Interview with Sensei Paolo Spongia: Part 2

Higaonna Sensei is a living legend of Karate. Could you describe what sort of teacher he is?

Sensei Spongia:

Higaonna Sensei is a living example of dedication to training.Spongia 1

He is a person of great gentleness and great willingness to help, but in the Dojo, on the training floor, he can be really scary.

He is a severe and demanding Teacher who does not make discounts, in terms of hard training, to those he considers to be his own students, as it should be.

When I am in Okinawa, often we leave with Higaonna Sensei at dawn for Kozenji, the Zen temple in Shuri, where Sakiyama Sogen Roshi teaches and lives — a ninety-year old Grand Master of Zen Rinzai who, in his young days, was a student of Chojun Miyagi Sensei. We practice Zazen under the direction of Sakiyama Sogen Roshi and then return to the dojo to practice Goju-Ryu. Sometimes, Higaonna Sensei is still there at 11 p.m. to incite us to the umpteenth repetition with his “Mo ichi do” (“one more time”).

When Higaonna Sensei was my guest in Rome for the first time, I remember I had to resort to a trick to be able to take him one evening to see at least the Roman Forum, in front of which, fascinated and inspired, he began to speak to me about tradition.

Over the previous days, we had never stepped out of my Dojo and my every     attempt to invite him for a brief tour around the     Eternal City used to meet his curt answer: “Ima keiko” (“Training time now”)...

He was there for me to allow me to maximize the opportunity of his presence and he offered himself totally without allowing himself any pause or distraction.

At the end of his stay, we were sitting at a table in my house and he answering to my dedication said: “Ask me to teach you whatever you want...”

I’ll never forget those words that are the seal to me of an invaluable relationship.

A personal relationship with a teacher who bears a tradition is essential for passing on an Art.

Could you please tell us another story about Sensei Higaonna?

Sensei Spongia:

I am happy to share with you other interesting and not widely known episodes to give you an idea of my Master’s character and kindness.

We were in Florence for a short and well-deserved rest after the tough work at the XIX European Gasshuku that we had organized in Italy, and every day at lunch and dinner at the restaurant Higaonna Sensei lost no opportunity to compliment each course and to thank the waiter for the delicious dishes.

On the same occasion, after seeing and appreciating Michelangelo's David (of which Higaonna Sensei appreciated the balance and posture) he decided that it was enough for him and that it was time to return to the hotel to train together...

Or when he let my son, who was 4 years old then, chase him around the sitting room table. I treasure this video.

You go to Okinawa for training regularly. Is there a difference between training in a Japanese Dojo to an Italian one?

Sensei Spongia:

In Okinawa, a Dojo is considered to be one’s second home and not a gym where one goes to buy a product.

Students take care of their Dojo and come for their lessons a little earlier to ensure its cleaning and maintenance.

I think, this is the main point, which is difficult to implant in the West.

It makes a great difference between partly living in your Dojo as a host or as a client.

My Zen Master once said: “A place where someone is paid to clean is not a Dojo”, and then: “Students are those who open the door from the inside, clients are those whom it is opened to...”

I have adhered to this philosophy from the very foundation of the ToraKan Dojo (Italian IOGKF Honbu Dojo) 25 years ago, and have always provided the cleaning personally, today joined by some students staying after their dawn Zazen to perform Samu (manual work in the Zen spirit).

When I clean the Dojo, I purify my spirit and prepare myself for training and teaching.

I cleaned the Tatami this morning, rubbing it on my knees, in the evening it brings me back all the energy I am able to express when I walk on it while teaching and training.

At the end of each lesson, every student wipes the tatami with a cloth to leave it clean for those who come after.

In a Dojo, you learn to take care of everything, of any object as well as yourself as well as others.

Just a few days ago, one of my students about 60 years old, a famous medical doctor, after having wiped the tatami on his knees together with his companions, told me how moved he was by the feeling of solidarity he was experiencing when sharing this simple gesture with his fellow trainees irrespective of their social background or age.

Those actions have an extraordinary symbolic and educational value. Often times in western culture we do not have the courage to propose them to our students for fear of losing the ‘customer’ consent.... but education is a risk and you are not a true teacher if you are not able to run this risk.

Think about the high educational value this approach might have in the schools if, starting from the primary schools, you allowed children and young people to take care of the cleanliness of their  classroom for half an hour. But who would dare to propose this nowadays?

An Okinawan Dojo has a more family oriented atmosphere than a Japanese Dojo, it is more Chinese style.

Students open the Dojo and, as we said above, clean it and start training.

In Higaonna Sensei’s Dojo there are official classes at certain hours, but it often happens, while you are training on your own, that Higaonna Sensei, who lives upstairs, might come down, see you in the Dojo and start giving you an extemporaneous as well as precious lesson.

Training in the Okinawan Dojo is to me to come back to the source to renew the spirit and refine the technique.

It is like polishing and sharpening a sword. It should be a daily task, otherwise, the blade becomes dull and blunt.

Training on your own, without guidance or reference, may easily lead to significant deviations, even if you have a good foundation.

“No one can see their own eyebrows”, — Higaonna Sensei likes to say to emphasize the importance of this feedback ensured by confrontment with one’s teacher and other trainees.

In the Dojo of Higaonna Sensei, I had an invaluable opportunity to practice under the direction of my Master’s teachers: An'Ichi Miyagi Sensei (who died in 2009) and Shuichi Aragaki Sensei, both disciples of the Goju-Ryu founder.

Moreover, another essential aspect of the Dojo is that you can see your own Sensei during his training.

Watching the practice of Higaonna Sensei and these Masters, who are already past seventy, is clear evidence of the effectiveness of a proper daily practice of the traditional Goju-Ryu Karate-Do and it serves as an incessant source of inspiration to me.