to be showing him the ropes. Ah, that lovely perspective…

Once class was in full swing and we started doing the actual form I was supposed to show the new guy, his confused look and the fact he was looking around in a vain attempt to mimic the other students did NOT go unnoticed. Sensei stepped up behind him and asked what the problem was, since I had shown him these steps. The new student replied that I had shown him nothing.

Once we closed and students started filing out, Sensei approached me and asked what I had shown to the new student. “Nothing,” I replied. “He decided he didn’t want to learn from a white belt. Sensei shrugged and instructed that no one provide guidance to the new student until he asked for it.The guy attended another two or three classes then dropped out. Seems that karate isn’t all that easy to learn when you aren’t willing to listen.

Was it a harsh elimination of an unwanted student? Perhaps. But the lesson here is that if you truly wish to learn a new art or skill, you’ll take the knowledge from wherever you can. If that student had followed my guidance on the first night, he likely would have been able to follow along and progress. Instead, he allowed his preconceived notions about the belt around my waist to negate any possibility of his ever training in the martial arts. A great loss. For him, not for us.

Be willing to accept knowledge from whomever is willing to share it. Sometimes you may lose nothing. Sometimes you may lose a great deal. But unless you’re willing to accept it, you’ll never know. It’s like Sensei used to say, “You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so you should listen TWICE as much as you talk!”