Christian Karate???
The Paragon of Hypocrisy?

I put the header above there as a question (Christian Karate???) because I don't presume
to have an answer for the question I want to put forth.  I merely wish to offer some
thoughts and observations on something that I have recently come into contact with that
is, for me at least, most troubling.  Not only do I not offer concrete answers, I am not even
sure what the question is - or questions are.
One thing I do know is that I have serious concerns about the way in which this
organization, or at least this one particular instructor in this organization, professes to
teach “Traditional Japanese Karate-Do” yet exercises complete disregard for the
traditions found in karate schools (Dojo) across the world.  I offer here, for anyone bored
enough to take the time to read it, my observations of this situation.
I want to say up front that this is not, in any way, an attack on anyone’s religious beliefs.  I
have the  utmost respect for anyone who has a belief system that they devoutly adhere
to.  To do so takes great discipline and commitment.  As I told the person who is the
subject of much of what I am about to write “There are a lot of things that ‘feel good’ that
you are not supposed to do if you are a religious person and it takes discipline to not do
those things.  I respect that.”  Unfortunately, this same person violated some of the other
things you are not supposed to do as a religious person, but I will not go into details
about that here.  Suffice it to say that this experience has solidified some of the beliefs
that I have long had when it comes to some of the shortcomings of many organized
religions, or at least in the way that adherents of said religions choose to selectively
apply the "enlightened wisdom" they profess to offer.
I also want to say that my consternation comes as a result of the instructor and his
teaching methods and of the positions espoused by his organization and not with any of
his students.  He is blessed to have an energetic, committed group of people who are
eager to learn what he has to offer.  I just feel he is doing them a disservice and
unfortunately, they don’t, for the most part, know it yet.
A final disclaimer before I dive into the heart of this matter.  I have met many
tremendously gifted martial artists during the time that I have been training.  Some have
been Buddhists, some have been agnostic, some have been devout Christians.  The point
of what I am writing here is not that a Christian cannot be a great martial artist or that
there should be any conflict whatsoever between a person's religion and the practice of
karate.  My point is that to re-write history to make it appear that karate is a Christian
contribution is a blatant lie.  Further, to have an inexperienced student teach a class when
a fully qualified instructor is available simply because the fully qualified instructor is not a
devout Christian is frankly very irresponsible (read more about this below).

Background:
I have studied the martial arts in one for or another since the 4th grade.  I have always
been fascinated by this endeavor and have found this pursuit to be very rewarding in
many ways.  It is a good form of physical exercise as well as a mental discipline.  Also, I
believe that there is much to be learned from the Eastern philosophies that are often
intertwined with them.  I say “philosophies” in the plural because there is no one
overriding belief system that can be associated with the martial arts.  To be sure there are
some that are more dominant in certain arts, Zen in Kendo for example, but most
often what I have seen is that the wisdom offered by multiple belief systems integrated
into the rules of etiquette of the dojo being used as guiding principles for the karateka
(practitioner of karate).  An example of this might be the Dojo Kun* or Gichin Funakoshi’s
20 Precepts of Karate-Do**.
Recently I have come into contact with something that, for several reasons, I find most
disturbing.  I will refrain from naming specific individuals or specifically naming the
organization in question so as to avoid embarrassing them, or giving its membership
reason to challenge my assertions directly.  This way they can avoid embarrassment by
simply saying “hmm, I wonder who he is talking about.”  Also, my issue is not with the
students of the organization, but rather with the organization itself and the
methods they employ for the propagation of their religious beliefs and their use of karate-
do, or at least something that resembles karate-do, toward that end.  The important thing,
to me at least, is that as is so often the case you can learn more from a bad example than
from a good one.  I have learned much from this example.  Also, I saw confirmation of
what I have so often experienced with organized religion:  Presumption, narrow-
mindedness, violations of the very principles that the religion is supposed to espouse, all
in the name of promoting said religion.

