Morio Higaonna’s 3 Ultimate Lessons of Karate Wisdom

Being here in Okinawa, practising Karate and Kobudo with all sorts of masters, gives you an interesting perspective on many things.

One of them being professionalism.

Something which too few Okinawan masters seem to have grasped in our Western definition of the word.

You see, I didn’t travel around half the globe, spend a ridiculous amount of money, time and effort just to get stuffed into a murky corner of the dojo with the words “tonight, free practise” shoved in my face.

And I bet you didn’t either.

Don’t get me wrong, I love free practise. In fact, I do it every day. Quite a lot, even. I can gladly practise by myself anytime, anywhere, and work on the stuff that needs improvement for hours. No problem at all.

Except… when I go to the dojo.

Please, don’t waste my time.

I could have chosen another dojo to put my smiling gaijin face in, but I chose yours. Don’t make me regret my decision. At least you can look at me, and give me pointers, while I do the “free” practise?

This is a problem.

Sadly, many Japanese and Okinawan sensei never see it from our point of view. They keep doing what they’ve always done, expecting us to magically appear at their doorstep with a bag of dollars year after year.

Morio Higaonna (b. 1938)

But then, once in a while, you encounter a sensei who is the complete opposite.

Like last week, when I randomly visited the dojo of Morio Higaonna sensei.

Man, let me tell you…

For those who have never heard of Higaonna sensei, there’s a bio here.

Now, you might not always agree with his unique breathing techniques, his way of performing kata, his mindblowing conditioning exercises, his plethora of kakie drills or even his “wham-bam-thank you ma’m” bunkai philosophy, and that’s fine.

I don’t.

Still, you can do nothing but admire the man’s exceptional professionality.

A true pro, top to toe.

Embracing the Ryukyu spirit to the fullest.

(My 2 Golden Rules for Karate Instructors article? He might as well have written it himself!)

So what better way to get into the head of a master of this calibre than to receive a private 30 minute lecture on the three most important things in Karate, delivered 100% impromptu straight from the heart?

That’s right.

The time was last week (around 11 PM!), and the location was his super humid dojo in the legendary Tsuboya pottery district of Naha, as Morio Higaonna sensei, 10th dan Goju-ryu and world leader of the International Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate-Do Federation (IOGKF), delivered the following presentation about what you need to know about Karate.

As interpreted by me (from memory).

Read closely:

1. “Listen to your sensei.”

Why this point was number one is probably easy to figure out.

Higaonna sensei has been around the world many times for teaching Karate, at times even living in other countries, which means he knows a lot about the difference(s) between Western thinking and the Japanese mindset, also known as kangae-gata (lit. the “kata” of thinking).

From this difference perhaps the most important observation is the following.

Listen to your sensei.

There is a reason your sensei is a sensei.

Your sensei, although I’m only speculating here, has probably been training for decades, travelled here and there, met people, learnt a lot of things, taught a lot of things, failed, succeeded, failed some more, invested a huge amount of energy and gathered tons of experience during his/her Karate life.

And now you have been chosen as a recipient of this incredible body of knowledge, gathered through a lifetime of study in the art of the empty hand.

So you’d better listen.

Listen hard.

That’s the least you can do.

However, the crux of the matter is that properly listening to your sensei is both a) incredibly easy to do, yet b) ridiculously easy to forget!

We tend to do the same old things, not really paying attention.

So I think we could all learn a lot by doing a very simple exercise once in a while: Step back, chill out for a sec, and tell yourself “Okay, today I’ll pretend I’m a total beginner at this stuff, and reeeeally listen to the words of my sensei closely”.

The things you discover can be mindblowing.

All from simply doing what you were always supposed to be doing!

Listen to your sensei.

Because that’s the key to your future.

2. “Believe and trust in yourself and others.”

This is so hard for many people.

A fact Higaonna sensei undoubtedly has noticed during his Karate journey.

You have probably seen it yourself: Some people just can’t seem to properly focus on their own training and progress, because they remain forever hampered by thoughts of doubt.

Hanging ’round their neck like a three ton gorilla, dark thoughts of disbelief, weakness and shame leeches on their every sign of improvement, sucking out all joy, because “Little me can’t possibly be good enough!”.

Newsflash barbie – nobody is.

We all suck at this Karate stuff.

We just don’t make such a friggin’ fuss about it.

And more importantly, we don’t care. Because suckiness is simply an alternative name for the stepping stones of success. This is a fact. And no, you don’t need to accept it, but you do need to know it.

People who keep disbelieving the power of their own minds, and the hidden potential of their peers, are the same people who become miserable when they get older. Why? Because as the years pass they slowly start to realize that they were wrong all along, that keeping your head up and moving forward despite the fear of failure is the way to go, and now they can do nothing to reverse their actions and thoughts.

