Nikolaj’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.

Osu,

Nikolaj, The Flying Dane

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. In the Dōjō-kun of (Shin)Kyokushin, 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 to gain a 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 the mind and simply letting go. Forcing things out of the mind deprives one of strength. The latter frees up one’s resources as though one 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. Too often we 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 determined, if not more, 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 vigorous 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. This I learned in Georgia.

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. This I learned by the sea.

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. 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.

23. All causes and conditions inevitably change and bring about the end of all enjoyment found in the outside world. The party you looked forward to 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. 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.

27. If the path of wisdom is not a happy one it is not a path of wisdom at all.

28. Every technique poses to us a question. Our execution is our answer. This I learned in Poland.

29. 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 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.

30. 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.

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

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

32. To grasp the essence of 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.

33. Simply learning the movements of kata is equivalent to only learning the sounds of the alphabet. One might be able to read aloud the most beautiful of poems and understand not a single word oneself. On the other hand, developing wisdom through kata, understanding applicability of kata in both daily life and in combat, as well as embodying 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.

34. 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?

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

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

37. Sensei Klaus Falk taught me to think of sitting in instead of standing in 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.

38. 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?

39. 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.

40.

Snowflakes falling
Determined to catch them all
I catch none.

Unshakable resolve. Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.

41. The power of forgiveness is the power to change another person’s destiny. This I learned in Bulgaria.

42. 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.

43. 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

44. 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 these close to your heart and never betray them for they are your dō.

45. To truly become an expert, you must always practice with the mind of a beginner. This is the wisdom of Shuryu Suzuki. This I learned in Sweden.

46. 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 kata for the universe. How is this not liberation?

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

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

49. 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.

50. The way of kata, kata no dō, is not a way to be systematized, organized or tamed. There should only be general principles for the individual to translate into their kata no dō. It is like a living kōan. This I learned in Belgium.

The Price of Peace. Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.

51. No part of life is left untouched by kata. It transcends mere movement confined to specific times and spaces. Understood with wisdom, all conditions outside the kata impact it. To get the kata in order, or more correctly “to be put in order by the kata”, is to get life in order.

52. To practice kata is to unconditionally accept that which currently is and at the same time find flaws and imperfections with it. It is with both the learnings from the past and hopes for the future to grasp the flow of life in the present moment and build a bridge between time and space. This is the way.

53. Mindlessly doing kata does not give you insight into the nature of kata in the same manner mindlessly breathing does not give you insight into your breath. You have to be investigative and mindful, inquire into that which is not easily grasped.

54. Find in friends what qualities you yourself do not possess. This I learned in Austria.

55. This is the way of karate: To sacrifice. To never and always feel satisfied.

56. I have little admiration for the act of producing a million mindless kata repetitions. This is sadly the practice of some karatekas in the pursuit of mere physical exercise. Importantly, I am not proposing to do less than a million repetitions. Instead, I dare to ask the impossible; to do a million repetitions with complete mindfulness and with mental cultivation as the primary goal.

57. Ethical practice must precede, permeate and be the final product of true and valuable karate. The physical part of karate done separately is nonsensical and dangerous to the community. The character of a karateka and their understanding of correct karate is not found in high kicks but in the ability to be of service to the community.

58. Sosai pointed out that karate has its roots in three disciplines; the technical aspect from China, the physical and disciplinary aspect from Japan, and lastly the spiritual path originating in India. I have found these distinctions to be vital in karate training. Nowadays, the art of kata is often reduced to mere technique and “following the book”, however, kata should first and foremost contain elements of physical austerity (the basics), and for the advanced practitioner the study of kata should also culminate in ethics.

59. Nothing transcends form as form.

60. The greatest fallacy one can easily succumb to is mistaking action for action and non-action for non-action.

Enter: The Kanku. Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.

61. Karate. Zen. I believe them to be exactly the same and not the same at all.

62. Home is not a place. Home is people. This I learned in Denmark.

63. I traveled 3,500 kilometers in order to seek out the place where I first felt an unshakable calm while doing kata. And there I felt nothing. No nostalgia. No spiritual homecoming. No comfort. I understand now how foolish and desperate my mind has been; for there is no calm anywhere I go except the calmness I bring with me. This I learned in Turkey.

