This is by far one of the hardest questions I have ever been asked to answer at this point in my life. After about 9 years in training Karate-Do, just as I begin to think that I have trained for a relatively long time, I realize that in the future these 9 years will be only a small fraction of the training that I intend to do. It has been almost 9 years and I am only now realizing how little I know in comparison to what I still have to learn, because every answer to a question comes with two more questions. I do not think that I have yet to come across what Karate really means to me but I will try my best to explain what I have only begun to realize.
When asking what Karate means to a person who has barely studied the art, a typical answer would be that it is a sport for leisure or to maintain good physical condition. When asking this question to someone who has studied Karate for a long period of time, the answer will probably be different and more complex. The answer will be based on that persons experience from their training; therefore every Karate-ka’s answer to this question will be different. For the most part, however, asking this question to an “experienced Karate-ka”, for lack of better words, is similar to asking them what life means to them, because Karate has become a part of their life, something that one can not forget even if they stop training. Furthermore, the answer to this question is not constant, instead it is constantly changing with every new experience that the person has.
The meaning of Karate, in my opinion, has an exoteric and esoteric meaning. The exoteric meaning would be that which the average person can understand without having to study Karate at all. Over the years, Karate has helped me in many aspects of my life. Karate has been a teacher. Not of just basics and kata and how to defend yourself, but of virtues like open-mindedness, compassion, gratitude, and patience. These are lessons I can not forget. As a result of Karate, I find that I am ahead of most people my size and age in speed, strength, flexibility and stamina. Not only has it helped me by maintaining my body, but also my mind and spirit. It has helped me to develop courage, confidence, discipline, and character. All of these that I have gained through my training in Karate are extended to all other areas in my life including social, school, family, and work. If I try to picture myself without Karate it is like subtracting these qualities and virtues from my life and would create total chaos. Simply put, I would not have the discipline to study and do well in school, the confidence and courage to withstand peer-pressure, or the patience to drive within the speed limits.
The esoteric meaning would be the answer which is more complicated to explain. Many times in the 9 years of my training there were times when I thought I should just give it up, either I was getting bored and things were getting repetitive or I was feeling that I could not make anymore progress or there just was not enough time to do everything. But for some reason I just stuck with it, every time. Last year and in the past 4 months, those same feelings came over me almost every night. But still, I stuck with it not really knowing why, and the only explanation I could think of at the time was the want for black belt. Then slowly as time went on and the count on days shortened, as I endured pain and discomfort over and over, I began to realize that I can not just want black belt, I have to want to transform myself and become a black belt. Karate means always to go forward in life, never stay the same or to go backwards. Therefore I must forget the past and focus on becoming a better person now. I have to become a better person for myself, not for anyone else and not to prove anything to anyone. I also realize that once I grow from this experience that it is not an end point but merely the beginning of something new. Many people say that it is only when you become a black belt that the real journey begins. However, it is not getting the black belt that is most important, but the journey taken along the way.
Over the past year I have come to realize the importance of not going to the grading last September. I was upset that we did not get to go, but it was our fault. Proper preparation prevents poor performance. We did not properly prepare ourselves. However, it was a lesson well learnt. I realized that it did not matter that I did not get my black belt last year because even if I did, I would still be at the dojo training anyways. Thus, as aforementioned, it does not matter when I get my black belt, it matters when I’m ready to be a black belt because that’s what counts.
Large choices such as religion, vocation, marriage etc. are called commitments and these commitments shape our lives. Karate to me is a commitment and has forever changed my life in a way that is impossible to explain. The only way for someone to really get a grasp on what karate means to them is after multiple decades of training and even then it is hard to say that the answer will be revealed. In my Karate life I have learnt many things. One that stands out the most in my mind is that I see many of my friends play sport for the love and enjoyment of it; many take it quite seriously, looking to be the best they can be. However, I now know, that martial artists do not play it, they live it. Martial artists are shaped by the experiences they have, the sacrifices they are forced to make, and the things they learn and discover about their potential and limitations. The easiest way to summarize what karate means to me is that it is a way of life, the way of my life.