In referring to karate as a personal combative system with “combative” having a definition of come-what-may, someone recently inquired as to what a “system” is in the midst of chaos. Why limit ourselves to any particular style, so long as it’s useful in self-protection? What’s the use of correcting form in kata, even having form, so long as the technique is effective? Why so hung up on aesthetics? Useful karate is not always pretty karate!
Our offer, in response, is that a system is a manual. That the “aesthetic” is part of the operating instructions. The form of a middle block, for instance, illustrates the angle of the arm from the elbow; the relationship of the elbow to the torso; the relationship of the elbow to the wrist and fist; the elbow as a fixed point from which the forearm swings; the relationship of the wrist to the shoulder; that the block should not extend beyond one’s silhouette. Within the “look” is the load up of transition and keeping the passing hand alive, the twisting at the very end a receiving sensory check to absorb and stick to the opponent. There is an explosion, a whip, a tension, a relaxation, and a quick engagement of the hips, all of which happen simultaneously in application but are broken down to individual parts in the manual. This is the “form,” the “aesthetic,” of waza. Chudan uke.
A system is a manual. As a martial tradition Matsubayashi-ryu has perhaps only been recently catalogued, but it has a lengthy lineage and sociocultural historic provenance that contains principles expressed through particular physical movements. The system tells you how to operate the radio, not what station to listen to.
But who reads manuals? Let’s just get to playing! Turn it up! Let’s dance! Let’s have fun! Get to livin’ or get to dyin’! True, manuals can be incredibly boring. We’ve been pretty forthcoming in our dojo that at times, karate training can seem boring as guano. But life is not 100% dynamic 100% of the time, relationships are not 100% dynamic 100% of the time, adventures are not even 100% adventurous 100% of the time, and traffic sucks when you’re trying to get somewhere. However, there is dynamism to be found within quietude. Enlightenment within repetition. There is something to be said about getting up and doing it again and again and again and again and again.
Our position is that we hope everyone enjoys their karate training. But it is not our responsibility to make it enjoyable. Our responsibility is to promote proper pedagogy and practice. There is joy to be found in this, but it is not for everybody. We are not a self-defense class, nor are we a personal protection combatives institute where what you learn today may necessarily apply immediately on your way home after class. It’s possible, but not likely. Ours is a process, an art form, a manual of instruction. This is NOT to say there is anything wrong with other methods, they’re just not what we do.
At a certain point everyone puts the manual aside and operates the equipment in ways befitting their own personal expression, quirks, needs, and experience. Upon a solid foundation such a break from form is acceptable, even encouraged. It’s called shu-ha-ri / obey-detach-transcend. But we maintain that teaching funky architecture design without a solid mathematical base is a recipe for unsound structure. Louis Sullivan and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe designed very different looking skyscrapers, but both studied and implemented the same boring math and would teach the same boring math to their apprentices who would go on to design very different yet inspiring buildings of their own using the same boring math and teaching it to their apprentices who were excited enough by breathtaking structures to drudge through learning the same boring math and design their own, ad nauseum. No offense to those who find math exciting.
So why limit ourselves? Limitation is the crux of good design. Chaos yields inconsistent results. Aesthetics is not quite the right word, because we’re not looking at beauty of form for its own sake; rather, we look for the structure residing within the form to target a particular efficiency. And yes, useful karate is not always pretty karate, but there is a beauty to properly timed and executed waza.
Much of our membership has had prior training elsewhere, in a variety of arts. Some study other systems concurrently with ours. It’s a free country, but we do ask that beginners choose a base from which to start their path. We do not recommend being a beginner in multiple arts at the same time. And if you do have experience in other arts, try to open your mind to what we do rather than constantly comparing against what you’ve previously done. We’re not a buffet to pick and choose from. We’re a ten course meal and the plates will be served in order and in time. If you’re just looking for survival calories, there’s plenty other places for that and they’re good too!
If you want to join us in what we do, please stick to what we do for the time you’re in our dojo. If you don’t like it, we’re not offended. Nobody’s got a gun to your head making you stay. You want to take what we do and train it a different way on your own time, though? Knock yourself out (with properly timed and executed waza)!