Karate Thoughts Blog

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My mother was born and raised in Fukuoka, Japan before World War Two, and came from a former samurai family. My father was born and raised in Georgia and Florida. I am stating this to give you a little idea about my background concerning the subject of this post.

Japanese generally seek perfection... of character, or technique, or skill, of whatever they are doing. The folds in origami must be perfect. Flowers must be arranged with a perfect balance that looks natural. A geisha's clothing must be worn just right and, of course, the fabrics are exquisite. A sword must be perfectly sharp. Japanese cars are supposed to be perfect. It should not be surprising that each and every technique of Karate must also be... perfect.

When we arrive at the dojo, we line up our slippers in a perfectly neat line outside of the dojo. We ensure that the dojo is perfectly clean and arrange ourselves in perfect lines. We move in unison and each do the same movements with the kiai at the same points. We are striving for perfection in each and every thing that we do.

We can take this outside the dojo. At home, my family's slippers are neatly arranged by the front door of my house, all facing out in case we have to leave in an emergency. I have been working for years to eliminate every weed in my yard -- literally every single weed -- so that the yard will be perfect, with one and only one type of neatly manicured grass.

But... and here is the big but... no matter how many weeds I pick or poison, new ones grow. Do you know why? Remember, I have picked them all, down to the roots! It is because of the birds. We feed the birds and they bring us little gifts. The wind brings weeds. It is as if nature is conspiring against my pursuit of yard perfection.

And it is. Nature is against perfection because perfection is shallow and temporary at best. Neat slippers can become crooked. A white gi becomes stained. The most precious ceramic plate breaks. A beautiful Japanese screen gets ripped or falls off its mountings in an earthquake. A brand new Lexus gets dented.

Perfection fails. It is too stiff and unnatural.

People are not perfect. Trying to make them perfect is a mistake. It is like pounding the proverbial square peg into a round hole. What's wrong with being a square peg? Squares are good. Circles are good. It is good to have both.

Imagine two very high sensei performing a kata. The first one is Japanese. At some point during the kata, he makes an error. Ho does the wrong block or changes the sequence. How will he react? He is not perfect! He has let everyone down, particularly himself. It is time to cut open his stomach to atone for the shame of his error.

Now an Okinawan sensei makes the same mistake. How will he react? If he is old style, I suspect that he will just laugh. Sure he made a mistake, but mistakes are natural. One movement is as good as another. The sequences are not written in stone. Like all living things, they are subject to change. Change is good. Nothing is perfect.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that we should always try our best. But we should give ourselves -- and especially our children -- a little slack. That perfectly round stone in the stream is really not perfectly round. It is just smooth, and that is beautiful. Can you imagine if all the river stones were perfect spheres? It would be so boring. How much more so in our dojo. We do not want perfect students that are clones of some ideal. We want each student to be the best that he or she can be -- which in the end may be far better than what we thought was the ideal.

Let us celebrate square pegs.


Charles C. Goodin