A Thing of the Spirit
The Karate Tapestry 25
By: Robert Hunt
Tom Handest never turned the heat on in the dojo.
Twenty degrees outside. No matter. No heat.
Cold? Practice harder.
A white, metal-backed thermometer with a red tube dangled on a nail at the front of the room, a make-shift exercise meter teasing us to nudge up the mercury. We showed up at the dojo shivering on winter evenings but, after a few minutes sweating, embraced the cool air and forgot about the weather.
I don’t recall how high the mercury ever reached, but it mattered little. In those early days, in the 1960’s, we were karate fanatics, training with survival in mind and the obsession that someday we might actually have to depend on this stuff for more than a trophy.
Then, one night in the dead of winter, with a Pennsylvania blizzard wailing outside, I had my first taste of what karate was really all about.
The usual punching, kicking, and shouting filled the tiny dojo with energy. Sweat beaded up on our foreheads, and our uniforms flapped around us like white, dancing birds. Abruptly, Sensei Handest stopped teaching, looked us over for a few seconds, strode to the door at the end of the room, and yanked it open. We shivered a bit as snow whistled through.
New to the place, I wondered what was up, then stared in disbelief as he darted into the storm in his lightweight uniform and bare feet, bidding us follow.
Follow? Follow where? Anyone notice our bare feet? Anyone notice snow just blew through the door? Anyone know the temperature? Anyone think this is crazy? Anyone care?
I stood there with my mouth agape as my friend, Al Bean, and the other karate nuts obediently followed Sensei out the door, emptying the dojo until I was left alone.
I couldn’t believe it.
I looked around the now- vacant room and wondered what in the world to do. This didn’t make sense. Couldn’t a person catch pneumonia or something pulling a crazy stunt like this? Am I actually paying for this?
My compatriots were rapidly disappearing into the night, and I was a confused statue. I looked down at my big, bare feet for inspiration and took a deep breath.
Finally, I thought, what the heck? If they can do it, so can I.
I hunkered down into my gi as far as I could hunker, determined not to be a pansy, and scampered into the snowy night, yanking the door closed behind me.
That was it.
At that moment, as I followed them out the door and up the sidewalk in my white uniform and new, very white belt, into the dark winter night, jogging through two feet of fresh, cold Pennsylvania snow, wiping the whirling snowflakes from my face, an idea began to gestate in my pea brain. It was the first taste of real karate knowledge I may have ever had.
You can do whatever you put your mind to—just don’t give up!
As my bare feet pounded the icy sidewalk, I was briefly aware of the cold on my uncovered chest but soon realized that, like most fears, it wasn’t a big deal. We were heated up and stayed that way through the run. If we didn’t stand around, our feet wouldn’t get cold (and we never stood around).
We ran for twenty minutes, returning anxious to train. It was a great run—one of many in my bare feet in the snow from that day on, including one through downtown on Christmas Eve.
Running in the snow in your bare feet seems weird, I know, but it has its logic. Train like a warrior. Find your limits. Know possible from impossible, reality from limitation.
Throughout history, the four-minute mile was considered sacrosanct and unbeatable until Roger Bannister broke it in the 1954 Olympics, with a time of 3.59.4 minutes. In the next Olympics a dozen people beat it. Nowadays one wouldn’t even consider Roger’s event without breaking four minutes. Did the human race suddenly get faster? Probably not. The rest of humanity’s limits are as imaginary as mine.
I took that leap of understanding studying karate in Tom Handest’s little dojo alongside a half-dozen eager warriors seeking the same destiny—to plumb the depths of the mystical world of karate and forge bodies and souls into something known as black belt, not really understanding it, but driven to it like Vikings to the sea.
Finding that dojo was either pure luck or destiny, maybe both. It wasn’t the best dojo in the world, but it set the framework for life. Sensei came up with dozens of limit-pushing tests, from breaking concrete to running marathons in July heat, but the first step toward an unrestrained future was the hesitant step out that door that cold winter night in 1967.
Every class and all the training outside of class was dedicated to making us stronger and faster, more flexible, with better cardio, more powerful kicks and punches and an understanding that karate had to be pounded into the spirit, not left on the surface for people to admire. “Philosophy” meant – shut up and practice.
We weren’t interested in practicing for tournaments. Kata was training for self-defense. Sparring was practice for fighting. Scoring points meant we were generating enough power to hurt someone. It was hard for a referee to judge that, but we knew if they were any good or not.
Much has changed over the years. People do karate for a thousand other reasons than what we did – and all of them valid.
In 1901 Itosu began to teach school kids karate. It was one of those bends in the trajectory of destiny that throws the world off balance for a while, and it still resonates through karate. It wasn’t evident then, but it became evident as time passed that karate had found a new paradigm.
Karate training before that had been much like our training in Tom Handest’s dojo. Sparse, intense and brutal.
