Is Your Karate Dead or Alive?

“Karate is a Way of Life”kanku-dai-berach

Ever heard this?

I have.

The sentiment that Karate is a lifestyle is frequently expressed by masters, grandmasters and champions all over the world.

It’s an honorable ideal, for sure.

But…

I often wonder something.

If your Karate is supposed to be a “Way of Life” – why does it look so lifeless?

Because, let’s be honest here…

Most of the Karate you see today isn’t alive.

It’s dead.

  • It’s not alive, fresh and exciting.
  • It’s stale, stiff and outdated.

Call me crazy, but I believe anything that claims to be a “Way of Life” should share the same attributes as life itself. That’s just logical.

Yet, most of the Karate I see is the exact opposite.

It’s a “Way of Death”.

(More in common with death than life.)

This is an unfortunate development in the Karate world, but it’s nothing new or surprising. People have been doing zombie-Karate for ages.

It’s almost expected.

Karate_ShuriCastle (640x363)

Why?

Because in our fallable human need for security and belonging, we are drawn to mass imitation. We desperately want to to follow a tribe (style, dojo, discipline, sensei, system) instead of exploring the unbound freedom found in our own human potential.

But here’s the thing:

A system that is blindly followed – no matter how intelligently designed – can never mimic the dynamic totality of life.

The only thing certain in life is change.

And all styles, systems or programs are based on the very opposite of change:

Fixation.

Prearranged sets of mechanical movements, techniques, series, forms, rituals, language, patterns, habits and dogma.

Life, on the other hand, is neither predefined nor certain.

You know this.

It’s ever-changing, flowing and unpredictable.

Just like combat.

Despite this, we love to follow a cemented set of teachings laid out by an ancient individual – hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years ago – without really knowing why. This individual may (or may not) have stumbled upon a set of combative principles which were subsequently codified, made into a “style” and handed down through generations to you.karate-puppets-xs

That transmission is pretty amazing.

But don’t get it twisted:

None of this happened with YOU in mind.

The things you’re practicing in the dojo today were NOT made for YOUR unique physical characteristics, social setting, cultural context, historical backdrop, likes and dislikes, mentality, strengths and weaknesses etc.

You’re not a product of your style.

You’re a by-product.

Nonetheless, in our never-ending quest for social belonging and acceptance, we slavishly force ourselves to fit into a mold. It feels so comfortable. Indeed, there are some people who spend their whole lives playing this “fitting in” game (not just with Karate).

But my hope is that one day you’ll realize this:

Right here and now, you’re the incredible result of a 3.6 billion years unbroken chain of successful genetic transfer of life.

Think about it.

You’re a B-O-S-S.

And you came loooong before any ritualized teachings.

So why are you letting something, or someone, restrict your destiny to fully express, develop and cultivate the essence of your very own humanity?

After all, you are alive – aren’t you?

Prove it.

Don’t die before you’re dead.

Death will certainly come one day anyway, and your life shouldn’t be spent imitating it – neither inside nor outside the dojo.

Live.

Using the very same punches and kicks that once entangled you, free yourself from your own self-limiting beliefs, smash through your weaknesses and break down your insecurities.

Then, and only then, can Karate become what it was truly meant to be.

A Way of Life.

Self-liberation.

Not self-limitation.

