Since writing my first post, ‘自己紹介 Self-Introduction’ I have been wondering where to start my story and in what order to present the information that I have gathered over the years. What I really want to do in this blog is shed some light on the difficult concepts of Japanese culture that are deeply rooted in Karate Do and have strong ties to Confucius teachings from Chinese classic texts. But, I know I can’t just jump right into all of that. We need to build up to it. So, I would like to try to accomplish a few things in this follow up blog. Of course, I want to get and keep your attention as I introduce one Japanese term that I feel is very important in Karate Do training. Therefore I have decided to tell you about an experience that had a profound impact on my life. It happened, as many important life lessons do, at the 道場 Dojo, Tarditional Japanese Training Hall.
I was about 15 or 16 years old and ready to test for my 一級 Ikky 1st Kyu (Brown Belt). This is, as many of you reading know well, the rank just before 初段 Shodan 1st Degree Black Belt and in Dojo like ours it is a very important step. Delaney Sensei took this phase in a Karate Ka (practitioners) training very seriously. I still remember him saying to me, as well as others at the time that “you cannot pass your brown belt test if they (the grading committee) can’t already see you as a black belt someday.” I took this to mean that one must be serious about their future commitment to training in order to even attempt testing for 1st Kuy but this was not a problem for me because by this time I was very eager to learn all that I could. To me, about 5 years into my training I couldn’t picture my life without Karate Do in it.
I still talk about this experience with my students because I feel that it is an important lesson that can give us some valuable hints on what perseverance really is, really the one core and common lesson in all Karate Do training…
When teaching my students about potential and possibilities I often show them a blank page in a book and an empty cup. I ask them what they see and then ask them what these two things have in common. The answer is that they both possess unlimited and unique potential and possibilities. Their potential and the possibilities for their use are only limited by us. Understanding this changes everything. This is how we must be when we come to Japan empty of pride and ego and full of potential and possibilities.
As you can see, and, if you have trained for any length of time I am sure you already know, that Karate Do training develops more than just a strong fighting body that can take and give a hit. It also fosters something I like to call a ‘silent strength’ some people have referred to this as a ‘relentless’ spirit; relentless in the fact that one who truly understands the way of Karate, the Mitchi / Do in the title of this blog and not just the Jutsu, will never quit, never give up no matter what the task may be. The concept of continuing something whether it is a challenge, a personal matter, or work related, whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual in nature, it may be said that a longtime practitioner of Karate Do has an advantage over someone who has not practiced Karate Do if they are given the same task because the Karate Ka has developed this ‘relentless spirit’. At the same time it is not a display or a call for attention. It comes down to just simply doing the work until it is completed. Because of our countless hours of training and the repetitive practice of basics a Karate Ka is able to understand the true power of this silent strength. Furthermore, understanding the ‘code’ of (和と忍) Wa to Nin “peace through perseverance” we are less likely to quit half way through any endeavor that we devout ourselves to.
I believe that this is the definition of the term (諦めない) Akiramenai (諦め) Akirame means abandonment or renunciation adding the (ない) which is a negative meaning ‘don’t’ or ‘not to’ in this case changes the meaning to a positive one ‘Don’t give up’ or ‘Don’t abandon the task at hand’.
I often hear Japanese Sensei saying this to their students and I often use this phrase myself. Every time I hear these words I am reminded of a situation that I found myself in as a young student at the Atlantic Karate Club in Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada. I was 16 years old and going to test for my 1st kyu (brown belt). It was the middle of August and very hot in the dojo that night. Delaney Sensei intentionally kept all of the windows shut for the duration of the training. There were literally puddles of sweat on the floor.
The training session was a particularly hard 3 hours designed to make you sweat and by the end of the session the general student body was spent, pushed well past the places we thought we could have gone physically and mentally. There was one moment about half way through the session when someone leaned on one of the pillars in the dojo. The reaction of Delaney Sensei to this small sign of weakness was immediate and very stern. In fact, this action was met with a crisp, sharp Yell, A (気合) Kiai that brought everyone quickly back to reality and shook the windows a little bit, too. After that He spoke to the class with a great deal of passion about how important it is to never show your weakness. “Even at your lowest point you must stand tall. Never forget that you are Karate Ka!” he said in a voice so loud that it echoed. The person who had leaned on the pillar shot up straight away mostly out of shock, I think, because Delaney Sensei’s initial yell was so forceful. But, his advice about “never giving up” was so clear that everyone stood a little straighter afterwards in spite of our obvious fatigue.
We continued to train with a new found energy and were pushed well past the place we thought was our threshold. After the session ended everyone went home, to rest I’m sure. For me however, there would be no rest. Not yet. My challenge of the night and a defining moment in my life was just beginning.
