Author’s Note: This essay is one that I wrote in 2012 as a poetic way of expressing my philosophy on the development of karateka over time. It has been published on other websites, before, but they have since been taken down, and I thought it might be valuable to re-publish it on my own site.
Karate training can be very much like a pine tree in many ways, though the similarities may seem tenuous at first, and mentally forcing a somewhat abstract concept (such as karate training) to fit into the definition of a more tangible object (such as a tree) is a valuable philosophical exercise that makes us look at both from a different perspective and think deeply about how the things we do can reflect the things around us. Consider the pine tree—it starts as a seed dropped by another tree or planted by a person or animal, then it develops roots that form a solid foundation for it to grow from, and as it grows it branches out, far and wide at first and narrower as it continues to grow, and it can also be swayed or, in the blink of an eye, destroyed. This process and life cycle can easily be applied to karate training, but one must mold the intangible into something tangible to see the connection between the growing tree and the process of shu-ha-ri (obey-digress-separate).
No one who commits to martial arts training does so without having some spark of desire for it. The spark is the seed of our karate tree. Without it, the tree never begins to grow, and if it is neglected then it will wither and rot so that it never becomes a tree at all. Many martial artists begin their training to learn how to defend themselves, having had the seed planted by bullies or stories of people being victimized. Others begin their training to become healthier, having seen celebrities, fighters and friends who have physically benefited from their training. Still more begin in an attempt to emulate their idols–people like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris or, more recently, people like Lyoto Machida or Georges St. Pierre. Once the seed is planted, it must be fed and watered to make it grow. Knowledge is the food that it needs, and sweat is the water. Karate training will provide both.
When a person begins training in karate, they first begin to develop a basic set of skills upon which all of the techniques that they will later learn are built. Those skills are the roots of our karate tree. Those roots are constantly pulling knowledge from the soil that is the dojo, and will impact the karate tree for the rest of its existence. Even if that tree is transplanted from one dojo to another, or from one style to another, the roots are the same and all of the knowledge that they pull from the soil of that new dojo or style will be augmented by the roots as it is incorporated into the growing tree. This aspect of the tree is simple, but one of the most important—it is the part that is rarely seen, although we know it exists because it is present beneath every technique. Without developing roots the tree will fall, if it is able to grow at all. This stage of development begins the process of shu-ha-ri in karate—the shu (literally, “obey”) stage is a long period of time for a beginner, as it is the period of time when a karateka memorizes and copies karate exactly as they are taught in an attempt to achieve perfection.
As a karateka continues to train, the techniques that make up their roots become stronger and other techniques are built up on top of them. This process forms the trunk of our karate tree. It is a solid extension of the basics that a karateka learned while growing the roots of their karate tree, but this upward-reaching growth of a person’s core of karate is also beginning to develop its own distinguishing characteristics–a twist in the grain, a stray shoot, or a prominent root. As they develop their skills, they begin to understand that they can utilize them in different ways and there may be more methods and techniques that could be useful to them, if only they could reach them. As the trunk develops in this way and takes on its own character, a karateka is beginning the ha (literally, “digress”) stage of shu-ha-ri, which is stage in which a karateka begins to alter what they have been taught to make it fit their body, mind and spirit so that it reflects their character.
At a certain point, a karate practitioner’s desire to learn will grow as they have been growing, and they will likely wish to learn from places outside of their dojo or their style. These explorations form the boughs of our karate tree. Even as they continue to grow upward toward perfection of their karate they reach out to other sources of knowledge. In order to branch out, a karateka will begin to attend seminars, camps and classes to draw as much knowledge as they can back into the trunk that is their core art. The more a martial artist does this over time, however, they tend to branch out less and less as they develop their own focus–much like a pine tree that tapers from its wide lower branches to the top. This process is a continuation of the ha stage of shu-ha-ri, but it also leads to the ri (literally, “separate”) stage in which a karateka pursues the subjects most important to them and develops their own karate. This final stage of shu-ha-ri occurs at the top of the karate tree, after a karateka has grown for many, many years and learned what they have not learned so that they can learn it or develop it themselves. Mastery is evident in those who have reached this stage in their training and can find techniques where they had not been taught before and applied in a way they had not been applied before.
When a karateka has nurtured strong roots, grown a tall trunk with its own character and branched out far and wide, the karate tree matures. A tree never stops growing–it merely grows more and more slowly with the passage of time–and so, too, must our karate tree keep growing. It continues to grow taller to reach for the sun that is perfection, while also continuing to grow outward to acquire new knowledge. At some point during this process of growth, so long as they do not allow outside sources of influence and doubt to become a wind that can uproot their tree, a karateka has the opportunity to spread their art. We, as martial artists, can be a part of a karate tree as well as being the people who plant the seeds of new karate trees. Just as trees that stop dropping seeds will be the last of their kind, so will we be the last of our kind if we do not seek to instill the desire to learn in others.