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Refine What?

Some time ago, I wrote about Karate Refinement. Generally, the idea in Karate is not simply to learn more, but to refine one's movements and understanding.

However, I think it is important to state that refinement is appropriate when the student has become fairly advanced. During the beginning stages of learning (which last quite a long time), the student is continually learning, building up the curriculum of the style he is learning.

Karate is somewhat like a school system. Here in Hawaii, children might go to pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school, intermediate school, high school, undergraduate school, and graduate school. This might cover about 20 years of education.

It wouldn't make much sense for kindergarten students to be refining their A, B, C's. In elementary school, students are still learning the basics about many subjects. The same could be said about intermediate school and high school. Each year builds upon the last. Even in college, students are learning in a cumulative manner. It is only in graduate school, for many students, that refinement becomes possible, because it is only then the that students have learned enough -- reached a critical mass -- that truly creative and introspective work is appropriate.

Of course, no two people are the same and some people learn more quickly than others. Bu the point is that beginners are really not in a position to refine their knowledge.

So what about Karate? I do not award kyu ranks or belts, but using that terminology, a yellow belt is really not in a position to be refining his Karate. He is still learning the nuts and bolts.

Michaelangelo's David must have started as a block of marble. No amount of polishing would have turned that block into the David. First you have to sculpt.

I am bringing this up because the knowledge level of Karate instructors and students varies greatly. Some people have a deep curriculum and some have a shall0w curriculum. Forget about rank and titles -- concentrate on content. A low ranking black belt in one school might know more than a higher ranking black belt in another school. In such case, who should be refining his movements, the lower ranking black belt or the higher ranking black belt?

And what happened when Karate was introduced to the school system in Okinawa? That curriculum certainly was not the full Karate curriculum as it was specifically designed for children who would only study for a limited time. Then that form of Karate took on a life of its own and largely became the basis for the modern Karate curriculum. As Karate spread to Japan and other parts of the world, this reduced, simplified and generic curriculum became the norm.

I do not mean any disrespect. But if you compare the pre and post 1910 (or so) curriculum, you are largely comparing apples and oranges. Many Karate students who learn the "post" curriculum, spend a lifetime trying to fill in the gaps.

This is all relevant when we speak about refinement in Karate. We probably can agree that it does not make sense to refine a third grade education but we all probably have our own ideas about the stages of our own curricula.

My own experience from meeting many fine instructors over the years is that a Sensei who has refined a complete Karate curriculum does things easily that appear to be impossible. On the other hand, a student who has learned an incomplete curriculum, will always seem to struggle. If it works, it takes effort -- and you can see what he is doing.

So this is my way of saying that while we should refine our Karate, we should first make sure that have enough to work with. We must sculpt before we polish.


Charles C. Goodin