Delaney Sensei agreed earlier to pre-test me for my upcoming grading but I never thought it would be after a class like that. Now, looking back, I am so thankful that it was. After everyone had left the floor my pretest began. It started with a review of the basic stances and proceeded through the entire syllabus! I did EVERYTHING. It took well over an hour. Needless to say, I was exhausted but then just when I thought we were finished the ‘real’ test began…
My Teacher told me to follow him to a rack at the front of the dojo that held the (棒) Bo long wooden staffs used in the practice of (古武道) Kobu Do Traditional Martial Arts, commonly referred to as weapons training. He asked me to choose one of the wooden staffs. Thinking back on this moment I always laugh at my blind youth; not knowing what he had in mind for me, I chose the biggest thickest bo I could find. He then told me to give the bo to him. I handed it to him a little hesitant not knowing what was coming next.
Taking the bo he turned his back and said over his shoulder “come with me.” I couldn’t see his face but I am sure he was smiling. He guided me to the far wall on the right side of the dojo There in front of a chalk board he told me to assume (四股立) Shikodachi the lowest stance that requires a great deal of leg strength to maintain.
Then he told me to extend my arms in front of me perpendicular to me, parallel to the floor and proceeded to place that thick, heavy staff across my arms balancing it on my mid forearms. “Close your eyes” he said softly. “If you open them… you will fail. If you come up (out of the stance) or drop the bo… you fail.” And with that he left.
It was during this time that a strange thing happened to me. Although my eyes were closed and I was now so far past the point of exhaustion that I was singing nursery rhymes in my head. I think I even sang the alphabet song. But, I still remember vividly that I knew exactly where my Sensei was and what route he took when he left the dojo and eventually returned to check on me.
As I said, he just left me there. He completely left the training floor and went into a neighboring room to conduct a meeting. The meeting lasted roughly 30 minutes. I knew where he was the whole time. When he returned to the dojo he did not come directly to me. Rather, he walked very slowly around the perimeter of the training area and came up close to my right ear and gently tapped my right thigh. I will never forget his words: “I know it hurts” he said. “You can stop the pain… just give me the bo and stand up… But, if you do… you fail.” And with that, he walked away again leaving me there for another 10 to 20 minutes. He came back once more, this time coming up on my left side, taking the direct route to where I was struggling to hold on to my senses. Again, he gently tapped my thigh and whispered in my ear, “you can make all the pain go away… just give me the bo but, if you do… you fail.” This time I answered him. I gathered what strength I could and said “no Sensei” at that moment I resigned myself to seeing this through to its completion. I would not, I could not give up. Not after all I had been through that night and the many other nights leading up to now. Not after how far I had come. And especially not after the speech Delaney Sensei gave during the training session.
Not long after that he walked across to my right side and removed the staff from across my arms which had slipped on my sweat soaked forearms down to my wrists earlier. With the removal of the weight, that had been constant for over 4o minutes, my arms seemed weightless and felt like they began to float. My eyes were still closed and I thought that I was still in Shikodachi.
Delaney Sensei then told me to open my eyes. I tried but had to battle through the stinging sweat that was pouring down my forehead directly into them. After the passionate speech about never showing your weakness earlier that evening, I could not now, after all of this give in and show him that I was exhausted or that the sweat was hurting my eyes. I fought through the stinging sweat, tried to focus on the poster on the far wall opposite to me. I’ll never forget the poster of a couple of children doing side-kicks with big smiles on their faces. Then he told me to stand up. I stood up at attention, feet together and arms by my side. He nodded and told me to bend my knees and stretch out my legs a little bit. I did so and stood at attention once again to await the verdict.
Delaney Sensei’s next words were very simple and yet so profound. Their impact on me lasts to this day (I have often reflected on them when I found myself in difficult situations here in
“A CHANCE,” that’s right this was only my pretest. We left the dojo, I could barely walk but I felt so many things that I am sure a regular 16 year old boy would not normally be feeling. I graded for my brown belt the following week. Robert Gascoigne Sensei conducted the grading… it didn’t take nearly as long… although it was very challenging in a different manner… when all was said and done… I passed.
(My Sensei Michael S. Delaney, as I remember him)
While this may sound a bit extreme it accurately depicts the meaning of akiramenai in the martial arts context. There comes a point when one must make a decision to continue and follow something through until completion or give up. There is far more potential for growth and fulfillment in following things through until completion, a concept that closely resembles (残心) Zanshin a term that can be translated and interpreted a number of ways but this will be the topic of a future post…