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Sensei Paul Mitchell  writes articles for Martial art publications sharing his thoughts and experiences.


Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 116 July 2013

Ken Zen Ichi – The Fist and Zen Are One

I remember reading that this simple saying was one of Sensei Funakoshi’s favourites. It also happens to be one of mine. For me it conveys in three simple words all that is necessary for studiers of the Way of Karate or indeed all Martial Arts to understand in terms of how their training should develop them as not only Martial Artists but also as human beings.

It is difficult to remember after 30+ years of training if this statement or similar ones have an obvious meaning to all that read them, or if as is often the case “things are only obvious if you know them.” If I cast my mind back to my formative years, my troubled teenage phase, I suspect I would not really have grasped the deeper meaning of this saying.

I think that it has particular significant to me as I have the word HATE tattooed across the upper fingers of my right hand, and as is often commented on I do not have the corresponding word LOVE on my other hand. At nineteen I did not have a lot of love for myself, my world or my fellow man. So for me the study of the Martial Arts began there. To some readers it may still seem an elusive thing, this refining of our inner nature through the prolonged and arduous study of Shotokan Karate. It is in actuality a steady drip thing. Nothing beyond a massive trauma really has the power to change us overnight.

I don’t believe there is only one way to study our beloved art of Karate. The subject and people are far too diverse for there only to be a single method, and all said and done as its title suggested, Martial Arts are an art form and therefore open to interpretation. However it is my humble opinion that to relegate Shotokan Karate to purely a sporting activity not only does it a tremendous disservice, it also reasserts an already distorted view of life, the universe and everything in it to the trainees. So although I believe as the saying goes “There are many routes up a far mountain” I also believe there are many routes that just simply do not go there. So in short I don’t think there is just one right way but I do think there are many wrong ways.

So why are the Fist and Zen one, and why do I feel that I have an insight into this that many high graded Karateka do not? The answer to the latter is that my Karate life did not commence until I was in my mid twenties. Since leaving home at 15 I had fallen into just about every one of life’s pitfalls, so by the time I came to training I was in more than a bit of a mess both physically and mentally. When I was 24 my then Girlfriend, now wife, had our first child (who has grown to be a fantastic Martial Artist). My wife and I both came to Karate with a feeling of turning our life around. As well as starting Karate we both joined a gym and attended it every day for a year in order to regain our fitness and health.

In short as my personal development had already begun, my insight into how the study of Budo can develop an individual in a positive way has a degree of comparison to work with. I’m certainly not unique in this, but someone that starts their Karate training as a child simply does not know who they would have become without it. I do!

As for the Fist and Zen being one. Maybe this is more difficult to define that I originally thought. Defining Zen has after all been unsuccessfully attempted by far more intelligent people than me. As Karate is an experiential thing, I can only really relate to Zen through my experiences. I once again refer to my tattooed right fist.

Many a sensei has noticed the negative verb on my right hand. This is especially true of Japanese Sensei’s (perhaps due to a mental association with the Yakuza). Many of these fine gentlemen have quite rightly found cause to ask me if I indeed hate. He certainly was not the first to ask, but because of who he was and what he meant to me Sensei Enoeda asking me this question quite early in my Karate life sticks prominently in my mind. Probably due to the awe I felt for Sensei Enoeda, all I could manage as reply was the obligatory “Oss Sensei” to which he grunted, shook his head and turned away.

This rather simple experience caused me to stop and think. Why was I so filled with rage and indeed hate? It was at this moment I truly came to realise that although the journey of a Martial Artists may appear a purely external one, i.e. physical and constantly considering if not always concentrating on an actual opponent, the true journey is in fact far more internal. The journey that we have chosen to undertake is within us, the method we have chosen to use is the medium of the fist.

I suppose that if our study of a pugilistic art was purely of a Jutsu nature, that is to say we were merely training in methods of overpowering other people with the use of Martial Art techniques our travel could remain almost a physical one. I say almost because of course if our training were to successfully develop us as fighting machines, because of the nature of actual violence (as opposed to semi contact sparring) we would still need a large degree of toughening and desensitising to pain. As anyone that has gone down this road knows, this is more of a mind over matter thing than a purely physical exercise. Although desensitising oneself is a truly difficult endeavour, it has very little to do with Zen.

