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Shotokan Karatedo


Why We Train

Everyone's got an origin story, right? This is Sensei Marren's "Karate Origin Story": Paul Marren grew up in the city of Chicago in a time of great flux and instability in American society. Paradox and chaos seemed to rule. The power of the civil rights struggle affected him very greatly, even though it correlated strongly with a high degree of racial tension in the city. Hippies protesting the Viet Nam War seemed to be standing strongly in the great democratic tradition of the freedom of expression, yet they also took pleasure in antagonizing the police.

Mr. Marren observed, "The cops hated the kids, who hated the cops, while street crime seemed to go unnoticed." Consequently, moderate gang activity and petty crime, muggings and robberies, flourished. It was almost as if the central debate around the injustice and inhumanity of the war, the carnage and violence it represented, became a footnote to the circus taking place in the streets of Chicago. Don't even get him started on the Democratic Convention of 1968, which took place just around his ninth birthday! At any rate, his neighborhood was not the safest in the city, but it wasn't the ghetto, either. There was crime, but there was also lingering neighborhood community spirit.

Mr. Marren drew two conclusions from his early experiences: 1) that he REALLY disliked conflict, and 2) that SOME conflict seemed to be inescapable throughout life. The question remained: if you really can't escape it, how do you deal with conflict skillfully, gracefully, elegantly and effectively, yet without allowing conflict and discord to define your character?

Sen Sen no Sen

Go no sen: When Sensei Marren was an intermediate student, there was a period of training in a particular subset of counterattacking techniques. Counterattacking is a broad subject, also encompassing mikiri, or "evasion and counterattack," but at this time the focus was on deai, "beating the opponent to the punch." The first level of sophistication in deai, called go no sen (or tai no sen), involves counterattacking as soon as the opponent initiates an attack. The Japanese term refers to responding to the movement of the body. The reason this works: for a split second during the opponent's attack, his or her mind is locked in and cannot change course. At this time, he or she becomes vulnerable to counterattack. It sounds risky if you haven't been systematically and carefully trained in it, but after literally tens of thousands of repetitions of this exercise in every conceivable form it becomes very routine. The karateka (karate student) becomes quite adept at beating the opponent to the punch.

Sen no sen: At some point during those thousands of repetitions, the karateka comes to recognize the moment when the opponent decides to attack, when the mind becomes locked in just before the physical attack. Again, when the mind locks in, for a moment it's very difficult for the attacker to change course. Counterattacking at this precise moment is very effective and devastating, because it completely disrupts the opponent's attack. This is that next level of sophistication, called sen no sen. The Japanese term refers to responding to the movement of the mind.

Sen sen no sen: Sensei Sugiyama told his students their training was not complete when they reached this level of development. There was a better, more sophisticated way to defuse conflict. It involved the next level of sophistication in deai, a notion called sen sen no sen. "It means," he said, "removing the opponent's desire to attack you. By the innocence of your character, you will not even inspire an attack. Like an infant lying quietly in its cradle: only a madman would attack such a one!" He also acknowledged, "Of course, there are many madmen in this world, so you still need go no sen and sen no sen!"

Sensei Marren elaborates on sen sen no sen in the following way. "After nearly thirty-five years of training in karate, I can honestly say most attacks do not need to be blocked. They are off-target, or short of the required distance, or they are delivered with insufficient power to pose a threat. This includes not only physical attacks but also emotional attacks, arguments inspired by anger or aggression: most of these require almost no defense. Thus there is no justification to anticipate hostility in a so-called "defensive attitude." Instead, meet every encounter with calm and balance. Conserve your energy for those attacks that truly require countermeasures.

"Similarly, you can go into a conflict situation knowing there's anger and aggression awaiting you. We've all had that experience. The following set of options lies before us: 1) Hostility: we can be hostile, deciding that we are going to prevail no matter what--this unbalances us in the direction of overaggressiveness and preemptive hostility of our own--often a mask for fear; 2) Reluctance: we can really wish we were anywhere else and enter unwillingly, letting our fear "drive the bus"--this unbalances us through hesitation and a denial of reality; or 3) Peaceful engagement: we can enter the situation in balance, knowing that, if necessary, we have the resources to deal with attacks coming our way, but neither preemptively attacking nor hesitating due to our fears. In this case, we are confronting the real circumstances that lie before us, not deceiving ourselves about them.

"My experience in any conflict that I've encountered with a peaceful, aware, prepared mind is that the tension has a way of simply draining out of the room. My 'opponent' perceives that I have no intent to attack and no fear of attack, but that I will stand my ground peacefully and with confidence in my skills, knowledge and truth. That person ceases to feel threatened by me and begins to develop respect. Communication becomes possible. (Most of the time.)"

That is the result of sen sen no sen training. It is also one of the primary goals of all training conducted at JKA Wisconsin.