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Humility & Ego

Sensei Pat Nakata often mentions to me that the essential aspect of Karate is not simply courtesy but rather humility. You do not bow your head out of politeness alone, but more so out of a sense of humility. See Like a Rice Plant, Proper Bowing, and False Courtesy.

That said, the martial arts has its fair share of egotistic people, and naturally, those with the biggest egos tend to have something to brag about (high rank, high titles, tournament successes, wealth, physical prowess, big organizations, thousands of students, etc.).

Please don't get me wrong. I am not saying that success in the martial arts makes a person egotistical. Most of the "high" sensei I have meet are also the most humble and unassuming. They generally ignore their own success and status, or treat them as trivial. They are the most down to earth people you could ever hope to meet.

However, there is a type of martial artist whose ego feeds upon success. Such people are literally the monsters of the martial arts, and their appetites for fame and recognition are insatiable. Their sentences often start with "I...."

I know that it is a cliche, but there is no "I" in Karate.

I cannot change other instructors and it is not my place to do so. Everyone has their own life to live. However, I am responsible first for myself and also for my students.

As an instructor, I must be very careful not to feed or encourage my students' egos. It is one thing to build up a student's confidence -- that is proper and necessary. It is another to stoke the student's ego.

The structure of the martial arts is part of the problem. If we emphasize promotions, the student will naturally feel proud and somewhat superior as he or she advances. I think that is why all of my sensei have downplayed the importance of rank. When I received my first black belt (in high school), my sensei literally tapped me over the head with it and said, "put this on." It was no big deal. I was happy, but there was no fanfare.

Of course, I have only trained in "non-commercial" dojo. Most of the ranks I received were without charge. This might have been different if my sensei were charging hundreds or thousands of dollars. I suspect they might have made a bigger deal about such a promotion.

In Hawaii, we would say that "it's no big deal." It is a big deal if you make it one.

I met a young man at a seminar. He mentioned to me that the proudest moment of his life was earning his shodan. As part of his test, he had to fight his way out of a circle of senior black belts.

Sounds a bit dramatic to me. I hope that the young man has other moments in his life that will surpass his promotion, such as the birth of a child, marriage, spending time with an elderly parent, helping the community during a disaster, serving ones country.

Karate tends to produce saints and devils (figuratively). It is our job as instructors to avoid producing the latter. You don't put out a fire by dousing it with gasoline.

And when it comes to rank, remember that the most senior people in Karate had no rank at all. Rank is a relatively modern invention.

The best way for us to instill humility in our students it to display it in our own actions.


Charles C. Goodin