However, if we are making a study of the complete art, we have many issues to deal with. The morality of our position regarding violence is obviously high on the list of our concerns, personally I consider myself a man of peace but I could be quite aggressive in my defence of that peace. It is the reconciliation of such issues within us that make it necessary to make our internal journey. In my experience we have to empty and reprogram ourselves, otherwise how can the important decisions truly be ours? They are otherwise just a mixture of genetic programming and media controlled bias. This to me lies at the heart of personal Zen and thus also lies at the heart of the study of the fist.

Really I am writing this article with people that consider themselves studiers of Karatedo in mind. So, I shall look at the “Do” suffix of Karate. If we were to look at an encyclopaedic explanation of the term “Do” as applied in Eastern Martial Arts, it would read something like “The Way.” Hence we get the term “The way of Karate.” As with many Japanese concepts, this idea comes from China. The way “Do” in Karate is actually taken from Taoism. Taoism, of course, has a very close relationship with Zen.

Both these disciplines (and I mean discipline. Often in my experience Karateka think ideas such as these are for want of a better word, woolly. Having on several occasions attempted to introduce several of these “woolly” methods to classes of Yudansha, (black belt holders), they came away with a whole different and more respectful attitude.)I believe that the natural condition of the human being is one of wisdom. Through standing and sitting practices (meditation) we attempt to “empty our cups”, or as the Taoists say “Return to our congenital nature”, in order for our wisdom or Buddha mind to manifest. We can all see that this was at one time part of our practice, as at the beginning and the end of a traditional Karate class we kneel in “Mokosu” or in meditation. Obviously the minute or so that we kneel is nowhere near sufficient to have any beneficial effect on our mind or inner nature, and in fact we are merely paying lip service to one of our most fundamental and important training methods.

It is my experience that less “traditional” Karate schools leave out Mokosu altogether, as an obsolete ritual. I do empathise, but personally I think it would be far better to expand on this practice in order to lift it from ritualistic obscurity. With limited time in the dojo or most likely rented hall it is easy to understand how our present situation has arisen, and as is the case that many teachers of Karate see it as only a sport or worse, pastime, why would meditation be of any use?

There have been a few references to a particular phenomenon recently in Karate magazines. The concept of “Rotary Tandem” or in Chinese Taoist terminology “Dantien Rotation”. This idea has been in existence for centuries and it is my belief that as Pagans we British understood and practiced its methods before the Christians took hold of the majority of us. As a young man I remember the term “I’m sitting contemplating my navel” being a very common reply when being asked by an adult what we were doing. I suspect that older readers will also remember this. In essence this is the practice of seated meditation. Contemplating our navel is I believe a term used for putting our mind into our lower abdomen or Hara.

Unfortunately eventually the echoes of the past die down, at this point our origins are totally lost and the manipulators of men have won. Whilst on the subject of common terms in Daoism and Paganism those readers that have been led in similar directions as myself due to Sensei Funakoshi’s admonishment that “In order to move forward we must look backward” will I think be aware that in Chinese medicine theory, our internal organs are governed by and connected to our emotions (Chinese medicine unlike its Western equivalent is holistic.) In English we have terms such as “the man has a lot of gall” meaning of course he has courage. In Chinese Medicine theory, the gall bladder controls the individual’s levels of said courage. Another very comment saying is “he is venting his spleen”. Again this has obvious meaning and has the same relation to Traditional Chinese Medicine. In other words, what we call Traditional Chinese Medicine is actually simply Traditional Medicine.

Before Christianity reached our island shores the practice of these methods of both meditation and medicine were I think commonplace. Ironically women tended to be the doctors. Maybe because in general, nurturing came more naturally to them. I say ironically because since burning thousands of these guardians of our health on the pretext of them practicing witchcraft, the Church of England still does not treat them as equals, when obviously in Pagan society they often held very high office. Yet we call this progress. I know I may come across as sceptical of Christianity, but let’s face it they’ve done a lot worse to us Pagan like individuals.

The reader may be forgiven for thinking I have drifted from my subject, but this is not the case. After all, the word Zen and the word Truth have a lot in common. I was recently reading an article by Sensei Yokota (8th dan) about placing our weight at the front of our feet and softening our knees, ankles and pelvis in a position of imbalance so that we are able to move instantly and not telegraph when moving forward. He particularly made reference to the first move of Bassai Dai. I thought it was a fantastic article. This is something I have taught to my higher grade students for some time. It is not something I was taught in Karate, however, but something I came to from the practice of Nei Gong, or in Chinese “Internal work”.