More Background:
Having taken a break from my training for far too long I was happy to find that there was a
karate class offered where I am stationed for a year in Iraq.  I have a year with nothing to
do but work, eat, sleep and workout and so I was especially excited to find out that the
karate class offered the same style of karate that I practice, Shotokan.
Unfortunately, the instructor was on vacation when I first tried to take part in the class and
there was a yellow belt teaching when I first went to it.  Karate, like the Army has its own
rank system and while I might consider lining up behind a yellow belt of another karate
style it is bad form to have a yellow belt of the same style teaching a class with a black
belt acting as the student.  Since I would never be so presumptuous as to assume I can
take over a class and I didn’t think it appropriate that I line up as a student there I decided
to wait until the instructor came back before trying to join the class.
While waiting for the instructor’s return I practiced on my own.  During this time I was
often approached by people asking if I was the karate teacher.  I explained that I was not
and told them how they could join the class and that I planned to do the same once the
teacher returned.  I was also frequently approached by students that were already in this
class asking for my assistance with the kata or basic techniques of Shotokan.  I was, of
course, more than happy to help and never dreamed this would later lead to a conflict
with the teacher.
Once the teacher returned I went to his office to meet him and explain that I wanted to
join his class.  We talked about my past training and about his organization, which is a
Christian organization with religion as a key part of their belief system.  While I am not a
practicing Christian I had no problem with being part of their class.  I was excited to be
training in a class again; I hoped to learn from this teacher and hoped that I could offer
something to the students as well.  As I would have expected, the teacher wanted to lay
down some ground rules since we were both black belts.  He wanted to make sure I didn’t
try to take over his class or correct him in front of his students.  I readily agreed to this and
acknowledged that it was his class, not mine, and assured him that if I saw things in his
class that I disagreed with I would either adjust to his ways or leave the class quietly but I
would not try to change his class to my ways.
Everything seemed OK at first but there some problems soon arose.  There were both
morning and evening classes but the teacher for whatever reason either chose not to, or
couldn’t, make time for the evening classes regularly and he left it to one of his students,
normally a yellow belt with a few months experience, to do the teaching.  To the credit of
these junior student/teachers I have to say they did a commendable job in light of their
lack of experience.  But no matter how well they did the fact remains that they were
beginners themselves and should not have been put into the position of teaching
something that they have not sufficiently mastered.  I thought this might be my chance to
contribute to the class.  I had the time to teach and with about 25 years experience in the
martial arts I don’t think I assume too much when I say that I am in a better position that a
yellow belt to teach a karate class.
To my surprise the instructor was not eager to accept my offer of help.  In fact, he was
adamantly opposed to the idea.  When I sent him an email asking if he was going to attend
the night class and mentioned that I would be there he told me the name of that night’s
instructor, someone I knew as one of his junior students.  When I wrote back to mention
that I was available to teach if he wished he told me that I could assist the “instructor” as
much as the instructor wished but because I am not a Christian then I could not teach.  I
was quite shocked.  When I asked for clarification and asked specifically if he expected
me to take instruction and direction from someone with two months experience in the
martial arts he sent me the following email:

What I would really like is for you to make a strong commitment to the
Lord and become a part of our organization!  I think you would be a
tremendous addition to us.  I would like you to start a chapter wherever you
wind up.  As far as teaching, I think you are great.  But, all of our
teachers must agree with our statement of faith which means you are a
Christian.  That is one of the reasons why I want to answer your questions
so you can believe with a sincere heart.  In the meantime, go ahead and be
as involved as the group leader wants you to be.  Hope to see you soon.
//name deleted//

And my reply to him:

Sir,

Respect your position and it is your organization but I think I will
have to stick to the classes that you are teaching.  I have over 25 years of
experience and 15 as a teacher so I think it best that I not go to a class
taught by a yellow belt.  It is somewhat like being a PhD in mathematics
being taught math by an 8th grader because the Mathematician is not a
Christian.  I appreciate the kind words and am glad that you think I have
something to offer but I have been very pleased with the instruction that I
have received from the JKA and will be staying with that organization.  I
will train with your class as long as I am welcome and I will defer to you
as the Sensei of the class but I cannot defer to a yellow belt in a karate
class no matter how devout a Christian he is.

