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The Un-Organization

Originally published on the Kobushi Journal, vol. 7, #7 - November-December, 1997

by George Parulski 

I recently received a letter from a martial artist asking if there were any affiliated schools in his area. Affiliated? Affiliated with what? Although I seem to remember using that word in some of my books and other writings, perhaps it was misunderstood, or maybe I didn’t make myself clear enough.


Actually, what we – by “we” I mean a significant majority traditional martial artists – have here is something which we call our un-organization. By that I mean that there is no organizational charter, on ID cards, and no rules. So, how do you join our un-organization? Simple, you just get recognized as one of our kind of people and you are automatically a member. Or should I say un-member?


And, you ask, “Just how do I become one of your type of people?” It’s pretty simple: Here are some essential elements of our philosophy:


  • It is better to penetrate to the heart of one art than to scratch the surface of a dozen.

  • When teaching, teach what a student needs to learn, and don’t be influenced by what he wants to learn.

  • When studying, always assume that your teacher knows more about you (and what you should be practicing) than you do.

  • Everything, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is important.

  • You only have the rest of your life to master this art, and that is never long enough. A master, especially if he refers to himself in that manner, isn’t.

  • Such temporary fads as kung-fu, jeet kune do, and ninjutsu, are just that: fads. And as such, they should generate no interest among serious students. (Polite sympathy is permissible.)

  • If you are very talented, it will take 10 years to figure out what you should be doing, 20 years to occasionally do it right, and 30 years to really start to understand it.

  • Rank is something to strive for and then, once attained, forgotten.

  • Standing in front of a mirror and watching yourself while going through your white-belt techniques, noting the conditions of every single muscle in your body, one at a time, is a really fun way to spend an afternoon.

  • Shouting “Onegaishimas!” should give you a warm and fuzzy feeling.

  • Come to realize that you feel closer to your dojo mates than you do to your blood relatives.

  • When you first put on your keiko-gi, after a couple of weeks away from the dojo, you shouldn’t be able to stop yourself from grinning and giving a little wriggle of pure physical pleasure.

  • The purpose of a dojo is not to teach you new things; it is to destroy the you, and then build something wonderful from the scraps.

  • A senior budôka who thinks putting down on a white belt, getting his forehead down on the mat, and saying “Os!”, to be beneath his dignity, is neither truly senior nor is he a budôka.

  • When on the mat, even if your sensei hits you with a stick a lot, you shouldn’t be able to keep yourself from occasionally giggling with enjoyment.

  • Tolerate no disrespect toward your seniors. Neither require nor desire signs of respect towards yourself.

  • When your sempai hits you with a stick for bowing to him too much, bow deeply and shout “Dom’ Arigato-gozaimas, Sempai!”. Also, make sure you know the difference between showing respect and being obnoxiously annoying.

  • Try as hard as you can, and you still shouldn’t be able to imagine what it would be like to stop studying.

  • Approach your training, and live your life, in a disciplined and military manner.

  • Ego is the enemy. Kill it! Kill it!

  • Doing something different is easy. The real challenge is doing what everyone else is doing, but doing it infinitely better than they ever dreamed possible.

  • Learning a new technique well enough to do it with power, speed, proper form, and without thinking, is a good beginning. But that is all it is: a beginning.

  • Accept the fact as gospel that, although your sensei may not always be right, he will never be wrong. If you don’t believe this, you don’t really have a sensei.

  • There is no best martial art… unless it happens to be the one you practice. Other people feel the same, so their ryû should receive the same respect.

  • Fear, power, excitement, exhaustion. These are all things you experience in the dojo. Strive for joy!

  • No matter how senior you may be, never think of yourself as anything more than a student of an art. There is no end in learning.

  • When someone points at the moon, don’t look at the finger, you dummy!

  • From time to time during training, you should experience moments of stark terror. It really focuses the spirit.

  • Anyone who can explain, in great detail, exactly what his art is all about, doesn’t know what his art is all about.

  • Contrary to Shakespeare’s advice, a budôka should always seek the company of those who have a lean and hungry look.

  • A sensei doesn’t own his students; they own him. In other words, if a student truly understands the system, when he bows to his sensei he will do so with a feeling of gentle pity.

  • No pain, no gain. Too much pain, no gain.

  • When a visitor enters a proper dojo, even when no one else is present, he should instinctively become very, very quiet. If he just stands there, afraid to move, that is even better.

  • Any senior who enjoys his seniority is on the wrong path. As the saying goes: Death is lighter than a feather; Giri [duty] is heavier than a mountain. You will not really understand this until you become a senior.

  • The correct order of importance is: The ryû, the dojo, the sensei, the students. Elements of this system are treated accordingly.

