Dealing with the Void

By Sensei Dan Popp

Generally, swordsmen rely exclusively on technique to wage their battles. That is a mistake. Prior to drilling others, drill yourself. Forging of the spirit and self-control is the only path. Yamaoka Tesshu, Founder of Muto Ryu Kenjutsu.

Sensei Popp

Sensei Popp

Martial artists use the term Void to describe various situations. When the opponent’s guard is down, there exists a “void”. Nothingness or the unknown are considered a “void”. The context in which I wish to present the term “void” in this article refers to when your sensei is not immediately available to train with or ask questions. In my personal situation, this would happen to be Master Toby Cooling or Sensei Reiun Kim (Kendo).

I have been reading various emails through the OI torii group and have heard various people discussing the current downslide of motivation (participation) by both kyu and dan ranks within the Order of Isshin Ryu. Apparently, this has resulted from the fact that Master Cooling is no longer living within the borders of Elkton, Maryland. A “void” exists within those who have trained very closely with Master Cooling for many years. This situation is real and understandable. I myself had to temporarily close the doors to the Harrisburg Dojo as my attendance due to job responsibilities has been very sporadic. When I did make it to the dojo, I could sense the lack of motivation within my students. The frustration that students feel when the sensei is not there is natural.

Why didn’t this “void” become much more noticeable earlier? A multitude of answers could be formulated to address that question. For one, the OI is without question a very strong family. The OI has attained the technical knowledge and desire to learn that is necessary for a respected organization. The current dojo structure in place and the senior dans currently available to offer instruction can match anyone in the world. Therefore, carrying on with the passing on of the OI “system” was no problem with the student base that existed when Master Cooling moved to Nevada. However, recent years have seen a decline in the number of students training on a consistent basis. Furthermore, lives change due to jobs, families, and other personal reasons. Act in accordance with time and change.

Since the decline in student interest is now becoming apparent, it becomes natural to try to go back to the “old days”. In this situation, that would be having the constant availability of Master Cooling to train with. Furthermore, the excitement and motivation of having our “soke” nearby and constantly available would be evident. However, this is not a possibility at this time. We need to “deal with the void”. How do I deal with this void? I make every attempt to meet with my sensei to work on my kata, ask questions, etc. I could not make Master Cooling’s workout on December 15, 2001. Therefore, I made a personal appointment the following Saturday with him at Hombu Dojo (just before the holidays). What do I do if Master Cooling is unavailable or I cannot meet him when he is in town? I make an appointment with another senior dan. After all, these are the people who have trained with Master Cooling the most. If anyone is capable of teaching the techniques, philosophies and bunkai that the OI represents, the senior dans can. I’m looking to the senior dans to “fill the void” of my sensei when he is not there. In addition, when you think about it, they will have to fill those shoes when my sensei has passed on.

In essence, everyone needs to find ways to “fill the void” of their sensei’s teaching. If Master Cooling was unable to “fill the void” when his sensei passed on, the OI may not exist today. When Master Shimabuku passed on, what did Master Cooling do? Aside from a promise to develop an Isshinryu family, he researched. He researched as much about not only Isshinyu Karate but all martial arts in general. And he continues to do so! From time to time, this research involved a room full of karate-ka. Other times, it involved only himself. Some revelations occur within the dojo. Other discoveries happen at odd times such as driving a car or watching the television (note Master Cooling’s story of learning an evasion technique by watching a samurai movie). In other words, at a certain level the karate-ka needs to develop the mindset that his sensei will not always be there and that he CAN progress without his presence.

It is recognized that this critical stage of martial arts training (individual research) is not an easy one. However, if the karate-ka can develop this mindset, he/she will be well on their way to developing the ability to carry on their martial arts development with or without assistance. Once developed, this ability never goes away. My Kendo sensei has been researching his art for many years since the passing of his instructor, Hukuoka Gorozaemon of the Shinkage Ryu. Although he is eighty years old with some seventy years of Kendo training, he continues to bring to every training session handwritten notes (ideas). Without this form of research and introspection, his involvement in Kendo may have ceased a long time ago.

For a required paper project prior to an evaluation, one of my students submitted a paper on Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. Musashi breaks down learning into five levels or elements (earth, water, fire, wind and void). Why did Musashi choose these elements in this particular order? My response to my student’s submitted paper as to why “void” is presented last by Musashi was as follows:

Does anyone truly discover or figure out the “Way” of the martial arts during a lifetime of research and study? I feel that true teachings of the “Way” are handed down to the student after the teacher passes away. If the student paid attention during his instructor’s lifetime, he will understand the “Way” after his/her teacher is gone. When the instructor is no longer there, then there exists a “void”, yet you will understand the “Way”.

This can be viewed another way. When you are learning directly from your sensei, your sensei is the martial art. You rely heavily on his/her guidance. You look forward to training sessions with your sensei as you know you’ll get something out of the workout (good exercise, further bunkai, next kata, questions answered, etc.). However, when the sensei is no longer there, then YOU must become the martial art. Master Cooling is not always there right now as he was in the past. Therefore, WE must become the OI. We must develop the interest in the kyu and dan ranks to generate good training sessions for the future.

The Japanese term HIYAMESHI means “cold rice”. This term is often used to mean dealing with hardships. It is a hardship not to have Master Cooling at our disposal all the time. It’s becoming even harder now that motivation and student numbers are declining. However, if we can deal with this hardship we will become much stronger karate-ka. At the same time, our sensei will be even more proud of our progress as martial artists and as members of the larger family. What will I do when my parents pass on?

What will I do when Master Cooling passes on? What will I do when my Kendo sensei passes on? I will look to “fill the void”. As a common saying goes, “Your life is your dojo”.