Niko’s Blog: The Way of a Garyū

臥竜の道

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 Garyū”. 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 Garyū, 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 Garyū 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 Garyū 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. He has always believed in me despite my many mistakes and flaws. He 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.

2020-2021

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 dao, 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, the dao, 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 very well or not well”, 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, to leave no trace of our wandering minds, and to progress on the path of 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 dao pulls me 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 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 resources 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 Garyū. 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 to ask ‘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, our communities, 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 do good. Results and trophies will then 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 emptiness of the dao.

16. On Ensō: The path of eternal, yet paradoxically momentary, freedom gained in the present moment of executing a technique without any trace of the ego.

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 to your dō. 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 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. 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 true and lasting achievement.

20. On teaching children: As much as I can teach children, 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.

2022

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 lust 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. Even if the thing you enjoy has not disappeared, you yourself are subject to change. Your brain will find an equilibrium and will not be able to experience the same amount of joy anymore. These examples are all harmless sensual pleasures, but they cannot deliver other than momentary joy. However, they lure one into thinking that more is the answer: More partying, more music, more drinks. Think deeply of this and pay attention to 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 dao, 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 stays humble and 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 happy 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 a vessel, 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, the dao, 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 sincerely 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 happiness 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 own ego is of no use. A true warrior, a samurai, is most importantly someone who uses her abilities in the 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 the most fundamental question of all: How can I help? – Know this, and you will know yourself.

34. Learning just the movements of kata is equivalent to just learning the sounds of the alphabet. One might be able to read aloud the most beautiful of poems and to no knowledge of the listeners understand not a single word oneself. On the other hand, getting to know the meaning of kata, the applicability of kata in both daily life and in combat, as well as transform into the intentions and emotions of each kata, is equivalent to being deeply touched by the poem. To understand and take to heart each word. To have one’s view on life and death profoundly changed.

35. Rhythm in kata has many parallels to the rhythm of written language. Some techniques quickly proceed one another while others are separated by shorter pauses, commas, and yet others are separated by even longer pauses. You see?

36. If you wish to ripe the benefits of karate and kata but don’t regularly clean your room or complain at the slightest house chores then you are not ready.

37. Novices tend to think of the punch and the kick as being performed by the arm and the leg, respectively. Advanced practitioners understand that both the punch and the kick are performed by and originate in the entirety of the body. In reality, the only difference between a punch and a kick is the limb out of which the generated energy flows.

38. Sensei Klaus Falk taught me to think of sitting in instead of standing in my stances. Such a small and simple difference in understanding quickly becomes an ocean of grounding and balance. Like turning the minute axle on a wheel quickly becomes the movement of great circumferences.

39. Our educational institutions teach us to search for answers and to question them through means of rigorous analysis and collecting of evidence. Very rarely do we find ourselves questioning the questions themselves. I believe this has yielded detrimental consequences for the communities of which we are a part. We search endlessly for the right answers to the wrong questions. To create a peaceful community we must ensure that children familiarize themselves with questions of true importance: What is a good friend? What does it mean to be loyal? Why is ethical practice important? What in life seems truly meaningful when one is old and close to dying?

40. For training and especially important events, one should always be well-groomed and tidy to show courtesy, respect, and an appreciation for preparation. This is not to be confused with following certain standards of fashion.

Unshakable resolve. Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.

41. One who has made only one grave mistake is of innumerable greater use to his community than one who is yet to commit a mistake and one who has committed the same mistake twice. One who has committed a mistake as a consequence of thoughtlessness and foolishness but whose intention is that of good-will and compassion will never leave any future endeavor unchecked or allow a single lackadaisical moment to befall his mind ever again. And so, I am still of use to my teachers and my community. Any person should be content with just that.

42. This I have taken to heart from Tsunetomo Yamamoto: Before you can be of any use to your community, you must have a strong resolution to follow your dō in all affairs. Only then can you act accordingly without delay and regret. Being resolved beforehand is a matter of life and death. In Tsunetomo’s own words: Choose death.

