Niko’s Blog: The Way of a Garyu

Before you read (!):

I dedicate this blog to everyone I leave behind when death comes for me: My friends and family, my teachers, and my students, many of whom have supported me through the direst of situations. In here, you’ll always be able find me.

The name of the blog is “The Way of a Garyu”. I have chosen this title in honor of my teacher Shihan Jan Bülow, 7th Dan. In the Maha-Mangala Sutta, the Buddha encourages his followers “to honor those worthy of honor” so that we might learn from their wisdom (Sn 2.4).

To me, Shihan is the definition of a Garyu, a reclining dragon. A dragon is a most powerful creature, yet instead of showcasing its power to feed its own ego it resides in silence. Being a Garyu requires more mental discipline and kind-heartedness than any other position. Having power but only using it for the good of others is far greater than ridding oneself of power and subsequently being unable to use it for bad. Only when absolutely necessary and first when all diplomatic solutions have been exhausted does a Garyu spread its wings and spit fire. Shihan has always shown me how, despite being a leader, he himself works the hardest for the good of the community. Never have I heard him brag about his work, or demand anything because of it. He simply does it in silence, mostly unrecognized. Shihan always speaks respectfully, keeps his cool in pressing situations, and sees the nobility in others which they themselves have not dared look at. Shihan has always believed in me despite my many mistakes and flaws. Shihan has trusted to me many things and even when I have lost my way, acted out of stupidity, or lost patience, Shihan has shown me the way.

Most clearly, I remember a session in the dōjō where my mind ran wild, which it had for many months. I was about fourteen years old. That day we were practicing Pinan sono yon. Despite having an overview of all the students, Shihan slowly walked down the rows to face me. “Your mind is off”, he said, “I can feel it in your lack of focus”. Shihan was right. He, no one else for months, could see that my mind had been off because of the way I performed a kata. I think this is an example of Shihan’s innate wisdom as well as the power of kata to expose the quality of our minds.

Inspired by my teacher, I set forth on my own karate-dō.

Disclaimer: The views presented on this blog are mine. Therefore, I take responsibility for whatever critique they may be subject to. I hope you find the blog inspiring and that it will be a catalyst for further analysis of your own dō.

Seienchin and a sunset. Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.

1. Rhythm is the key to everything in life. When to attack, when to defend. When to follow the rules, when to break them. When to rest, when to push forward by all means. When to listen, when to talk. When to care, when to let go. When to follow the Tao, when to go against nature, the inevitable, the universe. When to keep living, when to find peace. When to keep rhythm, when to break it.

2. On many occasions, I have stressed the importance of rhythm both in karate and in life. Recently, I discovered a crucial aspect of which I have been oblivious: It is not always up to us to choose the most fitting rhythm according to our circumstances. Rather, sometimes we are forced into a rhythm by our circumstances. All we can do is embody it, listen to it, and be patient. And so, the universe has asked of me to change my rhythm. And so I will. So I will.

3. Kokoro means heart in Japanese. Not the physical heart of the body, but the spiritual heart often referred to in sentences such as “follow your heart”. Kokoro consists of four parts. The circle incapsulating the three inner parts can be seen in the same way as a closed Ensō, that is, perfection and the art of drawing it in a single brushstroke, unifying mind and body. The upper circle means Mind. The middle part is Skill or Technique. The last is Body. In order to perform true skill or technique, one has to unify mind and body in the present moment, necessarily forgetting the self and its ego, simply being the technique, a movement of the universe, a single stroke of a brush. If the mind refers to itself, i.e., “I am doing this technique”, one has failed to conquer the present moment in which life actually exists. In the Dōjō-kun of Shinkyokushin, we vow to rid ourselves of ego, to burn the self completely in every single technique, leaving no trace of a wandering mind and thus gaining Satori, the Japanese word for awakening much akin to Mushin. – The mind of no mind. A mind not obscured by agitation, thought-streams, anger, hesitation, greed, fear etc. Therefore, following one’s heart in the meaning of Kokoro is in essence to forget all about it.

4. To think that I own anything is a delusion which always culminates in suffering. I don’t own my belt. It is but cotton and because of an unstable social agreement that it bears any importance at all. I don’t own my friends or my family who, like me, will die. I don’t own my heart which at any moment could stop beating, and if it did, I would have no right to feel unjustly treated. I don’t even own these thoughts. They come and go quite on their own. I don’t choose what I like or what I want. I simply want and like. Instead of viewing myself as the owner of anything, I simply feel like a caretaking manager. The world gave me family, friends and the ability to do karate not to attach to them, but to take care of them until the void pulls us back.

