No Protection- The Only Way to Train
Michael R. Berger
One of the primary reasons that we practice karate is to learn to develop an acute, heightened sense of concentration and awareness that allows us to be focused only on this moment. There is a famous saying in Japanese that has long been one of my favorites- it translates roughly to “each encounter, only once”. It seems simple enough…just give your full, complete and undivided attention to being present, to each encounter, without allowing the mind to slip in and out of the future, the past, or to be muddled with other distractions. Imagine how fulfilling and complete our lives would be if we were able to abide in this state of mind…free from distractions, lost in what we are doing, so that we are utterly doing without doing.
I like to refer to a form of this mind that we experience at times in our training as Budo Mind. This Budo Mind is the bridge to Zen Mind, to Ordinary Mind, and to what my Zen Master calls Big Mind. If we are able to experience this mind, free from distraction, free from chatter, free from desires, preferences, attachments, duality and concepts, even for a brief instant during our practice of budo, then perhaps we can slowly begin to transfer what we experience to become more mindful of the way that we live our lives on an everyday basis. Being more mindful then allows us to become clearer in our often deluded perceptions, so that ultimately we can become more compassionate, loving, selfless, egoless human beings. This is the ultimate goal of budo.
Being on the edge of life and death naturally heightens our focus of concentration and our ability to give our full and completely undivided attention to that encounter. If you were to be suddenly confronted by a hungry tiger, your thoughts would be focused very keenly on one matter. Suddenly you become very present, more present than you have ever even come close to being. Suddenly you would find your mind without distraction, very much in the now. Suddenly it becomes very easy. If you have ever been in that kind of life or death situation you will know exactly what I mean. It is a feeling that is entirely experiential, and cannot be explained… in a strange way a beautiful, wonderful experience.
Obviously, we cannot create life and death situations for ourselves in order to get a glimpse of this state of mind. With the guidance of a teacher, however, we can experience it in a safe place on the cushion in a Zendo. We can also try to replicate situations with a similar element of danger in a safer environment, (ones where hopefully we don’t kill ourselves), that still encourage the same state of mind. I used to ride my motorcycle as fast as I could around winding roads until the foot pegs scraped the asphalt, timing myself on a course, banking as hard as I could. Or put the maximum amount of weight that I could bench press on a bar, with no spotter around, alone in the basement of my house. There was no room for any kind of distraction. I found my senses so acutely heightened by the adrenalin; it was almost addictive.
As budoka, there is a way that is much more familiar and accessible to us.
If we practice with a partner in the right way, we can replicate the feeling of being on the edge of life and death. That feeling then encourages and helps us to experience the mind of Budo Mind, the bridge to Big Mind. Paradoxically, this mind is ultimately one and the same with the mind of ““mushin” or “non-mind” often referred to in the writings of ancient Zen masters and samurai warrior-monks.
However, in order to accomplish this, one has to feel the threat of a dangerous opponent. Gichin Funakoshi once stated that we should face an opponent as if he were armed with a drawn sword, and that if our punch fails we will forfeit our lives. Without the feeling of real danger, we can become relaxed and complacent; our senses become cloudy, our minds not keenly sharp. Comparatively speaking, we fall asleep. If there is no real threat, we fall into the traps of all kinds of delusions, and often inflated egos.
When I was training in Japan at Takushoku University in the mid- eighties, there was a very real and present danger at every moment of every practice every day. There was a very real possibility of serious injury, and it was not uncommon to be looking for someone’s tooth on the floor, or to see someone being dragged or carried out of the dojo. Most of my dojo colleagues had all of their front teeth gone. I felt the reality that if my technique were to fail, I could perhaps be killed. The first day that I was there someone did not clean the mirror to the satisfaction of the captains before practice, and he was summarily taken to the center of the floor for jyu-kumite, then kicked savagely in the head with mawashi geri, and left lying there motionless while the captain calmly walked over to me and started laughing in my face. At break time I was shown where the first aid kit was located, and was told to go clean the deep cuts on my knuckles from hitting people in the teeth. There was no protection allowed, no mouth guards, no cup, and no gloves. Furthermore, there were pretty much no rules. I am only using these examples to illustrate a point. I am not advocating this type of training to everyone, but it definitely had value. For one thing, needless to say, it put a razor sharp edge on us as fighters.
More importantly though, was the mindset. If you were not intensely focused for every second, someone was there like a hungry tiger to seize that brief instant. It all became very clear then. No one had any false pretenses or became complacent or overconfident. This kind of focus and concentration, this heightened awareness of being so totally into the moment that you became lost in the moment, had great significance. It is paramount to our growth both as karateka, and more importantly, can give us that glimpse of Big Mind, that can transcend into a more mindful, rewarding and complete life.
These days, for various reasons, protection during kumite is often mandatory, allowing that complacent, muddled, dull mind to exist and come to life. We don’t face opponents as if they had a drawn sword. It breeds a false sense of confidence and even bigger egos when no one thinks that they can get hurt because you are not allowed to even touch. Your ability to defend is not sharp when you are sure that no one is supposed to touch you, or that if they did, you would not really be injured. Then there are other kinds of problems. In some ways, it may not really be safer. Because people are wearing gloves, they don’t have the same understanding of control, accuracy, and distance. They believe that then don’t have to have control and are allowed to penetrate deeper, or can throw wild uncontrolled techniques without caring where and how hard it lands. In my opinion, it really hurts the whole process of what we are striving for as budoka.
Train without protection, and with the idea that if your technique fails, you will forfeit your own life. Allow for controlled touch. Or if you train with a sword, try training with a live blade. See if it makes a difference …
(For safety reason it’s very important to point out the dangers of training with a live blade so there we do not recomment lierally training in this way- Editor)