43. All techniques should be performed powerfully enough to kill or to block deadly attacks. Sloppy techniques dull the mind, the spirit and the body. Practice dullness of mind and you shall soon break amidst the challenges of the world. Practice diligence and concentration and no problem will seem too grand.

44. Care only for what is fashionable and current politics to the extent that it serves a practical purpose. On your deathbed, what was fashionable is it no more and you will have run out of time to share with others that which is of true and lasting importance.

45.

Snowflakes falling

Determined to catch them all

I catch none.

46. The power of forgiveness is the power to change another person’s destiny.

47. When performing techniques, it is easy to forget the so-called “passive” side of the body, the side that to the untrained eye looks as though it is not attacking or blocking. However, the passive side is as important, if not more, in constituting effective techniques. This is also true in life. We are easily absorbed by the action and hustle of everyday life and neglect the nurture of that which keeps us motivated, sharp and able; friendships, sunsets, family, laughter, silence.

48. When performing kata we must let go of ideas of gain and loss, praise and blame, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute (The Eight Worldly Winds). This is true even at tournaments, even in the most important fights of our lives. When performing kata we should just perform kata. When winning we should just win. When losing we should just lose. There is no reason for the self to get involved for all it touches soon turns into suffering and despair. When we just do what is to be done, we do it as an expression of the universe in the same manner the sun shines and the wind blows. Life is no different. The illusion that we have come out of the universe as separate entities undermine our potential to express much more than our egos’ drive for gain and praise. Make kata an expression of this eternal truth, eradicate your small sense of self, and you will have already won freedom.

2023

49. Ask yourself this: When you are fifty or a hundred years old, or dead, and people are to hold a speech in your honor; which of your qualities would you want them to remember and emphasize? Keep them close to your heart and never betray them for they are your dō.

50. To truly become an expert, you must always practice with the mind of a beginner. This is the wisdom of Shuryu Suzuki.

The Price of Peace. Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.

51. Alan Watts has made me realize that there is no true distinction, ultimately speaking, between personhood, events and actions inside time and space. All come into existence through preceding causes and conditions, and all will have affected the arising of future phenomena. That is, all phenomena are subject to infinite regress and will leave infinite effects upon the future. Personhood, events and actions are thus like waves in the ocean. When did the wave truly begin? Would it not be possible to trace it back to the beginning of the universe, and trace that beginning back to yet another beginning? Humans are like this. We arise out of causes and conditions; we are given a name, we are born, we are conceived, our parents meet, they themselves are born, and so on. We may feel as separate entities that act upon the universe, but are we not just the universe acting upon itself, the moving around of energy? Contrary to philosophical arguments of annihilationism, this does not take away the personal nature of existence. It magnifies its magic. Through our individual lives we can connect with and express the universe, the ocean, as a whole. We are the universe telling the universe good morning, the universe drinking the universe in a cup of tea, the universe performing a kata for the universe. How is this not liberation?

52. It is like leaving to the ones you love a kingdom of happiness, the Buddha left us the Dhamma.

53. Listen closely to the voice inside you which feels uneasy when you act out of lust or anger. It will lead you to your dō and create merit through the law of Kamma. This is the way.

54. People who don’t know what they don’t know don’t know much.

55. In five or ten years, we will remember the days of struggle as being part of the good times.

56. There are those, even masters, who think karate-dō is ultimately about fighting. I believe these people to be deeply misguided. In my view, the fighting found in karate is a means to an end, a tool for the creation of discipline and mental strength in the community as a whole. Firstly, if fighting was the core teaching of karate, it would only generate useless warriors since there are a million other more effective ways for causing harm to an opponent; more modern fighting systems and the use of weapons, to name a few. Secondly, assuming the point of karate is to fight, as an art it would be purposeless to society and irresponsibly result in more collective suffering. On the contrary, karate should teach its students how to heroically walk the path of peace even with enemies. Uprooting the causes behind conflict is no easy task, it requires mental strength and stability, strong conviction, discipline, and courage. Through fighting in the dōjō we cultivate these qualities after which we forget all about fighting and stand firmly on the side of peace.