I spent last weekend at the Seido Karate Houbu (headquarters dojo) in Manhattan, being tested for the rank of godan, fifth "degree" black belt.
Trouble, it has often been observed, never comes alone; and so to keep an adequate amount of drama in my life, in addition to the stress of preparing for this promotion I've been getting ready for a server migration at my day job. This had me still up fixing a last-minute problem with a Bash script at 12:30am on Friday morning...I ended up getting no sleep before catching the train to New York. Fortunately, however, the portion of the testing on Friday was fairly light. We candidates for promotion took a white belt level class with Nidaime Akira Nakamura (Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura's son and designated successor), and then a meditation class with Kaicho.
Kaicho usually gives a little talk after the mediation period. This time he discussed the importance of cutting and throwing away the ego, and how this is part of the purpose of zazen. He also talked about how the kanji for "zazen" tells us about the activity -- 坐禅 can be read as "sit, be simple", and the character for "sit" in there not only illustrates the shape of a person seated in meditation but includes the character "hito" 人, person, twice. You sit, facing your inner self. We came back Friday evening to observe some of the testing for lower dan ranks, but due to the number of people didn't end up doing much ourselves that evening; Kaicho decided to focus on people testing for shodan, nidan, and sandan Friday evening, and put us through the wringer the next night.
The main part of the promotion testing for yondan (fourth dan) and up is held overnight, from Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning. There's a certain mystique about that, about already being there bleary-eyed when the nervous candidates for shodan (first degree black belt) show up at 6:30 am to finish their promotion with some vigorous kumite (sparring). So I don't want to spoil that by saying too much about the details of the testing. But I'll say that this was the largest senior promotion in Seido to date, with 30 people testing, and that it included kumite, kata, kihon, and drills ranging from stuff we learned as white belts so many years ago to our newest material, and that it was a pleasure to test with such wonderful people, including students from the U.K., Poland, New Zealand, India, and across the U.S.
It was also a lesson about resilience and about aging in the martial arts. One of the gentlemen testing for rokudan (sixth dan) had taken his previous promotion in a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident; as he kicked me during our sparring match, you'd never know it. Another gentleman, a fellow from the U.K. who was also testing for godan, had recently had a heart attack; and another fellow had had a minor stroke a few years ago. (Reminders that even with healthy lifestyles, sudden health disasters can strike.) It certainly put my ankle injury in perspective.
At 43 I was one of the younger people there; there were several folks in their 60s. Kaicho Nakamura, founder of Seido Karate, is now 71 -- when he demonstrated a jo technique for us he showed that he can still move with more grace and power than I will ever have.
I made my fair share of mistakes, but managed not to embarrass myself or my sensei, and so they promoted me. I get another hash mark on my black belt, as well as a fancy black and red ceremonial belt for special occasions, and my students are now supposed to call me "Kyoshi Tom".
Which raises the question, what the heck is a kyoshi? (More properly, "kyōshi" or "kyoushi", with the "o" held for two syllables; きょうし in hiragana.)
First, two big disclaimers: 1) The use of titles and ranks is different in different martial arts schools. If someone else awards a certain rank in a greater or lesser time, or uses a different set of titles, it doesn't make them right or wrong. (Well, ok -- if you're giving people black belts after one year or something like that, I'll go out on a limb and say that's wrong.) 2) Adapting Japanese titles into English is tricky. I know that some well-intentioned traditionalists get their obis in a knot about using "kyōshi" as a spoken title (rather than as a written honorific) at all, not to mention prepending it to a first name rather suffixing a family name. To these folks I can only say that Kaicho Nakamura is a native speaker of Japanese and a marital arts legend, and also comes from a samurai family -- if he thinks this usage is okay, he's got some authority on the matter. And the fact that he's the founder of Seido means that what he says is pretty much correct by definition for us!
The Japanese language is full of homonyms, so I should specify that the "kyōshi" in question is not 教師, meaning "teacher" as in a school teacher, but rather 教士 . It it one of a trio of traditional titles, the others being renshi (練士) and hanshi (範士). These three titles are sometimes called "shōgō", and were originally independent of dan ranking; I believe they originated in kendo.
In Seido, "renshi" is not used as a spoken title, but appears embroidered on the gi for fourth dan practitioners, who are addressed as "Sensei." The two kanji that make up renshi can be read as "polished" and "samurai" (or in other contexts, "gentleman"). A renshi is a martial arts trainer with polished skills -- a "polished warrior".