39 Comments

  • vic
    brilliant observations
    • vic
      the unexamined art is not worth praticing
  • chouaib
    believe it or not that what i was thinkin' about for a long time! we don't need to be the slaves of a style,the style should be our slave as bruce lee said be formless be shapeless like water !!
  • Another KO by Jesse-san! True art is alive, not stagnant and dead. *Here is the caveat though, LEARN THE BASICS LIKE A PRO, TO KNOW HOW TO BREAK THE RULES LIKE AN ARTIST. Otherwise you are nothing but a hack.Stunning article Jesse! Never stop being so passionate about Karate!
    • Andrew O'Brien
      I like this caveat.
      • Jake
        me too!
  • Uwe
    Truer words have never been written on this website. I can fully relate as I'm a recent "shotokan" dropout after 25 years of Karate (with some karate-less spells in between when we raised our kids). I'm simply fed up with the rigidity of most training methods you come across in dojos today (not mcdojo style, mind you), the endless discussions about how many degrees your big toe should point this way or that, it's mind numbing.I don't know if I'll ever find the energy or motivation again to attend practise multiple times a week like I used to, right now I think that's highly unlikely. I've been looking at KU over the last couple of years as a valid alternative, and it looks very interesting.
    • ShotoNoob
      I DON'T LIKE SHOTOKAN EITHER--YET SHOTOKAN IS GREAT!!!Your voiced criticisms of Shotokan karate, the rigidity, etc., are echoed by many inside & outside traditional martial arts. I have many of the same criticisms.Yet the failing of Shotokan karate practitioners is not largely the style, but of the practitioners. Aimie @ September 17, 2014 provides the correct perspective, IMHO.Shotokan, like any karate style is a method of training to fight. Like any karate style is has it's own particular traditions & conventions, including it's weaknesses & drawbacks.The better view is that Shotokan is a system which embodies traditional martial principles and which conveys those principles to the practitioner through it's curriculum & training exercises.The general characteristic of 'rigidity' found in Shotokan is there for a purpose. If you can cut through to the purpose, what training in that manner is supposed to achieve, then that rigidity confers benefits.What I see instead, and this is true of many, many traditional karate practitioners, including Shotokan, I have come across, is that they really show up for training and expect the instructor or the karate training to do all the thinking for them. If they punch this way, if they perform the kata as shown, if they mimic the movements shown by the instructor or other students, they will some how magically become fierce warriors.This group typically does karate training as if they are simply an extension of a physical education class doing physical exercises. You see this group then go into kumite or MMA and fight like what, boxers & kickboxers. When they get their head handed to them or GNP'ed in MMA, they then conclude that traditional karate is ineffective for actual fighting.What really happened is that THEIR application of karate training was ineffective. WHY, BECAUSE their personal training didn't adhere to the standards & principles underlying the discipline of traditional karate. Getting at what that is is a very deep & sophisticated subject--and so we have KARATEbyjesse Blog to help guide us along.I don't like the Shotokan style of traditional karate. I can't see myself ever taking up Shotokan. OTOH, like AIMIE says, a Shotokan karate practitioner who understands & trains competently to the PRINCIPLES & standards underlying the Shotokan system will become a very effective fighter & a dangerous opponent in conflict.Finding fault or latching onto the latest fighting or MMA method is easy. Learning, understanding, training & integrating the principles of traditional karate--THERE'S A CHALLENGE.IN CONCLUSION, the Okinawan Masters who designed traditional karate can't make you good at karate. The only one who can do karate well is YOU....
      • Hugo
        Great observation, but the artist does the art, and not the art, the artist. Seems to me that you’re just looking to one way, (sport/jka system) in the other hand, we have great Karatekas, those that isn’t chainned by foolishness, the ones who think, and we do great, our progressive way of training no mattering the mood, no mattering if we had a hard day, our spirit... can’t be judged by you. Like in every sistems we have many faults, faults are made by people. Not by any style, your speaking about kumite and fights, tell me who has/had represented you and did well? Cuz we have many, look inside of you and seek for perfection, build it in you even knowing that can never reach it, do your best in everything don’t letting no one limit or stop you, fight for what love and believe.For me, it’s Karate Do
  • I agree with what you are saying. To a point. To not ever forget about your kata and kihon techniques. You want to study karate that's alive? Study kata and kihon. Look at the meaning of each movement. It will then become alive. What do the movements mean to you? Make it your own....
  • Ossu! [bow]I'm reminded of another human institution - church. Don't run away - I'm not gonna get preachy here! I don't have the authority or experience to speak of Martial Arts specifically, but I do have decades of experience with another human institution - the church. Most institutions have hierarchies, traditions, etc. so there will be some points in common.OK, now that's established, here's my point. Examination, questioning, study, internalizing, debate, and experimentation are absolutely vital both in the life of the individual and to the health of the institution itself. Yet to throw out tradition entirely is detrimental. There is value in learning what has stood the test of time. The key is balance.Tradition should stabilize the institution but not choke it. Experimentation should keep the institution growing (in purpose, not necessarily in numbers of followers). Tradition should act as a guideline for healthy growth - chances are if a problem crops up today it's something previous generations have addressed and dealt with. Experimentation gives us the chance to build something new that might benefit future generations (and then it'll be a tradition).Thank you for making us think![bow]
