Tuesday, August 21, 2012


     Most of us have seen a photograph of the “Father of Japanese Karate”, Gichin Funakoshi.  Sitting in a very straight posture, he is dressed in formal Japanese attire, holding a fan and looking rather severe.  He is a revered figure in the martial arts; the man who brought karate from Okinawa to Japan and single-handedly nudged it into the curriculum of most major Japanese universities.  Initially, the Japanese were more than a little wary of this “brutal” martial form from the “backwoods” of Okinawa but Funakoshi managed to develop it into a very popular activity, which was eventually accepted  as one of the Japanese budo (martial ways).

      Few martial arts enthusiasts ever stop to consider other aspects of the old master’s life – the difficulties he encountered and the prices he paid as he traveled the path of the budo.  For instance, when he was training in Okinawa he would go to his master’s house at night, walking along a dirt path through a dense forest (read, “jungle”).  It was so dark that the moonlight didn’t illuminate the trail and he usually carried a lantern to light the way.  Arriving at his teacher’s home, he would train for 2-3 hours and then return home to catch about 3 hours of sleep before having to go to work the next day.

     When he first began teaching in Japan he made extra money by working as a gardener at the university.  He was provided a single-room apartment at the school.  His wife had stayed in Okinawa, knowing that she would only be a burden to him as he scraped along for the first few years.  Later, his two sons would join him but his wife stayed in Okinawa and although he wanted to go back to see her, he was never able to do because the popularity of karate kept him extremely busy.

     Think about that for a while…he lived alone in a single-room apartment and eked out a living doing whatever menial jobs he could find at the university.

      Then WWII arrived.  Most of his students joined or were drafted into military service.  Ultimately, his beautiful dojo, which had been built for him by his dedicated students, was fire-bombed by the Allies.  Most of his students died in battle…and that doesn’t include one of his sons, who also perished during this terrible time.

     He was left with…nothing.  During the Allied occupation, he continued to teach – and lost his other son to starvation – and still, he produced some of the finest karate masters the world has ever known.   

     None of this, however, is reflected on his noble face in the famous photographic portrait of Funakoshi. 

     Most of us have also seen photos of Jigaro Kano, the founder of modern judo.  Kano was very sickly as a youth and took up jujutsu to improve his health.  In the process, he became one of the greatest educators of all time and some of his writings about education are still studied today. 

     But before he became so famous, he taught his new art, judo, in a small and rather old and rickety gym.  He and a handful of his senior students would often wriggle into the crawlspace beneath the gym’s wooden floor and repair it with wooden props so that it would stand up to another day’s training! 

     Aikido’s legendary founder, Morihei Uyeshiba, was a total flop as a businessman.  He tried running a print shop but it went belly-up within a couple of years.  In the ensuing years, he (and his wife) often endured times of extreme hardship – not having any heat in their tiny home or dojo, going without proper food and other necessities.    

     I could go on and on with similar stories involving other well-known martial arts personalities…but what matters isn’t so much what hardships each one endured; it’s the fact that they DID endure it and continued to move forward with their training instead of throwing up their hands and giving in.  They had come to understand that there are “toll bridges” on the path of the martial arts and anyone who travels that path will eventually have to ante up and pay the price from time to time.

     Those who have been on the path for a while understand that there’s really no end to paying these tolls…and they have come to expect it every so often.  We have decided to set out upon a way that is very severe.  Rather than being congratulated for having made it over a particularly difficult stretch, we find ourselves inundated with more techniques to master, more forms to practice.  And the further travel, the more demanding it becomes.  The slightest error, the tiniest lapse in attention is brought into view for everyone to see.  Our weaknesses and faults are laid bare before us.

      And if we continue to press on to the point where we feel certain that our teachers and senior will no longer pour criticism upon us, we find that we are expected to turn inward and examine ourselves from within.  We must look not only at our technique but our lifestyles as well and impose even more hardships upon ourselves, seeking a level of discipline that is known to only a few.

     In Japan this severe form of self-discipline is known as shugyo.  It is also sometimes known as hiya meshi o michi (the way of eating cold rice).  If you’ve never eaten cold rice, it’s an interesting experience…but it certainly isn’t tasty.  The idea is that a bowl of cold rice can make us realize that even the most fortunate of us must occasionally suffer.  Although it may not be a pleasant meal it is every bit as sustaining as warm rice – and this is much like the martial ways.  They are disciplines that are stripped of self-indulgence and ego, both of which are things that destroy the ability to travel the martial path.

     The budoka (martial arts person) accepts cold rice because he or she sees it as a way of building discipline and learning to appreciate “hot rice” when it is available.  Eventually, we can learn to appreciate the cold rice as well and when we can do that, we can accept whatever curves life throws at us.

     Our martial forefathers endured and suffered much.  They often consumed plenty of cold rice and they did so without a complaint, without blaming anyone, and knowing that it would sustain them and even make them stronger.  Can we do any less?  Those who would travel this path must do so knowing full well that from time to time, they’re going to have to sit down to a bowl of cold rice.

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