Spiritual Development of Individuality In Mind And Body
by Brian Berenbach, Shihan
One of the first things that new students learn on beginning the study of Shorinjiryu karate is the motto “Spiritual development of individuality in mind and body”. We find this motto in our advertising, on our web sites, and inscribed on plaques in the dojos. But if you ask practitioners what this means,you will typically get a different answer from each of them. One reason for so many viewpoints is that we are all one or more generations removed from the founder of our style, Kaiso Kori Masayoshi Hisataka, and, like any expression, the motto is open to interpretation in the absence of a formal definition. I think there is general consensus about the “mind and body” part; where I usually find disagreement is over the “individuality”.
Where is it possible to have individuality? There are many kinds of variation. For example, diffrent karateka may interpret a kata differently (bunkai) and this might consequently affect timing and the application of power and breathing.We have also seen great variation from style to style, and even between dojos in each style. But I think perhaps, that this begs the point Note the word “individuality”, that is, the individual. As one of the few students who have studied with Kaiso, Shihan Yam azaki, and Shinan Masayuki Hisataka, I may be able to shed some light on the original meaning of the motto.
To understand why Kaiso had this motto, we must first understand the environment in which he taught. In Japan, education of any kind tends to be formal and rigid.This is especially true in karate. Everyone kicks the same, punches the same, and does kata the same. For example, the official shotokan organization, The Japan Karate Association, has gone so far in its publications as to describe minutia in excruciating detail, e.g. “in a back stance 70% of the weight shall be on the back foot and 30% of the weight shall be on the front foot”, … “when executing gedan uke from a front stance the blocking arm shall be parallel to the forward thigh”, etc. So to invite any hint of individuality among students in Japan in the late 1940s was a real, daring break with tradition.
Today, of course, it would seem as normal as a cell phone, but to break with tradition in Japan was to invite ostracism and ridicule. Just how slight a variation from the norm in Japan can result in ridicule can be seen by reading the famous 1906 novel, Botchan, by Natsume Sōseki (aside: m any years ago my then Japanese girlfriend used to refer to me as “Botchan Brian”). In the novel Sōseki writes about his experiences teaching in a boarding school. The then young school teacher goes to a restaurant and orders Soba Tempura. He likes it so much he has the effrontery to order a second bowl.The next day when he teaches, all day long from the back of the room in the classroom and when he is leading the students during assembly he can hear the cry ”Soba” and “Soba Tempura!”.Apparently the entire school has learned, through the grapevine that he ordered two bowls instead of just one, and thus violated the norm and the rule of moderation.
So we can see that the principle of “Spiritual development of individuality in mind and body” was incredibly radical in Japanese society when introduced by Kaiso. What exactly did he mean? Did he mean that two dojos can have kata variations? No. Did he mean that two Shorinjiryu styles can punch differently? No. He meant that individual student in the same dojo at the same time can do things differently. For example, Yamazaki sensei was very short. When he did a punch out of turning form, he would use a side punch and deliver the technique while sailing thru the air (e.g his leading foot was still airborne when he made contact). Other, taller students would land on the front foot and then use the twisting of the hips to get power When kicking some students at the Hombu, located in the Shinjuku ward, would use lighter faster kicks that resemble a Shotokan snapping kick; others would use longer harder thrusting kicks. Similarly, there was a profusion of different techniques that nearly drove me crazy when I tried to copy from Yamazaki-Sensei or Hisataka-Sensei. I could go on describing the endless variations from student to student but I think you get the idea. After I had been driven to a near nervous breakdown by trying to copy a variety of techniques, I finally broke down and did the unthinkable: I asked my senseis why they punched and kicked differently (this was another Japanese taboo — asking questions).
The answer was astonishing in it’s simplicity. Kaiso understood that different physiognomy required different techniques and therefore not only allowed, but encouraged variations between student where they made sense. So back to today when I teach I try to explain some of the possible variations in stance, blocking, punching and kicking I encourage my student to try different approaches and then use the one that works for their body. Of course, it does take a certain level of achievement to recognize when one technique works better than another, but after reaching a certain level, it was Kaiso’s belief, and is mine, that in karate as in life, we have to adopt to what works best for us, and not blindly copy from our teachers. “Spiritual development of individuality in mind and body”, groundbreaking in karate in Japan in 1945, and just as valuable a philosophy for karate and life; today and tomorrow.