Kyoshi's Technique of the Week

September 15th, 2013

From Sensei Bob Dobrow
Ueshrio Northfield Shorin-Ryu Karate Dojo


For those of us who attend school, teach, or have school-age children, September
is the beginning of the new year. And a new year is a great time to take stock
and to rededicate ourselves to that which is most important. It is a time of new
beginnings, which motivates this thought of the week on “beginner’s mind.”

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki writes,
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there
are few.”

Beginner’s mind on the karate deck refers to training with an attitude of
eagerness, openness, and lack of preconceptions, even at an advanced level. The
concept can translate into every aspect of our lives: approaching a relationship
with “beginner’s mind” might mean letting go of cynicism and past hurts and
embracing innocence and openness. On the job, it might mean approaching an
assignment with a fresh mind and attitude. This year, I am teaching a course
that I have taught for 15 years; but I will try to take a new look at my
syllabus and work it anew, remembering the enthusiasm I had for the subject when
I first taught it.

A beautiful description of beginner’s mind is given by the great 19th century
Japanese swordsman Yamaoka Tesshu:

"If the marvels of swordsmanship elude you, return to beginner's mind.
Beginner's mind is not any ‘kind’ of mind---striking single-mindedly without
thinking of the body and moving ahead forcefully is proof that one has forgotten
self. Technicians are hampered by analytic thinking. Once the obstacle of
discursive thought is surmounted the marvels of swordsmanship can be
appreciated. At first, it is necessary to practice with skilled swordsmen in
order to discern one's inadequacies. Pursue your study to the end, awaken your
irresistible force, practice ceaselessly until your heart is immovable, and then
you will understand. Train until no doubts remain. Surely the time will come
when the marvels are discovered."

(Biographical aside: By contrast to the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi,
author of The Book of the Five Rings, who lived in the 1600s and whose life is
shrouded in mystery and legend, Yamaoka Tesshu lived in the 1800s and his life,
which bridged the time between feudal and modern Japan, is well-documented. His
style of combat is known as “no-sword”, the point at which a samurai realizes
that there is no-enemy and that purity of the style is all that is needed.
Tesshu was also a master calligrapher and is known for his range of Zen art
works. At the age of 45, he is said to have become enlightened while in
meditation. He was a fierce warrior, with little regard for personal possessions
as he gave away his money to numerous poor people who sought his hospitality. It
is said that on the day before he died of stomach cancer, Tesshu noticed that
there were no sounds of training to be heard from his dojo. When Tesshu was told
that the students had canceled training to be with him in his last hours, he
ordered them to return to the dojo saying, ‘Training is the only way to honor

Domo arigato to Peter Holocher, Ni-kyu, for introducing me to Tesshu’s
remarkable biography, The Sword of No-Sword: Life of Master Warrior Tesshu by
John Stevens.

The last quotation I will share is from an earlier post on beginner’s mind (Feb.
9, 2004) by Kyoshi Mackay.

“As martial artists, our challenge is to regain that unfettered desire to learn.
The best way to do this is to go back to the basics and work one-on-one with the
newest white belt in the dojo. Aside from learning humility, you might even
figure out (finally) how to make that
basic block work (there are no "ineffective" techniques in our system, only
techniques that are not understood). Another way is to accept your Shihan's next
correction without scrutiny or debate. . . .

Shoshin [beginner’s mind] is often lost because of impatience, disillusionment
or the power-trip of newly-acquired knowledge or rank. But it's just as easily
regained: one need merely witness Hanshi Robert Scaglione's humility and
strength on the deck to experience the consuming ‘joy and vigor’ of learning our
art form anew.”

Respectfully submitted,

Sensei Bob Dobrow
Ueshrio Northfield Shorin-Ryu Karate Dojo