The Great Lie of Karate

“Excuse me… teacher, when are we going to learn ‘the crane’?”

I look down and see a tiny hand pulling on my gi pants.

The hand belongs to one of the kids in class, and he repeats his question, looking up at me with hopeful question marks in his big eyes. “We want to learn ‘the crane'” he says again, and suddenly another boy chimes in, “Yeah, when are we going to learn that?”.

Like you’ve probably figured out, I now have five or six kids climbing on me, trying to torture me to learn them ‘the crane’ one day.

Where did they get that idea to begin with?

I mean, these kids weren’t even born when The Karate Kid came out. My guess is they’ve probably seen Kung Fu Panda (which rocks by the way!) or maybe some other show which made a reference to the mysterious ‘crane’ move.

“Okay, okay, enough, let me go and I’ll tell you!” I tell the kids, who are now beginning to pull my hair.

Looking suspiciously at each other, they slowly release their holds of me, with a trace of doubt, and I back away.

“Listen up, kids, it’s like this: There is no such thing as…” is all I manage to blurt out before my conscious catches up with me. What am I going to tell them? I start to doubt.

Should I give them the truth? Tell them that we don’t practise ‘the crane’ as seen on TV? That they’ll never be taught how to do those moves?

Looking at their big puppy eyes, I have no option but to do one thing: I clear my throat, get down on one knee and whisper: “When the time is right, and when you are ready for it, I promise I’ll teach you the secrets of ‘the crane’. And if you are really good, I might even teach you ‘the dragon’. But you must prove that you deserve it first, by training hard every class!”

The kids look like it’s Christmas in Karate Land.

Me?

I just hope they’ll have forgotten it by next week.

Because you know the truth – nobody will ever teach them ‘the crane’. At least not as long as the class is called Karate.

But what’s the use of the truth if you can’t tell a lie sometimes?

Lie being, in this case, ‘bending the truth’.

Because as we all know, the crane does exist in Karate. Just not in the way they imagine it to be. And not in their near future.

But let’s forget about ‘the crane’ for a second, and dig a little deeper. Let’s think about how ‘the crane’ can easily be replaced by something else equally ‘mystic’ and ‘advanced’. And the kids can easily be swapped for adults.

The general concept remains the same.

And that’s perhaps one of the greatest ‘lies’ that we have in Karate.

Resembling the idea of finding a giant pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, people who practise Karate surprisingly often think there is some secret treasure hidden at the end of the road of Karate.

Not necessarily ‘the crane’, like our kids think, but maybe something more abstract like one day becoming really skilled at doing a kata, or becoming super great at kumite.

Or even more complex:

“Becoming enlightened”.

(That’s ‘satori‘ for you Japanophiles.)

The idea that almost everyone of us has is that every punch, every kick, every class, every belt is just a stepping stone on the way to that ‘something’.

For the kids it was simply ‘the crane’.

Some of us haven’t even paid a thought to what that ‘something’ really is, but still definitely think that there is ‘something’ there at the end of it all, whatever it might be.

Though many wouldn’t admit it.

Some don’t even know it.

Actually, a parallel to religion (and heaven) is not hard to draw.

And the sad part of it all is of course that there really is no such thing. But we so desperately need that thing to keep the spirit alive that we reject anything that opposes it.

Finding out that the golden pot at the end of the rainbow is nothing more than a illusion we create for easier self-motivation is hard to grasp for some.

Even impossible for others.

Specialists call it ‘cognitive dissonance’.

But before you go all crazy in the comment field, let me explain a little more what I really mean. Don’t get me wrong now, because I’m quite sure you have already.

I’m absolutely not saying that anybody should give up their dreams.

I’m definitely not.

I’m simply saying that the reward that everyone is striving for isn’t located at the end!

It’s right by your feet!

The secret of Karate isn’t what’s on top of the mountain, but the climb itself.

And the sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll be able to change focus and actually get some stuff done.

So when you one day do get to the top, you’ll see for yourself that there never was anything there to begin with.

It’s just cold and windy.

And boring.

What you’ll find is simply the sum of everything you already learned during your journey, but were too busy ignoring because you were so focused on looking up that mountain ahead of you.

Paradoxically enough, the great lie of Karate is that the future is the present.

The goal is the journey.

And in the end we will painfully realize that a lie is nothing but a great story ruined by the truth.

So let ‘the crane’ go.

