I Did it My Way!

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  • Post category:Philosophy

I wrote this post several years ago, but I think its still relevant and am reporting it.

More and more I come across individual teachers, usually young, who have opted to create their own style of Karate-do. The technical level and aesthetics of these new styles are usually quite low. The main reason for this is surprisingly simple – not enough time in training. “You can’t beat the clock!” as my friend Wade Chroninger would say in reference to Karate training.

These ‘masters’ have usually studied for a short amount of time (up to 5 years) or perhaps even a modest amount (up to 10 years), but not enough to have understood and internalized their studies (they’re essentially still in the shu (守) phase of shu-ha-ri(守破離)). But for some reason or another have decided they’ve learned enough. Maybe they felt they’ve learned all they can, maybe they couldn’t approach the standard of their dojo or teacher, maybe they moved away, or maybe they became impatient. Regardless, the bottom line is that their skill is still lacking, and because of these gaps in their training they may attempt to fill them in by studying or including other styles. At face value, this is the logical thing to do, but from a traditional point of view it flies in the face of propriety

There is a term in Japanese to describe this sort of behavior and it’s not limited to budo; ga-ryu. Let’s avoid a bit of confusion that this word, “ga-ryu,” might create. It’s not referring to the “lying dragon (臥龍)” kata called of the same name that was created by Kyokushinkai founder Oyama Masatatsu (Yong I-Choi; 1923-1994). That kata uses an entirely different set of kanji.

No, the “ga-ryu” that we’re discussing is made up of two different kanji. The first one is pronounced “ga” (我) when combined with other kanji, but is pronounced “ware” when used alone. It refers to yourself as in “I”, or “me.” The second kanji is read as “ryu” (流) when in kanji compounds and nagare(ru) by itself. It of course can mean stream, or flow, and is the same kanji used at the end of modern Karate-do styles (e.g. Goju-ryu, Uechi-ryu, Shorin-ryu). Combined together as “ga-ryu” these kanji mean a few different things, but the one that I want to focus in on can be found in most Japanese language dictionary (日本語大辞典): “a person’s own self-serving way or style” or as Sinatra Dai Sensei sang, “I did it my way!”

Now in the context of traditional Japanese and Okinawa budo, “going one’s own way” in the early stages of training is deeply frowned upon. “Ga-ryu” is used to describe not only a lack of technical training, but also to describe a divergence of technique from the style that is being studied. It also has pejorative connotations that the person has selfishly gone his own way and lacks understanding; as in making it up as he goes along. I distinctly remember a teacher in Japan telling me of an ex-student, “彼は完全に我流だ” – He’s totally doing his own thing!” Certainly not high praise from the teacher.

My advice to these teachers is to check your ego and honestly think twice before you decide to go it alone. You might think you’re ready, but maybe your teacher doesn’t think so. Then again, if you don’t care what your teacher thinks, then it doesn’t matter anyway.

Good training.