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Sensei's Corner

April 2024

Most of us take for granted that the word “dojo” just means a place where we practice Karate. It is a Japanese word made up of two kanji characters, “doh” and “jyo”. The first kanji means the way, path, or road. The second one, a place or location. Combined together, it means a place of the way, or where we study the way. I like to take a closer look at the first kanji.

Those familiar with Chinese philosophy/spirituality know the term Tao,  pronounced “dao”, which is the Chinese equivalent of “doh”. This character is used in Japanese martial arts; for example: Aikido, the way of uniting the energy, Judo, the way of yielding, and Kendo, the way of the sword. Beyond martial arts, you have Japanese arts like Kado, the way of flower (flower arrangement); Shodo, the way of writing (calligraphy); and Chado, the way of tea (tea ceremony).

Whenever this “doh” kanji is applied to a Japanese art form, the overall purpose of the quest is the development of the self; as in character development, personal evolution, and service to others. An active engagement in the arduous training leads the practitioner to face hardship and challenges that get more difficult with each passing rank. By design these obstacles are meant to dare the individuals to look deeper, further and beyond what is merely on the surface. Through continual reflection and contemplation, it can lead to insights that further propel the practitioner to strive for better understanding. It is a process that never ends. 

The point is to observe oneself in the midst of the struggle to realize that the state of perfection lies in knowing that the pursuit of perfection is in itself the perfect state.

I witness this in our dojo where students are pushed to their physical, mental and emotional limits. It is never forced, but gently encouraged to take a chance to experience the limit of oneself. Certainly not for the weak of heart, and there is no easy way out; unless, of course, you decide to quit. 

- Toru Shimoji



March 2024

Beginner’s Mind

There is a sense of excitement to learning Karate when you first start training. Everything is a new experience with so many things to learn and so many areas to improve.  Your mind is completely absorbed in navigating new challenging body movements. Over time, however, you get to a certain level where you know how to execute the techniques and the humdrum attitude sets in. At this point, your growth can plateau since you view training as a monotonous repetition of ingrained patterns. It’s at this junction that you may start to find excuses to miss classes or even think about quitting. If this is the case, then how do you sustain motivation to continue with Karate?

The title phrase came from a book written by a Zen Buddhist priest, Shunryu Suzuki called, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”. It became popular with martial artists during the 80’s when I was coming up, since Zen philosophy and Japanese Budo are closely linked. 

Beginner’s Mind means to view, experience or think of something with a fresh mindset, no matter how familiar or routine it may be to you. It is to be present at all times, seeing something clearly for what it is, now. It’s no longer about learning something new, but going deeper into what you are already know superficially. You erase preconception and avoid the trap of mundanity. So how do you actually do this?

For example, a partner drill like “forearm touches” is easy to learn and get familiar with, and over time you can do this without much thought. Then the drill becomes a mere warm-up, like strolling in the park with your friend. So, instead of engaging in a conversation with your partner about the weather, sports or what you did over the weekend, you can instead go deep within yourself and perhaps ask: what happens when I move my shoulders in various positions, how does my breathing effect the hits, when do my hips engage during the cycle,  are there different ways I can connect my feet to the floor, what is the practical application to this movement, and so on and so forth. 

If the entire training is approached with this mindset, then each technique you perform becomes an experience new unto itself, regardless of familiarity. Presence, observation, and reflection naturally move you to fresh insights that offer the possibility to connect karate to other aspects of life. This is the essence of Budo. 

- Toru Shimoji

Red Belt.jpg


February 2024


A young student recently told me that he wanted to be a black belt someday. I responded to him by saying that it is a great goal to have, but asked why did he want to be a black belt? In his own way, he replied that it was the goal of any student to strive to become a black belt. I pressed on and asked what happens after one becomes a black belt? With uncertainty, he answered that you just simply stay a black belt. I told him that’s not really true. If you stop training, you go back to being a white belt. His eyes widened in disbelief. I continued and explained that some students will think that they are black belts even after quitting Karate, but they have lost that honor once they quit—at least in my eyes. I then told him about a boy who once trained at my dojo.

Years ago I had a young student whose goal was to attain a black belt before he graduated from high school. He trained very hard for several years, attained Kyu ranks at a steady rate and during his senior year passed the test under the late Nishiyama Sensei, who was the headmaster of our organization. This was quite a feat and I was proud of him. With his goal accomplished, he went off to college. Before leaving he stopped by the dojo to pick up his black belt that his father had special ordered for him. Sadly, I don’t think he ever wore that belt, for he never stepped back in the dojo again. For him it was like a diploma confirming the goal accomplished, he saw no reason to continue.

Having such a goal in and of itself is not bad. It gives students a point to aim for. However, the student gets misguided when it becomes the soul of the mission. Being a martial artist is a lifelong endeavor and attaining a black belt only earns you the key to enter the door. You now have the basic tools to start this journey. In addition, you also have the burden of becoming a role model for others. It is a serious responsibility.

Getting there is not the point. It’s not about when. It’s about learning how to be. Being conscious of who you are at the moment and how you can control the energy in-and-around you are the essence. With that, I bid you bon voyage!

-Toru Shimoji

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