Senpai Nikos Blog: The Way of a Garyu

Before you read (!):

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 encouraged 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 in order to feed its own ego it resides in silence. Being a Garyu requires more mental discipline and kindheartedness than any other position. Having power but only using it for the good of others is far greater than ridding oneself of power and therefore 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 forgiven me and 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 thoughts and 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 ourselves 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. Better than having something to live for, is having something to die for.

4. 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. 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.

5. To think that there is anything that I own 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. 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. 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.

Walk of a 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 in to thinking that this mentality is what gives us strength, what 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 what we were given in the first place. 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. On my nidan examination: I still can’t fathom the fact that the grading is now part of the past. I’m so lucky and thankful to be right where I am, in a place of much love and support from so many people. As the Buddha said, ”When this is, that is. When this isn’t, that isn’t”. All things are connected, which is why this belt symbolizes much more than just one man’s journey towards Nidan. Every time I wear it from now on, I will be paying homage to my family, friends, senpais, senseis, shihans and fellow karatekas who made it all possible for me. After more than a year of waking up and dedicating myself to more or less just one thing, the grading, I’m having a hard time relaxing even now that it’s over. Gichin Funakoshi would have approved of this way of living, where everyday life and karate training are one and the same.

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

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

16.

And then mind and body culminated

leaving no trace of themselves.

All left was technique,

the essence of the Tao.

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

18. 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.

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

20. To truly grasp death and eternity, one must let go of life. Herein lies the way to deathlessness.

Enter: The Garyu. Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.

21.

This mind.

This body.

This poem

will one day

disappear.

22. Yesterday, I became the Danish National Champion in Kata (2021). Which is nice, of course. I, for once, felt like I performed the katas the way I intended them to be. Naturally though, I have a ton of corrections I want to make. Now, 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.

23. 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. Thank you. Seeing all the kids continuously being kind and helpful towards each other, cheering for one another, leaves me feeling hopeful and obligated to take care of others, myself and our shared surroundings.

24. 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 gifts in 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.

25. I have encountered many men who seem to operate by a new concept of masculinity, or maybe it is a new concept of success and nobleness altogether. These men have forsaken the duty to take care of their health, mental and physical, 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. This attitude must somehow satisfy a need of feeling in control, of being able to do what one wants through the use of money. However, this is a delusion. 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. Many of these men, too, talk proudly of themselves even though, from my experience, they cannot control their anger, are afraid of death and seek no true happiness deeper than materialism. This troubles me deeply. In a society this tendency should be questioned collectively. What is true strength? What is true nobility?

26. On becoming the European Vice-Champion in Kata (2022): I’m grateful to all the people who support me, trust me, and forgive me. I started my kata journey in 2019. The first time I competed in the European Championship was last year. Before that, I never really gave kata the priority in my life which it deserves. Two months ago, at a late-night talk about everything and nothing, one of my friends told me something which I have given much afterthought. “Kata did something good for you. It changed you”, he said. I think he’s right. Tournaments are one thing. Winning is great. But I want these experiences to come because I mature in the art of letting go, which is what I do in kata. When I practice kata, I forget myself. I forget school, relationships, deadlines, dreams, ups and downs, and slowly become the kata by embodying its rhythm and disappearing in it. What is left of me is simply “being”, the Tao. At all other times my mind runs wild, it always wants to “become”. I think this is how kata changed me. It relaxes the mind’s tendency to grasp at the next dopamine rush and simply lets it be in the present moment for once. The past months have been hard on me, many setbacks and heartbreaks in life that I have kept mostly to myself. But, surprisingly, I was at peace all throughout. I wake up and dedicate myself to karate, which is my way of giving back to the people who are always there for me, to a world which has given me so much to appreciate and love. Now, I must return my dojo, my home, and do what is asked of me.

27. The spiritual life can at times feel like a dry path. However, it need not be so. Yes, there is indispensable wisdom found in renunciation, the art of letting go in order to find a happiness which is deeper, subtler and more sustaining than simple sensual experiences. Letting go brings with it a freedom unknown to modern society. Nonetheless, I argue, sensual experiences can be enjoyed with a mindset of renunciation, with the knowledge that all phenomena are a product of causes and conditions and therefore not reliable refugees for one’s sustained happiness. That is, because the 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 kind 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. The skillful way to enjoy harmless (!) sensual phenomena is in the 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.

28. 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.

29. 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 the birds singing each morning. If you cannot bow, you cannot be true to yourself.

30. You must surrender yourself completely to a kata if you wish to ripe some of its wisdom. At times, it will ask you to endure many hours of training, frustration, even loneliness. It will ask of you to feel the Tao completely, to let go of yourself in each moment and dissolve in the kata, like a last breath on a deathbed. Performing kata in this way, with the utmost seriousness, will teach you how to release your ego, your unhealthy clinging to life and its illusory possessions. It will teach you to find freedom and live a happy life.

A farewell and a new beginning. Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.