Actions and thoughts that made them who they are today.

Old, grumpy, angry and lonely.

Unhappy.

And they know it’s because of themselves.

It seems believing and trusting in yourself and others is an essential ingredient for not only achieving anything in Karate class, but more importantly achieving anything in life. And in that sense, Karate is truly a microcosm of life.

So do trust in yourself, and others.

The sky isn’t the limit.

There’s footprints on the moon.

3. “Never, ever, give up.”

You knew this was coming didn’tcha?

Walk into any good bookstore (if such stores even exist anymore), head over to the self-help/feelgood/spirituality/new age section, put on a blindfold, spin around three hundred times and reach out for the nearest book, grab it, flip to any random page, take off the blindfold, and I bet the first word you’ll see is “perseverance”.

That’s how universally true this lesson is.

Never give up.

Even Antonio Diaz, world kata champion, said the exact same thing in our interview earlier this year. Keep pushing. Constantly. And Hokama Tetsuhiro sensei, 10th dan Okinawa Goju-ryu considers it the most important thing in Karate, as he writes in The Karate Code.

So simpo’.

But still we can’t follow it.

So how come? I mean, what makes some people just have that insane mentality to do the same stuff day out and day in, in some seemingly crazy quest for reaching perfection in their chosen field of study (in this case, Karate)? How do they have the willpower to do it again and again, eventually becoming what regular people refer to as “masters”, “experts”, or “champions”?

Do they possess some freaky “perseverance” gene? Are their brains hardwired for never giving up? Are they reincarnated Spartans?

Nope, nope, and definitely nope.

They just have a habit of developing good habits.

Because that’s all there is to it.

H-a-b-i-t.

Quick! Guess what quote I’ll hit you with? You know it. My favorite of course:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”

– Aristotle, (384 BC – 322 BC)

And you already know what my habit is.

Which says a lot, because I’m certainly not a mentally strong super freak. Dude, I eat carrot cake like there’s no tomorrow! And let’s not even talk about cashew nuts! I have no mental strength at all! But… what I do have is habits. Habits like touching, reading, seeing, hearing, doing and learning Karate every day of my life, for years.

Habits I barely think about anymore.

In fact, when something breaks these habits (like an injury, or some boring desktop work that takes too much time) I can get pretty irritated.

We are creatures of habit.

And we want to keep it that way.

When this concept has been understood, perseverance suddenly seems like a walk in the park. You’ll go from zero to hero in no time, and people will go “I don’t get it, how can you train three times a day?! That’s insane!”.

It’s not insane. It’s called habit.

And it’s totally sweet.

So when Morio Higaonna sensei, who has been pounding the makiwara every day of his whole life (his hands look like two big rocks), tells you to “never give up”, he is essentially telling you to simply do what you have to do (in order to progressively improve in your Karate), and then steadily keep doing that.

No super powers required.

Just a plan.

____

And that was the three most important lessons of Karate, as explained by Higaonna sensei in his über sweaty dojo last week, filtered through me.

But…

…you already knew these.

Didn’tcha?

Yeah, that’s right. You knew all along that listening to your sensei, believing in yourself and never giving up was important. Of course you did.

You just needed to hear them again, from the right person.

Because sometimes we see our own mountain the best when we climb up the neighboring mountain.

And this time the mountain was named Higaonna sensei.