There is a stance in Nei Gong that is remarkably similar to our Yoi position. Or maybe it is more like an advanced form of Yoi. In this position as in Sensei Yokota’s description of how we should stand, again the legs are soft and our weight is in the front of our feet. This enables us to move instantly forward without any lag time. In Nei Gong it is used to draw earth energy up from the planet into our “tandem” via our meridian system. I know that if concepts such as these are new to you they can seem a little fanciful, but I think that this is the kind of information that Sensei Funakoshi was referring to when he said we should look backwards.

There may even be some Karateka that think this is irrelevant to our training. All I can say to them is wait until you are approaching old age. If you are serious about again as Sensei Funakoshi said “training is a lifelong pursuit” you will need an abundance of internal energy. If you study an Eastern Martial Art the subject of internal energy should be of major importance to you. We get our internal energy from our food, our environment (often called Heaven Energy) and our planet (often called Earth Energy). Our every stance was designed around this concept – Soft legs, relaxed ankle, knee and hip joints with a spine that is erect with each invertebrate spaced open. All these details are not only there to give the Karateka the correct structure for combat but are also there for the correct and efficient flow of internal energy.

If you stop to look at the development in our culture of Shotokan Karatedo, that is to say entering this country around 1960 headed by the then young Japanese Sensei’s such as Kanazawa and Enoeda they were then subsequently studied as an extremely aggressive and efficient sport come self defence system for over fifty years. Maybe in the last twenty of these years there has been an ever increasing interest and therefore knowledge of realistic analysis (Bunkai) of our Katas. This has in itself helped to develop many Karateka as Martial Artists.

This is why I think that these internal elements of our system are coming to the fore. They are the next stage in our development. I do not really believe I have even scratched the surface of this matter. I do know that from the humble beginnings of an angry young man that if truth was known, just wanted to look cool and have the ability to slap anyone that got in his way; I have through the study of the fist learned so many things that elude the vast majority of my fellow human beings.

In my very core the saying “Ken Zen Ichi” is understood implicitly, but I am a limited man and this written piece is as close to explaining it as I can get at present.

As the man said: “More training, grasshopper!”

Paul Mitchell holds a 5th dan in Shotokan Karate. He is a grade A teacher with the Tai chi union of Great Britain and is a leading instructor within Lotus Nei Gong Taoist Arts. He is also a qualified Qigong therapist.


Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 115  April 2013


I am I think a bit of an oddity in terms of a modern Martial Artist. As a young man growing up in Surrey I was not in the least bit interested in sports, although wrestling and boxing did hold my attention at times. The reason for my interest in our indigenous Martial Sports was probably due to the fact that my father was a keen boxer in his army days, and the area I lived in was renowned for its violent outbursts. My initial interests were mainly of an artistic nature i.e.drawing, painting  and sculpting, but I was never satisfied with these methods of self expression as I felt they were two dimensional and inanimate. So an almost unhealthy interest in violence, and a love of art led me to the Martial Arts. It seems to me that the vast majority of Karateka came from and have an interest in sport. As I stated before maybe this makes me a bit of an oddity.

I am a fairly long standing Karateka, but consider myself first and foremost a Martial Artist. It seems to me that to restrict ourselves to stylized labels is to restrict the artistic aspects of our training, as art should have no restrictions. I began my studies like many others, under the K.U.G.B with Sensei’s Ohta and Eneoda as my grading examiners. The training was fantastic for maybe fifteen years, but the lack of reality in terms of practical analysis of Shotokan Katas was debilitating in terms of developing me as a Martial Artist.

I can still remember the days when people actually doubted that there were practical self defence methods in our Katas, and I’m sure I am not alone in this. Several high graded Karateka went on record as saying that Katas are exercises rather like Tai Chi. As a practitioner of Tai Chi Chuan I would definitely disagree that it is just an exercise. Just like our Katas the Tai Chi forms have very efficient martial principals and methods woven into them. I am also sure that many readers will remember the first books by Sensei’s George Dillman, and then Vince Morris. These were for me a great leap forward as both these gentlemen applied the analysis of Kata against realistic attacks. Sensei Patrick Macarthy refers to these as H.A.V.S. or habitual acts of violence. That is to say the most likely way that one human or several humans may attack someone. It seems to me that to analyse our katas in any other way is by its very nature unrealistic.

Since passing my nidan grading this has been, along with the three Ks of Shotokan my main study for some twenty years or so. The irony for me was that when we attempt to apply “Kata Bunkai” to Karate Type attacks, they are at best contrived and often quite ridiculous. However if they are applied against swinging punches, headbutts, double handed weapons, (Originally swords, now more likely Baseball bats) groin kicks, grabs and even multiple attackers they are incredibly versatile and efficient.

