Excerpts from Karate as a Way of Life. Book 2020 Tom Levitt
Karate and Taichi Course Sunday Morning. Tom Levitt 438 936 7306. Free event.
Full book Title. Karate as a Way of Life. Ari Anastasiadis, Shotokan and the Future of the Art.
Prepare a coffee and enjoy these excepts.
I first met Ari in 1971. He had just opened the Ontario Street dojo. By chance I had heard of him. I was lucky, since he never advertised. We shook hands by a foot-high wooden fence delimiting the practice area. At the time, Ari was 40. He had the round face of American actor Caroll O’Connor.
The Taurus Ari was short, stocky and well proportioned, with a bit of extra weight that came and left according to his training regime. Invariably, the sleeves of his immaculately white tokaido gi were rolled up. He looked like a casual kind of general. His boxer-like face was softened by the glow of his cheeks. His palms and the soles of his feet also glowed. In the dojo environment, he crackled with energy and radiated mental and physical strength.
I told him that I wished to learn how to fight. He replied that first I would need to forge the weapons. There was a lot of Ari in this answer: The irony, the disdain for mediocrity, the gift for imagery, the implicit challenge.
In my first class, Ari looked me up and down and told me that you can tell an experienced karateka simply by the way he stands. He was right. I had no athletic background whatsoever. I had a large fragile nose, a long, wide body and short arms and legs. When I started to train regularly, I often came late to the dojo and had to do push ups.
Ari spoke in a muscular voice, had an unclassifiable accent and was capable of a tremendous amount of disarming charm. When it struck his fancy, he was the soul of candour. His face became open and relaxed. It expressed childlike transparency. You could see the thoughts cross his grey-green eyes. He would invariably say something considerate and witty. Ari made being polite look like fun. He got you thinking about how you could be polite in ways you had not previously considered. He habitually practiced a noblesse oblige towards anybody he considered was not playing with a full deck. In part, his karate mission was about arming the underdog.
Ari habitually referred to his students as ‘dojo members.’ Thinking about others was a constant theme in his discussion and also in the way he organized the class. He was something like an Emily Post of dojo etiquette, this last word being one he often used. He tried to get you to understand how consideration for others and regard for your own interests can often be harmonized. For example, paying attention to the person you are talking to is both good manners and also good self defence. He would typically use karate as a means to discuss wider ethical matters. Said differently, he was a something of a philosopher willing to talk about the underpinnings of karate to any serious listener. Like all great teachers, his respect for the beginner was absolute.
What Ari didn’t tell me was that the karate he taught didn’t involve fighting as practiced in most clubs today. He had no use for one-point matches, full-contact matches and so on. ‘Karate is budo, not a sport!’ This was how he put it. Said differently, it was self defence infused with Confucian values. However, the word self defence doesn’t do justice to the exquisite beauty of the movements as well as their connection to Eastern medicinal and meditative practices.
Ari’s karate was a form of fighting which was not fighting as is usually understood by the word. It was a paradoxical blend of reflection and action based on split-second timing, split-millimeter control, pain-staking explanation as well as the ceaseless practice of basics in various contexts. In its elegance, precision and all round class, the karate Ari taught was probably compatible with the best karate practiced in Japan and Okinawa.
Connectivity is creating a social world dominated by distraction, discontinuity and the transformation of experience into superficial digital images. By contrast, reconstructing Funakoshi’s concept of budo karate offers us the chance to rest from this scrambling of the senses. Karate as budo is a cultural activity with restorative and healing qualities which sport karate doesn’t possess.
On the one hand, an aesthetic and decorous activity healing for both body and soul and practiced in a quiet space that has the serenity of an aikido dojo or a tai chi school and, on the other hand, Shotokan as it has become. For countless people the choice would be clear were it offered to them. There are more people seeking serenity than there are people seeking one more sport.
At its uncorrupted best, Zen evokes a world without clocks, rush, inner conflict, addiction and psychosis. Zen is both a process of healing and also a way of enjoying the inherent tranquility of the world. But competition destroys timelessness as does money mindedness. Violence also destroys timelessness. So does militarism which is socially-structured violence. These forces are extraneous to the timeless nature of Funakoshi’s karate and its connection with Zen meditation. They are profane whereas his karate is spiritual, in the spare way of things Zen.
Karate stripped of involvement with sport reveals itself to be on the cutting edge of holistic education. Soft karate could be used as a way to teach karate to children or excitable individuals without accidents. The pairing of karate with the study of Japanese could help underline karate’s cultural dimension.
Kanasawa head of SKIF
Kanasawa has made great efforts to promote karate as a cultural activity. However, he has also keep a foot firmly in the sport karate camp; hence the usual problems. Practically speaking, the sport karate-budo karate synthesis is a difficult ideal.
His 2003 autobiography Karate my Life is a literary masterpiece written with artless command and the hint of the bizarre accompanies all great art.
This work reveals Kanasawa is a genuine karate missionary with the ardent desire to see the art of the empty hand used as a means of individual and social transformation.
As an international instructor, he has lived in palaces but also in shanty towns. In fact he spent his first night in England sleeping on a park bench. His only true home in his karate suit, or said differently, the world itself.
