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A Night Of Shugyo

By Jeremy Lawson, Nidan


It had been a grueling class. It was July, as I recall, and another hot summer day had faded into another hot summer night. When Day, Sensei finally barked "okare!", class was dismissed. After removing our sweat drenched gis and returning to our street clothes, the students began to reluctantly leave the dojo. Upon walking outside, we were somewhat surprised to see that steam was rising from our still damp hair, and we burst into laughter.

As often happens after such a class, the students gathered together to talk of things past and present. The conversation continued into the night. I remember that it was an unusually beautiful night, the bright moon shone her radiance upon the quiet earth as the stars twinkled in their silent knowing. A strange blue-green filled the sky enveloping us with the lazy summer warmth that frequents those days. At length, a small group of Senpai decided to go to the a local restaurant for a bite to eat. To my surprise and delight, they invited me and a few other kohai to come as well.

Not at all the talkative type at the time, I was content to listen to the yudansha speak of things that I could not yet fathom. Indeed, it all seemed somewhat magical and distant to me, but I marked well what they said. Upon finishing our meal, we were left with the task of deciding what to do next. It was already late into the night and the fatigue from class had set in. When asked what I felt like doing, I remember thinking that I wanted the night to go on forever, and that we could continue to tell the stories of this never ending legacy that we call Karate-do.

Somehow though, all I could manage to say was "Why donít we go train?"

The thought was obviously not an isolated one, for I instantly saw a strange light flicker in the eyes of the group. Without a word, we made for the van and stepped inside. No one knew exactly where we would go at that time of night, but we drove along anyway. How long this went on I could not tell, but we eventually arrived at the foot of Chilhowee mountain as if called by some unknown force.

To those of you not familiar to the area of Southeast Tennessee, Chilhowee is a popular diversion spot that during the summer months is packed with those trying to escape from the monotonous routine of every day small town life. The foot of the mountain comes to rest at the very center of Parksville lake and ascends like an ancient guardian above the Ocoee river. All along the 7 mile road to the summit are scenic overlooks and picnic grounds from which an onlooker can gaze into a panorama of color and silent beauty. Historical sites spot the mountain as well, such as a site where the Confederate army once upon a time made their camp. At the very top, a mountain stream flows into a small lake where campers, hikers, and swimmers frequently visit. With a brisk mile and a half hike, one will arrive at the foot of a magnificent waterfall, under the cold mountain water of which one can invigorate oneís self in quiet contemplation and reflection. It is a favorite training spot of Sensei, Dayís. As we began the seven mile ascent, we decided to stop at all of the overlooks and train.

The crisp air of the evening was broken many times by the sudden kiaiís of our group. With each stop, our training became more fierce, until finally fatigue and stress melted away before an inner fire that seemed to draw fresh substance from an infinite source. On and on we went, until we came to the last overlook. At this point, Parksville Lake lay somewhere far below us, concealed in a lingering mist that glowed in the moonlight. We climbed on top of a stone wall that ran along the edge of the overlook and began performing the familiar kihon katas. My head was swimming with the many concepts of the martial arts that I had only begun studying a year before.

After another sweaty workout as this location, we tried to express the experience we were having in words, but their simply were no words for it. All we could do utter a few broken sentences that seemed to make more sense than lengthy discussions somehow . But then, something truly unique happened. As we finished another repetition of the kata Pinan Shodan, I experienced for the first time at the end of the kata a small flash of Zanshin.

Now, unless you have had such an experience, you will probably not get much out of this description. To a toddler just learning how to speak, the word "hot" is just an abstract concept. It is not until he touches a burning stove that he truly understands. In the same way, if he experiences "hot" and doesnít have a word for it, he still knows what it is, he just cannot verbalize it. The same is true for us in the martial arts. Mushin, Kimochi, Zanshin, are all just words until we experience them. It is only then, that we can truly understand them. This is what Shugyo or austere training, is all about, experience.

And so it was with me. I had given up on physical strength because of my exhaustion much earlier in the evening. Any other night, I would have been unable to continue at such a pace, but there was something that kept me going far beyond my normal boundaries. I had been really concentrating on visualizing my opponents during kata and basics all night. This, coupled with my focus on concentrating my spirit throughout the constant repetition, had made for some of the most spirited and powerful kata of my life. But during this particular moment, I had this feeling of being completely indomitable.

It was an indescribable feeling of alertness and domination that defies all definition. I felt as though there was no force that could stand between myself and my imaged opponent, (Which are the same. Ed. note) whom I had just eradicated during the kata. I knew that he was aware that there was no possibility of his ever gaining victory over me and he was completely subjugated in his defeat.

Thatís the best I can do to explain the experience, and it has completely changed the way that I see the martial arts. Through all of my training and all of the things that I have experienced, nothing stands so clearly in my memory as that fleeting moment when standing somewhere beneath the stars above, and the mist on the waters far below, I felt a tiny flicker of Zanshin. And though it seems futile to try and repay such a gift with so little a gesture, I would like to offer my Sensei and all of my Senpai who have given me so much, a very sincere and heartfelt thank you. Without their guidance and support, I would have turned out a very different person indeed.


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