Back when I started training in Seido, "kyōshi" was also not used as a spoken title -- everyone past a certain point was just called "Sensei", but might have "renshi" or "kyoshi" written on their gi. But as the organization has grown and it's become trickier to keep track of who's who, we've come to use more titles to help sort out the proper relationships. "Kyōshi" is used as a title for fifth dans. The "shi" here is the same "samurai" kanji found in "renshi" and "hanshi"; the "kyō" can be read as "teach" or "doctrine".
So we might call a kyōshi a "teacher of warriors" or "teacher of the warrior doctrine". (It's a little dangerous to read too much into the parts of a kanji, but the "kyō" kanji here seems to be made up of old man, child, and "to hit" -- make of that what you will! It's also found in 教皇, which is "Pope" -- my Discordian side takes delight in that.)
The third shōgō title, hanshi, is used for the few master practitioners at the eighth dan level. "Han" here means "pattern, example, model" -- a hanshi is an "exemplar of warriors".
What about those in between kyōshi and hanshi? In Seido, sixth and seventh dan practitioners are addressed with variations of the title "shihan" (師範), which we might read as "expert model" or "teacher-model". Shihan and hanshi both carry the connotation that these people should serve as models in some sense.
In Seido, candidates for black-belt level promotions have to write an essay. I thought I might as well share mine. I have made one change, removing the last name of someone who has recently left Seido -- it seems most polite to not have this page pop up if someone Googles their name.
A Lucky Persistent Dilettante
Godan Promotion Essay
Godan Promotion Essay
Kaicho and Nidaime asked us each to pick a few words that describe us, the essence of who we are. As I've been thinking about that my mind keeps returning to one word: lucky.
I've been realizing how lucky I've been, both as a karate student and in general. Lucky to be born into an affluent society. Lucky to be born healthy, and to have loving and supportive parents and grandparents and family and friends. Lucky to have found a career path that has allowed me to make a decent living.
And lucky to find Seido Karate.
We talk about the meaning of Tsuki No Kata, how we create our good fortune and luck through hard work. There's a sense in which that's true: we can't just sit back and trust in luck, we have to go out and seize what comes to us. But we have to acknowledge that so much of what does come is not earned through our efforts. Perhaps it is random chance, or grace, or a gift from the divine. But luck seems a good word to describe it.
When I forget about this, I find myself falling into a trap of not appreciating my good fortune. If I succeed at something my ego swells right up, taking success as proof of what a great person I am. And I look at other people who aren't doing as well and convince myself that it must be their own fault.
But then sometimes, through my karate training, I'm lucky enough to be reminded of how false this vision of things is. Last spring, during the 20th Anniversary celebration for Seido Aichi in Nagoya, I was granted a very powerful reminder that I hope will stay with me.
The week and months before that were turbulent ones for me. In my karate life I had taken a gamble, moving the Catonsville Seido program to a new location and partnering with the local Y; this has paid off, but like any change it had its stresses and worries. Also I had suffered an ankle injury, one which is still affecting my training. In my personal life, a romantic misadventure broke my heart. There was nasty political infighting in a non-profit organization that I've been involved with for more than a decade, which involved some people making personal attacks on my character.
Then just a week before I was going to leave, a friend of mine, a musician, had a sudden cardiac arrest during a show. I was one of the people to do CPR on him, which made it even more emotionally intense. Since then he has made a complete and amazing recovery, a walking medical miracle -- but the same night, as I left the hospital where he'd been taken, I found my car broken into, a window smashed. Right before I left for Japan my house's heating oil tank sprung a leak, requiring expensive cleanup and replacement.
To top it all off a mechanical failure delayed my flight by a full day, and I had to rearrange my travel plans at the very last minute.
With all this I did not arrive in Japan in a good state of mind.
But the morning after I got to Nagoya I was privileged to join Kaicho, Nidaime, Hanshi Andy Barber, Jun Shihan Toshihide Sawahira, and about one hundred Seido students and instructors at the Atsuta Shrine, one of the most preeminent Shinto sites in Japan.
We had a special ritual, and a workout on the shine grounds. I got to perform kata on some of the most sacred ground in Japan, and was there for Kaicho's presentation of his old ceremonial belt to Nidaime. It was an amazing experience, and a privilege to be there and witness a very special moment in Seido history.
I also had a little reunion with Sensei Toshiyuki Kuwa and his family. I had trained and taught and been very warmly welcomed at their dojo when I spent a few months in Osaka in 2007; so to see them again was a reminder of another lucky experience. Not many Americans have been privileged to teach karate in Japan.
