Now & Zen

Written by Mike Clarke

Martial arts & the art of becoming unattached

The ‘tradition’ of traditional karate lies not in the techniques handed down or the kata being practised, but in the sincerity of those teaching and training in it, writes Mike Clarke Sensei. Clarke, a karate veteran of 35 years’ experience, reveals why there are no ‘quick fixes’ in martial arts and comments on the personal search for identity and ‘enlightenment’ that the art can offer those who seek it.


There is an old Zen Buddhist story that points the mind towards the problem of becoming attached. It goes like this:

One day a young monk was sitting in zazen, (the traditional kneeling posture familiar to both Zen and karate students), and deep in meditation. The master passed by and, seeing him in zazen, stopped and said: “What are you doing?” The young monk opened his eyes and said, “I’m practising zazen so that I may gain enlightenment.” The master then picked up a piece of broken roof tile he noticed lying near by and began to rub it with his sleeve. “What are you doing?” asked the young monk. “I’m making a mirror,” said the master. “But you can’t make a mirror like that!” said the monk, to which the master replied, “And you can’t gain enlightenment sitting there like that either!”

Karate is a bit like this sometimes, with many finding themselves becoming attached solely to the form of what they are doing, and losing sight of the function it serves. An attachment is formed to the way things are done and in which order, according to a particular school or dojo. Indeed, many people define what they do by adhering strictly to one method or syllabus and believing it to be the only proper way to do anything. But this kind of attachment serves only the structure of their activity and does little to deepen their understanding of it. In a process, difficult for many to grasp, we often have to give something away in order to keep it. I’m not talking literally here. One wouldn’t throw away one’s physical or spiritual good health, for example. Having said that, many karate people do smoke — but what value is there in cultivating a strong body if, at the same time, you’re killing it with bad habits?

When I first saw people training in karate, I was truly amazed. Not only by the speed at which they moved, but by the way they moved; I’d never seen people in motion like that before. Clearly powerful, their movement also had some elegance to it too: like a kind of dance but with ‘attitude’. People were obviously working hard and yet they seemed to move with ease. Now, perhaps all this had more to do with my then-untrained eye than the general skill level of those I was watching. Nevertheless, it was an impressive sight as 30 or so people moved around the dojo like a well-calibrated machine. The unnerving shout they issued simultaneously in a deafening roar only served to enhance my sense of amazement. I remember thinking, “How could I ever reach the level of control and co-ordination these people had?”

As the years rolled by, I was to learn that there are no shortcuts. It was instead a simple matter of going to the dojo often and working on the techniques I was trying to master. Had I taken the time to look, I may have noticed that even my teacher was, for much of the time, working on the same basic techniques I was — although his were much smoother, stronger and better focused than mine, of course. Had I noticed this back then, I might have concluded that the length of time it was going to take for me to master anything in karate was going to be a lot longer than I’d anticipated. At that time, however, my understanding of the ‘bigger picture’ wasn’t well established and karate for me, at least in those very early days, was a curious mix of learning what I could while trying to avoid being hurt too badly. Not that I thought anyone was out to deliberately hurt me, but back in 1974, dojos did not concern themselves with providing a safe ‘family’ environment in which to learn, nor did they promise the training would be ‘fun’.

And so it was that I began to learn individual techniques, developing a liking for some and a dislike for others. Without noticing what was happening, I was becoming attached to certain techniques. These were of course the ones I felt I could make work, while those I was struggling with were put aside, filed under ‘I’ll work on them later — there’s plenty of time’. I couldn’t have been more wrong, of course, but at the time it seemed like a perfectly reasonable way to do things. So there I was, building within me a number of techniques I felt I could always count on, and this served me well for a number of years. That was until I started to come across people upon whom the same techniques didn’t work so well, or failed altogether. How could that happen? How could my techniques stop being effective? They should have been getting better. ‘I’ should have been getting better!

I can recall vividly my feelings at the time: a shifting mix of resentment, jealousy and even mild despair at my lack of ability and the ever-growing feeling inside me that I was losing what little karate ability I had. I felt like I was losing everything: my ability to fight, to do kata correctly and to maintain my position within the group. I was becoming unattached from many of the things I relied upon to tell others who I was and to confirm to myself my standing among my peers. In reality, I had merely reached a plateau — the first of many — but the overwhelming sense I had back then was one of loss. The closing of one door, however, allows for the opening of another. Not that I understood this at the time. Instead, I was puzzled as to why techniques I felt I had learnt so well were now unraveling; it was as if I needed to learn them all over again. Had I known better, I might have struggled less with the uncertainty I felt then, but I now understand that the amount we struggle depends on us.

