Years ago I used to practice zazen with a local group fairly regularly. When I started I brought with me my conceits regarding the degree of personal discipline I had achieved through my karate training and my naive beliefs that I knew something about what I should be doing in a zendo. These beliefs were based on what I took (at the time) to be a thorough study of beat zen poetry and the work of D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Thomas Merton, Philip Kapleau, and Shuryu Suzuki. I also brought with me a powerful need to make peace with survivor guilt associated with my brothers death, PTSD ( at the time not yet diagnosed), an achingly overwhelming religious impulse, and as much anger as I could hold in my chest. I am sure I came across as an arrogant, angry, narcissistic, and confused young man.
The teacher (Yoshida sensei) at the zendo met all of my preconceptions. He was educated, Japanese, wore cool looking robes, and seemed appropriately inscrutable. The hall we used for practicing zazen was austere with a small shrine in front, and it was filled with the woody smell of incense. When we sat we faced the outer walls. When we chanted, or when the teacher gave instruction, we faced the center of the room. Sometimes we walked slowly in circles circumambulating the room. In hindsight all of this made the experience a perfect tableau onto which I could project my exotic fantasies of enlightenment and sophistication.
The Zen group was small in the late eighties and early nineties. Yoshida sensei was always patient and polite. The rituals were always conducted ceremoniously. The period of seated meditation would begin, people would continue to slowly filter in. Things eventually wrapped up with a discussion of some relevant text, perhaps the Shobogenzo by Dogen, the Tripitaka, or even the meaning of a lecture by Yoshida’s teacher Katagiri sensei. The talk would gradually become more informal, tea, and sometimes fruit or cookies would be served, and finally we would bow, clean up, and leave.
Eventually I would come to decide that the formal study of zen was not going to be how I spent my free time. Budo felt like the most effective framework I had found to wrestle with, sublimate, or even incorporate many of my devils. Karate, and budo generally, gradually came to take up more and more of my attention, and western philosophy and a more scholarly interest in religion slowly supplanted my passion for Buddhism.
I recently watched a video dedicated to the music and life of Leonard Cohen. I am an unabashed fan of his. In the video he reflects on the time he spent at the Mount Baldy monastery with Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. He emphasized that the relationship with Sasaki was the most important element to him of his five years at Mount Baldy. This seems right to me. Although I was not a particularly close student of Yoshida’s his bearing, his maturity, and his patience made a strong impression on me. One thing stands out for me when I think back to those days: I remember bowing in as I entered late one frosty morning to find that he was alone in the room bowing towards the shrine. He was as serious as if the room was filled with students. When it was appropriate he motioned me towards a zafu. The seriousness with which he approached teaching even the most flawed and casual students demonstrated more caring than all of the vows “to save all sentient beings”.
Coming from a JKA style background, I was used to a sort of drill instructor model of what a teacher should be. On more than one occasion I witnessed senior Japanese teachers finish teaching their classes only to move quickly into a changing room reserved for their use alone. After changing they would disappear almost magically, avoiding further interaction with students. There was tremendous distance between the teachers and the students. The curriculum seemed long ago established and almost sacred. The duty of the teacher was simple, they would insist that students master the set of skills handed down from above. The duty of the student was to pay the club dues and to attempt to embody these skills as perfectly as possible. One knew exactly what skills one needed to demonstrate to advance in rank, and rank had a tremendous influence on one’s social status within the group. In order to be taken seriously it was important to demonstrate dedication to the task of advancing in rank. I have visited clubs where beginners were treated nearly with open disdain.
I have known Dave Lowry for at least twenty-five years. He has been extraordinarily generous with his time and patient with me personally and with my rag tag karate group. He has been an invaluable source of information and advice to me over the years. The most valuable advice he has given me was in the context of a conversation I had with him regarding an instructor (my senior) who had recently moved to the United States. I will not go into all of the specific issues except to say he was abusing his power and authority within the organization to which we both belonged. I regarded the abuse as quite serious. This made the political situation within the organization difficult. Dave cut right through to the heart of my concerns when he said “why would you ever want to train with someone who you would not want to have come over to your home for dinner with your family?” and the clincher “why would you suggest your students train with this man if you wouldn’t (have him over for dinner)?”.
Karate is, for most of us at least, an elected activity. We have other things we could be doing with our time. We have alternatives for self protection. I am not suggesting that we should practice karate casually, we should not, however remembering that this is an activity we elect to engage in can help us to focus on what aspects of our engagement with karate are most important. I have seen grown men, black belts with years of experience, reduced to tears due to the politics in karate. These were people deeply invested in their art and organization. The former (the art), generally is not the problem, it is the later that usually bites us in the ass. It seems to me that the point of an organization is to help foster and support the relationships that enable us to practice these arts. When the organization makes these relationships more difficult it has ceased to function properly.
People are complicated, organizations, being made up of people, are more so. It is natural that difficulties will arise. When the main thrust of an organization seems to be maintaining revenue and status rather than developing its members and facilitating the development of close bonds between practitioners of karate, it has lost its way. Sometimes this can be corrected, sometimes it can not.
After many years of being fed up with all large organizations, and keeping my own group fiercely independent, I met Harry Cook at the gasshuku and release party for his book “Shotokan Karate: A Precise History” in Los Angeles California. I hate L.A. Harry rode with Joe Krass and myself to the beach for training. The drive took forever (at least an hour.) Joe and I got a chance to speak to Harry in depth for the first time. His take on karate was refreshing, honest, and unpretentious. Soon I would discover it was also very effective.
Harry did not try to recruit us to join his organization, the Seijinkai Karate-Do Association. He did not even mention it. He made such an impression on us that when TKRI began its largest project to date, the 2001 Budo Symposium, we invited him as a guest speaker. He was professional and very prepared to present to both the academics and the martial artists in attendance.
Over the next few years we invited Harry to join us at annual summer camps in Saint Louis Missouri and later in Ferrum Virginia. We always have several instructors at these events. Harry never fails to jump in and train right alongside the rest of us. He is always keen to try something new. He always has a smile, time for the newest student’s concerns, and an awful joke at the ready.
After several years of interacting with Harry it just seemed like my group and his were somehow cut from the same cloth. There are technical differences here and there, but these are discussed and sometimes we just agree to do things differently. This seems to be alright with him. I came to trust him, not just to have my best interests at heart, but more importantly I trust him to have my students’ best interests at heart. Eventually it just seemed silly not to join the Seijinkai. Being a part of the Seijinkai simply made what we were already doing easier.
I have had the benefit of working with several really great teachers/seniors (Harry Cook, Dave Lowry, and Elmar Schmeisser immediately come to mind) over the years. They all have at least two characteristics in common; first, I wouldn’t have any qualms about having them over for dinner with my family, and second they have not fostered dependence, in fact they expect and foster maturity and autonomy. So many teachers seem to want the validation that comes from keeping their students dependent.
When I find myself working with a new student I always think of Yoshida sensei being patient with the younger me. In spite of my arrogance I needed the time there in that room. I needed to be taken seriously. When I show up to teach a class and there is only one student I say to myself “meet the student, meet the student, meet the student”. Sometimes I am able to, sometimes not.