The Black Belt Way of Life

Richard Andrew King is the founder of the Karate Institute of America and the author of more than ten books, including The Black Belt Book of Life: Secrets of a Martial Arts Master. He spoke to People of Shambaha recently about Karate, spirituality, and how to apply the principles of martial arts to everyday life.

PoS: Perhaps first of all you could tell us why you founded the institute, and maybe tell us a little bit about Karate: how is it different from, say, Judo, or Kung fu, or T’ai Chi?

RAK: To address that last question, there are of course many styles of martial arts. Karate is a Japanese word. Kara means “open” and te means “hand,” so Karate is the art of empty hand combat.

There are three major styles in martial arts: hard style, medium style, and soft style. Hard styles come generally from Okinawa, Japan, and Korea. They deal with linear motion basically… These are styles that use a lot of bone to bone contact, a lot of stop and start motion. They’re very direct… Soft styles mostly come from Chinese systems. And they are not weak in the sense of being soft. They are indirect systems. They redirect energy as opposed to trying to stop energy. And then the medium style Karate is a blend of both of those.

I started studying martial arts in 1968. And I developed a system from what works. Whether its theory or a practical application, if something doesn’t have practical application I will get rid of it.

I also noticed in my work that many people only saw martial arts as a power in the flock – to beat people up – and I don’t believe in that at all. I think when we use martial arts to beat people up we’re really showing our weakness not our strength.

PoS: Isn’t there a teaching in Japanese martial arts to try to defeat the opponent mentally before it comes to physical confrontation — for example, with the Samurai, not drawing the sword?

RAK: My teachings to my black belts – and anybody coming up – is that the greatest fight that you will ever have is the fight you never have to fight. We learn to fight so that we don’t have to fight. If you can create an aura about yourself or the way your comport yourself or the way you speak to somebody who is going to assault you and dissuade them from attacking you, you have exercised your self-defensive skills to the maximum.

We really don’t want to engage if we don’t have to. I don’t believe that hurting other people is what it’s all about. I think that humility is the highest form of strength, and that arrogance is the highest form of weakness. When we work on just trying to destroy other people we’re working on the lowest level of martial arts. But in the highest level of martial arts we are working on the conquest of ourselves as individuals.

PoS: So, this is the concept of mastery, becoming a master, and self mastery?

RAK: I think so. I think it’s all about self-mastery. Even when we fight, for example, when you have an opponent you really have a challenge – it’s a problem. We have to ask how do I deal with this life problem here? And through that we learn courage, we learn to stand up and be accounted for, especially in this age where people are trying to absolve themselves of any responsibility. When you are up against an opponent it is totally your responsibility. That’s what I tell my people: if you get hit, it’s your fault. Your job is to defend yourself… But we learn all these wonderful skills: the concentration, the adaptability, the adjustability, we learn to think.

You’ve heard of Sun Tsu, of course, and the Art of War. His first statement is: “War is a grave concern of the state; it must be thoroughly studied.” And I love that phrase because he talks about not just studying martial arts, but thoroughly studying martial arts. And, it’s also about our ability to control ourselves, and when we can control ourselves we can control our adversaries: meaning anything in life, not just a person, but it could be an economic situation like we’re dealing with now, or a death in the family or anything like that. So we draw on martial arts skills for managing our life. I’ve always told my students – and I teach this in The Black Belt Book of Life – martial arts is life. There’s nothing that we do not learn in martial arts that we cannot apply on a day to day, moment to moment, basis in life in some form.

PoS: Yes, and what’s so interesting is that in the last ten years or so there seems to be a real dumbing down of the body – almost an intentional destruction of the body. I’ll give you an example, in Britain and America there have been schools that will no longer allow score-taking in competitive sports, so if you play basketball you just shoot hoops but there’s no score, or winners or losers or anything.

And, I think the Olympics are very impressive, and in its origin there were religious sacrifices for a day, so like Zen, it was very much involved with spirituality. But I couldn’t help noting with the opening ceremony this time that one of the scenes was of small children in hospital beds, and it seems to me that this would be the last sort of image that you would want to portray in the Olympics. Not just because it presents the body as weak, but because this does not represent overcoming of adversity.

RAK: And that’s what life is. I believe that too. I believe our culture worldwide is dumbing itself down. It has lost the sense of excellence. You cannot live a high life unless you have a high bar. And the bar has been lowered. In fact in my martial arts work I’ve seen that happening over the last two decades, where people do not want to spend five or six years working toward a black belt. If they can’t get it yesterday they don’t really want it. And they’re just concerned with the belt, not with the quality that comes through [training]. The process actually is the product.

It has concerned me greatly, and you and I are on the exact same wavelength in these things. This is our life. This is our responsibility. It’s no one else’s. The nice thing about competition is that it hones your spirit. To make everyone equal is foolish. It’s absurd. And, I see this absurdity spreading in our culture.

