Training at Sunset

As civilization sheds its skin, or drops its mask, our karate training is a treasure that we need to protect.

Unlock the door. Open the windows. People enter and bow. We create a zone of order and beauty. My teacher began the day by lighting a stick of incense in the alcove at the front and saying a few words. He did it that way every day for years. As do we.

Ancient people made their place in the world through pattern-maintaining ritual: rituals which synchronized their lives with the natural world – through rituals of birth and coming of age, marriage, death; fertility, planting and harvest.

Martial culture has a long tradition of ritual. In training. Before battle. In victory. On Okinawa today, the fertility ritual of the Tsunahiki is practiced as it has been for centuries.

(An example of Okinawan pattern-maintaining ritual: In the Naha Tsunahiki Great Tug of War fertility ritual surging crowds of tens of thousands pull the giant hand-made rope in pulsing, frenzied exertion, once one team wins all experience exhaustion and exaltation as the tension is released. This is photo of the male and female ropes, pinned together before the start.)

Beginning at the dawn of “the Axial Age” about 2,500 years ago, life was marked by shift in orientation from pattern-maintaining to pattern-transcending.

As diverse cultures – in China, India and the Middle East – achieved agricultural surpluses and built stable institutions, people recognized that many of the difficulties of life arise from what people do, not from fate. They made the most of that insight. They extended their vision beyond the joy and suffering of this world.

Photos of Sakiyama Sogen, Roshi, Zen teacher and accomplished karate practitioner. Right, at his temple in Shuri, Okinawa.
Zen arose through the pattern-transcending impulse.

In China, India, and the Middle East great discoveries were made in the inner sciences of the mind – in meditation and insight – seeking to go beyond harmony with the cycles of nature, to freedom from the limits of this life and this world.

The epochs of pattern-maintaining agricultural life and pattern-transcending urban and forest life were developmental stages in human history. They were responding to cultures focused on power. In those cultures the strong crushed the weak, turmoil was continual, servility and treachery were a way of life, and again and again the big guys got old, complacent and/or assassinated and were replaced by someone younger, stronger, more aggressive, more devious. In those cultures people lived in constant dread of violence: from nature, animals and people.

Human sacrifice – raids, massacres and as ritual – was in vogue around the world. It did not work well. It was replaced. The successes (and limitations) of agricultural pattern-maintaining religion gave way to the pattern-transcending religions of salvation and liberation. (Some people participated, some did not. Then as now, all three orientations lived side by side.)

The primitive religion of power, is now re-emerging as the dominant value system. From the street to the towers, gangs, cartels and tyrants are taking the lead. The time is right for them.   Now, people are disconnected from the natural world and the lives of neighbors; it is cusomary to allow one’s own pain and pleasure to dominate the landscape of life. In this condition people are easy to manipulate.

Now that encounters with the cycles of the natural world, with all its glories and perils, are kept at a safe distance, and contemplation of realms beyond this world is regarded as fantasy or speculation, ideas and feelings substitute for experience.  When lifelong relations with friends, family and neighbors are replaced by intermittent contact with remote, imaginary identities, people lose heart.

Under these conditions, pattern-maintaining seems unnecessary because we are not in the presence of meaningful patterns. Science explains the seasons. Sex is fun. Food fills stores and stomachs. What about it? And as for salvation or liberation – it is not needed, not comprehensible, too abstract, or too difficult.

Our range of experience devolves to an infantile “like/dislike” affect binary. And, also infantile, people come to feel that someone else is responsible to make things better for them; it is assumed that one’s own actions can have no meaningful effect. How could they? As a consumer? A voter? An identity?

So, it is natural for people’s orientation to devolve away from the pattern-transcending religions of the Axial Age, where each person is free to make their own choices, is responsible for their own choices, and experiences the effect of their own choices. That orientation gave people the power to transcend fate, and to live with dignity, honor and purpose. Of course it was dangerous and difficult as well as rewarding. Now, without that Axial Age orientation, what’s left? Rage, the quest for power, and desire become our cultural currency.

As karate practitioners we are not immune from the effects, but we need not join in with this decline.

As sunset deepens to darkness, we devote ourselves more deeply to training – in its pattern-maintaining and pattern-transcending modes:

The focused formality of the classes; the intelligent, living geometry of the kaat; the balance of challenge and collaboration between the members of the group, are pattern-maintaining aspects.

Mind training, grounded in the cultivation of moral and ethical behavior, grants us access to deep levels of calm, clarity and insight, is central to the pattern-transcending aspect of our training.

We can do this. By doing it as a group, we are drawn neither to juvenile helplessness, nor to the terror, rage and shame which are becoming the spirit of the new age.

Our self-defense advantage is obvious. We are better off strong, confident and skillful, no matter what the situation. We know we cannot delegate responsibility for our safety or the safety of our family to others. We cannot delegate responsibility for our health, strength, flexibility, clarity of mind, or our ability to act with skill, and to plan. We know it is up to us.

If we get it right, maybe we won’t become nano-chipped chimeras slouching to oblivion. Maybe the big smoking holes being planned for us will never come to be.

If we can preserve our purpose, strength and vision we will pass through the gates of the future whole and well. And we can plant seeds that will come to life as dawn breaks and spring returns.


Post by Jeffrey Brooks, Copyright © 2022 Jeffrey Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo

Naha Great Tug of War Festival photo by

Featured image sunset photo by Mikhail Nilov

1 Comment

  1. Jeff Moriber says:

    Dear Sensei Brooks,

    Your most recent post, as with all your previous posts, are rich with history, perspective, motivation, and knowing. Each is worthy of many reads and contemplation. A brief response from me could never do them justice. For the moment, please accept my sincere ARIGATO!

    Jeff Moriber

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