Sakiyama Sogen’s Last Letter
Shortly after I last saw him, Sakiyama Sogen, Roshi of Kozenji Zendo, Shuri, Okinawa communicated his understanding of karate to me. He was a direct karate student of Miyagi Chojun, and the Zen teacher of Nagamine Shoshin.
This is an excerpt from his letter to me:
“Dear Mr. Brooks,Today many karate students, particularly karate teachers, neither know the difference between karate and karate-do, nor do they try to discover the difference. This I regret very much.
“True karate-do can be learned only when we have realized the mysteries of our heart and mind, and realized the mysteries of our body with all our heart and mind and strength. Otherwise, karate will be nothing more than a little game, a way to show off. Ultimately it will degenerate into contests or street fighting. It is a shame.
“The essentials of karate-do can only be attained through profound practice. This means that in order to realize what is essential we must experience deep samadhi. I am sure you fully understand what I am trying to say. It is most important for us, and for the younger generations, that we cultivate our heart and mind.
“The final hurdle for us is to be free from the limitations of our own ego. The disease of modern people is that they are slaves to money, power, fame, etc. They are enslaved by their own egos, and are unaware of it. You will become a true master when you become aware of it, and become free of it. There is no easy way, but it is the most important task, one worth devoting one’s life to accomplishing. This is the central task for anyone trying to master a true martial art.
“As I am writing to you, I can vividly feel your sincerity and passion to pursue this and to master karate-do. ‘Do’ is an endless and severe way. Therefore, we must endlessly exert ourselves to attain it. How wonderful the ‘Do’ is!”
True Karate Dō
Sakiyama Roshi wrote another long letter to me after I visited him at his Zen temple in Shuri, Okinawa, near the towering stone walls of Shuri Jo, the castle of the old Ryukyuan Kingdom.
Earlier, I had written a brief essay, which I sent to him. In it I described what I believed to be the essential moral foundation and high spiritual aspiration which are necessary to fulfill the hidden potential of karate.
He has been an accomplished karate practitioner, steeped in the tradition’s culture and methods. The approach I suggested was different from any I had encountered. I hoped he would understand the implications of my message.
I was quite surprised to find that Sakiyama Roshi had translated my short essay into Japanese and circulated it, via the media and personally, among the karate community in Okinawa, and among his followers abroad.
The main part of the essay is a list of the “Six Perfections,” a traditional set of six paths of action to be taken by spiritual aspirants. My essay begins with brief presentation of our predicament, and suggests how dojo practice, along the lines of this approach, is relevant to resolving it.
In his Japanese translation Sakiyama Roshi named my essay “真の空手道”, True Karate Dō.
Sakiyama Roshi’s translation of my essay is above.
Here is my essay in the original:
Many people feel they are missing their lives, that real life is going on somewhere out there. To fix this feeling they seek excitement, diversion, power, money, contention, or sink into passivity, waiting for the weekend, waiting for their ship to come in, or for their fortunes to change.
But none of these strategies will relieve the deep feeling that something is missing. Family, work, friends, community are all parts of the picture. But one way to help remedy this feeling of disorientation and emptiness is dedication to a life of practice aimed at perfection.
The perfection we aim at in karate begins as a striving for perfection of technique. We focus our efforts on unifying our mind and body, bringing them under our control.
As we practice over weeks, months and years, our bodies grow stronger, more flexible, healthier. We overcome fear. Our minds become more focused. Our will becomes more resilient. Our emotions become more stable. We breathe more deeply. The flow of energy through our bodies becomes more harmonious.
Through relentless technical polishing we can manifest a deeper perfection. But our minds must be tuned toward it.Traditionally this is called “perfection of wisdom” and is practiced by means of six elements. We use these elements in practice.
GIVING. Giving means having an attitude of generosity toward others, not withholding anything from them: not our knowledge, not our energy, not our kindness. A generous person is someone who generates energy, not someone who looks outward to others to provide it.
MORALITY. The word “morality” may seem to have an antique ring; it may sound like something repressive and restrictive. In our practice it is liberating. By morality we mean not exploiting others, not taking advantage of them for money, power, sex, fame and so on. By respecting others, we create good conditions for practice, freeing ourselves and others from the distraction of disturbance and contention.
PATIENCE. This means patience in the active sense – the resilience required to continue to practice despite the obstacles we encounter. It is the willingness to persevere, to rededicate ourselves day to day, moment to moment, to practice. Patience means persisting without getting angry.
EFFORT. Being nice is not enough. Neither is being tough or talented or tricky. We have received a precious human life – a body, a mind, our talents. We can use them to benefit ourselves and others only if we do not neglect them, only if we make the most of them. Relentless effort is required to avoid becoming distracted by trivialities, to avoid the fickleness, complacency, egotism and rigidity which can thwart fruitful practice of our art.
MEDITATION. This does not only mean seated meditation. It is a recognition of the need for mindfulness in all the things we do, think and say. It is the practice of stability of mind, leading to concentration, a requisite for profound practice.
The sixth element is WISDOM. To dedicate one’s self to a practice aimed at perfection is an all-encompassing undertaking. This is the kind of life we can cultivate through karate. It offers us a way to live fully human lives.
By consistently aiming at technical mastery we move deeper and deeper. Our karate practice must be vigorous, practical and effective. But to stop there is to miss what is most valuable in our practice. Stopping there the real treasure of a karate life remains only a potentiality.
None of us need to stop short of the ultimate. We should just continue to train sincerely, every day. Success not measured externally, but achieved living a life dedicated to the practice of perfection.
Reading this again after all these years it is evident that this view set the course for all the work I have done in and out of the dojo, and which I can now relate…
This post is an excerpt from Jeff Brooks’ groundbreaking book True Karate Dō.
“True Karate Dō is a warning and a guide for every serious martial artist.
As a practical guide to in-depth combative investigation, training and tactics,
True Karate Dō carefully examines the relationship between Zen and martial arts. Drawing on Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, south Asian and early Indian Buddhist sources, Brooks makes a unique contribution to the martial artist’s understanding of the role of Zen in budo, its achievements, its assumptions and its limitations.
Brooks’ insight transcends sectarian concerns. With a unique synthesis of skill, scholarship and experience Brooks makes deep practice comprehensible and accessible.
In a context of combative excellence, and the development of a mature and virtuous way of life, Brooks places martial arts in its rightful role as a direct path to the highest ideals.”
True Karate Dō, Copyright © 2019-2023 Jeffrey Brooks, Instructor, Yamabayashi Ryu, Mountain Karate, Saluda, NC
山林流 Yamabayashi Ryu mountain forest stream book cover photo by Pine Watt