I am enjoying the book and I will keep an open mind about your religious
beliefs, as I do for all beliefs but I have not found any proofs so far
beyond the acceptance of Christ based on "faith" not "proof".  Perhaps it is
a matter of semantics and what I consider faith you consider proof.  I was
not able to come by your office today but I will try to make it by tomorrow
and hope to see you in the gym in the morning.
         VR
         Tony

Even if I had an epiphany this moment that convinced me that I had wasted my misspent
youth as a heathen and should now dedicate my life to Christ I would still never join an
organization that would rather have someone with 2 months experience teach over
someone with 25 years experience.  The question I want this teacher to answer is this:  If
you needed an operation to save your life and your choices were an experienced
surgeon, who happened to be agnostic or a new student in medical school, who had been
there for two months but also happened to be a devout Christian, who would you chose to
operate on you?  I remind you that lying is a sin……

In spite of all this I continued to train with this group, as much out of my desire to help the
students as to have a place to train.  I can train on my own to greater effect that what was
occurring in this class.  I felt something of a duty to help out those who want to learn.  
Especially when you consider how truly blessed (forgive the religious tone of that
statement) in my martial arts training having either trained in the dojo of, or attended
seminars by many of the top instructors in the world.  I wanted to share some
of what had been shared with me.
During this time I saw many things that frustrated and bewildered me.  The instructor
often played very loud music during the class making it hard to hear his commands.  
Then, when the class failed to follow his instructions he yelled “PUSHUPS!!!” and had the
class pay for their inability to hear him over the loud music, which in my opinion has no
place in the dojo, but perhaps some would disagree with me on this.  Another thing that
often resulted in “PUSHUPS!!!” was when the students failed to properly execute a series
of techniques.  The problem here is that he never once demonstrated the techniques,
he simply said the name of multiple techniques and expected everyone to execute then
in exactly the same way.  The problem here, obvious to anyone with any degree of
training is that there are often multiple ways to execute the same technique or series of
techniques.  For example, if the instructor were to say “Age uke, gyaku tsuki, mae geri”
that means to me that from the ready position I take a step and execute a rising block at
the end of that step, then execute a reverse punch while in the same stance and then
step through with a front kick.  However, he sometimes expected the rising block to be
executed before taking the step forward and there was no way of knowing how he wanted
the class to execute this series.  
Another common excuse for “PUSHUPS!!!!” was when the students would do a series of
techniques moving forward and then backward but would not end in the same place they
started.  The problem was that the techniques he chose made it impossible to finish
where you started.  An example here would be the same series of techniques mentioned
before.  If you step forward to do an upper block (age uke) then do a reverse punch
(gyaku zuki) and then step through with a front kick (mae geri) then you have taken two
full steps forward.  If, however, you do the same techniques moving backwards you will
only be taking one step backwards in each series.  Think about it!  You step backward to
do the upper block, then the reverse punch then you kick with the rear leg and place it
back where it started.  This is only one step backwards.  In addition to this, if you do this
series moving forward you will block, punch and kick with the same hand or foot each
time.  When you do it going backwards you change sides each time you execute the
techniques.  If you do this 10 times moving forward and 10 times moving backwards you
will finish 5 steps forward of where you started.  In my opinion the teacher should to
“PUSHUPS!!!!” not the students.

