Masters and Politicians

Masters and Politicians

The Karate Tapestry – Part 22

By Robert Hunt

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Our world is imbued with myths, legends and lies – fanciful illusions of our own creation, or at least our acquiescence.

No illusion is more entrenched and abiding than that of the Karate Master.

Matsumura Sokon could be referred to as a karate master.He was born at the beginning of the 1800’s and died at the end of that matsumuracentury. He saw karate as a way to fight in his youth and witnessed it begin to morph into a philosophical path, toward self fulfilment, in his final years.

He was what we would label “deadly” – a character whom we would never want to offend – or challenge. His shout could freeze a man in his tracks. His stare could turn men cold.

There is a story of a shopkeeper, a pipe maker, who was also a martial artist and who challenged Matsumura to a dual at daybreak by a cemetery. Okinawans were very superstitious, and the choice of the cemetery was meant to intimidate. The pipe maker planned to show up early and set up an attack. But, when he arrived at the cemetery, Matsumura came gliding out of the morning mist, eyes ablaze, shouting his challenge. The pipe maker simply fell to his knees in supplication.

Matsumura served as a bodyguard to the last three Okinawan kings. He traveled to China to pursue his martial art at its root, as well as to Satsuma, where he studied sword and other arts. He called his art Shorin, from Shaolin, and he created, or passed on, the dozen or so katas that form the root of all modern Shuri based karate styles.

He had as many as twelve students. Each student went on to affect modern karate in a variety of ways.

But Matsumura was possibly one of the last people, at least the last well known person, to practice karate for its martial effectiveness. To him the katas weren’t vehicles for belt rank.

There was no belt rank.

There were no tests.

No Certificates.

Only battles.

Matsumura serves as an example of a karate “Master”, a person whose very soul is permeated with this martial art, its techniques, its spirit – its essence.

I bring this up because I was recently asked why I referred to some post 20th century karate leaders as “politicians”, rather than “masters”, as they regularly refer to themselves.

Here’s why.

If we make and receive promotions, pass out rank and title, realize our purpose by the importance of our position, proclaim a level in some organization, a level dependent on the opinion of someone else – we are politicians – not masters.

Why? Because the essence of mastery implies self-knowledge and an endless quest for perfection, not an award.

In the “do” arts, it implies that we have finally reached a level of self-awareness and freedom from the worldly hold on our souls, that we have transcended ego. That transcendence cannot be awarded. It doesn’t come from simply showing up at a dojo regularly.

If we ultimately somehow transcend the mundane, do we need to proclaim it to the world. As the Tao says, “It isn’t very holy to tell how holy we are.”

Passing a card around, or building a website that has our name with the word “Shihan” in front of it reveals one thing for certain – we are not “Masters.” How can we be a Master of karatedo, with all the self-realization and journey to enlightenment it implies, and feel like we have to make sure everyone knows.

Getting our face on the cover of a magazine does not equal master. People will eventually see through it all. Look, the King is naked, he has no clothes.

The idea of a karate master in modern society is an illusion. Take the famous Bruce Lee (I tremble at even bringing up the name.) Millions refer to him as a master of some martial art because he was famous and athletic, need I say charismatic and exotic. But he was a movie actor, for heaven’s sake, and an incredible narcissist.

I spent three decades very close to a man named Dan Ivan, an American karate pioneer, in the years before his death in 2007. Mr. Ivan studied karate, kendo, judo and jiujutsu in Japan beginning in 1948, at the end of the war. Before that, he had been a hobo from age 11, surviving on America’s railroads, relying on his wits, in hobo jungles. In Japan, he was assigned to the Criminal Investigation Division of the Army where he practiced for real, every night, whatever he had learned in the dojo the day before.

Because of his years of street survival, he had a feral essence about danivanhim, like an animal. Even in old age, he was always aware and always ready to defend himself.

He died of cancer and, in his final days, lay in a hospital bed eaten away to skin, bones and muscle and dependent on the care of someone else. I visited him there occasionally.

On one visit I entered his room and quietly edged to the side of his bed where he lay facing the other direction.

“Mr. Ivan.” I whispered and put my hand on his shoulder.

He spun around in the bed, his eyes ablaze and his hands in a defensive posture, ready to attack or defend. Pure animal. Then he recognized me and smiled.

Even in the few hours before his death, the feral instinct still surfaced, in fact, instinct was almost all that was left.

But, no one made movies about him. No one called him master. He had no cards that read Shihan. But everyone who ever studied with him will testify that he was the real thing.

I learned more about fighting and survival just hanging out with him than I ever did in the best polished floor dojo where I have lined up and stepped through blocks and punches.

The root of this illusion of master lies in the emigration of karate from Okinawa to Japan and then the rest of the world. Karate came to most of us through the prism of Japanese society. Some studied in Okinawa, but relatively few.

Japanese society is vertical, western society is horizontal (all men are created equal.)

In Japanese society, positions are expected. Soke’s and Shihan’s are the natural outgrowth of a vertical society where everyone has a superior or inferior position and passes out a business card at the first meeting, so they know who bows lower and who can be arrogant and dismissive.

When westerners become engulfed in that proposition, they become enamored with the titles and whatever authority they seem to bring. We can finally amount to something. People have to bow to us. All we have to do is show up at a dojo for a while, or maybe tournaments.

Mr. Ivan told me about being coerced into attending a “Black Belt Hall of Fame” awards dinner. He said that the room was filled with masters, grand masters, great grand masters, o’senseis, shihans, saiko shihans and a wealth of other titles I can’t remember now.

Does that seem shallow to anyone?

The goal here is not to denigrate anyone’s time in the martial arts, or any organization’s structure. It is to point out that there is a path to enlightenment and mastery within the diligent practice of our martial art, and that the path has been laid before us, we just have to follow it. Practice hard, repeat endless kata, learn bunkai, strive toward perfection of technique and spirit.

On the other hand, the path toward recognition and title leads in the exact opposite direction. We crave recognition so much we miss the path that would lead us somewhere meaningful.

The word “dojo” in its original Zen interpretation means “Place to lose the ego.”

Believe in the promise of karate. Strive to lose the ego.



This article was assembled from personal 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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