32 Comments

  • Charlie L
    Hey JesseReally excellent blog post. Thanks for sharing!CheersCharlie
  • Chip Quimby
    Nice job, Jesse! Thanks for sharing.
  • Jeffrey K. Mann
    And you even got his favorite cartoon in there! Nice touch.
    • I was wondering if anybody would notice! :)
      • I always always always like and appreciate what you have to say and the information you share with us.
  • Szilard
    Excellent article. I hope you believe in yourself and never give up writing this blog.
  • Fatih
    Good job Jesse,I like it like that;) Keep up the good work.Fatih
  • Greg
    Another inspiring article, we need more like you my friend :) Have a great day and keep posting!
  • Chris
    Great post, Jesse.I especially like this -- "The sky isn't the limit. There's footprints on the moon."
  • herrle 58
    Hi Jesse-san, what`s supposed to be wrong "with his unique breathing techniques, his way of performing kata, his mindblowing conditioning exercises, his plethora of kakie drills or even his “wham-bam-thank you ma’m” bunkai philosophy"? To me he is impressive! Mister Goju ryu. I wonder who thinks different?
    • Behind every singing admirer stands three critics ready to bite, and Higaonna sensei is no exception. Is it simple jealousy or genuine disagreement? Both, I think. In Karate, as in everything I guess, there's more than one way to skin a cat.
      • Jason
        Jesse-san, You said that **you** personally don't agree with them. I am also curious as to why, considering how little I know.
  • Ryan
    Funny how those things hit home to me today. Even after training 25 years, to this day, I will still make a correction and say "AH!" and my sensei will say "Yeah how many times did I tell you that?" or "Yeah, that's why we do it that way." (sarcastically meant to tell me he already told me haha).I see the second point happen a lot from many students and classmates, those that get hung up on how much they don't know instead of trusting themselves. I've seen people never return because they believed they couldn't improve.
    • herrle 58
      Seen the frog in the cartoon? People without this attitude will quit sooner or later, sad, for those martial arts was the wrong coice from the beginning. Seen black belts quit even after 20! years. Oh, and words of my teachers still hit me although they`re long gone...
      • Ed Sumner
        I have that cartoon, in color, framed and hanging in a prominent position in my home.. It really kinda says it all. :-)
    • Dojorat
      Everyone has heard that practise makes perfect, but I think many miss the meaning as it applies to something like karate. Logically, it is impossible to decrease in skill by practising. You will stop improving only if you give up and quit.
  • Hi Jesse, marvelous stuff - so simple, yet so profound. I truly envy your opportunity to train with Higaonna Sensei. I had the honour just once (in 1993 or so) and it was truly a remarkable experience. People like him are a rarity in the martial arts and in the world generally. Thank you for this post!
    • Stu
      I think I was at that seminar also Dan. Was that at Morley High School?
  • Fleur
    Jesse-san, dude... do you know how many calories are in Carrot Cake!Just as well you train three times a day!
  • juan manuel
    Rule number two can be in conflict with rule number one. In these case rule tree, is senseless. The rules only work together if you belive your sensei, don´t think by yourself (but believe you are really thinking) and keep paying for the clases. If two people are completely agree, at least one of them is not thinking - Sigmund Freud
  • In the words of Sensei Higaonna himself,who I have trained & sweated with many times.Mo Ichi Do (1 More Time)
    • Elmar
      Ditto. I believe those to be the 3 most hated words in any karate dojo :) (Even worse when he comes to teach in your country and translates it into your own language with a HUGE smile on his face)
  • Florian Pean
    Thanks Jesse-san for another informative article. Having read many of your articles in the last couple of months since I discovered your awesome site, I have discovered something which you might find...INTERESTINGTwo karate masters which you have interviewed say the same thing:The two masters are of course Morio Higaonna and the Kata queen; Rika Usami.you asked Morio Higaonna for the 3 most important things and Rika Usami for the top 3 mistakes you see people making when practising Karate.RU says YOU LOSE AGAINST YOURSELF MH says BELIEVE AND TRUST IN YOURSELF AND OTHERSRU says YOU FAIL TO PROPERLY LISTEN TO YOUR MASTER MH says LISTEN TO YOUR SENSEIRU says YOU JUST NEED TO KEEP PRACTISING, REPEATEDLY, AND NOT GIVING UP TOO EARLY. MH says NEVER, EVER GIVE UPTwo great karate masters,same message. Certainly worthy of note.
    • Florian-san, that's an amazing observation. Great work buddy!
      • Florian Pean
        do I grade to my next belt in Karate Nerd? lol
  • Jesse San....you simply took my breath away with this incredibly well written and insightful timeless gem One of the reason this resonates , is that Higaonna Sensei has remains one of my most important mentors, and he re in forced my resolve of never giving up In my humble opinion, one of the most important legacies this legend leaves behind , is his most senior student ...Bakkies Sensei, who just completed 50 years of practice....just to teach me? Thank you for the very real contribution you are making.....it's the mark of a man worthy of respect Warmest Sandy
  • Ed Sumner
    There may be things you disagree with Higaonna Sensei about, but what is very difficult to agree with are the results he has achieved. I had the opportunity to train with him several times in the '70s, when he was arguably at his physical peak. One evening, he invited me to spar with him. Now, I'd been having some pretty good success at the tournaments, so had developed some delusions of adequacy. Let me just say that Higaonna Sensei quickly disabused me of those delusions. I never got close to him. I served as his 6'2" moving makiwara. Also, I've never seen anyone develop the power he develops with his techniques.
    • Ed Sumner
      Sorry, that should read "very difficult to DISagree with."
    • That's such a cool story. Thanks for sharing sensei Ed! :-)
  • Elmar
    A few years ago I was attending a national instructors gashuku (teaching the teachers) and my instructor (the chief instructor for our country) took us through the first 3 movements of the first kata (you know the one that you've been teaching to 6 year old beginners for DECADES), and after about 20 minutes (really!!) you suddenly see the "AHA!!!" expressions on the instructors faces as they suddenly realize new and interesting things about the 3 little movements. (And yes he had been saying these things to us for YEARS, but sometimes you just need that little bolt of lightning to light up your face).

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