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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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by Michael R. Berger

Recently, as I was reflecting upon some of my training experiences in Japan with my students, I looked around the dojo and wondered why so few people were there. It wasn’t hard to figure out from a commercial standpoint. We have no street visibility, no signage, no huge plate glass windows full of trophies and photos. We train in a small, old run down military building that was built in 1930 and was part of the historic Fort MacArthur Military Base. It sits atop a hill that overlooks the ocean, surrounded by huge cement barricades that would offer protection, ironically, from any potential attack on the mainland by the Japanese during WWII.

I love the dojo. It was by choice that I decided to teach there. It has such great energy and spirit; spirit imbued by warriors of past. Real warriors. The original wood floor is scarred with markings of stray bullets. The building was used during WWII as a firing range. More recently, the dojo, the place of the way, was further imbued with spirit by a group of Zen practitioners and budo-ka, that I was honored to be a part of, from across the country, during an intensive training period that included extended periods of meditation, sword training, shodo, karate training, chanting, and related practices.

I thought back upon some of the dojo where I had trained in Japan, with some of the greatest teachers that have ever lived. Most of those dojo were old, seedy, dimly lit cellars with cement floors and brick walls, or wooden floors that were in such disrepair that they were patched up with duct tape. The Hoitsugan dojo was one such place. Kanazawa Sensei’s dojo was another one. Most of the rural country dojo I trained at were the same. The old JKA Hombu at Ebisu where we trained in the early eighties used to be a bowling alley. Somehow that environment fosters an unrivaled kind of spirit and toughness not unique to karate. Before practicing karate, I had been an amateur boxer, wrestler, and weight lifter. All of the best gyms, the toughest gyms, were the seediest, roughest gyms you could imagine. We didn’t want anything fancy. Quite the contrary; we wanted blood and guts. We wanted to feel that we were living on the edge, that each breath may be our last. Such is the case for the real budo-ka.

When I was training at Takushoku University in the eighties, it was not uncommon to be looking for someone’s tooth on the floor, to have your hair pulled while wrestling around on the ground, to be kicked in the groin, kneed in the face, pushed into the corner, or hit in the throat. The first day I was I was there my knuckles were covered with blood from hitting guys in the teeth. I am not advocating this type of training, but it had immeasurable value. It changed me in a way that transcends any explanation. There is something about that feeling of living right on the edge of life and death that makes you feel so alive and so present. I suppose it was no accident that I later became attracted to Zen.

When I tell my students about what we had to do in order to be accepted to train at some dojo in Japan, they look at me with great disbelief. Traditionally, it was not uncommon for someone wishing to practice to have to clean toilets for several weeks first, or to clean the entire dojo immaculately, or to wash the uniforms of all of the seniors.

Sometimes we have to look long and deep to discover the keys to the inner truths that the study of karate-do can provide, and why we subject ourselves to these things. True karatedo is based on the principles of bushido, the samurai code of conduct prevalent for centuries in Japan. Developed in conjunction with the principles of zen, bushido was a tool to help one attain some sense of higher enlightenment, true self, and to understand the nature of the mind of no mind, or of what zen masters sometimes refer to as ordinary mind, as well as to understand our relationship with the universe through a process of direct experience. Additionally, bushido, like zen, encouraged qualities like honor, right action, strength, courage, fearlessness, self control, and ultimately a kind of wisdom that transcended wisdom as we know it, referred to in Zen as prajna.

To achieve this required dropping the idea of self, the ego, in order to find the true self. Therefore, bushido, like karate, sought to develop the whole person –the body, spirit, and mind. Simply stated, through continuous practice and repetition of something, like that of a karate technique or tea ceremony, we may be able to experience doing without doing. We can perform the techniques without really thinking, giving the mind stillness and clarity by creating some space between the thoughts. The Japanese term Mushin can be translated as “no mind,” or “non-mind,” and is state of just that-- of no thought, or more precisely translated, non-thought. So while we are learning to control the self, the body, and the mind, we are also learning to give up control.

This harmonious unity of body and mind can lead to ultimate power and peace, to effortless and spontaneous action, moment by moment. Nothing dualistic in nature can overpower the oneness and completeness, the infinite and limitless nature of the entire universe; something that my Zen Master refers to as Big Mind. Because of this, the samurai, like Zen practitioners, were able to attain a peaceful and powerful calmness, even in the face of adversity. Once they had surrendered to the dualistic notion of life or death, there was no fear. The ability to remain calmly focused devoid of conscious thought, paradoxically is exactly what led to ultimate victory.

Forging the budo mind, the big mind, requires great effort and sacrifice, dedication, discipline, and the ability to endure great hardship; to maintain a sense of calmness in the face of adversity. Perhaps in that sense, we consciously or subconsciously choose adverse environments and situations instinctively knowing that they will foster growth. Growth often requires pain. This concept is not unique to Eastern thought. The great German philosopher Nietzsche once said, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” Furthermore, it requires letting go of trying to control that which we cannot control.

Training in an authentic traditional Japanese style dojo gives us great opportunity to test ourselves, not only against one another, but also against ourselves and against nature, and against that which we cannot control. Sometimes we are forced to surpass our own physical or mental limitations, or to endure pain and suffering in order to attain new physical growth, mental strength, or spiritual understanding. We might be asked to do more than we think our bodies can do, to fight a superior opponent, or to train in adverse conditions of severe cold or heat, or to clean toilets and just say, “Osu!” in spite of what we think or believe is right. Learning to accept these things with courage and humility, as challenges, are opportunities for personal growth. The lessons we learn are not limited to the dojo, but rather manifest in the rest of our lives in even more significant ways.

In Japan, no dojo I ever visited had heat in the winter or even as much as a fan in the summer. Traditionally, there were special summer training periods, called natsu-gasshuku, and winter trainings, called kangeiko. It was part of the training to endure the elements and the conditions. The summer temperatures were near 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity. In winters, the dojo floor was so cold that within two or three minutes your feet became numb and had no feeling whatsoever – no one was permitted to wear additional clothing under the traditional karate-gi. After bowing in, often there would be no warm up period, and the teacher would suddenly ask you to face a partner and begin, “Jyuu-kumite!” (free sparring). After a short time, steam rose from your uniform as you began to perspire, making it even colder. It was not unheard of to be ordered to train outside barefoot in the snow, to run several miles in rubber sandals, or to squat jump up and down stairs. And unless you were in the hospital or dead, you were not allowed to miss practice.

It took me many years to realize the real value of this practice. It was all about forging the mind and spirit. There are many aspects of life that we cannot control. In a real life situation, we have no control over things like the environment, the temperature, or the conditions of a potential battle. Training in adverse situations can prepare us for this and make us stronger, not only physically, but also mentally, which can apply to all areas of our lives. We learn to overcome obstacles with strength, dignity, and humility.

These were all opportunities… Looking back, I am grateful for those times. OSU!