5. I was never promised a single second in the universe, and yet I am given one now. This should make any warrior forget his sword and any monk blissed before entering nirvana. This experience, and nothing else. This experience, and in it everything else. What a miracle!

6. Doubt can hinder progress, but at the same time be a critical tool for always evolving. Control doubt, or it will control you. Think deeply of this.

7. Know that there are two dangers in life that are to be avoided. One is fleeing from hardships, struggle, and pain. The other is fleeing into the arms of pleasure. Avoid both these ways if your mind is to be balanced and untangled.

8. Know the difference between forcing things out of your mind and simply letting go. The first deprives you of strength and may only be used in certain situations and not for long. The latter frees up your strength as though you just lost something profoundly heavy.

9. When your world is at war make sure your home is a sanctuary. Having a place where we tend to ourselves is of utmost importance.

10. You don’t always need to have an opinion. Having an opinion for the sake of having an opinion is a waste of time and can be dangerous.

Enter the Garyu. Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.

11. In the west, or at least in Denmark, the liberal ideology of “every man is his own fortune” often leads us into asking ‘what the world can give us’. How much money, prestige or trophies can we take before we go? And if it is not enough, which it frankly almost always isn’t, we leave in bitterness. Or worse, live in bitterness. In karate too, this way of thinking has become prominent. I think we find ourselves too easily fooled into thinking that this mentality is what gives us strength, that it makes us get up in the morning and train our hearts out: To gain in some imaginary future. However, I’m opposing this view and proposing a new: To offer in the here and now. If instead we wake up and do our chores out of respect and gratitude towards the universe, we find ourselves more at peace. We practice just as hard, if not harder, but we never fail to reach our goal because our goal is not plastic trophies or status, our goal is simply to offer. To offer the world our time, our tending to its interior. The ability to alleviate suffering. To forgive. To create. To practice karate. To teach karate. To be thankful. To be kind. Results and trophies will come on their own and if they do… offer them to the universe as part of your dō. This is the way.

12. Art, and life as such, is often a mix of hard repetitive work with the aim of cultivating attentiveness to detail and automatization. However, without cognitive fluidity and experimentation the mind turns rigid, unable to adapt. Art is found in the balance between these two.

13. A dōjō without friendship and respect is but a building.

14. Reserve your highest respect for those who are primarily on a path to cultivate control over themselves instead of over others.

15.

And then mind and body culminated

leaving no trace of themselves.

All left was technique,

the essence of the Tao.

16. On ensō: The path of eternal, yet paradoxically momentary, freedom gained in the present moment of executing a technique.

17. My greatest ally will be my intention informed by right view, a view of compassion. Actions in the world might go wrong, however, with a pure intention I shall rest assured. I have nothing to fear. Intention is the very thing no one can steel form you. Keep it close. Keep it safe from defilements. Keep it in accordance with peace.

18. To practice karate is to serve others. To serve others is to practice karate. This is the essence of karate-dō. The ultimate goal.

19. The happiness gained from placing well at a tournament is a short-lived experience. The older I get, the more equanimity I gain in life, what becomes really important to me are the subtle miracles of daily life in the pursuit of a championship title. What use is a plastic metal trophy, if every day chasing after it is at the expense of enjoying the mundane things that actually make up life? Friendship, a beautiful sunset, kindness, practicing in the dōjō, a good joke, wholehearted laughter? What then would a trophy symbolize every time one looks at it? I love karate. I love practicing kata as a mindfulness-practice, intimately tuning in to my body and mind. I love dew on the grass in the morning. I love seeing my friends happy and pushing themselves in the dōjō. If it is all these things which lead to a national champion title, it suddenly transcends mere individual performance and becomes truly meaningful to me. That is my karate-dō, my understanding of the essence of true and lasting achievement.

20. On teaching children: As much as I can teach them, they always teach me the double amount back. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the mind of a child is the fact that it needs no particular reason to be happy and playful, it simply is. I have found my own mind to be looking for reasons to be happy, as if the mysteries and blessings of life itself are not enough.

Contentment from afar. Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.