Fast forward 30-something years, and a couple of things I’ve come across recently have prompted me to wonder about the things, and the people, we attach ourselves to in life, and the things we use (either consciously or subconsciously) to provide or perhaps enhance our own sense of identity.

I began to wonder to myself recently: are the things to which we attach ourselves always good for us?

Not long ago, I was training in New Zealand and met, for the first time, a young man who had a very strong sense of himself and his standing in karate. Nothing wrong with that, except I was having a hard time matching his words and his posturing with his obvious lack of ability and understanding. He spoke highly of his teacher and their training and, rather disappointingly, of himself too. So, as I watched him struggle with the training we were doing, I began to wonder how he had become attached to such behaviour. I wondered what it was that allowed him to conduct himself in the way he did and see nothing wrong in it, and why his (as he put it) “truly awesome” instructor had not thus far helped him get rid of such a negative and boastful persona.

The second thing to focus my thoughts on this idea of “attachment” was an article I read a while back about a young man who had started his own style of karate. With just a few years’ experience of karate, taekwondo and hapkido training, he had (yes, you guessed it) taken ‘the best’ from each and made his own martial art. From what he said in the interview, his overwhelming desire was to teach others the benefits of his knowledge thus far. Yet, from the things he spoke of, it was clear his attachment to the martial arts was more about moulding them (the martial arts and his followers) to fit his own self-image. He spoke of building his student base and improving growth for the future of “his” style. He even spoke of grooming his senior students to become future instructors, so that his style of karate would grow even after he had gone.

Both of these examples caused me to think about the things I attach myself to, and the reason why I try not to become too attached to anything in life these days — especially in karate. Ideas, objects, and even other people are enjoyed (or, sometimes, endured) and occupy a space in my life for a time before departing, some with a greater sense of sadness than others. At such times as this the question becomes: How long do I remain attached to the sadness? This may sound rather cold or even antisocial, but I would disagree. I enjoy the things around me and cherish my friends and loved ones, but you see it is one thing to appreciate, sometimes on a deeply personal level, the people and even the objects surrounding us as we move through life, and something altogether different when we become attached to them. The former allows us to let go, gently. The second demands they be torn from us!

Nothing in the universe is constant, least of all us. So why is it we often work so hard to hold on to things that, by their very nature, are impermanent? In karate it’s necessary to understand the nature of the practice we devote our attention to, and it’s important to develop the clarity of vision that will allow for that understanding to happen. As Shotokan karate founder Funakoshi Sensei once so eloquently put it: “Part the clouds and seek the way.” But how do we begin to part the clouds? How do we get the tools to do this and to move to a place in our minds that will help us reach a different level of understanding? Well, we can begin by detaching ourselves from many of the things that brought us to the dojo in the first place, as we try to wrap our minds around the concept that in order to gain more we need to ‘want’ less. We need to abandon long-held desires to make room for a deeper learning experience. In short, we need to ‘empty our cup’ — a motto no doubt familiar to many, although how many have followed through and truly applied this seemingly simple piece of advice is arguably few.

There has been some debate recently about the state of karate in Japan these days. Following the debate, it was easy to feel the sense of disappointment and disbelief coming through in the words of those expressing certain views, particularly over revelations concerning the lack of depth in the karate taught by many Japanese instructors at the moment. Signs too, that some are already positioning themselves to take advantage of the fallout that might occur as a result of such revelations. I wonder how many disappointed people will simply transfer their attachment away from a Japanese-led karate group and repeat the same mistake by attaching themselves, just as blindly, to a group lead by a Westerner or an Okinawan.

Traditional karate has never been the property of a single group of people, not even in Okinawa. There, too, its history is chequered and rife with lies and tall stories. Even today, anyone training there has to guard against believing everything they are told. For as wonderful as karate is on the island of its birth, there are today (and always have been as far as I can gather) people prepared to put their energies into doing the wrong thing and thus attaching themselves to a path that will lead them nowhere. The ‘tradition’ of traditional karate lies not in the techniques handed down or the kata being practised, but in the sincerity of the people who continue to train themselves with the same steady determination that others have shown over the centuries. The fact that individual techniques or kata change over the passage of time is of little consequence when compared to the mutual understanding that emerges in each new generation as they discover personal truths about themselves through the study of interpersonal combat.

