Let me tell you a story.
Way back in the mid 1995 I was on a smooth wooden floor in the city of Uchinada, Ishikawa prefecture. I had trained very hard, almost every day, for three years to get to this point. I had sweated gallons, I had been cut, bruised, punched, kicked, and had a fair number of broken bones in my feet, a broken nose, and damaged teeth. I was standing in front of over twenty veteran Japanese karate teachers. It was time to earn my shodan (first degree blackbelt). It was the hardest day of my life.
The morning was filled with basics. Stepping. Punching. Kicking. Blocking. Combinations barked out, and you better be quick. Up and down the floor. There were about 30 of us grading that day for black belts. The floor was slick with perspiration. Then slick from blood from cut feet. This was no game. The air was thick and hot. My mouth tasted like iron. It was a grim start to the day.
A short break for lunch. I couldn’t eat anything, but I could keep down some water. I stood by an open window. I felt the air on my face. And before I knew it we were commanded to get lined up again.
And what I thought was a really rough morning was not much of anything because now we spar. Now we fight. I had a moment where my mind was blank. Then we got lined up and I was ready to go. I felt my heartbeat spike a little, and then it settled down. I was in my groove.
Thirty candidates facing off against all our teachers. Our well-rested teachers. And as they lined up to spar with us one after another we were told to stand our ground.
I stood my ground.
I was close to my prime fighting condition, and I fought with everything I had. I was lucky as I saw a few guys lose front teeth that day. But they fought on. We all did. It was rough, and a little bloody, but the style of Shotokan karate is also beautiful too. A man stands entirely still. Then in a single motion, with all muscles in synchronicity he moves like a barracuda. You may feel just a hint of a punch on your face, in your belly. And sometimes he will give you just a little more, just so you don’t forget how dangerous this art is. You probably won’t see it coming until it is too late.
And it is in those moments where you must let the front of your mind go, and let the body and subconscious mind look ahead, searching for “the tell”, the tremor of movement, and let the body react, let the counter whip out with a mind of its own, and remain there, on that spot. Standing your ground. You must always stand your ground.
The teachers, and their junior instructors cycled through the candidates, each trying to show the next how much punishment they can dish out. I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. I decided that day to bring everything I had to the floor. I would not be put down. I would not give an inch to any man. And the air was full of shouting, and fury.
After about an hour or so, the raging thunder of karate teachers knocking us around, demanding you “STAND AND FIGHT” after each defeat, had subsided, we spent the next four hours working on forms and having every single nuance of each movement, hand position, block, turn, and stance micro-analyzed until they were good enough. In the end we had been on the floor, being tested and pushed, battered and bruised for ten hours. My feet were in ribbons, my karate uniform soaked through from top to bottom, and yet we all stood there. Not one of us let go. We had been pounded for hours, but now the study of kata was about the art, gracefulness, and precision of hands, feet, and spine.
I love karate. I love Shotokan karate. It has been the strength in my life from my twenties up to my fifties. It taught me a lot in terms of how to live, how to work, how to find compassion, how to be at peace with the world, and how to be a man.
From that day I continued as a karate student, then a coach and a teacher. Then a writer. I wrote a book called, “Karate The Japanese Way”. It was not an “expert” book about karate, as I am no expert. It was no “authority” on karate, as I have no authority. I am just a simple Canadian chucklehead.
But I love karate. And I love to talk about it, and do it, and meet other people who love it too. So, I built a website also called “Karate The Japanese Way”. It’s long gone now, but when I made it I, with a lot of help from web experts, it became pretty popular. People in the karate world started to read the book and got interested in the art. I received a lot of emails that the book was used to inspire new students coming in to karate. The book was even being used as a required text for some karate clubs at university. It was more than just a little unbelievable.
The tone of the book is “I do not know everything about karate, but come along with me and you can see the things I see. Then make up your own mind.”
I always write in this fashion. It’s my style, and it is my true mind. With everything.
After the book was doing reasonably well I decided that we would develop an on-line forum for karate, and have a place for “intelligent discussion” about all things karate. I managed to assemble a team of moderators from England, New Zealand, The Philippines, and America. After a few months we had a membership of over 30,000 karate teachers and students around the world. It was a pretty incredible thing.
One important thing to know about how karate organizations ran in the past is that they were very much top-down, in a pyramid shape. Whatever you were told verbally by your “sensei” was the law. And you were to obey. And you were to not think for yourself. And you were not to disagree, research, meet other karate people, or show any sign of “disobedience”. In fact, some karate organizations resembled cults. Members of our intelligent karate forum did not hesitate to point that out, and to welcome anyone to express their ideas and discuss any element of the art we cherish.