Sensei Funakoshi’s admonishment that we should understand the meaning of the movements of our Katas or we are merely dancing is pivotal to my argument. Personally I don’t think that he meant we should have instilled in us (and subsequently instil in others) unrealistic interpretations. To my mind if we or our students were to find ourselves in some form of unavoidable altercation, I think our Karate should have equipped us with the knowledge and ability to get us out of harm’s way.

In my experience many Shotokan Karateka that train in a sport based version of our art are well aware that there is much lacking in their self defence arsenal, but the often monkey say monkey do mentality that is prevalent in many dojos prevents them from saying or doing anything about it. This in my opinion causes a real problem in many aspiring Martial Artist’s development. I think that most long standing Karateka will agree that as our training progresses through the years we move beyond just training our bodies (otherwise as Sensei Kanazawa said we should go down in Dans as we get older rather than up) and simply train our inner nature.

It is my experience that as we go “over the hill” in other words as our DNA Tail shortens what we need is a calm and confident Inner nature. Our training should assist us in this process, but if we have only studied the sport of Karate and the performance exercise of Kata how could we possibly claim that our training leads us anywhere that any other sporting activity would not?

If Karate is practiced solely as a sport then people like myself are long over the hill, thus we could potentially end up in the same position as Taekwondo with the older trainees becoming Judges as opposed to training. If we go back to Bunkai of our Katas and realistic interpretations of the most likely attack which is the main topic of this article, we find that the many movements in our Katas are to be applied in many different circumstances. This to me lies at the heart of the word Art in the term Martial Art.

Analysing our Katas is in my opinion part of the process of development of the Karateka and is not necessarily the finish of the process, but rather a stage along the way. The problem of once again seeing Shotokan Karate as a sport is that we view our opponent from a sports psychology angle, whereas any real attacker is far more likely to have the mindset of a psychotic. I am sure that many a Karateka has come unstuck in unavoidable physical encounters because they mistook these two ways of thinking as a result of their sport orientated training.

It seems to me that it is wise for Martial Artists to dissect the mind of the crazed aggressor not only to make and keep their training real, but also to attempt to rid their own mind of such negative and debilitating thought patterns. In this way their training has another method for them to attain greater wisdom and peace of mind. Sensei Gichin Funakoshi’s fourth guiding principle “First know yourself, then know others” links the trainees (our) mind to that of any potential attacker. The real opponent to our development is within us, or “We are our own worst enemy”. Having defeated our worst enemy (us) then beyond mishaps life for us and indeed our dependants will be a peaceful one.

In his book “The Art of Peace” the incredible Morihei Ueshiba wrote: “The art of Peace begins with you. Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of peace. Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow. You are here for no other purpose than to realise your inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment. Foster peace in your life and then apply the Art to all that you encounter.” Fantastic, eh?

I know Sensei Ueshiba was not a Karateka, but I do feel that Sensei Funakoshi would have wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiment of this brief passage. Especially as he did not really like the idea of styles and stated that there is just Martial Arts.

I suppose what I am really trying to say is that if we as Karateka want our training to take us to a deep and profound place as Sensei Funakoshi implied was possible, we must first train in a realistic manner. ie against the most likely attackers. I personally agree with the saying “How you train is how you fight.”

If we only ever defend against Karate type attacks we simply will not be able to deal with realistic violence. It seems to me that the ability to fight whilst not being the furthest goal of the Martial Artist is a necessary stage. Without this ability it seems to me than an individual will always be insecure.

Insecurity creates aggression so if we are to actually defeat our worst enemy by becoming our own best friend we must first bring him to a place of Peace and the only way that I can see to do that is to keep it real.


Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 113 October 2012

The Unfinished Symphony

 It has long been my opinion that our beloved art of Shotokan Karate is an unfinished symphony. For novices and children, Shotokan is undoubtedly among the better martial arts for teaching them physical structure and mental awareness. However, due to the nature of the human body and mind, as we age and move through the grades our training should progress in order to develop us as both people and martial artists. It seems to me common sense that to train a child and an adult in the same way is naive at best.

I am sure that all experienced karateka possess at least a rudimentary knowledge of Shotokan’s modern history. It was modified from its Okinawan roots as it was introduced into the education system and subsequently turned into a sport. I apologise if what I am writing is more than slightly damning of our present methods, but l can only say it as I see it. My thirty or so years of training have, I hope, helped to make me an honest person and I have always believed in being direct in my speech. I have been told I would not make it in the diplomatic service, which is possibly true. I was teaching a practical karate course recently when it struck me that the irony of our modern method of teaching older students in the same way as our junior members is that we teach them large expansive kicks that will eventually damage them, but in terms of karate’s kicking arsenal, due to their target areas these particular techniques are also the least damaging to any potential attacker. Talk about dumbing down our system.