One very important element was missing from this class that caused difficulty for many of
the students who came to me for guidance and that was a positive example of how to
execute the techniques and especially the kata.  During my first meeting with the
instructor he confessed to me that he couldn’t remember most of the kata and he asked
me if I could remember all of the Heian Kata.  I assured him that I could get through most
of the kata normally practiced in Shotokan and while I would probably have some
unwanted pauses in the more advanced of them I could get through what is often
considered the essential 15 or so of them pretty well.  As it turns out the way he taught
the kata to his class, from all I could tell, was to have one of his “advanced” students
(initially a yellow belt, later orange belts and now some blue belts) study a kata either
from a book or a video and then to share it with the class.  I never once saw him execute
a kata above Heian Shodan nor did I ever see him correct even the most glaring errors in
performance of the kata by his students.  This might not seem like a big
deal to the uninitiated but when I tried to tell one of his recently promoted orange belts
that the 4th movement in Heian Yondan (morote uchi uke) is executed from a kokutsu
dachi, or back stance, he “corrected me” and informed me that in the video it shows a
front stance.  I have the same video and it when we “rolled the tape” it showed him to be
mistaken.
Through all this I struggled with finding the right thing to do.  Was it right for me to try to
tolerate the class so that I could help some of his students?  After all, I had been
approached by probably 80 percent of them for help (and a considerable number of them
asking me to start my own class so they could come to it instead).  Would it be right for
me to simply walk away and leave him to his students?  This latter course of action is
what I decided on.  I met another JKA black belt and we decide to start our own “club”.  
We didn’t really look at it as a class as we were just a couple of black belts who wanted to
train together and if anyone else wanted to come along then the more the merrier.  As it
turns out two of the students from the other class did come to us for additional practice
and many others have expressed their intention of doing so.  This seemed like a good
solution.  I was being naive I suppose…
Below is a string of emails that resulted.  Let me preface these emails by freely admitting
that the long email where I became a bit “preachy” might have some minor errors on the
dates.  They might be dead on also but I wrote that from memory and I was a bit perturbed
at the time so I didn’t bother to research the reply, I just typed it and sent it.  I only went
into this type of detail about the history of the martial arts to express that that he is not
dealing with one of his junior students and I didn’t appreciate being talked down to about
my perceived lack of knowledge on the traditions of Shotokan.  Also, some
might indeed believe it is wrong for me to teach the students of others.  I disagree and
stand by that position.  I think that is between the other teacher and his students to decide
that.  In my class I teach by my rules, the way I have been taught them and I expected this
other teacher to display the same courtesy toward me as I had shown him.  Well, as he
said in one of his emails:  “Obviously our views concerning loyalty and respect are
different.”
Finally, in the below emails I am Tony.  I have deleted the other instructor’s name and the
full name of his organization so as to respect his privacy.  Also, the emails are included as
written, complete with spelling and grammatical errors.  My use of the word “Sir” in
addressing him is due not to my respect for him as a teacher, but because his military
rank is higher than mine.


Tony,  I hope things are going good for you.  There is something I
need to talk with you about.  I understand that some of my students
have come to you for help with kata, etc.  I would appreciate it if
you asked them if they had my permission first.  As you know it
is improper to become involved with another school's students
without the permision of that school's sensei.  I have no problem
with you teaching them but I don't want them in my school and
yours as well.  We do have different philosophies and some of
our techniques are different.  I wish you well.

Thanks,
//name deleted//
__________________________________

NOTE:  I somehow managed to lose the email that was here where I replied back to him
simply stating that I was not aware of any prohibition against students taking lessons from
more that one instructor at a time.  
__________________________________

As I said before all I ask is that you ask my students if
I have okayed them to go to another teacher.  I am surprized
that you don't understand that.  It is a custom that goes
back to the beginning of Shotokan.  

//name deleted//
NOTE:  I believe that his email (above) and mine (below) sufficiently demonstrate that this
instructor is lacking in the basic historical knowledge that one should expect from a
"sensei".
_____________________________________________________

Sir,

I understand what you are saying.  I just disagree with it
philosophically as well as historically.  I have studied not just the
techniques of karate-do but the history (of both Karate-do and its
precursors all the way back to Bodhidarma's teachings in the Shaolin
Temple in the Honan (Hunan) province of China in about 520A.D.) and philosophy
and it is a long standing tradition, that goes back to before the opening of
the Shotokan in Tokyo in 1939 (some records indicate 1936), to seek
instruction from more than one teacher.  Funakoshi Sensei did not train under only one
teacher but rather two main instructors (Yasutsuni Azato and Yasutsuni
"Ankoh" Itosu) and learned much from several others.  While the first of
these two instructors to Funakoshi were close friends and he was
introduced from one to the other Funakoshi never asked either of them if he could
then go and learn many of his kata from Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of Shito-Ryu

I personally have trained under Senseis Chees, VanMatre, Takashina,
Koyama, Mikami, Nishiyama, Okizaki, Yaguchi, Ochi and Kanazawa (among others)
and in 25 years of martial arts training I have never been asked if I have my
sensei's permission to train with them.  If anything I would argue that
Shotokan broke from the secretive practices of old and encouraged training
with different schools and instructors.