In the next few days we had the anniversary banquet, and the tournament, and a great uchiage party afterward. And then a bus trip to the Ise Grand Shrine. Here there was a special dance and music ritual ("kagura") dedicated just to Kaicho and Seido.
I had wanted to visit Ise during my 2007 trip, but got the train schedules confused and missed a connection. It was the only big thing that I'd wanted to do on that journey and had missed out on -- and now I was not just walking the grounds as a tourist, but had gotten inside.
It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. The precision of the dancers, the otherworldly tones of the music, knowing that this was part of a tradition going back thousands of years. And not just watching it, but watching Kaicho watch it, and Nidaime watch it (and probably watch Kaicho watch it). I knew that Jun Shihan Sawahira and his students had arranged for this special event, and this made me think about it in the context of the history of Seido, of the difficult decision Kaicho had made all those years ago, and the years when it was not even possible to have Seido in Japan.
And now, to have this experience -- not just the kagura, but the whole weekend, the fellowship, the great spirit and sportsmanship at the tournament...the only word I can use to describe the feeling is "blessed". Tears came to my eyes and I felt my frustrations and worries of the weeks and months before fall away, replaced with a sense of connectedness and rightness and reassurance that, for all of the chaos in my life, all was well.
I realized that I was able to have such an amazing experience because of Kaicho, because of Seido, because of Jun Shihan Sawahira and his students*, because of Jun Shihan Kate and so many people who have supported me in my training and in my wider life. And I had the deep feeling that I had not earned any of this -- and so it was my duty to pass it on, not to keep it for myself.
My karate training has prepared me to make the most of opportunities that do arise. But it also has made me conscious of the unearned good fortune that brought those opportunities to me. Where I have succeeded it has not been just a matter of determination and effort; I see other people working as hard or harder than I ever did, but not meeting with success just because of some chance factor outside their control. And that makes me want to help, to try to share the luck around.
When I think about fortunate chances in my life I can see them at play in several different fields.
I was fortunate to start my career in software development shortly before the boom of the late 90s. While it didn't make me a dot-com millionaire, it put me on a decent career path.
Ten years ago, I was lucky to be guided, by chance encounters and circumstances, into a top-notch shiatsu training program. This not only gave me skills for a back-up career, but was transformative and helped me deal with a difficult time in my own life. It gave me a powerful new way to understand myself, through the models of traditional Asian medicine.
And back in 2000 I was fortunate enough to stumble across a poetry workshop group, that has become an artistic home and another source of support and friendship, and help me develop as a writer. I'm about to have my first book published -- a non-fiction work, not a poetry collection, but it would never have come together without the poets of Zelda's Inferno, a group that I heard about only by chance.
I've dipped my toes into many different fields. Sometimes I have to wonder if I might have had more success if I had focused my efforts more, rather than running from one thing to another in a dilettante manner. But on the other hand I feel that I've been able to be a messenger, a sort of bridge-builder between fields. On a good day I can explain computers to the poets, and poetry to the software geeks, and I think that's worthwhile.
And it's often been the case that things I learned in one field have proved useful in another. When I'm teaching karate, I can draw on the understanding of anatomy and of qi/ki I gained from my shiatsu training; the understanding of physics I picked up as a student of science and technology; the understanding of rhythm I'd developed from playing music; and so on. I think this diversity of experience helps me as a teacher.
And of course my karate training has influenced how I approached these other areas of my life. The main thing that I've been able to take from karate into every other field is the simple but difficult lesson that the key to progress is persistence.
We talk about the need to persevere in the face of adversity, to rise each time we fall. "If you fall down seven times, get up eight times." And when we think of that we might picture something dramatic, like fighting a larger and stronger opponent and not giving up, or continuing to train under extraordinary challenges. But maybe the ordinary challenges are more likely to wear us down. It may be easier to rally our energy to meet a big challenge then to persistently show up at the dojo week after week, month after month, year after year.
What karate has taught me is that if you keep at it, you'll get better. If you keep practicing your mawashi geri, no matter how bad it is to start with, it will get better. If you keep practicing the guitar, no matter how badly you play when you start, you'll get better. If you keep writing poems, no matter how bad they are when you start, they'll get better. If you keep sitting in meditation, your mind will get clearer.
This sort of simple persistence isn't dramatic, it doesn't make for a lot of interesting stories. But it's the best advice I've been able to give my students, and my colleagues in karate and in every field: just keep showing up.
As I stand as a candidate for promotion, matter of rank are much on my mind. I find myself asking, what does it mean to be a yondan or a godan, a Sensei or a Kyoshi? And so when I think about the changes that I've seen in Seido what comes to mind are the changes in ranks and titles.