It makes sense to me that instead of always performing Mae Geri [front kick] we should sometimes practice Kingeri [groin kick]. Many kata applications benefit from this small change and I don’t know about you, but I would feel happier about kicking my attacker in the groin than on their stomach muscle.

As for our side kicks both snapping and thrusting, I think that as we age and indeed teach adult beginners we should opt for a more Okinawan approach, and teach them at low level. In the case of Yoko Geri Keage this would mean knee and groin height, and the Kekomi version again at knee height. By teaching in this manner, we will help the older beginner instead of potentially damaging them and making their lives harder by teaching them Karate. The up side of this martially is that again, in real life encounters they are much more likely to stop an attacker in their tracks. I think that all I have written about our side kicks is also true about our Mawasha Geri [round kick] It looks good at head height, but who wants to be a good looking corpse? I know that this seems a bit extreme, but as Karateka should we really be fighting unless it is a life or death situation? I think not.

This kick works quite well at body height, but broken ribs do not always stop someone high on adrenaline or maybe drugged. At lower level, half way between the hip and knee joints one really good solid Mawasha Geri has the ability to drop the most determined aggressor and can be performed by anyone, regardless of age. Because of the nature of our sport orientated Shotokan Karate this method of kicking seems to have been virtually ignored. To my mind it is about time we brought all these methods into our martial art. As I stated at the start of this article, Shotokan is to me an unfinished symphony. It starts well with good solid basics and continues well with Kata of ever increasing complexity. It goes a long way toward teaching timing, distancing and courage as well as promoting community spirit. The time it takes to actually hone ones skills teaches a degree of integrity, but as its founder Gichin Funakoshi stated in his guiding principles “Karate is a life long pursuit”. I read an interview a few years ago with a very famous Japanese sensie whose name I will not mention as he may well have changed his opinion as he has aged. In this interview he was asked how he felt Karate should change as we get older. His reply was that it should not, and that the older karateka should just try to keep up. I don’t know if I am alone in thinking that this is incredibly patronising to people that try to live up to Sensei Funakoshi’s ideals and example.

It seems to me that to take on board Sensei Kanazawa’s ideas in a big way would be wise. That is to say when young and in the prime of life we should train very hard, as we pass middle age we should start to soften our movements and smooth out the edges, calm the mind, and in my opinion train in a more realistic manner. By realistic I mean stop concerning ourselves with such shallow activities as scoring a point and replace this notion with dealing with realistic attacks. For example, we should focus on swinging punches, groin kicks, head butts, and the like. Had Yoshitaka Funakoshi lived past middle age I feel that he would have finished his father’s work, but as he did not I think it is down to us to continue with its development. As Sensei Gichin Funakoshi once wrote: “In order to move forward we must look backwards.” This is how I feel we should progress our martial art into the future.

I again think that the way forward is to look back to Okinawa, to a time when Karate was more than a sport and was designed in such a way that it could indeed be a life long study. Taking Sensei Kanazawa’s lead I started training in Taiji Quan about twenty years ago. I originally thought I would just do a bit in order to supplement my karate, but I soon fell in love with this art as well. It is most certainly yin to Shotokan’s yang, so balances it beautifully. It is not necessary for people to take up Taiji in order to improve their karate, but if the older karateka sometimes performed their katas slowly, flowing without physical focus they can reap many of the benefits in terms of health and longevity of this Chinese martial art.

Let’s face it, as we age time and disease are our most likely attackers and will eventually kill us. Statistically young people are far more likely to find themselves the victim of physical attack by human beings than older people. I feel very strongly that our martial art should defend us against our most likely attackers. Ironically when one starts to soften ones movement they find that a punch of this nature can be far more penetrating than a hard muscular one. This to me is like the mind of a martial artist that no longer sees his martial art as violence or indeed self defence, but instead just sees it as training for his inner nature. Again ironically at this point his martial art becomes far more realistic. It flows like water, like nature, like a finished symphony.

Paul Mitchell holds a 5th dan in Shotokan karate, he is a grade A teacher with the Tai chi union of great Britain, he is also a senior teacher with Lotus Nei Gong daoist arts and is a qigong therapist.

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