Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, August 28, 2015

Give a man a fish...

The other day I was reading one of the few blogs that I find interesting on the Internet--very opinionated, but honest, obviously heartfelt, and written by a karate practitioner who trains seriously, with little interest in self-aggrandizement. I may not do it justice by trying to summarize the intent of the blog post--I'm sure I can't--but to me it bemoaned one of the seeming shortfalls in a society where everything seems to be at our finger tips, particularly information, that in turn has led to a culture of expectation and entitlement, and how this has all spilled over into the dojo, affecting how we learn karate and more importantly how we expect to be taught karate. In a word, according to this blog post, students of karate today expect their teachers to regularly "feed" them.

I think there's a lot to this. And yet it reminds me of something one of my senior students once said, jokingly, in response to a question she was asked by a junior student: "If you have to ask, you're not ready to learn." I say jokingly, because one might argue that this is precisely the moment when someone is ready to learn--when they are asking the right questions. When I'm teaching kata, I will frequently ask students if they have any questions. More often than not, they will say, "No, just have to do it more." To me, that's probably a very honest response; they don't know enough to know what questions to ask. Once the questioning starts, however, it seems to me that it's my job to "point the way." It's my job to at least explain the principles, to explain why one is being asked to move in a particular way, why one way is better than another way.

Mike Clarke sensei goes on to relate a wonderful little story that Miyazato sensei told him about two fighting birds he once owned. You can read the story for yourself--It's titled "Post 500..."--here: shinseidokandojo.blogspot.com/  You might also find it instructive to poke around in the archives of this blog a bit while you're there. Anyway, Miyazato sensei then makes the analogy to karate training, saying to the author, "If I give answer, you go home and forget; better you learn for yourself through training." Tough love.

But I wondered, as I read that: Are students likely to find the answers? Is that why the Internet is filled with so many outlandishly ridiculous and unrealistic examples of "bunkai"? Are all these people teaching themselves? What is the role of the teacher? Is Miyazato sensei implying that anyone can find the answers with enough training or that each individual's answers, though different, are all correct? Why do we have teachers if the extent of their instruction is to suggest that we find our own answers? Isn't the teacher there, in some sense, to shorten the journey, to share what they have discovered so that the student will surpass the teacher at some point? What would happen if I turned on my GPS and asked Siri for directions and she told me, "I'm sorry, but if I told you how to get there, you'd soon forget, you'd never learn how to read a map. Better to figure it out for yourself"?

Perhaps I'm overstating the case, finding fault where there is none just to make my own point. I'm sure the analogy is not meant to suggest that Miyazato sensei didn't teach or try to "point the way." But so often, I think, there is an implicit paradigm associated with learning in the karate dojo that suggests that one is not training hard enough if one has to ask questions. Do the kata 10,000 times and then you will understand, Grasshopper. Or, don't ask any questions until you have done the kata 10,000 times. But what's to prevent the charlatan from using this clever sort of cover for his own ignorance? A teacher is there to teach--to at least point the way--to explain the principles. If they don't know something, perhaps it's better to just say, "I don't know." If I give a man a fish, I may just whet his appetite for more. He may ask me how I got that fish, and I'll have to show him how you go about catching fish. He may end up being a better fisherman than me, but when asked, he'll say that I once gave him a fish and taught him how to fish.


  1. Hello, My teacher is Sensei Teruo Chinen. His teacher was Miyazato Sensei. Sensei Chinen seldom if ever answers questions, but he has developed a teaching method that I've not seen elsewhere. He creates a drill or exercise that causes the student to "experience" the answer. You own the answer from then on. Perhaps this is what Miyazato was trying to explain, and perhaps that is where Sensei Chinen learned this skill.

  2. Ed,
    Sorry to hear about the passing of your teacher. I once attended a seminar he gave in New Jersey many years ago. By all accounts, he was a respected teacher and a gentleman. My condolences.