Beyond the Black Belt Dojo
Updated: Jan 5, 2022
Karate is meant to be a journey without a destination. After all it's known as Karate-do, DO (d-oh) meaning "the way" or "path". It's not uncommon to see martial art schools have written in big letters across the walls "WE ARE A BLACK BELT DOJO" as if that's the end to the means of karate. Yet karate endures for what lays beyond the black belt.
The belt is simply a long piece of cotton. Just because you earn the rank of black belt doesn't mean you automatically can do your karate on demand. It's all too common to see people attain the rank and then end their training. Like anything it needs to be maintained. "Karate is like boiling water. If heat is removed it will return to a timid state." -Gichin Funakoshi- the founder of Shotokan karate.
So how do we keep the waters of karate boiling? We pass the flame on to the next generation. I began my training around the age of ten and to my surprise the first lessons didn't come directly from Sensei but rather a high ranking student. Though as I moved up in rank I did began to receive more direct attention from him, as did others. In a traditional dojo, after white belts are taught the basics from the higher ranking students Sensei would then step in. He would refine the techniques we'd previously learned and provide advice for those he had instructed to teach. This is how the flame of Karate is passed on, and in time I became one of his ranking students asked to teach newer students.
Training is a process of discovery and Sensei Goral would never exactly tell anyone how to teach but rather guide you to discover it for yourself. He knows that every student is different and we needed to learn and understand those differences. Much like in our daily lives outside the dojo we need to understand the differences of those around us. From Sensei I discovered a love for the martial arts and through him I discovered the type of person I wanted to be. There is a kindness about him that's inspirational, not only to myself but my fellow black belts as well. That inspired kindness and natural connection helped make me who I am today. As one of our instructors Mr. Quach shared with me "During your training you meet people in business, Lawyers, contractors, construction workers, engineers, all facets of life that come together for the same goal." and that goal is to improve oneself.
Through the sharing of knowledge we experience an interaction with others and through that interaction we not only begin to know others but also ourselves from reflecting upon their interaction with us. It shows us deeper ways in which we can improve. Because of this, teaching can't only fall on the shoulders of the head instructor, otherwise the students would miss all of that opportunity of self-discovery.
There are features built into Karate that encourage this type of training that are derived from a military structure. It surely helps at Kaze-Kai being that Sensei Goral has a military background in the army. The ranking system is a multi-step ladder. There's an admiral followed by generals and lieutenants all the way to privates. Sensei would ask us what kind of teacher would he be if he couldn't expect his students to also teach. He shares a story of a school he knew of that would close when the head instructor was away. Sensei stated that if he couldn't attend class the highest ranking student would then teach and if they couldn't then the next student would and so on. By having the senior students raise Sensei through respect and etiquette the Sensei can then bring them up by mutual respect. This is how the new students get encouraged and that is how karate thrives.
No karate practitioner is ever not a student because there is always more to learn, especially about teaching. This is the reason why Sensei refuses the title of "master". He has never claimed himself an authority and he would always referred to those that taught him. He only has accepted the title Shihan because its meaning is teacher of teachers such as creating teachers like Mr. Quach, Mr. Mehmedovic and myself among others. The title "master" he feels is unattainable like perfection. Master is one who has acquired all knowledge of a topic or makes no mistakes and that simply is not the human condition. Sensei explained to us that he would get bored of karate if he had attained all there is to know.
Something I've come to understand is that teaching is a way of giving back. As it was that kindness that inspired me to give thanks to my instructor Shihan Sensei Goral. I strive to teach as well as him and it was he who passed the flame to me.
With all that said I suggest a refined message for serious karate schools "WE ARE A TEACHER CREATING DOJO" That is how karate-do lives on. The ability to teach should be instructed at an advanced level of training. Even if you never intend to open a school of your own teaching gives one a chance to relearn what they have learned and as stated the benefits go beyond the dojo. Learning + Teaching = Understanding, and there inlays it's beauty.