It is always a good exercise to take account of our motivations as karate teachers and practitioners. Why do we continue on, year after year, teaching and practicing karate? Yes there are a lot of easy, canned answers: cultivation of character, preserving the traditions of the past, to learn to be able to defend oneself, to confront our responses to violence, force of habit. I am sure I am leaving many out.

I don’t think most people scrutinize this carefully. For a variety of reasons, answering this requires us to consider who makes up the community of people to whom we are responsible towards. When the answer is ambiguous it becomes nearly impossible to understand the extent of our responsibilities, and thus what it is we should be doing. The ‘why’ question becomes easier to address when we are clear about what we are doing, and equally important, about what we are not/ should not be doing.

There are those who regard themselves as hard-core ‘traditionalists’ for whom preserving tradition seems to be the ultimate objective. To these people the most important obligation is to ones predecessors in these arts. Of course it is useful and proper to give credit where it is due. We have an obligation to make sure our historical claims are accurate, but that seems like the extent of our obligation to the dead.

Many times in the thirty-plus years I have been involved with martial arts, I have seen abusive and insensitive behavior justified by appeals to tradition.

As a younger black-belt level instructor, I remember struggling with ethical dilemmas that should not have been complicated, however, my judgment was clouded by the imagined relevance of some mumbo jumbo associated with tradition.

Confucianism as Justification for Traditionalism

The influence of Confucianism on the culture of the martial arts cannot be overstated. While the focus on, and commitment to humanity (ren), rather than to the divine, or supernatural is admirable, appeals to Confucianism are often used to prop up out-dated and un-useful social power structures, to justify uncritical acceptance of past training methods, and to impart an inflated sense of importance to the activities and culture of the martial arts.

Few people bother to make much of an effort to understand Confucianism or why it should be evaluated critically before accepting it as grounds for embracing established codes of behavior in the martial arts.

A complete critical evaluation as to the appropriateness of Confucianism to the modern context is beyond the scope or intent of this article. However a brief review of the “so called” five relationships so important to Confucian praxis is illuminating.

These five relationships are:

(1) Ruler to ruled

(2) Father to son

(3) Husband to wife

(4) Elder brother to younger brother and

(5) Friend to friend

Many people imagine a sixth relationship: past to present. Or maybe it is dead to living. I will address this a bit later.

All of these, except for the last, express relationships characterized -at least as would have been understood at the time Confucius lived and taught- by power inequity. Notice also, the poverty of imagination regarding women.

Politeness and ritual function to help facilitate the harmonious interactions of various parties while reducing the possibility for unproductive misunderstandings and friction. This seems appropriate, except when we consider, for example, how acceptable most contemporary women in the West would find the gender roles and expectations of 18th century China.

We don’t have to work hard to imagine a situation in which women are accorded equal legal status to men, yet are expected to accept a social situation in which they are supposed to be generally deferential to men. In such a situation, it should come as no surprise to anyone to find the social status of women continuing to be inferior to that enjoyed by men.

Something akin to this process is alive and well in many martial arts communities. While it is not uncommon to find women teaching beginners or children, they are rarely seen instructing senior students. Even more rare are the number of events at which the headlining instructor is female. This should be troubling to any senior instructor who has a commitment to seeing students succeed regardless of gender.

The civil rights struggle in the U.S. provides us with another informative example.  In spite of the legal landscape -which certainly was not equitable at the time of the civil rights movement- social expectations and local customs served to prop up and legitimize inequitable treatment of African Americans.

Regardless of legal reforms, the status of minorities would not have substantially improved had not brave women and men challenged not only laws, but also customs and expectations.

Rituals, traditions, and customs, however well intentioned, are the artifacts of a different time and should be subject to re-evaluation and re-interpretation in light of contemporary social needs.  Bowing and scrapping may not be the most effective way to promote an atmosphere conducive to intense and focused practice of the martial arts, nor is it necessarily the best way to indicate trust or trustworthiness.

While a study of Confucianism is certainly worthwhile, historical Confucianism cannot have the last word on how people should interact in the martial arts.