Several major karate organizations began to lose their steam, and several top “sensei” found themselves no longer “the fount of all wisdom”. The internet takes care of that. The free association of people is the antithesis to control freaks and “authoritarian experts”. Some karate leaders made demands that we stop talking on line about karate. You can imagine how well that went over. We decided to stand our ground, to remain intellectually honest, and continually curious.
I’m very proud of the discussions and headway we had with liberating otherwise intellectually and psychologically controlled women and men in a few bogus karate pyramid structures that were floating around out there. As a group we had great research, multi-lingual texts, meetings, discussions, seminars, papers written and published, and a wellspring of new publications came out as a result. We spoke and wrote without fear or favour. That is part of our Enlightenment heritage, and we will not throw it out, or put it aside for anyone.
How we gather information now is very different than when I was a university student in the 1980’s. There was no Internet then, so you had to get into the library as much as you could. And even then, the resources are only what you can manage to pull off a shelf. I love books, and I love to read, but I also love the free flow of data and information that we experience today with the incredible technology at our fingertips. That part of information gathering is much better now than before.
The Internet flattens pyramids, and we should be grateful for that. Access to information, throughout history, liberates the mind. It unshackles us from other’s opinions and grants us a better way to think for ourselves.
So, how does this relate to pilgrims on the Shikoku Pilgrimage?
Well, up until recently there have been only a few “sources” in English about the pilgrimage itself. Some have been trailblazing, thoughtful, articulate, well-written, well researched, and intelligent. Some have been just okay. But, all is welcome. Because there is not so much out there, at this time, we need to read everything that we can get. As a student of the pilgrimage, I am always looking for more to read and to understand. I’m hungry for information and for new knowledge. Even though my school days are long behind me, I still have the heart and mind of a student.
But there is this pesky thing called the Internet that disrupts pyramidal thinking about knowledge and expertise. And some “experts” have seemingly gotten their feathers ruffled because they are no longer the sole, singular, and primary sources of information or inspiration for a 1200 year old pilgrimage. History has moved up to their point in it and may move right through them. Sadly, instead of riding the incredible wave that is coming their way, they may just pick up their surfboard and kick rocks all the way home.
Frankly, I find this prima donna attitude disappointing. And childish.
I can’t prove anything, but I feel a “tremor”. Something is moving out there in the Internet regarding the Ohenro experience. Some of the “big boys” are complaining and grousing. I have heard as much through third parties. They seem displeased that their sage voices are not the only voices that may be heard. They seem flummoxed that there may be information and perspective and people who also exist here in Shikoku who may want to lend a hand to incoming pilgrims. Apparently, and this comes from a few sources, this little website, and our community building of pilgrims and and ohenro from around the world on Facebook has deeply offended them.
I have somehow, in my enthusiasm and “je ne sais quoi” wronged them, these would be modern preachers and priests of the “true Ohenro tradition”. I am not sure how I have done that, considering I have written nothing and said nothing but nice things about each of the gentlemen I have in mind right now.
But their hackles are raised, offended, and in a snit they are, and there is no undoing the grievous injury I have done upon their fair and thin-skinned sensibilities. I have no grudges to carry, for my part. But they seem to have some serious issues with Yours Truly. Their hand-wringing and angst has reached a certain pitch and they have reacted, not with any entreaty to talk or discuss, but with rashness and bitterness. I have heard the unpleasant comments about us, and it’s very disappointing.
They are picking up their toys and thinking about going home. Maybe their day is done, so maybe that is okay. The sun still rises and sets, just not on everything they have to say anymore.
There is still much to do for this project, for introduction of the Shikoku experience, for support of people coming here for the first time. I’m committed to see this work down the road as best as I can, and to be of service to my fellow pilgrim, the people in my neighbourhood, the people in my city, the people in the prefecture of Kagawa, and the country that belongs to my children.
I will stand my ground.
As a student. As a person with curiosity. As a fellow pilgrim looking to find my way.
As a man. As a person. As a heart and soul built on bones with muscle and skin.
Just like you.
This page in the latest drama will be turned. The next day will come. Pilgrims will wake up in the morning and get their shoes on. The next temple awaits. And the next. And the next. The unhappy “sage voices of English-speaking master ohenro” will be fainter until they either fade away, or they figure out that there is nothing more or less special about them than anyone else, and do what they were doing before.
I do not know what the next day will bring. If the “voices of English authority” dramatically cross their arms and have a sulk, that is their choice. Others will continue on to translate, to explore, to share, to discover, and to celebrate the Shikoku Pilgrimage anyway.
I’m not sure what the great Koubou Daishi would think. We all have our personal faults, foibles, and demons to wrestle.
And frankly, in the end, this website, my little book, and all the things I have said, songs I have sung, and every echo of every belly-laugh I have ever had, will simply fade.
I’m totally okay with that.
Travel safe dear pilgrims. Keep between the ditches.