Like all boys, I was obsessed with martial arts for a portion of my early adolescent years. But unlike most boys of my generation, it was not Bruce Lee with whom I was taken. Sure, I’ll admit that the cat was a martial arts god. But to me, he was kind of like a machine – a fighting machine. (I mean no disrespect to Mr. Lee. Obviously, he was much more than what I just described. But that’s simply how I saw him when I was 10 or 11 years old.)
I was struck by a different man – a fictional character. I was obsessed with the 1970’s television show, Kung Fu, and its star character, Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine. I thought Caine was the epitome of what it means to be a man. And I especially loved those flashback scenes where the young Caine learned life lessons from the blind Master Po. (I used to make believe I was “Grasshopper” – Master Po’s nickname for the young Caine – and even as a young boy, I was thirsty for knowledge of what I thought to be the mysteries and secrets to a meaningful life.)
Now don’t get me wrong. Being a typical boy, I loved to watch the fight scenes. Caine was not to be messed with – he was lethal and smooth as silk at the same time! But, again, I was always most touched by those flashback scenes. I will never forget how I would feel watching them. I would soak up the words of Master Po like a young Buddhist monk with his guru.
Somehow I knew as a youngster that the martial arts were much more than self-defense strategies or contact sports. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I could see that the martial arts held deep psychological and spiritual meanings for practitioners. Martial artists seemed to gain so much wisdom, self-confidence, humility, and integrity from their practice. And I became thirsty for those traits. (That thirst resides within me to this day – and honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever reach the point of quenching it.)
And so I was intrigued and elated recently when I happened to run across Chris Mattison and Norcross Yoshukai Karate. Located in the Norcross Cultural Arts and Community Center, the group practices this Japanese form of karate founded by Grand Master Katsuoh Yamamoto, who lives in Japan. After retiring as an undefeated All Japan Karate Champion, he created Yoshukai Karate in 1961 and it became a recognized martial art form in 1963. This form of karate has been in the United States since 1969.
Yoshukai Karate “is recognized for extensive physical training, self-defense, self-control, and respect for oneself and others. . . . [S]tudents are noted for their perseverance, loyalty, dedication, respectful manners, and strong hearts.” (www.wykkonorcross.com)
I made arrangements to go to talk with Chris Mattison, Norcross’ Chief Instructor, and also to observe a class. On the evening of my visit, Mattison led a small group of dedicated practitioners. (I noticed two beginners – boys probably 8 or 9 years old – and was struck by their commitment and dedication during class, as well as the respect each showed Mattison.)
Mattison and another practitioner holding a black belt degree put on a physical combat type demonstration for me. While each one’s blows (using both hands and feet) probably inflicted some pain on the other, each seemed unfazed and maintained a high-energy bout the entire time. Clearly, to reach a high level of this art form, one must be in great physical condition.
The entire time I was present, I was impressed by each practitioner’s level of self-respect and respect of others. With students evenly divided between male and female, and with a mix of beginner to black belt, the same movements were practiced by all. There is obviously much to learn with Youshukai Karate, but each student tried each movement to the best of his or her ability and with an unbridled tenacity. There was no criticism by Mattison – only patient and consistent instruction.
So all my instincts all those years ago have turned out to be valid. And my visit to see a true form of martial arts revealed just what I had thought and hoped that it would. Yes, karate is physical, requiring a lot of raw strength and power. And yes, it places an emphasis on quick reflexes and prowess.
But more than these things, I noticed an intangible feeling in that hall that evening. I felt the energy of humility, true commitment, and earnest respect. And with each practitioner, I noticed something else, too. I noticed that, through the duration of the class, each one felt a genuine peace of mind and soul. And those are feelings that are only gained by doing something of value.
As a boy, I didn’t understand all of the lessons from Kung Fu’s Master Po. Just like Grasshopper, however, I knew that what was being taught was important. But I never studied the martial arts, and it wound up taking me decades to see that folks can attain true wisdom and a lasting peace.
While I still don’t know exactly why, I’ve come to learn that all practitioners of martial arts – and specifically Yoshukai Karate – have a jump on the rest of us when it comes to attaining some of the most valuable of human traits.