64. On my home dōjō’s 50th anniversary, I had the honor of teaching alongside The Danish Kata Queen – Sensei Christina, three times European Champion in a row and my greatest inspiration throughout my kata journey. This was not only a technical kata experience for me but a deeply personal one. If anyone in Denmark knows how it feels to be in my shoes, a young European Champion (with all the pressure that follows) mostly preparing for tournaments by himself and doing a lot of organizational work for karate, it is her. She even became Shodan at 16, I as 17. No one has become Shodan my age since, and undoubtedly no one has at her age. Few understand how growing up in such a politicized, hierarchical environment both does your upbringing tons of good – but also some bad. The way Sensei carries herself, shoulders back and head high (not in arrogance, in confidence), the way she unapologetically fills any room with an aura of concentration and presence, as if everything outside her proximity is frozen in time until she demands of it to finally awaken from deep slumber… that I find inspiring – though ‘inspiring’ is such a poor word to describe the reality of it. Sensei, you can feel, has dived so deep into her karate-dō that she and it are one and the same, and when she speaks, she couldn’t care less if you approve of her utterances, because she is simply asserting her own existence then and there. Oh, I could go on forever. Meeting a Garyū, a real Sensei, surely should shake your innermost foundation. Sensei just reminded me why my blog is called The Way of a Garyū… Indeed, this is the way.

65. Some weeks ago in Switzerland, a young man came up to me and disclosed that reading my blog had forever changed the way he practiced kata. He told me that he would watch my performance closely and in his dōjō begin to study the way. This meeting reassured me that teaching the Dhamma through karate is indeed possible.

66. Yesterday, a car drove illegally in front of me, the driver froze. I only had a few meters to dodge her. – I slammed the brakes and ended in the grass. Walking out of my car, I was completely at peace. A woman stepped out and walked hesitantly towards me. She was crying from the shock. “I didn’t see you, I’m so sorry”. I hugged her and asked if she was okay. She nodded. I told her I was too. We parted our ways shortly hereafter. Only then did it dawn upon me that of all the emotions I could have felt, there was only compassion. This is karate.

67. A saying goes that when you are struck by success and status, you should be wary of the people who leave you the day you lose your success… Of course, it is important to inquire into the people who are there for you no matter your circumstances. Though, of more importance is to understand what there will be left of yourself. How much of who you believe yourself to be is founded on a wobbly fundament of transient power and prestige? How much of yourself can you truly count on in direst of conditions?

68. If you wish to move fiercely, lightly, and promptly in any direction it is crucial that your center of gravity is placed correctly in relation to your current stance. If not, you must waste time transferring body mass before you can move swiftly. In the same manner, an unbalanced life requires you to compensate before movement is possible. Live a life without compensation. Think deeply of this. This I learned in Japan.

69. “For people of power to feel powerful, they need to believe they are in control. And you can’t be controlled”. These words were addressed to me not long ago in Lithuania, and I believe them to have had profound impact on my understanding of my dō. As a matter of fact, I am still not sure what to make of them.

70. In the afternoon of yesterday, my grandmother’s brother passed away in an accident. When I was young, he taught me how to punch correctly, how to protect my head, how to put an opponent in a lock. Fourteen days ago, he uttered that he had regretted the way he had lived his life, his dō. When I saw his lifeless body in the hospital, I was once again reminded of the fate that awaits us all.

Travelling and doing kata. Made by Senpai Liv Helgesen.

71. One kata at a time. This I learned in Norway.

2024

This year, I have been selected for Sandan. I have agreed to do my utmost to pass, though at the same time I have grown weary of politics and fights for power. I long for dew on the grass in the morning, kata in all possible corners of the world, and the energy of connection. If I turn my back on these virtues, what Sandan will I have become? Additionally, I have removed all superfluous political opinions from my blog as they serve no purpose on my kata journey. Many of my political considerations are undoubtedly biased and some outright incorrect or judgmental. They testify only to the small story of Nikolaj, of which the world will gain nothing. I will only draw upon my personal story when I consider it fruitful for the purpose of the blog. What is truly important is the wisdom of kata. And this I will seek and share until I myself am nothing but long forgotten ashes.