Years ago when I first began getting interested in martial arts I heard the phrase “The ART of Karate”. Like many people who have never taken a class or those who only trained briefly I had no concept what all this “Art” stuff was about but I was intrigued so off to a dojo I went. As with many dojo back in those days training began with pushups, jumping jacks, situps, throwing punches and kicks 100’s of times and then learning Kata which was often followed by self defense. I remember after a few months of this wondering what was “artistic” about it…if anything.
I was an artistic child. Building things with Legos and Wood Logs, drawing and painting were things I loved to do. To me this Karate stuff had no artistic value to it all…it was just like gym class, a physical training endeavor. Flash forward many years later to my brown belt days and I remember attending a tournament in Defiance, Ohio hosted by Robert Bowles Karate. During this tournament I watched a gentleman named Dennis Wagner perform a Kata. During his Kata routine he slowly extended a side kick over his head high and then recoiled and threw it really hard. He had facial expressions and everything he did was like watching a high level dancer perform. It was that day that I realized there was an art to what we did in Karate.
This art that we speak of is the personal expression of our own Karate coming out when we perform Kata, in how we do Kumite and even how we teach as Sensei. Each of these have an art to them…they are not just actions you go through when studying the martial arts. I have been blessed enough to learn about the artistic values of Kata from some great Sensei. In Kata we have self expression, emotions, directional changes and tempo. How we express each of these aspects creates a masterful art piece that is unique to our own way of doing Karate. In the dojo everyone does Kata the same, with the same count. We perform it that way for belt exams too. When it comes to those who are fortunate to truly get to the level of studying their Karate in depth it becomes an art to master Kata. It goes beyond the mere dojo Kata into a real life, breathing aspect of our own unique personalities.
Kumite is the same thing but many will never reach that level because they often quit before achieving the “art” level of Kumite. In my travels I have competed against some people that I often refer to as having mastered the “art” of Kumite. They are so technically proficient and knowledgeable that fighting with them is like trying to fight the tide coming in while standing the ocean…it envelopes you, grasp you and pulls you down into its methods. Over the years I have developed a method of Kumite that works for me and I attempt to be a masterful artist at it. This goes beyond merely out striking my opponent into the range of defeating them by defeating myself at the same time.
Many people aren’t lucky enough to get to train in the “Art” side of martial arts today. They go to schools that just have them perform the movements so they can get belt ranks. Then the student gets a black belt and they are exposed to a new side of the arts where they must actually train and learn without a lot of guidance. In this process they get bored, discouraged or just down right quit thinking there is nothing left to learn or they have a black belt so they “mastered” it. Nothing is further from the truth and that black belt only means the world of the ART of your system has now opened up to you.
I have been lucky enough to train Tae Kwon Do, Goju Ryu, Shorin Ryu, Judo and Jujitsu over the years. Each system has its own unique aspects to them as well as an art form. Had I merely closed off my mind when I earned my black belt in 1987 I would have never truly seen the beauty to Karate that exists. It is a layered method of training and not one that is readily apparent…nor should it be. In my travels I meet many people who have a black belt of varying degrees. It always amazes me to learn that they stopped training or barely train these days. They got a black belt so what more do they need or have to gain from being in the dojo right? Well they have an entire world of beauty, skill, precision and life improvement they are missing out on because they thought they didn’t need to be in the dojo like they were before they earned their black belt. The ART to what we do comes from the training, the guidance of your Sensei along with self discovery. It is not going to seek you out, you must seek it out.
There have been some people that I have met who barely trained after black belt with their Sensei but claim high ranks. They talk about what is “proper”, what is the “correct” way to do things but how do they know? If you earned a black belt and then started dojo hopping you didn’t master anything at all…you simply are still a student who hasn’t spent the time to learn the “ART” of what we do. The art of martial arts is where the lifelong pursuit of them begins. You develop this over years of dedication, discipline and training with good guidance. I am not talking about one’s ability to throw a pretty kick or perform a pretty Kata…I am talking about the true learning of how martial arts impacts every aspect of your life making it better. It becomes an art form of how to live…not how to do Karate.
There is an entire world of beauty inside of Karate that many will miss out on because they will see their black belt as being the end goal. My recommendation is that you keep training…all the time. When you don’t feel like training, train. When you feel bored or burned out, train. When you feel like you are not progressing, train. Get to your dojo, don’t make excuses and make the most of each moment in the class. Soak it all in, experience it as if it were your last day to live and eventually, you too, will learn the ART of Karate.