But Itosu envisioned his Shorin Ryu as a vehicle for forging good Japanese citizens and a strong Japanese military. He wasn’t Japanese, of course, he was Okinawan, but he had made the decision that Okinawa’s future lay with Japan. Many Okinawans didn’t agree, but it didn’t matter. That history was already written, and what Itosu taught went on to be the basis of “Japanese” karate, Japan’s adoption of the Okinawan martial art, filtered through Japan’s manufactured concept of “Bushido”, Inazo Nitobe’s fanciful 20th century re-envisioning of Japan’s martial past, a concept that military leaders purloined to drive a war machine in 1936.
Itosu’s gymnastic version of karate went on to emerge in Japan as Shito Ryu, Shotokan, and Wado Ryu – the first two systems created by Okinawans who felt the same as Itosu and the third created by a Japanese who had no illusions of an Okinawan forebear to his art. Ohtsuka’s art was Japanese pure and simple. He never even visited Okinawa in his lifetime.
But Shorin Ryu karate, as a fighting art, didn’t disappear from Okinawa. Kyan Chotoku, younger than Itosu, was a karate force who maintained Okinawa’s martial tradition and didn’t water down his karate for kids and hobbyists. Choki Motobu was also a fighter and practiced karate for its martial possibilities, picking on bigger men just to try out his art. He was even turned away from Itosu’s dojo because he was too much of a brawler.
One need only look at Kyan’s version of Matsumura’s Bassai kata compared to Itosu’s to understand the difference. Itosu Bassai (the Japanese Bassai Dai) was modified for gymnastic practice and emphasized personal development over martial prowess. It has 11 blocks before any strike happens and then goes on to block its way through Matsumura’s moves.
Kyan Bassai, on the other hand, is battle. It boasts fast blocks and arm breaks, strikes to the eyes, and a dynamic, driving set of moves, whose bunkai is immediately apparent.
Much of the karate practiced in Okinawa today is rooted in Kyan’s version of things. Kushanku (Kanku Dai) is an Itosu kata, Chatanyara Kushanku was passed down by Kyan.
A few notable Okinawan martial artists, Chibana Chosin comes to mind, were students of Itosu and maintained his version of karate. But many more, Zenryo Shimabukuro and Joen Nakazato, for example, passed on Kyan’s. Shoshin Nagamine studied from both Kyan and Motobu.
Much of the tension between modern karate (“Japanese” karate) and the more classical Okinawan version comes from this dichotomy. Okinawan style martial artists are forever pointing out the lack of martial reality in the Japanese based systems.
And they are right. But so what. We do what we do because we enjoy doing it.
I practiced that kind of karate for 30 years, with fighting and self-defense always at the forefront of my intensions. I never once used it but I certainly came to understand it and gained immensely from the experience.
But the last 20 or so years of teaching kata and karate history to kids has been very rewarding. I can see how Itosu got hooked. The philosophy of Rick Warren’s book A Purpose Driven Life has been much more fulfilling than simple personal development and the hope that I learned enough to not get my butt kicked in a fight.
I walked past an elementary school one Saturday in 1967 or 1968 and saw Tom Handest practicing. He kicked a basketball against a brick wall of the school, letting it bounce one time back towards him then kicked again, trying to maintain the rhythm without ever touching the ball with this hands. I watched for five or ten minutes, mesmerized by his diligent practice. I tried it myself one day but could never keep it going.
Sensei was a lithe, bearded, willowy jumble of muscles and bones that I felt (and still feel) could seriously hurt a person. His knuckles were calloused and brown from striking the makiwara, then applying a Chinese hand medicine called dit dat jao to make them harder and help the healing. He seemed to train all the time. His only occupation was karate. He hadn’t done well at school, and the twenty bucks a month that each of his half dozen students gave him, couldn’t have gone very far. He always lived with a woman who had a job. It’s easy to see why.
I am glad I spent those early years with him. He didn’t have a wide knowledge of karate (nor a deep one), in those days, few Americans did, especially in some backwoods corner of the Pennsylvania snow belt.
I left there in 1973 and never saw Tom Handest again, but the foundation that I absorbed in Sensei Handest’s cold and humble dojo forms the basis, fills my spirit and my own classes to this day, and sets the tone for everything karate that has followed. Any bad experiences in that dojo in the snowy Allegheny Mountains are long lost to the rosy haze of time, at least by me, and I don’t regret a moment there.
I think about it, as you can see, from time to time. Sensei would be in his eighties now. Hard to imagine. He was much more like Kyan or Motobu than Itosu. He believed in karate as a fighting art and part of the entire being.
Sensei recommended a book to me one time called Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, a fictional novel that wasn’t very good, but the name spoke volumes.
Karate is much more than simply a fighting art. It can be whatever we make of it, and it truly is a “thing of the spirit.”
This article was assembled from personal experience, research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), various works of Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles), Benny Meng (Ving Tsun Museum), Earnest Estrada, Scot Mertz, Andreas Quast, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).
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