  • Carissa
    Ah, yes. Much wisdom in this post. There needs to be a balance between discipline and fun in every martial arts school. You must have both. Karate shouldn't be dry and boring-- it's an exciting, never ending learning process!Anyway. Great post. :)
  • Jim
    Stagnation from training can be minimized by cross training : Perhaps a running, weight training, swimming to balance out the physical , postural, and emotional stresses of karate training would be a good choice. Perhaps cross training in other arts, ( for advanced students ), such as wrestling, judo, jiujutsu, aikido might keep one fresh. Another thought is to expand one's education and experiences into activities outside the martial arts a bit.To spice up one's own art: Go visit other clubs and instructors who teach your particular art and train with them now and then to get a different perspective on your art or style.In order to make your karate come alive ( as someone mentioned previously ), I suggest you might want to learn the bunkai to your kata...kata without bunkai is only a form of callesthenics and is worth nothing until you learn how the techniques really work.
  • Study the martial arts as a whole, using your style as a home base. Eventually you will see how rich your art can be.
  • Another worthwhile piece, Jesse. I train with a lot of older (45 years and up) folks. I'm 60 and have been training for 30 years. As aging dojo members we have to continue assessing and adjusting our personal levels to meet the limitations (yeah, I said it. There are limits.) of the aging body. Our karate grows and, slows with us. Perhaps that's the definition of "dying" but our karate will keep living and changing until the inevitable. Thanks again for allowing us into your head. Mike Larkin Philadelphia, Pa.
  • That Bastard
    You put me in thought. Good article.
  • Shaun E
    Well somebodies feeling extra inspired from his trip to Okinawa! Love the article Jesse-san. I've had the saying "Don't do things the way the Masters did them. Instead strive to do things in the SPIRIT that masters did them." Nice to see those sentiments echo'd so nicely in your article.
  • Steve Goodyear
    What goes on in "dead" karate is inside. Thinking is over-rated. Thinking and then moving is slow. Zen in not thinking but doing and the brain develops in a different way and the body learns to move without thinking--and that is quicker. Westerners (like me) are full of angst and complications that slow our actions. "Dead" karate is the best way to learn. Reflect AFTER you practice. Or watch others to learn. Osu.
    • Richard Lubkowski
      Dear Jesse-san, I am happily amazed that one so young (I am 63)understands this. Not just in karate, but in life, most people walk through life in a hypnotic trance, following their society's and their family programming, and never wake up or come alive. This is why Japanese masters sometimes refer to the need for spirituality in karate. Sadly most westerners are dislocated from much sense of the spiritual. It holds us back from truly living and therefore truly living our karate?
  • John
    Good article- with good points, but I tell you one alternative is 11 upper belts teaching you 10 different ways, often thinking theirs works the best. Then when you go to test you have to remember "which way worked best for them" or else you get docked on promotion tests. I learned a simple self defense form 4 different ways in my first two months. When its all individualistic at the lower levels then its hard to judge if they are doing what is best for them and their body style, or if they are just not doing it right. I think successful dojos need to start out standardized, and then when students get to a comfortable belt show them what kind of adjustments can be made. Or have only 1 person test. Telling someone they need to adjust to their own personal body size and style is great until you tell them they are wrong for doing it. However, when a 65 year old grandmaster can put you down with the modern equivalent of the moo-shu pinky hold..well you know it works for him:)
  • Thomas
    Der Sklave will nicht frei werden. Er will Sklavenaufseher werden. Gabriel LaubTrotzdem ist es wichtig dass es Regeln und Rituale gibt! Nur dürfen diese keine leeren Floskeln sein. Achtsamkeit ist das Zauberwort... :-)
  • Florian Pean
    Reminds me of the quote;Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.Matsuo Basho
  • george
    good words written here,we have fun in our dojo and our sensie wants us to succeed but also says its not the end of the world if we fail
  • Steve
    Like what you say, Thomas & George. Sie haben recht, Thomas
  • Ian
    I think we can gain a lot by visiting other Dojos on a regular basis.You go, you are the guest who doesn't know anything again ... they open and close class differently, they have different etiquette rules ... you know darn well they have different kata, kihon and bunkai ... and even the katas they share with you are different (way different ... who knew Bassai was spelled with a "P" and looked like *that*??)It's good to have people from other Dojos visit yours in the same spirit ... you have guests who actually "know stuff about karate" but don't know *your* stuff ... so you have to be on top of your game explaining and demonstrating ... you generally step your game up because some visitors (and educated ones at that, not just bored parents sitting at the back) are watching ...Ah ...But karate seems to be so filled with rivalries and egos that few senseis really feel comfortable with ... let alone encourage ... that sort of mind-broadening exercise.