It is clear that he practices karate as a kind of martial yoga. The comparison with yoga holds up apart from the fact that yoga comes with religious baggage with flower like colours where as the zen is spare like Danish furniture. The dojo is the ashram, the kata moving asanas, the photo of Funakoshi the altar, the black belts the initiates, chi is the prana, the sensei is the guru, karate breathing technique is the pranayama. Indeed Kanasawa suggests that breath is essential for technique and inner command. For their part, the cleanliness and order of the dojo and the mindful zen aesthetic of the zen monastery are one for ‘karate and zen are one’.
Budo karate is ‘standing meditation’ as Kanasawa puts it. Else where he has expanded on the idea of the natural stance as a chi kung exercise. Across his career, he has emphasized the health benefits of karate.
Kanasawa tells there are things you learn about in competition which you can’t learn about other wise. Further, he states that sportification has helped make karate popular. However a careful reading of this book suggests that he doesn’t subscribe to the two wings of the airplance view of the relation of budo karate to sport karate. . Rather the sport and budo aspects of karate are in a ‘disjointed’ relationship not to be found in judo or kendo. This is because sport karate developed after budo karate.
Further he mentions a 1986 discussion with the president of the French Karate association in which the French man explained that the trend towards sportification must be reversed: otherwise karate in France could go the way of French Judo, meaning lose popularity precisely due to sportification.
Said differently, he leaves the door open to the possibility that all told sport karate has been something of a mistake.
Kanasawa has promoted sport karate but has done what he can to live budo karate. He refuses to lift weights and practices tai chi as mentioned. He has also integrated various Okinawan practices into his routines.
Kanasawa attempts to infuse his daily life with a sense of form inspired by his study of karate. Thus he suggests that we should ‘sit like in water and rise like smoke’.
For Kanasawa karate is a school of life which helps him deal with the reality of death. Indeed it is not by accident that the theme of death is to be found on the first and last pages of this book which expresses existential urgency mixed with a massive sense of human solidarity. As he puts it, ‘For the sake of karate I wish to become the salt of the earth.’
The lyrics of the Cuban song sums it up ‘I am just a man who is trying to do some good before dying.’
The books cover shows Kanasawa performing the front punch with a relaxed arm with the opposite hand pulled back considerably. His chin is tucked in and he is clearly tensing his core from his head down to his feet. The image captures the yin yang spirit of budo karate. Note that ‘sho' means the root and ‘to’ the ocean.
The best way to learn to punch like this is to practice softly with full attention to body dynamics, the development of elasticity and other factors. Speed and power should be the by products of these factors.
Practicing softly is in fact the solution to most of the problems facing Shotokan today. The practice of soft karate is invariable connected to the practice of meditation and philosophic living.
Shotokan should aim for a hard soft synthesis which combines forward drive with tai sabaki and relaxation.
Budo karate blends beautifully with judo, aikido and yang style tai chi the movement of which are almost identical with Shotokan. Its approach to the body is in harmony with western Psychotherapy which in the last decades takes the body more into consideration.
On this note, it has been shown that yoga can help post tramatic stress disorder victims deal with with depression, whereas these victims tend not to respond to antidepressants. It is conceivable that a soft form of budo karate could be just as effective.
Budo karate is a cultural activity which ideally should be taught in conjunction with traditional calligraphy and other Eastern inspired subjects. This was the format Funakoshi used in his classes.
The initial allure of the Eastern Martial arts had much with their philosophic quality. In fact, Western culture has not seen this blend of physical and mental training since the the holistic calithetics of the stoics, epicureans and other ancient Greek schools. It was for this reason that the arrival of these arts in the 1960’s was acompanied by a sense of momentous encounter between Eastern and Western cultures. The popularity of the Kung fu Television series had to do with the idea of the martial arts as a form of life philosophy. As Ari put it: In boxing, you have a coach, in karate a master.
Tai chi, kung fu and karate remain the unique creations of the Chinese, Okinawan and Japanese peoples. They are basically aspects of each other in the same way that the various karate styles are aspects of each other. Over a 2000 year period this tradition has expressed a particularly Eastern concept of space, time and social relations.
As Westerners, we need to learn how to listen to this tradition. Also, we need to encourage Easterners not to abandon this tradition. Hence the need for Western and Eastern karateka to understand the art of the empty hand on the level of history, technique and philosophy.
Around the world there are budo Shotokan enclaves. These people should network with each other and also develop friendly relations with budo karateka of other styles.
It is essential that an international budo karate educational organization be formed with its principal aim the propagation of karate uncorrupted by the forces of sportification commercialization and militarization. Note that styles differ in how they do kata but practice mostly the same thing in other aspects. The difference between budo karate and sport karate is far more significant than differences between styles.
How an esoteric, back-garden martial art conducted on a tiny string of islands off the coast of Japan became a world-wide activity is one of the more interesting stories of our time.
To understand the timeless mysticism of authentic Shotokan, we must return to the sound of rustling pine trees, to the silence of calligraphy and the first cut in iaido.