Finding inspiration in the people who have gone before us as we continue to make our own progress, and seeing what is possible for us in the actions of our seniors, we begin to grasp the real meaning of the word ‘tradition’. For the tradition in ‘traditional karate’ lies in the lessons each of us must learn as we work towards clarity and a quiet sense of understanding, as we part clouds and continue to seek ‘the Way’. It’s a simple enough concept, yet one that troubles the overwhelming majority of karateka, it seems. The need to attach oneself to a teacher, a dojo, an association or a style remains firmly entrenched in the minds of many. Good teachers, though, will discourage attachment and encourage self-growth in the students who follow them. Good teachers will lead by example and not by dogma. Good teachers will attract students, not through advertising but through their actions, or because of their deeds and not their words. Good teachers will do all this and more, all the while looking inwards at themselves. This is neither a selfish nor overly narcissistic approach to life, rather, it stems from the simple truth that we cannot effect change in others, only in ourselves.

Beginning this discussion with a story from the Zen tradition, I think a second anecdote might draw it to a close nicely. Once again, the story points our thoughts towards something…

Two monks were travelling back to their monastery early one morning when they came across an old woman sitting beside a river. She needed to cross but the current was too fierce and she would have surely drowned. So, the old monk lifted her up on his back and waded into the water. The young monk was horrified, for in their monastery all contact with women, even thinking about them, was strictly forbidden. The old monk soon returned with some fish, a gift from the old lady, and they continued on their way, covering a great distance. Later that night as they sat around the fire cooking the fish, the young monk could contain himself no longer: “I’m going to report what you did you know!” he said, “The Abbott is going to hear all about it.”

“Hear about what?” said the old monk.

“About you, and the way you picked that woman up and carried her over the river.”

At this the old monk began to laugh. In fact, he laughed so much it began to anger the younger monk, who screamed at him to stop. “Why are you laughing?” he said. “You’re going to be in big trouble for carrying that woman.”

The old monk stopped laughing and looked at his companion for a moment. “And when you inform the Abbott of my misconduct will you mention how long I was carrying the old woman?”

“Absolutely!” said the young monk, who was feeling much better now he had brought the older monk back to his senses.
“Ah,” said the old monk, “And will you mention that I carried her only a few moments, whereas you have been carrying her all day!”
Whether we attach any importance to the things I’ve been talking about here or not, it hardly matters. We each write our own stories in life and who is to say which of them is the better read. I find value in such things and in keeping with that, I try to give and share much more than I take or hang on to. In a strange way, the exact workings of which remain a mystery to me, this has allowed far more to come into my life than I could have imagined. The founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba Sensei, warned against becoming too attached to technique, even going so far as to say there is no technique in aikido. Funakoshi Sensei made similar comments too, I believe. The subject matter being looked at here is just a point of reference from which to begin thinking; the direction our thoughts take us is up to us. Like the woodcutter working his way through the forest, we must all make our own path, a little at a time, each day. In the dojo too, we take small steps forward, for attempting to do otherwise only invites unnecessary hardship and confusion. It seems abundantly clear to me that shortcuts or quick fixes will always deny us the experience to learn things properly and the opportunity to understand things fully. Therefore, I’m often left baffled as to why so many people in karate today continue to attach themselves to such a path.

Mike Clarke Sensei has been training in karate for 35 years and teaches Okinawan Goju-ryu at his Shinseidokan dojo in Launceston, Tasmania. He has written four books on karate, including the recently released The Art of Hojo Undo: Power Training for Traditional Karate.

Books by Mike Clarke:

Roaring Silence: A Journey Begins

Roaring Silence: A Journey Begins

Roaring Silence is an insight into Mike Clarke’s journey from a world of violence and incarceration into a life of direction and appreciation through the way of karate. Clarke learned how to change his anger into effort and his aggression into achievement, and from his example comes the hope that such a transformation is possible in anyone.

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Budo Masters: Paths to a Far Mountain

Budo Masters: Paths to a Far Mountain

In the East they have a saying: “Regardless of the path taken, from the top of the mountain the view is the same for all.” This book is a series of conversations with nine budo masters from five different martial arts, uncovering the training methods and philosophy behind these fascinating men. Full of information and inspiration, their words offer insight to those of us who have still to reach the summit of our own mountain.

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Small Steps Forward

Small Steps Forward: An ordinary man's extraordinary journey

Picking up where Roaring Silence left off, this book follows Mike Clarke’s struggles during his efforts to walk the ‘middle path’ and discover for himself the spirit of budo through karate.

A very human story, studded with humour and disappointment, and filled with examples of people at their best and worst.

Purchase this book online »