  • A proper dojo isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind. The essence of it all is to acquire this state of mind, and then contribute to it.

  • A senior must never injure a senior. Scaring them, however, is both permissible and encouraged.

  • Knowing a lot is good. Doing a lot is better. Being a lot is best.

  • Where you are on the ladder (of rank) doesn’t matter. Climb! Climb!

  • Harsh discipline, a rigid pecking order, and formal reishiki [etiquette] are actually a lot of fun, once you get used to them.

  • To master your art, you must first love it and cherish it with all your heart. Casual emotions create casual relationships.

  • The rules applied when performing a formal kata during a major public demonstration should also be applied to daily life. Exactly!

  • The Prime Directive of a proper dojo: “Suit up, Line up, Shut up.”

  • Good enough is never good enough.

  • A proper dojo is a cross between a religious shrine and a factory: It should generate physical exhaustion and spiritual adoration.

  • How good you are, compared to someone else, is unimportant; The key point is, how good are you when compared to what you could be?

  • In the beginning, a person doing a technique; In the middle, a technician; In the end, only technique.


And then, the ultimate…

  • True budô is proper training. All else is silliness.


Do these strike a responsive chord? Then maybe you are one of us already and just didn’t know it.


There is one more facet of our group, and it is what makes us unique: Every member is a student of some other member. This creates some strange branches on the tree. You might, for example, have a chain like this:


Sally Smith, shodan -> Jack Jones, rokudan -> Jim Jackson, nidan -> Betty Boop, yondan.


In this case, Smith, a karate shodan, is teaching Jones, an aikidô instructor, the art of ikebana (and he addresses her as “Sensei” when in class); Jackson is a student of Jones; Boop is an iaidô yondan, doing some cross training.


Why such a requirement? It’s quite simple: The sensei-deshi relationship is the heart of budô, and it is the only way to insure the integrity of the group; nothing else creates the proper combination of giri and on. The result is a closeness that most people can never dream of.


Here is a little story, a true story, illustrating just how close these relationships become:


As is typical in many groups, when one of our dojo hosts a seminar, its students try to provide crash pads for visitors who are on a budget and don’t want to stay in a hotel. So, one evening a car load of strangers shows up at a man’s home. They knock on the door, explain that they are there for the taikai [convention], and tell him who their instructor is. The man works the night shift, so he tosses them a ring of keys, and says, “There’s beer in the fridge, a car in the garage, and I will see you tomorrow.” And then he leaves.


Remember, this was a bunch of total strangers. They had never met their host before, yet there they were, standing in an elegant home full of expensive things, after only 10 seconds of conversation. The general feeling was one of, “Just what is the heck have we gotten ourselves into?”


What they were into was our un-organization, and the name of their sensei was all the reference they needed for unlimited trust. And woe be unto the first person who betrays such a trust – The world won’t be big enough to hide in.


So, if you want to un-join our un-organization, welcome. All you have to do is find someone the rest of us know, someone you respect enough to think of as your sensei, ask him to teach you something new, and you’re in. Sorry, as I said, you won’t get a neat membership card or a certificate to hang in your dojo; all you receive is a whole bunch of new brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces. You can also expect some total strangers to come knocking on your door, asking “When does class start?” (Feel free to respond, “As soon as we finish mowing the lawn.”)


If you don’t want to be part of the group, that’s also fine. We don’t look for new members, nor do we offer the slightest bit of encouragement to the casually curious. In fact, we’ve frozen out many who wanted to join.


Whoops! That last bit sounds awfully elitist, doesn’t it? Sorry, that’s not what this is all about. There are many very fine organizations in the world, famous organizations with sterling reputations. (And I, at one time or another, was a member of several of them.) There are also a lot of independent, and extremely reputable, schools who are not members of an organization.


The people we freeze out are the ones who don’t fall into either of the above categories. They are people who change arts as often as they change clothes, or spend more time talking than doing, or, especially, think that achieving seniority is an excuse to rest on their laurels. But, for some strange reason, despite our rigid discipline and strict reishiki, as the years and the decades go by, there seem to be more and more of us, and fewer and fewer of them. And, if that sounds elitist, it is supposed to.


Actually, we don’t even think of ourselves as members, and especially not as members of an organization; Instead, most of the group think of themselves as the “hard core”, and their pride is not one of being part of an organization. Their true pride comes from, each and every day, tightening the belly and taking one more step down the Path, and knowing that all the other people in the family feel precisely the same way about the journey.


And, although many of us follow very different paths, we all plan on meeting on the same distant mountains peak some day. Until then, we make do with our taikai, the “great gatherings” of the clan, where we can train until our hair hurts, and laugh until we cry. It may not be the only way, but it is our way, and we love it more than life itself.


George Parulski