Sunday 5 April 2020

Karate... A Way of Love

I wrote the following paper as part of my grading to Shodan (first level black belt) in March of 2017. In response to the question, "What does karate mean to me?" I chose to explore how my faith in Christ and my study of karate intersect. 

Karate - A Way of Love
Benjamin Harapiak - Student of Deo Namwira Sensei
Goju Karate St. Norbert / Karate for Christ North Kildonan Dojo
March 23, 2017

“International Meibukan Gojyu-ryu Karate-do Association (IMGKA) we are more likely to hug you than punch you.” - Sensei Kim Marshall, 6th Dan Renshi

As I have prepared for my Shodan grading, I have taken some time to look back on my karate journey. It all started somewhere in July 2012 when I met with Kelley Ewert, a member of our church family about a crazy idea he had. At the time he worked for a local Christian ministry organization and his coworker happened to run his own karate dojo in south end of Winnipeg. Our subsequent meeting with Sensei Deo Namwira seems like an eternity ago mainly because of the great friend he has become. Here was this Congolese man with a heavy accent sharing with me the peace emphasis of the sport of karate while trying to see if our church would be interested in joining with him in setting up a Christian based dojo.

There were a few things that stood out to me that made me incredibly passionate about the possibility of a karate ministry from the very beginning. One was the fact that it would be open to young and old. Another was the clear peacemaking foundation of this style of karate, Meibukan Gojyu-ryu. Finally, it was Deo Sensei's own clear passion for the sport as a Christ follower and for leading it as a ministry. After checking to see if this was something I could just go ahead with (and it pretty much was) I decided to dive right in and book some rooms in the church, put up a few posters, and give things a try. Here we were, a small group of guys between the ages of eight and forty-something in a room learning karate for the first time in sweat pants. By the third week we had our uniforms, and week by week our community grew. A father and daughter one week, a young couple the next, a wife, a daughter, a friend; and suddenly we had a very neat community coming together.

Our classes were chaotic at first with some of the young boys constantly jumping around doing their best impressions of karate kicks accompanied by loud “hiyaas,” but through Deo Sensei’s incredible patience and calm demeanor we began to learn that karate wasn’t about impressive displays of physical strength at all; but about patience, dedication, perseverance, and above all things, love. Deo Sensei would often share with our class that karate-ka are trained to avoid the fight at all cost, and that it was never about winning an inevitable fight, but of not losing.

“While many people think and believe that Karate is a "fighting art," Okinawan Karate has always been a “self defence art.” While some teachers in some parts of the world teach “how to fight,” we teach “how not to fight.” In case one is faced with an unavoidable fight others teach “how to win,” but we teach “how not to lose.”  - Master Meitatsu Yagi Sensei

I first met Sensei Kim Marshall soon after my grading to 6th Kyu as Matthew Schmidt and I attended a seminar at the Winnipeg dojo with Yagi Akihito Sensei. Any nerves I had walking into this unfamiliar dojo filled with blue, brown, and black belts were quickly assured by his warm handshake and kind welcome. Through the years our visits to his dojo and his visits to ours became more frequent, and the handshake was replaced by a warm and very strong embrace. While overseeing one of our gradings, Sensei Kim stated the following to our group. “Karate is about love.” He went on to explain that our training, honing the physical skills to stop the fight before it happens and protecting those in need of protecting, was an act of love even towards the aggressor by preventing them from hurting others or themselves. As a Christ follower and a vocational minister of His Gospel, I immediately resonated with this as I thought of Jesus’ words in the book of John.

“This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13 New Living Translation

As I have studied the origins of traditional Okinawan karate, I have been struck by the significance of the term “empty hand.” Genkai Nakama, a student of Goju-ryu founder Chojun Miyagi, stated the following about his Sensei. “I still remember his bright face, his sharp eyes, in which I found the true Karate Master’s love and kindness”** The empty hand is an act of kindness, as it can be extended in friendship and love just as much as it can be used to defend against an aggressor. It also signifies to me an act of humility. Once again I turn to the Christian scriptures and the teaching of the Apostle Paul. 

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Philippians 2:3

It has been my great privilege to train with Master Meitatsu Yagi Sensei and Akihito Sensei multiple times over my five years as a student of Meibukan Goju-ryu Karate-Do. They have demonstrated this humility this type of humility to us in very practical ways, from kindness in teaching, to the expression of genuine appreciation for hospitality shown during their visits. Master Meitatsu Yagi’s open door policy for visitors as expressed on the IMGKA website is itself another clear indication of this humility and kindness that we find in our system of karate, and I am thankful for that. I am also thankful beyond words for the friendship with and instruction from Senpai Etienne Leygue and Sensei Joan Elmhurst who have become an integral part of our dojo family in Sensei Deo’s absence pursuing his studies. Their patience and constant encouragement is a huge part of why I am where I am today. 

As a Christ follower, I consider life a journey. My most significant journey began the day that I chose to accept that I was fatally flawed, in need of forgiveness and of a Saviour. I follow with all my heart the following statement:

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me." John 14: 6, NLT 

The journey that began from that point has been a journey of love, doing my best to walk in the way of Jesus, and accepting that I can only do so by His guidance and grace. I am thankful that my journey in the study of karate has walked along the same path. I have been blessed by an incredible community of love and encouragement while striving to love others more and uphold a humble spirit. This community is of all ages, and of many backgrounds and creeds, and it has challenged me to not just preach love, but to do my best to practically live it out from day to day.

I opened this essay with a quote from the late Sensei Kim Marshall. It was taken from his Facebook account where he had posted a photo of an IMGKA t-shirt. A friend had commented asking if IMGKA meant “I’m gonna kick ***?” Sensei’s response was clear, loving, and spoke much of the budo philosophy of love. I miss him dearly.

Expressing our well wishes to Sensei Kim during his illness. Matt Schmidt, Senpai Etienne Leygue, Sensei Deo Namwira, Myself

** Bushi Chojun Miyagi: Originator of All Goju Karate Systems - Don Warrener, 2010 Rising Sun Productions, Location 324 Kindle Edition

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