Technique and Pedagogy as Custom

Intuitively karate people associate bowing, costume, deferential treatment of seniors, periods of meditation before and after training, ritual cleaning of the floor, winter, New Years training, and announcing the principles of the training hall (dojo kun) with tradition.  Training, teaching methods, technical performance, beliefs about what constitutes “good spirit” in when engaging a training partner, and training dictums like “don’t back up when fighting,” are all part of custom and tradition.

People come to the martial arts to learn to fight. Many are afraid to be that direct about their motives, giving lip service to cultural, spiritual, physical fitness, or aesthetic interests. Each of these is probably better pursued some other way. What is unique about the martial arts is that they teach you to fight.

It is hard to find the time to learn to fight. People lead busy lives with many interests competing for their time, money, and attention.

Because of these time constraints, the number of practice sessions students can make each week, and the amount of practice they can reasonably expect to do outside of class will be limited. In order to realize improvement in fighting ability, the material and methods of practice should be appropriate for the student’s life circumstances, physical make up, fitness level, psychology, and intellectual capacity.

I have taught several blind students over the years. One of the first was a man who felt vulnerable getting around town. Not wanting him to feel entirely left out when we practiced kata, I constructed a detailed method of describing techniques and orientation of which, at the time I was quite proud of.

Most of the techniques required a great deal of visual information in order to use effectively. After a couple of months the student and I agreed that we would just concentrate on what he could reasonably expect to be able to make work, and we accounted for the cane he always had with him.

Whenever possible, the work he did related somehow to what the sighted students practiced, but inevitably, it looked much different than what the others did.

The first couple of months were largely a waste of his time. He struggled, became frustrated, and did not improve his fighting ability -all because I was so attached to the “form” of karate.

This is an obvious example of how methods can go awry when instructors are overly attached to established methods.

The threats men and women face can be very different. Men have dominated the upper ranks of most martial arts for several generations. It is reasonable to expect that the way men react to threats and imagine violence will not necessarily map onto most women’s experience.

What is reasonable strategy and training for a large person may be grossly unfit for a smaller person. An instructor who respects her students should be concerned that the student’s time is well spent.

Some instructors think this means piling on more and more material. Bodies can only make so many adjustments in a particular time frame. Minds take time to digest and incorporate material. Sometimes priorities have to be re-evaluated. That may not always suit the instructor’s strengths or preferences.

This may mean that what is covered in class has only the slightest resemblance to established training methods for any style or school.

Buddhism and Taoism, the Exceptional Individual, and Cults of Personality

In Confucianism, there is an assumption that many aspects of our character are only manifested in social interactions. Prior to such an occasion, they either are latent or not existent at all. It is therefore only within the social realm that we are able to fully engage in the process of character creation and refinement.

Although there is a danger that a commitment to Confucianism may contribute to uncritical acceptance of social structures, behaviors that are anachronistic, exclusionary, and even in some cases, abusive, the priority placed on human relationships over metaphysical speculation represents a positive influence on the culture of the martial arts. It presents even the most adamant self-identifying traditionalist with the opportunity to reconsider and reform her practice.

The Confucian emphasis on the importance of human interactions stands in sharp contrast to the hermetic and monastic tendencies associated with Buddhism and Taoism. In spite of the Buddhist doctrines of anatta -no independent self or soul-and dependent origination, the cultural influence of Buddhism has tended to affirm the belief that one can practice the refinement of one’s self -and therefore character- largely in isolation-or in the idealized, exclusive, and self contained monastic community (except for the occasional beneficent foray into the larger world.)

The presence of the Bodhisattva ideal in Northern forms of Buddhism does not represent contrary evidence. The Bodhisattva engages the world as an already-enlightened being expressing compassion for a world suffering from the consequences of attachment, aversion, and delusion.

A similar tendency can be seen in the hermiticism associated with Taoism. In each of these, in spite of their metaphysical commitments and rhetoric, the perspective that derives is one of a kind of personal essentialism in which the refinement of the spirit, and therefore character, can be accomplished almost entirely outside of the social realm.

None of this is to say that this has to be the case. In both Buddhism and Taoism sophisticated interpreters could legitimately derive alternate perspectives from these traditions.