When I started training in 1985, Kaicho was "Shihan Nakamura". (I am friends with a couple who were Honbu students back in the early 1980s, Larry and Sabina Shirley. Though it's been many years since they trained they still often ask how "Shihan" is doing, and credit his teaching with improving their lives.) Back then all the instructors, yondan or godan, were addressed as "Sensei". If I recall correctly, even Hanshi Charles Martin was ranked rokudan but still called "Sensei".
When I was a white belt or a brown belt, or even as a shodan, all those ranks seemed equally remote. Like looking at a mountain range from far away, you're only conscious that they're all high up. So as we started to call people "Kyoshi" and "Jun Shihan" and "Sei Shihan" and "Shuseki Shihan", I didn't really understand what it meant.
However, if you climb one of those lower peaks you can appreciate how much higher the others are. Now that I've had the title "Sensei" applied to me for the past few years, I can see how inappropriate it would be if Hanshi Charles was still also addressed by the same title as me! These titles help us define our relationships with each other, and that's a valuable thing.
But of all the new titles and the relationships that they indicate, there's one of preeminent importance: Nidaime.
When Kaicho first announced that Nidaime would be his successor, I didn't really know him. Of course I trusted Kaicho's judgment, and it made sense that he would want to pass things on to his son, but I didn't know anything more than that.
But as Nidaime has taken on a more and more prominent role in the organization, and as I've had the opportunity to learn from him -- both on the dojo floor and watching how he leads, motivates, and interacts with people -- I've become convinced that having him here is a way that we are all very lucky.
Master Gichin Funakoshi wrote that a true martial artist has a smile that can win the hearts of little children, and a fierceness that can make a tiger crouch in fear. I recognized Kaicho in this as soon as I read it, and as I've gotten to know Nidaime a little bit I see that it applies to him too.
I know that the future of Seido is very secure. While I hope that Kaicho will continue to lead us for many years to come, I'd like to take this opportunity to say that when he does choose to retire I have no hesitation in following Nidaime.
On the topic of change, I feel that I should say a little bit about changes in Seido within Maryland. It's inevitable that there will sometimes be partings of the ways, and we've recently had that with Jun Shihan Marc P[...] leaving Seido.
When I started my Seido training back in 1985, Sensei Marion Ciekot was the senior branch chief for Maryland, Sensei Neal Pendleton ran the program at the Northeast YMCA, and Jun Shihan Marc was his shodan assistant instructor. These three men were a profound influence on my teenage self, Jun Shihan Marc especially: he was closest to my age, and about my own size and build. I even fancied that we looked a little bit alike, back in those days. For the first eight or nine years of my karate training he was probably the person I looked up to the most directly.
Sensei Ciekot left Seido in 1995 and Sensei Neal had retired and moved away before that, so until his departure Jun Shihan Marc was the only one of my original instructors still training. Though I was other side of town and we didn't see each other often, just knowing he was there provided some sense of continuity. And when we did get together, I was so proud to be a fellow black belt and instructor with someone who had been a role model to my teenage self.
It's difficult to realize that people who you admire can make poor judgments. It would be easier if we could just follow directly in other people's footsteps. But we're all fallible; and so we have to keep an eye out and watch in what direction our leaders take us.
While Jun Shihan Marc's departure brings with it some emotion, it doesn't directly affect my training. But it makes me think back to another big change, when Sensei Ciekot left Seido. That found me closer to the center of the turbulence, and it was my relationship with Jun Shihan Kate (who was back then "Senpai Kate") that kept my training steady through it.
If I had said, "Sensei Ciekot is my sensei, this is the most senior person, I only need to connect with him," I would have been lost. The sensei-student relationship is incredibly important, but as I think about how we handle change it seems vital that it not be the sole thread that connects us to our training.
It is the weave of relationships that binds us together, and helps us get through the rough times. Some of those relationships are years in the making; others can be formed with just a few words.
Some of these relationships we may never even know about, when something that we say or do has a profound impact (a positive one, we hope!) on someone. I can think of many times that Kaicho or a senior instructor has said something to me or showed me something that I'm sure they have forgotten about, but that has stuck with me for years.
As I continue to teach it may happen that I say or do something that sticks with a student in a way I'm never aware of. That is a sobering responsibility to contemplate, and I'm sure I won't always get it right. But if we have a strong weave of relationships, those students will have many people to look to -- senior instructors, their own instructor, and their senpais -- and that much more of a chance to get it right, and to hold to what's right through whatever changes come.