Sir, respectfully, I must say that I have observed things about your
class that I strongly disagree with but I have kept this to myself because
it is your class not mine.  I have not told your students that you are
wrong.  I have told them, on occasion, that I was trained to do things
differently but that in your school they are to do things your way, not my
way.  Frankly I almost fainted when you advised a white belt that the
proper course of action if he couldn't find a //name deleted// Christian
Karate school in his hometown was to open his own dojo.  Now this is a
major departure from proper karate training methodology.  But again I
said nothing because it is your class and I respect that.  I only point this
out now because you talked about my lack of understanding in the area
of Shotokan custom.

So again Sir if you want your students to adhere to certain rules that
you have it is up to you to enforce those rules and when I am training in
my class I must teach as my conscience dictates.  For me to send them for
permission makes me the bad guy (to send them away and refuse to teach
them would in fact be bad) and this is not a rule in my training so forgive me
Sir if I can't observe your rules outside of your class.  Ultimately
though I am sure there will be no issue once you announce your policy in your
class.  I seriously doubt that any of your students want to be ostracized
by coming to train with me after you have told them not to.  I am content to
train alone and attempt to perfect my technique so if your students do not
seek my guidance that is fine.  I only offer it to those who want it.  I
have not yet asked a single person to come train with me, they have sought
me out and they are welcome to come, or not come as they wish.

I wish you and your students the best and look forward to further
discussions of theology and the martial arts.

             VR
             Tony

_______________________________________________


I understand your perspective.  And as you say, we don't agree.  
It is true that I need to inform my students of our tradition and
my expectations.  Obviously our views concerning loyalty and
respect are different.  That is fine, like you say, you are not a
part of our organization.  I do wish you well in life.

//name deleted//

________________________________________________


Well, I must confess that he was right about our views concerning loyalty and respect are
quite different.  And I shall be eternally thankful for that.
This all caused me to wonder more about this whole “Christian Karate Organization” and
what they stand for.  What are their principles?  I often mentioned top instructors in the
world of Shotokan and normally got a blank look or an admission that this other instructor
had never heard of the people I mentioned.  This was much like an avid basketball fan
never having heard of Michael Jordan or Larry Byrd.  I wondered what their roots are.  
What are their beliefs in regard to karate-do and where did they learn karate.  I was also
curious about how, if at all, they addressed the strong influence of the Eastern
Philosophies on the martial arts and how they reconciled that with their Christian beliefs.  
Honestly, I probably would not have given it this much thought but since this guy was
trying hard to convert me, or “save” me I thought I would do some checking.
As it turns out their organization promulgates a sort of revisionist history of the origins of
Karate and of all the Asian martial arts.  Rather than giving any mention to the influences
of those such as Bodidharma, the founder of the Chan (Zen) sect of Buddhism, who is
widely considered to be a pivotal character in the early development of the martial arts,
this organization has a biblical explanation for the martial arts.  They assert that when
Adam and Eve first sinned and were sent out of the Garden of Eden they had to, for the
first time, protect themselves and this led to the development of the Martial Arts.  Further
it is the goal of this organization to “Reclaim the martial arts for Christ”.  Hmmm… Okay
then.  I give this about as much credibility as this instructor’s assertion that there is more
evidence that Jesus rose from the dead that there is that George Washington ever
existed***.  But that is another story altogether.
One final note:  I noticed after coming back from my recent R&R leave that he is teaching
his students kata that are far above their level of training.  Since I am not part of his class
or his organization I guess I have no vested interest in this.  It does bother me though to
know that the way the kata are being taught is so replete with errors that I question if what
he is now teaching can even be called “Shotokan” karate any longer.  I also wonder, since
he wishes to divest his karate of all reference to anything other than Christian origins and
ideals, if I should mention that the kata he was teaching his students this morning is one
of three that are named based on their connection with Buddhist temples!!  I guess there
is some small poetic irony in that.  