They do, however, contribute to the power and persuasiveness of a kind of cult of the exceptional individual. The very idea that an individual alone, training in the mountains, for example can, without significant other experience, become a master of the fighting arts owes a great deal to this myth. The near-guru status that some senior instructors enjoy- and usually exploit- similarly derives power from it.

The short, sad truth that martial artists are often afraid to accept is that there is nothing exceptional about martial arts or martial artists. This includes the head of your school, lineage, or whatever. The practice of the martial arts does not magically impart discipline, unique physical ability, psychological power, spiritual power, or wisdom.

It is the sycophants, the casual interlocutors, and the emotionally needy and insecure who tend to be the most devoted to cults of personality, as well as the shrillest defenders of naïve traditionalism. Rarely are these the most vigorous of martial artists. They derive their power, prestige, and authority from associating themselves with the “glorious and honorable” past. As a rule, it is a good idea to keep in mind that the past is rarely as glorious and honorable as people like to remember.

Another tactic employed by the guru class is to create the impression that they are somehow exceptional. Their uniqueness is evidence of their fitness to be leaders and interpreters of morality, history, and teaching methods, regardless of their own personal conduct, skills, or practice.

Often this uniqueness is represented as deriving from their involvement in the martial arts, as though martial arts practice somehow imparts special categories of knowledge, physical ability, or magically creates moral virtue.

I personally have a fondness for the Buddhist doctrines of dependant origination. The social, political, and psychologically contingent status suggested by this doctrine means that good instructors probably owe as much to their students as the students owe to their instructors.  Gurus would do well to remember this.

But I Hit the Makiwara and Practice My Kata a Lot…

There are some areas where it is not unreasonable to expect improvements from solo practice. These include gains in strength, flexibility, power, the economy and gracefulness of particular movements, and the ability to use various supplemental training devices. The ability to actually apply these improvements to fighting, however, requires us to work with actual human partners.

In fact, weeding out fantasy from reality,  evaluating claims about the utility of techniques or training methods, also require vast stores of experience with partners.

If we are dependent on one another to realize improvements-either for character development or for fighting ability- then the real-living people with whom we train have to take priority over any obligations we believe we may have to the ghosts of the past.

That last part may seem a bit of a leap. It is one thing to go from asserting that substantial progress in the martial arts requires us to work with one another, to saying that, because of this, our obligations to one another trump our obligations to our ancestors.

Perhaps is not that hard to make that leap, however. The honored dead may have an interest in not having their lives and contributions mis-represented; but their personal narratives have run their course. Whatever their current state, their earthly histories are what they are. Their lives must speak for themselves.

The livings have an obligation to interpret the lives of their predecessors as objectively as possible. They are not obligated to be apologists for those lives.

What Would an Ancestor Expect?

If I imagine myself as an ancestor, looking down at either my biological descendents or my student’s students, what would I hope to see? If they seemed stilted, unable to adapt to and survive the challenges they face in life, I’d be pretty upset. I would be even more upset if their inability to adapt was due in part to their mistaken dedication to imitating the ways in which I coped with the challenges of my own time.

Some martial artists make a fetish out of history. So many times I hear people saying things that suggest that all of our problems can be met by looking to the past. What falderal (usually self serving at that). They can’t.

Applying lessons from the past is an active and creative process that requires critical skills. These cannot be developed or cultivated by pedagogies that fetishize history, emphasize imitation over interpretation, or create saints out complex human histories. The result is anachronistic formalism.

So, what would make me happy if I were looking down on students of students? Honest and critical assessment of my contributions would be nice, but even more important to me would be that they are adapting successfully to the real challenges and threats they face. Certainly I would be profoundly upset if thugs and bullies had come to dominate the culture, so yes, I would also like them to strive to be good people. That’s pretty much it.

I expect that any ancestor of mine worth venerating, if they are somewhere watching, would have similar expectations. This stuff is for the living.

Future generations will have to wrestle with how to interpret our lives and careers. We can make it easier for them by refusing to model uncritical acceptance of the past. If we do our best, and we are honest about how and why we do what we do, maybe future generations will not have so difficult a time figuring out what to make of our experience.