15 Comments

  • Narda
    I'm proud of you...you say you don't care about your students...but I see that you really do! ;)
    • Oh no! I'm busted! :)
  • Diego Romero
    oi, who says it's boring?i love every moment of it!by the way, i will really pity you the day you finally have to teach them tobi maegeri or nidangeri :p
  • Mark Tankosich
    "So when you one day do get to the top, you’ll see for yourself that there never was anything there to begin with.It’s just cold and windy.And boring."Wow. So, you've been to the top? Impressive.I don't mean to be too harsh. I agree with the general sentiment you express here, but wonder if at the "real" top there isn't a tad more humility to be found...I know I sure could use some more of it, and hope to find some up there somewhere...
    • You wish! :)I'm simply echoing the sentiment of other people ("masters"?) who seem to have the relevant experience.At least that's what they seem to tell us.
  • Kanbei
    Jesse-san, I wonder if you know about "Itaca", an excellent and deep poem written by Kavafis when twentieth century just begun. I´m sure you would enjoy these verses about the true meaning and value of a journey... You know, Ulysses and his mediterranean trip in search of Itaca, his fatherland, while he become wiser and wiser. In the end, the best and most important thing for Ulysses was the trip itself, and not the destination. I agree with your post, although I have to confess (and maybe all of you!) that "the crane" was very important to me when I started my training as a little child. If we are looking for a reason (or a couple of them) of our crazy life as karate/kobudo nerds, well, Gilda talked (and sang) about our problem in a beautiful way: Put the blame on Crane, boys! Greetings from Spain and excuse me the stupid joke!
  • Chris
    Ok, even though it hurts me to admit this, the thing that finally prompted me to get off my arse and take up karate was when channel 5 showed the Karate Kids movies over consecutive weekends in the summer.Having said that, it was much more of a prompt than an inspiration. And I also suspected that "the crane" might not really be quite as it was depicted in the film...
  • Jesse as well
    I find that climbing to the top is the greatest gift martial arts can bring us. But we face times where we become stagnant and mechanized. We improve, but there is no extra zing to our technique, no new snap to our strike, no new ease to our grapple.We have found one of the dreaded plateaus of practice. I draw this parallel to your story. I have now found the top!The top of what? Of the world? Heavens, no. I have only found the top of my little hill, but from here I have a decent view of what's around me, only to find another taller hill in the distance.So back down I go, trying to unlearn my bad habits and start from the ground up again to learn a better way, a new way, or a just plain different way. On my way to the next hill (and there is & always will be a next hill) I get to enjoy myself all over again.At the end of the day I feel like I have accomplished very little that day, until I look back from the mountain I am now climbing to see I am higher up than any of the many hills I have climbed before.
  • Markus
    I had to laugh when I read that article - because not so long ago (a few months) I was talking to the sensei at the end of a special weekend workshop and asking "What is it about, the crane so often quoted in literature?" He smiled and asked if I was watching too much TV but if I was really interested, he could show me, still with a smile on his face.Almost all people were gone, we were only four of us and after a 'Yoi' we started another two hours of training - Hakutsuru. Used to Shotokan we were a bit overwhelmed by the moves and stances but after a while it was ok for all of us.Long story short and to complete the cliche of a kitschy end of a movie, we did our last moves in the sunset flooding the hall - unfortunately not standing on a rock near the beach :)So my satori about "The Mysterious Crane" was demystified and now I have a nice story to tell my kids in the dojo.Oss
  • The Strongest Karate
    Man, talk about flashbacks! My parents got me started in Karate (Uechi Ryu, to be exact) when I was 9 or 10 and I distinctly remember asking my sensei when we would learn how to do back flips. I was an avid fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back then and so desperately wanted to be a little Michelangelo.I dont remember his answer, so he must have given me the same kind of response you did!
  • mej0778
    Brilliant enjoyed reading that, think the same principle could be used in schools and colleges.
  • Jack M
    Hmmm, my Sensei once told somebody to **** off when they asked about the butterfly kick. Admittedly, the pupil was about 13, but still. Even so, better than let them live a lie
  • James
    Well Jesse-san, strictly speaking you didn't tell your students a complete lie....you could (could've) teach (taught) them Tsuruashi-dachi and be done with it! JejejeBest of wishes
  • Oliver
    Hi Jesse, please enlight my, i found a picture of a stance that look like the Karate Kid technique... http://www.karateblogger.com/stari/images/soken2.jpg ( Hohan Soken - Crane stance ) from shorin ryu i think.Thank you very much......p.s. love your books, very cool stuff!!!!
  • Love the whole Karate Kid reference. I have to mention all the time that tournaments aren't like the movie. And that there's no evil karate school out there. Best is when I demonstrate techniques, "This is Hollywood. This is reality."

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