More to follow on this…. Maybe… Maybe not.......


NOTES:

*Dojo Kun
A set of 5 rules of etiquette that are observed in karate do, recited at the end of class in
most Shotokan dojos.  Evidently deemed unnecessary in this Christian association.

1.  Hitotsu, jinkaku kansei ni tsutumoru koto.
Seek perfection of character.

2.  Hitotsu, makoto no michi o momoru koto.  
Be faithful.

3.  Hitotsu, doryoku no seishin o yashinau koto.  
Endeavor to excel.

4.  Hitotsu, reigi o omonzuru koto.  
Respect others.

5.  Hitotsu, kekki no yu o imashimuru koto.  
Refrain from violent behavior.






**  Gichin Funakoshi's 20 precepts of karate-do.

1. Karate begins with courtesy and ends with courtesy.

2. There is no first attack in karate.

3. Karate is an aid to justice.

4. First control yourself before attempting to control others.

5. Spirit first, technique second.

6. Always be ready to release your mind.

7. Accidents arise from negligence.

8. Do not think that karate training is only in the dojo.

9. It will take your entire life to learn karate, there is no limit.

10. Put your everyday living into karate and you will find "Myo" (subtle secrets).

11. Karate is like boiling water. If you do not heat it constantly, it will cool.

12. Do not think that you have to win, think rather that you do not have to lose.

13. Victory depends on your ability to distinguish vulnerable points from invulnerable
ones.

14. The battle is according to how you move guarded and unguarded (move according to
your opponent).

15. Think of your hands and feet as swords.

16. When you leave home, think that you have numerous opponents waiting for you. It is
your behaviour that invites trouble from them .

17. Beginners must master low stance and posture, natural body positions are for the
advanced.

18. Practicing a kata is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another.

19. Do not forget to correctly apply: strength and weakness of power, stretching and
contraction of the body and slowness and speed of techniques.

20. Always think and devise ways to live the precepts every day.



***  "There is more evidence that Jesus rose from the dead than there is that
George Washington ever even existed."

OK.  I said above that "that is another story altogether" but I think I should put that into
context here at least.  During one of my meetings with this person in which he was trying
to convert, save, convince me that his religious beliefs were the ones around which I
should design my life he made the above assertion.
It was during the course of our conversation in which I was arguing that, while his
religious beliefs are fine and worthy of respect, religious faith is, as the name would
imply, a matter of faith and not something that can be proven scientifically.  If anyone
wants to offer a sound argument against this position I welcome it, but what he did was to
prove my point for me by demonstrating the willingness so many have to create new
"facts" to support their religious beliefs.  He asked me who the first president of the
United States was.  Not knowing where he was going with this I answered "George
Washington".  "How do you know that George Washington ever really existed?" he
asked.  My reply was that there is an overwhelming abundance of historical
documentation, from a variety of sources, that leads me to believe that George
Washington existed.
I answered in the way that I did because I thought his argument was going to be that since
I never actually him why do I believe he existed.  This is why I pointed out the
"overwhelming abundance of historical documentation" and why I pointed out that this
came from a variety of sources.  What I expected (because I thought this was an honest
debate...my mistake!) was for him to point out the overwhelming evidence of Jesus'
existence from the Bible.  Imagine my surprise when he asserted that there is more
historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead than there is that George Washington
ever even existed!!
I am not saying that Jesus did, or did not, rise from the dead.  But for him to look me in the
eye and to say that as if I am stupid and naive enough to buy this argument is very
insulting and I think it does a huge disservice to other, more responsible, Christians.