Thoughts on Traditional Karate

By David Lambert, IOGKF Australia.

As part one of two articles, IOGKF members, David Lambert and Krista DeCastella share some of their thoughts and perspectives on traditional Karate and the path. In this article editor, David Lambert explains about the importance of not straying from the traditional path in both training and mentality...

I was asked by Sensei Joe Roses to jot down my thoughts and ideas about traditional Karate, from my perspective as a 20 year old. I feel I have been very blessed with my Karate ‘upbringing’ and have had the best instruction any person could ask for, so all my thoughts are based on my training and learning’s.

Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-Do is a traditional style – no if’s, no buts. It is not just a martial art for me, but a way of life. Karate’s purpose is to build better people and therefore better societies. I believe if everyone had the understanding of Karate that Higaonna Sensei has then there would be no war, no conflict – and this is our ultimate goal.

As I mentioned I have had a great traditional upbringing. I was three years old when I began Karate training under my father and trained until his passing, when I was eleven. Although the training was quite rigorous, we were taught to be like a band of brothers and sisters, to love and respect each other. We were shown the correct etiquette not just for training, but for life and were taught to recite the Dojo Kun in English at the end of every lesson:

  • Respect others.
  • Be courageous.
  • Train your mind and body.
  • Practice daily and protect Traditional Karate.
  • Strive to reach the essence of Goju-ryu.
  • Never give up.

We were taught that when we write or recite this, we say Hitotsu before each one (meaning the number 1) to signify that all of these rules were equal in importance – no one was greater than the other. This was and still is for me the Karate warrior code. If you look at Higaonna Sensei he is, without a doubt, an example of all of these.

Today there exist literally thousands of Martial arts styles. Many of which have taken the more spectacular and advanced moves of many different styles and made a brand new one – totally ignoring their history, their meaning and the real depth of the technique. One of the biggest styles that has combined a lot of different styles together is Mixed Martial Arts or MMA.

I think the misconception with a lot of Karate-ka and Instructors, especially young ones, is to be sucked into the vortex of these impressive looking fighting styles and forget how effective our style is. I have seen many practitioners of ‘traditional’ Karate who are simply tournament fighters. They might be excellent dojo technicians, however when it comes to Kumite they just become street and prize fighters – very little Karate ideals are used.

While these styles are not to be ignored, (with their growing popularity chances of confrontation with a practitioner are more likely) it is very important that we do not stray from the traditional path.

After my first Sensei’s passing, I was fortunate to train with many instructors in Okinawan Goju-ryu. Unfortunately or fortunately depending how you look at it, some of the people I trained with were prize hungry and became very egotistical. I guess being a young teenage boy at the time and very impressionable I began to find I was also developing these traits. I had to take a long hard look at myself and ask are you really a good Karate-ka? I thought to myself at this moment no. I did train hard, but was I straying too much from the path? Is the way my personality developing true to Karate? The answer to all of my questions was no.

Immediately I saw the egotism in people as wrong and I distanced myself from them. I kept training on the traditional path even more and more and I felt I began to feel the true Karate come out in me – a much better person than before.

I mean no disrespect to sports and tournament Karate-ka and I am not trying to sound egotistical by writing about my own experiences, but I feel it is an important example to sum up this point. Higaonna Sensei said himself in an interview with Martial arts TV, “…sports Karate is fine for young people, but it should be looked upon as a step along the path to true Karate, only a small part of the whole subject.”

We are a traditional style and way of life and we must look at where we are and ask, are we on the right path?

As for the traditional side of training, we cannot stray. We have many training methods that are unique to our style. Kihon, Hojo Undo, Kata, Bunkai, Kakie, Kumite – all these must be practiced regularly with a sincere loyalty to Karate and its principles. If we are the only style that practices many of these methods, if we stray and neglect them, if we don’t pass them onto our students, then they die – they become extinct and we have failed the legendary Masters that came before us.

A prime example of the depth and the history of our style can be found in ‘The history of Karate’ by Higaonna Morio Sensei.

When Chojun Sensei went to conduct research in China after Kanryo Sensei’s passing, he was introduced to an old man who was a low ranking student under Ryu Ryu Ko. Chojun Sensei demonstrated the Kata’s: Sanchin, Saifa, Seiyunchin, Shisochin, Seipai, Kururunfa, Sesan and Suparimpei.

After watching the old man commented “Your Kata’s are of the old martial arts. Those with your power no longer exist in China. You have trained hard. However there is one Kata missing.”

The old man performed Sanseru. It was identical to what Chojun Sensei knew, he simply had not demonstrated it, as it was his least favorite.

But if we look at the old man’s comment “Your Kata is of the old martial arts.” Now we know China itself has a rich ancient Martial arts heritage, dating back many thousands of years and our style had survived to the point where it was considered old. This profound statement proves that through traditional and rigorous training, our style has evolved and stood the test of time against so many other deadly martial arts, which now have passed out of existence. If our style and training methods are still here thriving today, then our style must be something very powerful and should be treated as a precious treasure.

Kata is our most important treasure. They are not to be tampered with or changed under any circumstance. Nothing makes me angrier than seeing Karate-ka change the timing of their Kata to make them more impressive in a tournament situation. This is an insult to Karate and its pioneers! At a packed Higaonna Dojo in Okinawa 2008, Higaonna Sensei reminded all members “You can’t change Chojun Sensei’s Kata. You can’t, I can’t, no body can change the Kata.”

We must remember the words of our founder when it comes to Kata training:

“…the diligent and sincere practice of the fundamental Kata will initiate the fusion of one’s spirit and body and movement along the correct path of Karate will begin.”

Miyagi Chojun Sensei

I respect and appreciate my teacher, Higaonna Sensei, eternally. For any one, he is the living example of true Karate and Budo. His teachers Miyagi Anichi Sensei and Shuichi Aragaki Sensei and many of his most senior students are great pioneers for our art.

The dedication, the hard training and loyalty laid out by Higaonna Sensei and his masters is a true testament to our art. Higaonna Sensei once recalled to me that he saw Anichi Sensei stay in Shiko Dachi for 30 minutes straight practicing the turn from Sukui uke uke to the pulling motion in Seiyunchin. To then see him change side and spend another 30 minutes practicing the same movement – staying in low Shiko Dachi the whole time!

I think the best I could describe our style and its methods is simple, but effective and that story is a great example of this. Its training may be difficult, but its principles are simple - A quote from Bakkies Sensei comes to mind here, “Karate is simple, but it’s not easy.”

Karate for me is not a destination but a journey to a life long goal. I’ll never be perfect as a Karate-ka, but I will never stop trying to be. I will always stick to traditional, hard and honest training, as I feel it is my duty as a sincere student of Karate-DO to keep our treasure alive, and pass it onto my young students, one day my children and the next generation. If we stray from traditional Karate and don’t use it, then we lose it – simple as that.

I think with Karate all you have to do is be sincere, challenge Karate by training hard everyday and if you do it correctly the humility, respect and understanding will follow.