21. On losing my beloved dog and best friend through ten years, Aslan: Seeing you grow old, change, and eventually die has reminded me of and given me direct experience with the impermanence of all phenomena. As the Buddha said in the Jara Sutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 48.41): “Even those who live to a hundred are headed — all — to an end in death, which spares no one, which tramples all.”. And so it was with you, Aslan, and so it shall be with me, with my family, with my friends. Writing these lines remind me of yet another great teacher, Ajahn Chah, who held up a glass and remarked: “This glass is already broken”. When you get a friend, you are also promised the eventual sorrow of losing them, they are, in some sense, already gone. Being there for you in your final moments, Aslan, not moving my eyes off you when your body suddenly turned lifeless has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. Seeing death in the eyes and remembering that all you were; happy, funny, naughty, loud, a good listener, cuddly, are all the things I must now let go of. They are the sadness I was promised. Even though all things are subject to decay, my memories of you and my love for you will be some of the last to escape my consciousness. The time I got with you is worth the sorrow by a tenfold. Sleep well, Aslan. Sleep well.

22. I have encountered many men who seem to operate by a new concept of success and nobleness. These men have forsaken their duty to take care of their mental and physical health in order to gain money. Why do men want to buy more when they can’t take care of what nature has given them in the first place? They work overtime to showcase their wealth and imagined power to the rest of society who, plainly speaking, don’t care. However, no amount of money can make you truly powerful or noble. Being powerful means being able to spread kindness even if you yourself suffer. Being noble means being able to control your anger and greed in the most distressing of situations. This troubles me deeply. In a society this tendency should be questioned collectively. What is true strength? What is true nobility?

23. All causes and conditions inevitably change and bring about the end of all enjoyment found in the outside world. The party you attend will end, the drink you love will run out, your favorite song will stop playing, the sunny weather will change, and even if the thing you enjoy itself has not disappeared, your brain’s dopamine level will find an equilibrium and you will not experience the same amount of joy anymore. These are all harmless sensual pleasures, but they cannot deliver other than momentary joy and they lure one into thinking that more is the answer. More partying, more music, more drinks. Think deeply of this and experience it for yourself. Lasting happiness, on the other hand, is found in good deeds, in creating merit for oneself and for others, and most importantly, in letting go when it is time to let go. Thus, the skillful way to enjoy harmless sensual phenomena should be in same manner one enjoys watching dangerous animals in a zoo: “Wow, this spider is amazing and beautiful, but if I cling to it and bring it home with me, I’ll eventually get bitten.” Bring this attitude with you. Look all you want, find temporary joy in the world, but know that you cannot take it with you.

24. From my younger years I have learned that it is of no value to be in all places at once. What matters is being in the right place many times.

25. Our bowing in the beginning and end of katas is not a matter of borrowed culture or formalities. It is more important than anything. It is bowing to the world, to the Tao, the emptiness out of which everything arises and ceases, to your dōjō, to your loved ones, to the birds singing each morning. If you cannot bow, you cannot be true to yourself.

26.

A weak leader brags about his skills and oppresses those weaker than himself.

A noble and truly strong leader encourages those around him.

27. In Chapter 8 of the Dhammapada, Ten Thousands, the Buddha proclaims that one day lived with mindfulness is better than a hundred years lived without mindfulness. In the same way, one kata practiced with mindfulness is better than a hundred katas practiced without mindfulness.

28. If the path of wisdom is not a joyful one it is not a path of wisdom at all.

29. Every technique poses to us a question. Our execution is our answer.

30. Many teachers have told me to tell a story when performing kata. I have given this teaching much thought, and in it lies an alluring pitfall. If you think of yourself as the writer and the kata as the pen at your disposal you will only be able to tell the story of your own ego. This story inevitably destroys your inner peace. Everything stands and falls on whether your desires are satisfied. Which, of course, they never truly are. No, in order to tap into the wisdom of kata, you must think of yourself as the pen, the hard training of mind and body you undergo as a way to keep you sharp and filled with ink, and the kata, the rhythm, as the true writer. If kata is performed like this, you will tell the story of the whole universe and feel the boundlessness that comes with letting go.

Out of emptiness: A Yantsu! Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.

31. If you wake up and sincerily ask the Sun how you might be able to shine for it today, instead of the other way around, not even death can stop you.

32. Kata must be practiced with the utmost seriousness, like having a gun to the head, yet must simultaneously be thought of as play and evoke emotions of joy and delight.

33. As karatekas, we often take pride in following Bushidō, the way of the warrior, the samurai. Our virtue is to never give up in order to strengthen our bodies and minds. However, in my opinion, a warrior who only seeks power to satisfy his ego is of no use. A true warrior, a samurai, is most importantly someone who uses his abilities in service of others. For this reason, samurai means “one who serves”. To grasp the essence of Budō and benefit from practicing karate, one must look deep within and ask oneself the most important question of all: How can I help? – Know this, and you will know yourself.