Legend of the Fist by Patrick McCarthy

As a young karateka back in the 1980s there were a few books in my early collection that I read from cover-to-cover, again and again. Among these was Classical Kata of Okinawan Karateby Patrick McCarthy, which fascinated me for the capsule histories of many of karate’s historical figures, and for the various teases it provided about the history of Ryukyu karate that McCarthy sensei would expand upon in later publications.

In the early 1990s my karate training took me to Tokyo for a couple of years, and knowing that McCarthy had been resident in Japan for sometime I reached out to him. He invited me to visit him at his home in Kamakura, which I did at my first opportunity, and I was humbled that Patrick sensei welcomed me into his home, introducing me to his family and enthusiastically (to say the least) giving me a glimpse into his research.

I remember clearly that he was most enthusiastic about two projects.

The first was his translation of The Bubishi. At the time we first met, McCarthy sensei had just sold out of the first, self-published, edition, but I was later to receive a signed copy of the the second (also self-published) edition. I’ve bought every edition since, because McCarthy sensei sees this type of publication as a living document, and has expanded it greatly.

The second project has in the last few weeks finally seen the light of day. More than 25 years in the making, the Legend of the Fist is the definitive compilation of classical karate related writing that every karateka needs to have in their reference library.

Some of the articles in volume 1 of Legend of the Fist include:

  • Ochayagoten Celebration
  • Matsumura Sokon’s 1882 Seven Precepts of Bu and 1885 Zaiyunomei writinga
  • Itosu Anko’s 1908 Ten Articles
  • King Magazine on Motobu Choki
  • The 1936 Meeting of the Masters
  • Several articles about the Bubishi
  • An interview with Kinjo Hiroshi
  • And much, much more.

The more than 25 individual chapters each represet significant work in research and translation, and each is backed up by images from McCarthy sensei’s personal collection.

I am astounded that this rich tome is only volume 1, and I know that I will certainly be looking forward to seeing what further gems McCarthy sensei surfaces for the next volume.

McCarthy sensei has done his research the old fashioned way—visiting Japan, Okinawa, China and many other countries; searching through museums, libraries and more; interviewing many famous and lesser known masters; and, deeply immersing himself in the culture and language. His work continues inspire me, and I hope that all readers will support his research and embrace the opportunity to have a rich collection of writing in their reference library.

Buy Legend of the Fist on Amazon.com.

Commerating the passing of Kori Kudaka (1907-88)

A short post to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the passing of Shinan Kori Kudaka (1907-88), the founder of Kenkokan school of Shorinjiryu Karate.

The style of karate I practice—Shorinjiryu Koshinkai Karatedo—descends from Shinan Kudaka's innovative approach, and like all Shorinjiryu practitioners I pause today to appreciate the life's work of Shinan Kudaka.

Building on Foundations

Ever since I started karate I’ve been fascinated by the rich history of this intriguing practice, and the stories of karateka past and present who have paved the way for the modern practices we have today.

As a teenager I ‘bought in’ to the grandiose stories of feats and near miracles performed by many of the past masters. Leaping bridges, walking on the ceiling, piercing meat with the finger tips and the defeat of countless armed attackers by a single unarmed karateka were just some of the stories that I devoured keenly.

Ultimately I started coming to the view that the grand masters of past were extremely talented and insightful bugeisha of their times, but would likely be comparable to mid-level black belts of the present. I say this not to denigrate them, but to respect the foundation they laid that has allowed following generations to build on their vision.

John Titchen made a brilliant post about this back in January (I know I am a bit slow on this, but I’ve been traveling for work) called ‘The Giants are Pygmies’

Matsumura, Itosu, Funakoshi, Motobu, Kyan, Miyagi, Mabuni, Ohtsuka to name but a few… these names ring loudly in training halls across the world. Their thoughts on karate are still read and studied. But these men are not giants by today’s standards, in fact in the modern world they are pygmies compared to many of the teachers with whom you could study.

His post reflects the thoughts I’ve long held. We should respect and honour the masters past for the amazing foundation they laid, and the best way we can honour it is to reinforce that foundation and continue to build on it.

We know a lot more now than our past-masters did. Science has moved forward, and we no-longer need woo or mysticism to explain things when our knowledge of physiology, biomechanics and physics can now explain that which was once unexplained.

The worst insult we can pay to the heritage of the forebears in lineages is to assume that was is complete, perfect and unchangeable.

The second worst insult would be to change things thoughtlessly, without fully understanding the foundation.

This is in many respects what the tradition of shu-ha-ri is about.

Shu-Ha-Ri reminds us that learning is a gradual process that includes the need to first learn the fundamentals (shu), to then explore and innovate on those fundamentals (ha) and finally to transcend them (ri).

In other words:

  1. Shu – learn how the foundations were laid, and fully understand their strengths and limitations.
  2. Ha – reinforce the foundations so as to extend their strengths and offset any limitations.
  3. Ri – build on the foundations your own unique construction.

The foundations are common to us all, we respect those that have gone before by fully understanding the foundations and then adding to the collective wisdom, before making our own unique expression.

Titchen sensei makes another great point about a tendency we have of putting people on pedestals.

We should respect those that have gone before us. But do not put them on pedestals or treat everything they said or did as gospel truth. Many of them had less experience and knowledge than either you or the person you train with. Honour their memory by carrying karate forward as they did and pay them the courtesy of respecting the reality of their humanity and fallibility.

I continually see even senior budoka putting seniors on pedestals. A high ranking karateka I know believes that his own teacher is “beyond reproach”.

This is delusional thinking, and quite dangerous. Certainly, we should respect the abilities of our teachers, but no matter how widely experienced, travelled and studied those teachers might be, they are just human and their knowledge has limits. This teacher is undoubtedly a karateka of great talent with over 50 years of study. This man is a human, expert in some aspects of human study, but as we all are, wonderfully normal in most areas of life.

Our role is to respect the foundations that bugeisha of years past have laid, and the reinforcements that have been added by subsequent generations, by learning these foundations completely, and perhaps one day adding to the collective wisdom through providing our own reinforcements to the foundations. This is the proper respect, not blind obedience and not-questioning.

Latest Iain Abernethy Podcast: Funakoshi’s 20 Precepts

Iain Abernethy Sensei has posted his latest podcast, a discussion on the 20 Precepts of Gichin Funakoshi, the pioneer of karate in Japan.

Iain does a great job of discussing each of the 20 precepts, and providing his own insight into them.

I always find that Iain’s works are thoughtful and insightful, and well worth the read/listen. Enjoy!