  • Super article. There is freedom in both discipline and authenticity. What point is there in training if we cannot take our training spirit into other areas of our lives.
  • Bryan Alstat
    Yin/Yang represents change. That which ceases to change dies. But, always remember change can be Good and Bad. Look at the change you are incorporating, does it enhance your techniques? Just remember the first and maybe the only rule of Martial Arts/Self Defense - Do not hurt yourself.
  • amine
    a style is just a beginning ,a door to martial arts,but,true martial way lies in someone's self .jesse-san i think that true karate is formless ,technically speaking all the karate forms and per arranged techniques are for the only purpose of the learning principals ,after that development is only up to the practitioner himself ,and so is life ,that what i deduced from my short karate experience ,for me that is the lifestyle of karateka ,so what do you think guys ?
  • Barbara
    I believe one of the things Bruce Lee was alluding to when he talked about being formless was the progression from focus on what you are doing and why you are doing it, to expressing yourself through it. To me that is liberation. Your art needs to be an expression of your strengths and abilities and not a carbon copy of your sensei who might be physically/emotionally/mentally very different from you. What might work for him in a given situation might not work for you. Like any art (I paint) you learn the techniques; you practice them; you learn the rules; you break the rules; you develop your own style and then you can say anything you desire through your art.
    • Maryth
      Well said, Barbara. I've never quite agreed with doing anything exactly as everyone tells me... and I like to call myself an artist, whatever I do. Art may not be forever, but sure as hell it is alive
  • My karate is undead and I am trying all the magic in the world to bring it back. If I can't I'll try for rebirth
  • David
    I agree with what Jesse has to say, BUT that is not always the case of karate being stale or dead. I have been doing karate for a few years and I am a 2 time national champion. Karate doesn't always have to be done according to the set rules, movement and techniques. My sensei always showed us alternative techniques, different ways to attack and defend, but we still stuck to the original Okinawan ways. So if your style may be a bit stale or even dead, YOU can revive it, we were always told to use the knowledge we have learned over the years and using that to think of alternative moves, stick to what you were taught yes, but also use that to think of new ways. Use it to your advantage, karate is from the heart, not just the body, you must feel it, it must be a part of you. (Bow)
  • Frank Bruun
    Hi Jesse,I like your points of view. Karate as a way of life goes much deeper than competition and winning medals. New students learn a fixed system nomather what style they have chosen. To develop from scratch this is inevitable. But within that forged way of training you will develope your own personality, your own style so to speak. When we speak about Karate Do in a traditional concept it is far from dead,it's more alive than ever before. The ultimate purpose stated in our Dojo Kun,is perfection of character trough daily practice. Karate is a martial with scientific principles
  • "Tradition is tending the flame, it's not worshiping the ashes" - Gustav Mahler, a 19th century conductor and composer.It is good to remember what came before but it is important to move on. The development and application of the principles outweigh the physical technique in creating quality people...but that's just an opinion.
    • Ka-'el
      Shu Ha Ri. Doing/ Becoming/ Being for Real.
  • Frank Bruun
    I see Jesse's views as ironic statements. This is certainly a good way to start a debate and why not, it might be good way to think beyond the traditional frames :) However make no mistake, traditional Karate is developing, thriving and growing for the future.
  • m.p. of london
    As a long time student and teacher of Shotokan, oh No.... ! I love it and always will , I was taught well by great teachers who understood the art, we used moves , we studied Bunkai , we fought - less then some but we knew how to apply our techniques. I have studied other karate schools and soft styles such as Aikido and find a similarity, understand what you do and why. I use my Shotokan as a base for my current study and it helps my grasp and understanding of new moves . I feel if you cannot understand your own style you will never understand another . Perhaps mma has shown us one truth, no one style is greater than others, but your application of your art.
  • Gabriel Fernandez
    Jesse-san: It's the best piece of motivation for practicing martial arts, I remembered the words of Bruce Lee that I read sometime in his Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Thanks for all your diffusion work ... this is really the true path to follow for anyone who wants to keep moving forward. I have been able to detach myself from my style, but it has taken a long time and I blame all these dogmatic teachings, but I am very happy now, I continue my growth as a true way of life
  • Fuye
    I read this on Nov 2017, Feel great to find this article. Very inspiring. To get a life back. Thank you Sensei Jesse

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