First Karate Class
A college kid in the 1970's got involved in the martial art, motivated by Bruce Lee, Kwai Chang Caine, and Lo Lei in "Five Fingers of Death," a long haired hippie in bell bottom pants, tank top tee shirt and a fu manchu mustache, I took a dive and entered a karate dojo.
I can say the first day in class was foreign, alien, whatever.
Like everything else during this time of my life, when I encountered something new, I spent more time watching, observing, emulating, saying nothing, and hoping my “wild flower” imitation not attract attention. Except for those wearing starchy white karate uniforms with various colored belts announcing their ranks, I noticed others like me, stretching awkwardly, in quiet corners, not making eye contact.
After I walked in, I sat in a chair and took shoes and socks off, tucking them neatly away in a place where I wouldn’t forget them. I stood at the edge of the dojo floor, bowed and entered. It was the first time I experienced hard wood floors on bare feet. It hurt.
Right then I realized how much of a wuss I was now that I’m taking “kay-RAH-tay”
I held off purchasing a gi or karate uniform. I was allowed to wear sweat pants and a white tee shirt. I noticed that gis worn by the students were cleaned and pressed before each and every workout.
This was the start of a strict code I was not familiar of.
A high regard for manners was a requirement; any breach, large or small, was not tolerated. Screw up and the student forfeited his membership. During my years of training, neither had I heard nor experienced a case when this code was ever broken. When I first took martial arts, I lived in an era when manners were mandatory. My family lived poorly working in the farm fields of California’s Central San Joaquin Valley. As a young child, I had few possessions: several sets of clothes: One for play or work; a set for school, and a fresh clean set for church or formal events. Though mom and dad earned a meager wage as itinerant farm laborers, we dressed in fine suits and dresses at church. I was uncomfortable spending the effort trying to appear proper-like. When I joined class, I was in college, and thoroughly not interested in wearing formal clothing. I was not interested in adding another set of rules to my confusing life. Despite this feeling, I forged forward, not much to accept the rules but more to learn. As long as I was not asked to train butt naked, I tolerated the clean gi, immaculate training quarters, etiquette and filial obedience. A uniform appearance was necessary as not to be an issue in learning: One less thing to worry about while learning something new and perfecting old. It’s like wearing pressed slacks, white shirt and red tie to an interview. Conservative by today’s standards, by wearing conservative clothes, appearance will not be a reason for not getting the job. As with the whole aspect of etiquette, manners and regimental mannerisms, there’s an attitude of respect and humility. Though the instructor didn’t have to spell it out specifically, I learned quickly that the process of learning evolved further and deeper than what was in front of me. I found that these rules developed character and made me a better person.
When I was a child, I was taught to say, “yes sir,” “yes ma’am” to elders, teachers, clergy, police and so forth without knowing why. In retrospect, prior to entering (and leaving) the dojo, and greeting the sensei, I was taught to bow and say the word “os,” short for “onegai-shimasu” (oh-neh-GAH-ee-she-mah-SOOH) which, translated, means “Will you help or teach me, please?” An act of respect, and a culture of self control and etiquette all the while learning self defense. “Excuse me and I apologize, but I must rip your eyes out with my tiger fist technique.” Peace and compassion, the foundation combines manners and killing skills.
On that first day, Sensei Willard Thomas had us stand in line with senior students at one end and beginners at the other. We waited several seconds as the dojo fell silent, silent, the experience unnerved me. I watched intently as he knelt by first dropping onto one knee and then the other. Everyone followed suit. I struggled to imitate these movements as the floor made my knees and instep hurt. As I ached and fought the urge to readjust, others around me remained frozen like statues. It was the first time I did anything like this and it was weird, uncomfortable but yet intriguing. Sensei made eye contact with me and then yelled “mokutsu!” (moh-koot-SOOH) I had no idea what it meant, but I saw him close his eyes. I naturally followed along. As the seconds ticked, I tried to let whatever supposed to happen, happen. What I remembered through closed eyes was nothing but darkness and an after burn of trailing images. I concentrated on this darkness as eyes focused on the back of eyelids, the world around me ticked by. Though among others, I felt alone and weird.
It was so quiet I could hear my heart beat. The person next to me breathed quietly while a strange wheezing came from a young child who knelt on the other side of me.
I stifled a laugh.
My mind then wandered thinking of the roof caving in, crashing down upon all of us except on sensei who remained untouched and unaffected. I felt my breath leave me, suffocating. I needed to leave, but fought the feeling. The seconds ticked by and I screamed inward.
Then through the blackness I heard him speak, “As students of karate, leave all thoughts behind you. Your home, your school, your church. Everything. All thoughts, except karate, no longer exist.” I felt an overwhelming peace. Something happened; I did not fight it and enjoyed this strange ride. A long period of silence followed and then “Mokutsu-yame!” (moh-koot-SOOH-YAH-meh) I opened my eyes just to see what’s supposed to happen next, and everyone has their eyes opened and trained on sensei. He bowed in kneeling position, forehead barely touching the floor. Everyone bowed back in respect.
My forehead hit the floor.
I was in college experiencing life away from home, difficult studies, freedom, an open mind accepting the deliverance of time. Learning new skills such as dealing with adverse personalities, this new culture felt like cold ice on my feet. It was in the early ‘70s, during a time of my life when drugs and sex were supposedly acceptable, appropriate and safe. As a result, the last thing on my mind was to be disciplined, military in scope, enamored in a strange culture. Mokutsu (the Japanese word for “meditation”) removed outside thoughts and I transformed into a sponge for learning.
This training helped me, 35 years later. Though I’ve trained in other systems, Shorin Ryu and Shotokan Karate, Aikijujitsu, Okinawan weaponry, Muay Thai Kickboxing, and Taijiquan, what I learned from sensei taught me how to learn by first relinquishing all external thoughts.
I learned that in order to be good in anything, I had to be a good student, hard worker, an expert on the foundation of studies. In math, grammar, history, science or music, I found that if I mastered the fundamentals, it would be easier for me to climb the learning ladder than had I bypassed basics.
Karate consisted of three basic blocks, three basic kicks, a whole host of punches plus an assortment of striking techniques. Sensei Thomas’ curriculum was the same, no different than the last. I started awkward, stumbling. Others were like me, some better the next. Mirrors showed their determination. Senior students led by example and I willed my arms, torso and legs to mimic. Sensei stopped by and corrected me on periodic intervals. As days and months passed my form improved. I progressed quickly, partly because I was an athlete, mostly because I practiced at home and was motivated. My self-confidence soared. This helped with, of all things, college, which prior to the martial arts training suffered. It was my first year in college and I devoted part time effort to studies. The college party scene sent me reeling backwards that I needed to change. Karate training brought back “discipline,” a concept that I heard in conversations helped me. Discipline a military concept was something I didn’t practice prior to taking sensei Thomas’ class. When we stood in horse stance for the entire class duration, my legs burned and I hurt like I’ve never hurt before. Everyone else in class suffered while sensei Thomas remained in his stance punching, striking and blocking, a stoic presence. Not wanting to be outdone, I mirrored his stance, lower than most others in class, accepting his challenge to progress.
This taught me to shut up, listen, and emulate.
Martial arts is a discipline that teaches by example. On occasions, the instructor corrected through instruction, but most of the time, I just copied (monkey see, monkey do).
I can say that the most important part about life is to appreciate its intricacies, learn the basics and become an expert, and in this case, the better copy cat you are the better. When the time comes when you’ve mastered the art of copying, then you can begin designing your own path...your own destiny. Hai. Wakirimaska?