PoS: Obviously in the past people have believed in brotherhood, for example, where there is kind of equality, but that kind of equality is an equality of people, or a society, that have given themselves over to trying to improve themselves. And they consider themselves equal in a struggle for mastery, not just a sort of ‘we’re all equal no matter what we do or don’t do’.

RAK: Well, we’re all brothers, right? I mean there is a brotherhood. And one of the things I love about true martial artists, and those of us that have been around for decades, is that we understand that. You can work with somebody, and make them better. They make you better. But nobody says ‘I want o be just like you’.

I mean, who’s going to set the standard? Who’s going to climb to the peak? Somebody’s got to get up there, and that quality’s being lost, and that’s one of the reasons that I, like you, love the Olympics. Because of people who struggle. They overcome adversity. They show the strength of the human character and the will which people are being taught not to have.

PoS: It seems that no one really talks about the character any more, which is curious, because one would think that it’s fundamental.

RAK: It is absolutely fundamental. In fact if you read Saint Sawan Singh – who was a saint of the twentieth century – he said that character is the foundation upon which rises the spiritual edifice. The first essential step to a spiritual life is character. And people have changed that because our society doesn’t value character. They value money. They value sensations. But they don’t value the depth and the substance of their soul and their worth, really.

PoS: I think with Occupy Wall Street, for example, one of the good things was seeing people doing yoga and meditation, and in a way trying to incorporate mind and body into spirituality. But I do think you need a kind of Karate approach. Life is never going to be sitting around being peaceful. There are going to be those unfortunate events in ones life that you may have to be courageous about. You can get that in, say, Karate, but you’re never going to get that in a pure spiritual discipline, I think.

RAK: Great peace is achieved through great chaos. Now that may seem a conundrum, but you see it in people who study martial arts for a long time. When you become a good fighter you become very peaceful. And in fact, a true martial artist – if people didn’t know him – when he was in a crowd, they would never know it, because true martial artists don’t broadcast their egos, because there’s no ego in them.

PoS: Do you have any thoughts on how to become more courageous? I mean genuinely courageous, not arrogant.

RAK: Arrogance comes from a place of fear, doesn’t it? In fact in my competitive days the guys I worried most about were the guys who were relaxed, not the guys who would spew obscenities and all of that. Because, when people do that it’s because of an internal weakness. People who are calm and relaxed understand what’s going on. They understand the fighting environment. They understand angles, postures, rhythms, stances, weight distribution, timing, attack modes. All of that. But someone who’s scared will get upset…

Now, to answer your question on how to develop courage. You take it in small increments. You may, for example, have an issue with not standing up for yourself. So, at some point in day, you need to stand up and voice your opinion. And, if you’ve been afraid to do that, you will feel a sense of empowerment. And then you stand up again. Now, you don’t do it arrogantly. You just have to stand up and be polite and speak.

Let’s say you like to be physical. Another way you can increase your courage: Go out and maybe walk a quarter mile. And then you decide to walk and jog a quarter mile. And you keep pushing back the limits of your abilities, and build your confidence that way. So that maybe you can run two miles, and even if it hurts you keep going.

Another way: Say someone is into alcohol, but they want to change their life a little bit, and are wondering how to have the courage to do that. Well, what you do is say ‘tonight I’m not going to have a beer’, ‘I’m not going to have a glass of wine’, ‘I’m not going to have this’. And you stick to that. Now, tomorrow he might change his mind and have one, but tonight he’s not going to. And, so you stand up and you take control of your inner self, so these outer substances do not control you.

Pythagoras said ‘no man is free who cannot control himself’. We must learn to control ourselves if we’re going to be free. So by denying ourselves we create a little courage, and we go through that same process of pushing the wall back further and further.

My Karate tests have always been difficult, because my job has always been to take people to a point that they’ve never been before, physically, and then to take them one step further. It’s that one step further that creates the courage.

PoS: So do you think that courage is not an intellectual phenomenon? It is related in some way to the physical body, do you think?

RAK: What happens, in my experience, is that when people become too intellectual everything goes down hill. The world is not by the mind. We have a body. We have a spirit. And that spirit has to be exercised. Now, we have to have intellect to help us through life. But we have to have a balance between the body, the mind and the spirit. In fact, I always tell my fighters ‘I want you to be strong, smart, and tough’. The toughness comes from the will: the ability to say ‘okay, I’m not giving up at any stretch’. The mind is the intellectual part, and learning how to be strong is the physical part. So it all functions together. And, it’s all part of one whole.

You can find out more about The Karate Institute of America here. And you can also find out more about Richard King himself here. His book, The Black Belt Book of Life: Secrets of a Martial Arts Master is also available from here or, in Britain, from here.

See also:
Mishima: the aesthetics of action.
T’ai Chi: New World Consciousness.
US Army exploring meditation and yoga.